Observations from Tech’s second game of the season:
1. Jackets had uphill climb
Saturday’s loss to the Knights was not a surprise — UCF is a veritable powerhouse, with a 35-4 record in its past three seasons. The Knights had a pairing that Tech couldn’t match in quarterback Dillon Gabriel (417 passing yards, four touchdowns, one interception) and wide receiver Marlon Williams (154 receiving yards, two touchdowns).
“That dude, I just want to give him props — he’s a real good player,” Tech safety Juanyeh Thomas said of Williams. “He made some great catches. And, honestly, we were there (to contest), we’ve just got to fight through the ball and make a play. But I give all the props to No. 6.”
Tech also picked a poor day to have five would-be starters on the “unavailable” list out of six total: All-ACC running back Jordan Mason (believed to be out with a foot injury), two-year starting cornerback Tre Swilling (foot injury), reigning ACC defensive end of the week Curtis Ryans (unspecified), defensive end Antonneous Clayton (injury) and tight ends Dylan Deveney and Dylan Leonard (unspecified). That’s along with returning starter defensive tackle T.K. Chimedza, already out for the season with an injury. It required scheme changes for both offense and defense.
Due to lapses — five turnovers and what coach Geoff Collins called instances when the team “let go of the rope” — what might have been a 14-point loss or closer mushroomed. But the day can still have value so long as the Jackets apply lessons learned at UCF’s hands.
“We just have to learn to overcome bad things that happen to us and prevent the turnovers,” Collins said. “When we get into the red zone, we’ve got to capitalize, and when other teams get in the red zone we got to, we’ve got to bow up and get the stops as needed. But that team that’s in that locker room wearing the white and gold, they’ve got a chance to be a really good team.”
Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics
2. An impressive debut for Gibbs
With Mason out, freshman running back Jahmyr Gibbs showed in his debut why teammates and coaches raved about him in the preseason, including offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude’s contention that “if there’s five guys in the country that are freshmen that are better than him, I’d love to be able watch those guys play, too.”
Just as classmate Jeff Sims did last Saturday quarterbacking against Florida State, Gibbs wowed fans, including a 75-yard kickoff return, Tech’s longest since 2018. Slipping out of the backfield, he caught four passes for 60 yards. He ran 15 times for 66 yards and a touchdown, sometimes dashing through the UCF defense and others lowering his pads for tough yards.
“It was fun,” Gibbs said. “It was fun getting to go back out there on the field playing against a team with a different colored jersey.”
Gibbs' day of 66 rushing yards, 60 receiving yards and 93 kickoff return yards is certainly not the usual stat line for a college debut. Between 2015-2019, only 20 players recorded a 60/60/60 game, according to sports-reference.com, and only 11 managed a 60/60/90.
Gibbs shared his breakout day with Jamious Griffin, whose playmaking ability netted him 44 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards. For however long Mason is out, the running back spot appears in pretty good hands, and that also includes Dontae Smith.
The easy part to observe in the Knights’ offensive decimation of the Jackets was the downfield work that Williams and his teammates did in the Tech secondary to get free for deep balls.
But, as is often the case, that was enabled by a lack of pressure on the quarterback by Tech’s shorthanded front. Sometimes relying on seven-man protection schemes, Gabriel threw relaxed in the pocket, confident that he would have enough time to launch precise deep shots.
“Offensive line, it starts up front, one through five,” Gabriel said. “They picked up a lot of pressures, things we didn’t see, didn’t expect.”
For UCF’s second touchdown of the game to go up 14-7 — an eight-yard cross-field dart to Williams — the Knights kept in seven to block Tech’s four. So effective was the protection that, when Gabriel released the ball five yards behind the line, no Tech defender had made it two yards upfield.
Gabriel was sacked twice (both by nickel Charlie Thomas, who had a standout game). Tech dropped FSU quarterback James Blackman three times, often using only four-man pressures. But the Jackets were doubtlessly benefited by the fact that the Seminoles' line was inexperienced and then had four injuries during the game. Trying to keep up with UCF’s zippy pace, Tech enjoyed no such advantage Saturday.
Sims didn’t have the same sort of performance that he did against Florida State, not with a hand in four turnovers. However, a glitchy game shouldn’t be a surprise from a freshman starting his second game. Also, it might not have been as bad as the numbers would suggest.
The first turnover — a fumble on what looked like an option keeper in the red zone — was on him and likely cost the Jackets points. He was stripped from behind on a play that overall wasn’t executed well.
The first interception was a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage that fell into the hands of a UCF defensive lineman. The second, late in the game and under heavy pressure, was an ill-advised “make something out of nothing” pass apparently to Gibbs, but defensive end Stephon Zayas made an athletic play to catch it. With a little luck, both could have been harmless incompletions. He also had a hand in a mesh fumble with Griffin that was charged to Griffin.
“I know Jeff Sims was the first one in the building last week (the day after the Florida State game),” Collins said. “I assume he’s going to be the first one in the building this week, learning from his mistakes, getting better.”
He did make split-second decisions he can learn from, notably two gutsy (if debatable) attempts to scramble for first downs on fourth-and-long situations that came up short, and missed on some reads in the passing game, all of which are to be expected from a quarterback in his second game. But, he still made a load of well-placed throws (he was 18 for 36, including a nine-yard touchdown pass to Gibbs), ran for a team-high 82 yards while throwing for 244 and played with abandon. (Credit to the offensive line, which helped generate 471 yards of offense, most in Collins' tenure, and did not allow a sack.)
“What I could see from him was he took a couple big hits, he just got back up, continued to play,” UCF safety Richie Grant said. “Whether he was hurting or not, he didn’t show it. I’ve got major respect for him.”
Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics
5. Good to be back
There’s no telling if Tech can get to the end of the season, but there was comfort in having a game to play and cheer for at the stadium, at least for one day. The marching band, confined to the north stands, belted out its standards. The Ramblin' Wreck pulled out of the northeast tunnel to lead the Jackets onto the field. P.A. announcer Kevin Payne filled every corner of Grant Field with his familiar calls.
It was different in other ways. For the first time, alcohol was on sale in the general seating areas. The new multi-hued LED lights flashed in time with music during breaks in action. The new speaker system was plenty loud. The new turf yielded a few slips, but seemed to play well.
The stadium looked sparse with 11,000 scattered about in clumps throughout the stadium. (Many, perhaps half, were not in compliance with the mask mandate.) But one didn’t need to strain to hear Tech fans back in their habitat, especially over their displeasure with some of the officiating calls and non-calls.
“It didn’t really sound like a limited crowd out there,” Grant said. “They were pretty loud. We heard a lot of booing. It sounded like, for the most part, like a full stadium. So it’s a testament to those Georgia Tech fans.”
Ken Sugiura is a sports columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Formerly the Georgia Tech beat reporter, Sugiura started at the AJC in 1998 and has covered a variety of beats, mostly within sports.