5 takeaways from Georgia Tech’s loss to Virginia

Credit: ACC

Caption
Two weeks after Jeff Sims led an unlikely rally to defeat Duke in the final minute, Georgia Tech was unable to summon the same magic against Cavaliers.

Credit: ACC

Georgia Tech and defeat found each other Saturday night, as they so often do at Virginia’s Scott Stadium. For the 13th time in their past 15 visits, the Yellow Jackets fell to the Cavaliers, this time by the home team’s offensive mastery.

The 48-40 score doesn’t quite paint the picture of how Saturday night unfolded — a quick 13-0 lead for the Jackets followed by the Cavaliers stringing first downs and scoring drives to take a 48-27 lead late in the fourth quarter before a wild rally kept the outcome uncertain until the game’s final play.

Five takeaways from the game:

1. Patched-up line holds together

It was easy to overlook in defeat, but the offensive line more than held up despite right tackle Jordan Williams being out after getting injured in the Duke game and left guard Kenny Cooper not starting because of injury.

Right guard Ryan Johnson moved out to right tackle and Paula Vaipulu and William Lay started at left and right guard, respectively, meaning three of the five spots were affected. But the five gave quarterback Jeff Sims time to throw (tight ends and running backs helped also) and created the push for runs up the middle that had been missing in the past two games.

“The O-line played a great game,” Sims said. “It all starts with them. So really, just them doing their job and just going out there and playing hard, pushing people off the ball, it opened up gaps for the running backs and gave me time to throw the ball.”

Tech’s 570 yards were the most gained by the Jackets during coach Geoff Collins’ tenure, although 130 of them were gained after the Jackets had fallen behind 48-27, and the 7.3 yards-per-play average was the third highest. The line’s play enabled three of the offense’s longest plays of the game, Sims’ 36- and 37-yard touchdown passes (to Kyric McGowan and Kalani Norris, respectively) and running back Jahmyr Gibbs’ stunning 71-yard run. Sims was 27-for-44 for 300 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

Virginia 48, Georgia Tech 40

“When we go out there and play like we’re supposed to, I feel like we’re unstoppable,” McGowan said.

2. A most impressive offense

As was the case in the beating that the Jackets absorbed from Pittsburgh, the opponent deserves credit and perhaps a measure of appreciation for its superior play. Just as Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett’s emerging Heisman Trophy campaign comes as little surprise to anyone who saw him torch the Jackets for 389 yards and four touchdown passes, any Tech fan who witnessed UVA quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s wizardry Saturday night can likely endorse his growing national profile.

Virginia’s offense is a multi-pronged attack designed with creativity and operated with skill by Armstrong. Collins said that Tech’s plan was to show Armstrong a variety of different looks in its pass coverages.

“We did do that, but the kid’s really good,” Collins said. “He was finding the holes, the soft spots in certain coverages.”

Armstrong, who was second in FBS before the game in passing yards per game (403.4), found the right targets, threw with touch and precision and kept plays alive with his feet. Fully recovered from a knee injury, he re-established his threat as a runner, powering for 99 yards on 12 carries, including a 45-yard surge through the middle of the defense.

Tech also had no answer for Keytaon Thompson, a former quarterback whose designated position for the Cavaliers is “football player.” Thompson ran the ball seven times for 65 yards and caught nine passes for 89 yards and was a bear to both cover and bring down.

Caption
Georgia Tech wide receiver Kyric McGowan (2) celebrates a touchdown against Virginia Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Charlottesville, Va. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)

Credit: Andrew Shurtleff

Georgia Tech wide receiver Kyric McGowan (2) celebrates a touchdown against Virginia Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Charlottesville, Va. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)
Caption
Georgia Tech wide receiver Kyric McGowan (2) celebrates a touchdown against Virginia Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Charlottesville, Va. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)

Credit: Andrew Shurtleff

Credit: Andrew Shurtleff

“Even at times when we had him covered and even double covered, he was finding a way to make plays,” Collins said.

Said safety Juanyeh Thomas, “He’s an athlete. Put the ball in his hands and he’ll make some plays.”

3. Tech defense simply lacking

Even accounting for Virginia’s offensive prowess, permitting the Cavaliers to gain 636 yards, convert seven of 11 third downs and drive for five touchdowns and two field goals on seven consecutive possessions (not counting the series that ended the first half) is simply far too much for Tech players and coaches.

Nine of Tech’s 11 defensive starters on Saturday have been with Collins, defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker and their position coaches for all three seasons of Collins’ tenure. Seven had started at least 10 career games, not counting linebacker Ayinde Eley, who started 11 games at Maryland before joining the starting lineup at Tech as a grad transfer.

The Cavaliers deserve their share of credit. Ranked fifth in FBS in total offense before the game, Virginia didn’t just luck its way into the end zone six times. And Tech has played much better on defense this season than it did Saturday night.

But the Jackets should not be the team against which Virginia gains its most yards of the season (and sixth most all-time) and records its highest points-per-possession average (4.4) of the season and its highest yards-per-play average (8.7) against an ACC opponent since at least 2000 (per sports-reference.com).

Collins attributed some of the damage to errors in technique and awareness and acknowledged that “we’ve got to do better on the back end.”

Caption
Virginia wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks (3) runs in front of Georgia Tech defensive back Derrik Allen (18) on the way to a touchdown during Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Charlottesville, Va. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)

Credit: Andrew Shurtleff

Virginia wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks (3) runs in front of Georgia Tech defensive back Derrik Allen (18) on the way to a touchdown during Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Charlottesville, Va. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)
Caption
Virginia wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks (3) runs in front of Georgia Tech defensive back Derrik Allen (18) on the way to a touchdown during Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Charlottesville, Va. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)

Credit: Andrew Shurtleff

Credit: Andrew Shurtleff

That it was the secondary that Collins identified as the area needing improvement is especially problematic, given that it’s the most experienced position group on the defense. Collins expressed his belief in his group and assured that issues will be “cleaned up and corrected.”

It’ll help that Tech won’t see a passing attack like Virginia’s for the remainder of the season. But many fans will need to see proof before sharing Collins’ confidence in improvement.

4. Turnover well has run dry

With Virginia’s offense moving the ball so easily against Tech, what the Jackets seemed to need most was a turnover. But, while they recorded a season-high five pass breakups, they couldn’t create a takeaway.

Prior to the season, Tech had set a most ambitious goal to lead FBS in takeaways. After four games, the Jackets’ ability to rip balls away from opponents (eight forced fumbles) suggested it was possible. Given the importance of turnover margin in the outcome of games and Tech’s reaching plus-5 at that point, it boded well for the remainder of the season.

However, the Jackets have forced only one fumble in the past three games and have one takeaway, Thomas’ interception to seal the Duke game. The Cavaliers, who had turned the ball over 10 times in the previous six games and had fumbled 11 times this season, played turnover free against Tech with no fumbles.

5. Could road ahead lighten?

As much as Saturday’s result may lower expectations for the remainder of the season, the Jackets’ next three opponents would appear far better matchups for Tech than, certainly, Pitt and Virginia.

Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami are not exceptional on offense or defense — certainly not in the way Pitt, Virginia and North Carolina are on offense — and their combined league record (2-7) reflects it. Tech coaches and team leaders will have to help players recover from Saturday and enable them to play at or near their peak against the Hokies Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The Jackets can build on the improved play of the offense and the resolve evident in their improbable rally from down 48-27 with 3:50 remaining. Tech scored two touchdowns and recovered two onside kicks, with the Jackets having a chance to cut the lead to 48-46 on the final play of the game on a Hail Mary pass into the end zone (that was batted down, ending the game).

However, the defense will have to be better, regardless of the opponent.

“Even tough we lost, we fought back hard in the second half,” McGowan said. “You want to take that momentum from the second half, take it moving forward into next week, playing at home for homecoming. That’s the plan right now.”

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