5 takeaways from Georgia Tech’s loss to Northern Illiinois

Georgia Tech’s third season under the leadership of coach Geoff Collins began with humbling defeat, taking the form of a 22-21 loss to Northern Illinois at Bobby Dodd Stadium Saturday night.

It was perhaps best that attendance for the first full-capacity game at the stadium since 2019 was a mere 33,651 – Tech’s smallest home crowd since a November 1995 game against N.C. State (not counting last season, when games were played at 20% capacity as a COVID-19 protocol). Save the sparkly light show between the third and fourth quarters, there was not much to show off.

“This is a horrible feeling, to keep it real,” wide receiver Malachi Carter said. “We came in here with a lot of momentum that we kind of just brought on each other, a lot of confidence and came into the game feeling great. To come out with a loss kind of hurts. Not kind of, this definitely hurts. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, we definitely feel horrible about this.”

Five takeaways from the game:

1. Trouble in the back end

On the Huskies’ game-winning 80-yard touchdown drive in the game’s final minutes, Tech’s secondary was disorganized. The Huskies’ formations appeared to create uncertainty over responsibilities among the Tech defensive backs prior to the snap, at least once as the ball was actually being snapped. NIU hit pass plays of 39 and 16 yards on its way to the end zone.

ExploreGeoff Collins: ‘That one hurts’

That the secondary was having communication issues is concerning and calls into question the coaching and ability to execute. After Collins observed that the cornerbacks and safeties did not consistently work together as a unit last season, he had the two groups practice and meet together more frequently to rectify the problem. Further, cornerbacks Tre Swilling and Zamari Walton and safeties Tariq Carpenter and Juanyeh Thomas came into the game with a combined 102 starts. In a critical moment, the Jackets were lacking.

“A little miscommunication,” Collins said. “Just got to keep our poise, keep our composure in those kind of critical situations. But I thought the defense played really, really well.”

NIU 22, Georgia Tech 21

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2. Kicking-game shortcomings again

Counting on grad-transfer kicker Brent Cimaglia to be the solution for the Jackets’ placekicking woes, Tech only saw its misfortunes in that realm continue. Cimaglia’s 43-yard try in the first quarter appeared on target before bending left, and he was well short from 51 yards when his plant foot slipped. On the final play of the game, Gavin Stewart’s desperation 60-yard try was blocked on a play in which the protection was breached, dooming Stewart’s effort, which needed a lower trajectory to carry the distance.

Cimaglia had kicked exceptionally in the preseason, according to Collins.

“They did a nice job getting pressure (on Stewart’s kick), but I have all the confidence in the world in those guys,” Collins said.

Stewart did have three touchbacks on four kickoffs, and induced a fair catch on the fourth. Tech had 11 touchbacks in the entire 2020 season.

3. Too many mistakes

Tech’s work to reduce penalties after finishing last season 119th in FBS in penalty yardage per game was effective, as the Jackets were flagged twice for 18 yards.

ExploreTech-NIU: Stat of the game

However, other areas of intended improvement did not demonstrate clear progress. Tech lost one fumble on a mishandled exchange between quarterback Jeff Sims and Jordan Mason, and nearly lost another on a fumbled punt return by Azende Rey, but the play was waved off by an NIU penalty.

The Jackets did not handle other situations as well as they could have, namely the clock management on their final drive in the final 38 seconds after Northern Illinois had taken its 22-21 lead.

Tech was additionally hampered because it had only one timeout remaining, as Collins had used two in the span of three plays in the third quarter. Collins spent the latter after first sending out the kicking team on a fourth-and-goal from the NIU 2-yard line, then calling time and attempting to go for the touchdown. It first appeared to pay off when wide receiver Kyric McGowan was ruled to have caught a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone, a call that was overturned when video replay showed that his left foot was inches out of bounds when making the catch. A second timeout would have been hugely beneficial on the final drive.

“There’s still a lot of young players that played, but proud of the way they fought and competed,” Collins said. “But can’t have lapses in situational football. Coaches included, myself included, myself most of all.”

The pass rush yielded no sacks, and NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi was often comfortable in the pocket, completing 11 of 17 attempts for 136 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Tech offensive line, expected to be improved, allowed four sacks against a defensive line that averaged 1.8 sacks per game last season against MAC competition.

4. Strong play in defeat

Had Tech been able to avoid defeat to the Huskies, the stars of the game might have been quarterback Jordan Yates and defensive back Wesley Walker (though presumably there would have been considerable concern over the near defeat). It was Walker’s forced fumble (recovered by linebacker Quez Jackson) midway through the fourth quarter that returned the ball to Tech at the NIU 25-yard line with the score tied at 14, and he had a tackle for loss on the next series that led to a three-and-out.

Yates followed Walker’s forced fumble with a four-yard touchdown run behind blocks from left tackle Devin Cochran and tight end Dylan Leonard to give Tech a 21-14 lead.

Coming in for the starter Sims after he suffered an upper-body injury in the first half diving after a fumble, Yates led all three touchdown drives, completing 12 of 18 passes for 135 yards and a 22-yard touchdown pass to McGowan on his first series. In that possession, he picked up two third-and-10′s by scrambling so fearlessly that NIU tacklers flipped him head over heels. It was the first extensive playing time that Yates has received. With Sims’ arm in a sling after leaving the game, it would not be a surprise if Yates becomes the starter for the near term.

“Just to be the next man up and always be ready for whenever my time comes and just fill right in and keep running the offense,” Yates said of his role Saturday.

5. Doubts surface

Questions or doubts about Collins’ ability to fulfill his vision of lifting Tech into college football’s elite grew after the loss, given that Northern Illinois was an 18-point underdog after its 0-6 record in 2020. It called to mind other troubling losses in Collins’ tenure, namely the defeats to The Citadel in 2019 and to Syracuse in 2020, which was the Orange’s only win of the season.

ExploreMark Bradley: Opening loss casts doubts over Jackets, Geoff Collins

However, just as Tech’s season-opening road win last year over Florida State was overvalued, it’s possible that the meaning of Saturday’s loss might also be initially misinterpreted. The opening week is notorious for unexpected results. Only a season ago, Iowa State lost at home as a preseason top-25 team to Louisiana before ultimately finishing at 9-3. (On paper, Louisiana was much better than NIU, although the same is also true comparing Tech and Iowa State.)

“We’ve got to keep our heads held high,” Carter said. “It’s a horrible feeling, but there’s nothing you can do about it at this point.”

Amid the wreckage was the defense’s producing six three-and-outs and another two-and-out (while also allowing three touchdown drives of 66 yards or more). Running backs Jahmyr Gibbs and Jordan Mason both nearly hit 100 yards rushing. Tech demonstrated resolve on both sides of the ball in its comeback before ultimately falling short.

If the doubts about Collins’ stewardship have merit, Tech’s rigorous schedule will presumably confirm them in coming weeks. For his part, Collins affirmed his confidence in his leadership, staff and players.

“So it is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and we’re just going to keep fighting, keep building, keep working and it’s going to click,” he said. “And it’s going to take over, and when it does, it’s going to be really good.”