5 takeaways from Georgia Tech’s loss to Pittsburgh

Attendance at Georgia Tech’s game against Pittsburgh Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium was an announced crowd of 36,383, although there weren’t nearly that many by the time the Panthers were complete taking care of the Yellow Jackets by a 52-21 count.

In an ACC Coastal Division matchup, Pitt expertly shredded Tech much like the Jackets had disposed of North Carolina a week ago. Five takeaways from the game, Tech’s fourth loss in a row to the Panthers.

1. Rough start, strong finish for Sims

When Jeff Sims dropped back for his second pass of the game, he saw slot receiver Nate McCollum coming free downfield. After the game, Sims related how he had been talking on the phone with his father on Friday night and told him how, when he drops back to pass, the thought “Got him” pops in his head when he sees a big play unfolding before him.

“And that’s exactly what I said in my head,” Sims said. “I said, ‘Got him,’ and I was ready to throw it, and then I got hit.”

Yellow Jacket quarterback Jeff Sims completes a pass in the second half of play during a NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Credit: Daniel Varnado

It’s not a stretch to surmise that, had Sims been able to deliver the pass, it could well have gone for a 74-yard touchdown pass to McCollum and a 7-7 tie. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered in the final outcome, and that’s not how it happened anyway. Before Sims could make his delivery, he was hit by defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado, and the ball popped up in the air, right to linebacker John Petrishen, who secured the ball and ran 33 yards with for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead that proved unassailable.

After the roughest of starts — interceptions in Tech’s own end on Sims first two passes, the first setting up a touchdown and the other a pick-six — Sims completed 24 of his final 31 throws for 359 yards, two for touchdowns. His 72.7% completion percentage has only been surpassed in his young career by his 76.9% recorded in the win over North Carolina last week, both well above his 54.9% rate last season.

No Tech quarterback had thrown for that many yards since George Godsey amassed 486 against Virginia in 2001. Among his throws was a high-arcing downfield shot in the first quarter that allowed McCollum (starting in place of the injured Kyric McGowan) to race under it for an over-the-shoulder catch and a 44-yard touchdown.

Sims led two touchdown drives of 75 yards, another of 66 yards and two other times led the Jackets to first-and-goal situations that both ended up without points, both thwarted in part by penalties. Two more better-called or better-executed plays might have meant a scoring total of 35 points, not to mention the potential touchdown pass play to McCollum that turned into an interception return for a touchdown.

However, he also threw the two critical interceptions — perhaps better awareness could have avoided them — and he misfired on one of the red-zone plays, behind McCollum on a slant on fourth-and-goal from the 4 at the end of the first half.

“We just build from this loss, build on our mistakes and then we just keep going,” Sims said.

2. Run game ineffective

One reason for the success of the passing game was Pitt’s commitment to stopping Tech’s run game. The Jackets were held to 73 yards on the ground, well under the season average before Saturday (196.3 yards per game) and the second lowest total in Collins’ tenure.

“The goal was to go in and make sure we stopped the run,” Narduzzi said. “And I don’t care about the (run/pass options). It doesn’t matter. We’ve just got to make sure we stop the run. When you do that, you’ve got a chance to win the game.”

Running back Jahmyr Gibbs rarely had room, had a long run of two yards and was tackled for loss on five of his 10 carries, finishing with an unheard-of minus-10 yards.

“They’re a good team,” Gibbs said. “They blitzed almost every play, so it was hard to run inside zone, like, gap-scheme runs against them since they blitz internally.”

It didn’t help Gibbs or Tech that the offensive line was without left guard Kenny Cooper (who was not dressed out for the game) and that right guard Ryan Johnson was limited.

“That was tough,” Collins said.

Tech’s difficulties moving the ball rendered more debatable one play call at a pivotal moment, when Tech trailed 35-14 near the four-minute mark of the second quarter. Sims left the game after getting shaken up on a scramble, leaving Tech with a fourth-and-2 at its 46-yard line and Jordan Yates in at quarterback. Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude elected to have Yates hand off to Jordan Mason for run up the middle, and the play was stuffed for a turnover on downs. Two plays later, Pitt was in the end zone for a 42-14 lead.

To that point, 11 running back carries had netted 22 yards.

“I’ve got a little bit of an issue with that call on fourth down,” ACC Network analyst and former Tech captain Roddy Jones said on the broadcast. “You bring your backup quarterback in, what’s everybody in the world thinking? He’s going to hand it off to the running back. The Pitt defensive line and linebackers have been playing downhill all game long. You’ve got to do something to help that offense.”

3. Kenny Pickett was a force

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett was something else. A week after Tech’s defense had smothered North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell, Pickett was nearly unstoppable. Sometimes rushing three and sometimes more, Tech either was unable to pressure him in the pocket or was unable keep him there, allowing him to sneak outside the pocket to buy more time to throw downfield.

Asked to explain why Pitt had the offensive success against Tech that UNC did not, Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi replied, “No. 8,” referring to Pickett by his jersey number.

He delivered on-target passes to receivers downfield and across the field with a powerful and accurate arm. In its first four games, Tech had given up nine pass plays of 20 yards or more, one of more than 40 yards and five touchdown passes. Saturday, Pickett gouged the Jackets for seven pass plays of 20 yards or more, two of 40 yards or more and four touchdown passes.

“It was difficult,” linebacker Ayinde Eley said of rushing Pickett. “They had a good scheme. They max protected a lot (Saturday). They protected him and gave him time to make some throws.”

He finished 23 of 36 for 389 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Tech was lucky Pickett missed what could have been a fifth touchdown late in the first half, when wide receiver Jordan Addison split the coverage and was wide open downfield for what could have been an 84-yard touchdown pass, but defensive end Jordan Domineck’s pressure from the left side forced him out of the pocket.

“That Kenny Pickett kid is a really, really good player,” Collins said. “Just manages to keep plays alive, even when we have it covered, then he breaks contain and makes really big plays.”

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett throws under pressure from the Yellow Jacket defense in the second half of play during a NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Credit: Daniel Varnado

4. Officiating grumbles

Tech coaches had issues with the officiating, at various points expressing their displeasure for calls missed, such as potential holds committed by Pitt offensive linemen. Fans booed and chanted unpleasantries after Azende Rey returned a punt and the play was whistled dead though his knee hadn’t touched the ground. It recalled a similar play from the North Carolina game when running back Dontae Smith never appeared to be down on a speed sweep, but the play was whistled dead before Smith could keep running downfield.

In Rey’s case, he actually did appear to be down, as his left forearm touched the ground, which is enough for the play to be dead. In his postgame news conference, Collins adroitly communicated his thoughts without presumably saying anything to merit a fine from the ACC. When a question about officiating came up, Collins pursed his lips and shook his head, a nonverbal expression of seeming disbelief over the quality of the officiating crew.

“I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for the officials,” Collins said. “I’m going to leave all the conversations that we had on the field between them and I.”

Collins acknowledged the team’s costly penalties, namely a false start on right tackle Nick Pendley on a third-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter and a holding penalty on wide receiver Kalani Norris that wiped out 7-yard touchdown run by Gibbs.

“I can’t look anywhere other than ourselves, and how we can be better,” Collins said.

5. Strange game, strange season

That Tech followed its win over North Carolina with such a dud was undoubtedly infuriating for many Jackets fans. Perhaps no one could relate more than fans of the Tar Heels themselves, who scored 59 points in back-to-back weeks before falling on their faces against the Jackets in losing by the largest margin of defeat (23 points) in Tar Heels coach Mack Brown’s tenure.

Likewise, Tech isn’t the only ACC Coastal team to be embarrassed at home to a MAC team before routing an FCS opponent and then putting on a clinic against a division rival. Pitt pulled off the same hat trick that Tech did against, respectively, Northern Illinois, Kennesaw State and North Carolina that the Panthers did with Western Michigan, New Hampshire and Tech. (For good measure, Pitt and Tech also both went on the road to earn respectable results against power-conference teams wearing orange — Tennessee and Clemson, respectively, although Pitt actually won.)

The delight of college football, and this season in particular, is that it frequently strays from the script. Minnesota lost last week to Bowling Green as a 31-point favorite — the biggest upset by point spread between two FBS teams since 2012, according to ESPN — and then went on the road Saturday to beat Purdue as a 2.5-point underdog.

While hardly satisfying as an explanation, Tech’s mystifying performance fits entirely into the developing portrait of this season.

More specifically, the Jackets missed out an opportunity to become unquestioned players for the ACC Coastal Division title and also their chance to win back-to-back games for the first time in Collins’ tenure. After pocketing an unexpected win against the Tar Heels, the Jackets were beyond hope before halftime in what appeared to be a 50/50 game at home. They did so by going 2-for-11 on third down, 1-for-4 on fourth down, struggling again in the red zone and allowing Pitt to score five touchdowns in five red-zone trips (not counting the final possession of the game).

“Not a winning recipe when you do those kinds of things,” Collins said. “Those are things we’ve got to be better at.”