5 takeaways from Georgia Tech’s near upset of No. 6 Clemson

Credit: ACC

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Georgia Tech nearly pulled the upset Saturday night, falling to No. 6 Clemson 14-8 at Memorial Stadium.

Credit: ACC

On Tuesday, Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins was asked if he believed his team had closed the gap on Clemson, winners of the previous six straight against the Yellow Jackets, all in lopsided fashion.

He said that “I don’t want to speak on those terms,” instead preferring to reference progress made against playing FCS triple-option teams. Saturday night, he could answer the question, and it didn’t even require words.

Tech’s 14-8 loss to the No. 6 Tigers at Death Valley, a game in which the Jackets had their chances at a stunning upset, gave strong indication that they are considerably closer to the six-time defending ACC champions than they were a year ago. It bears mention that Clemson does not appear to be the juggernaut it has been in recent seasons. Nevertheless, the Tigers still carry the ACC banner, and the Jackets have narrowed the gap.

Five takeaways from Saturday’s game:

Jordan Yates looks like the real deal

Quarterback Jordan Yates’ success in his first start, last Saturday against Kennesaw State, could be tempered by the fact that he was playing FCS competition. But, Saturday, in front of a sellout crowd (at least until the weather delay) and against one of the fiercest defenses in the country, Yates proved himself again.

In a game where he was frequently under pressure, Yates completed 20 of 33 passes for 203 yards. While held without a touchdown pass after four against Kennesaw State, he also didn’t throw an interception, making it 95 career passes he’s thrown at Tech without getting picked off. He was seemingly unflappable.

Down 14-3 with three minutes left in the game, on the drive that would result in Tech’s second field goal, the Jackets faced a do-or-die fourth-and-7 from the Clemson 35-yard line. Yates wasn’t ready for center Mikey Minihan’s snap, and it fell to the ground after he bobbled it. Yates had the poise to pick it up and find tight end Dylan Deveney on the sideline for a first down.

After the field goal and the successful onside kick that returned the ball to Tech with 1:19 left, Yates picked up a third-and-10 by scrambling out to the right to buy more time and then having the presence of mind to stay behind the line of scrimmage rather than run for the first down. That decision enabled him to find wide receiver Kyric McGowan in the middle of the field for a 22-yard gain.

“I think Yates had great poise and handled the environment well,” McGowan said. “When we were in the huddle, keeping the guys encouraged, keeping us level-headed, no matter if it was a good play or a bad play, keeping us all level.”

Quarterback Jeff Sims showed vast potential in starting 10 games last season as a freshman and seemed entrenched at the position. In having to consider replacing Sims with Yates, at least for the short term if not longer, Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude are navigating a course they likely weren’t counting on when the season began.

Clock-management glitch

A game-management snafu ensnared the Tech offense at the end of the first half and could have impacted the game’s outcome. With Tech down 7-0, Yates scrambled out of bounds at the Clemson 5-yard line on second down, setting up a third-and-goal with 10 seconds left and the clock stopped. With one timeout left, Tech could try to score a touchdown with either a run or pass, as it could still stop the clock if a play failed to score and then send out the field goal unit.

However, Yates appeared to receive the play late in the play clock, and Tech had to burn its final timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. On third down, Clemson could play for the pass, secure in the knowledge that the Jackets couldn’t run, and pass-rush pressure forced Yates to throw the ball away.

It was not dissimilar to Tech’s using two timeouts in the space of three plays in the third quarter against Northern Illinois, the latter used by Collins to reconsider his decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal. The timeout expenditures complicated Tech’s final drive when it tried to get in position for a game-winning field goal, an attempt that ultimately proved unsuccessful.

There were many reasons for the Jackets and their fans to be encouraged by the game, but the clock management error at the end of the first half could have been the difference between a feel-good defeat and a landmark win. It would seem unlikely that Tech will be winning many games easily the rest of the way. No game can be managed perfectly, but better handling of the clock – a “controllable,” in Collins’ parlance – would be of great value.

Smart plan by Andrew Thacker

Maybe no one absorbed the Jackets’ 73-7 loss to Clemson last year more than Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker, who spoke last week of the “scar tissue” he bore from the loss. Being the leader of a unit that allowed more points than any Tech team in more than 115 years will do that.

Saturday, his defense thwarted Clemson in a way that no ACC team had in seven years. Shifting the alignment from his standard 4-2-5 to a 3-3-5, the Jackets gave the Tigers a look they hadn’t prepared for. Tech also played a variety of pass coverages, often dropping eight players into coverage. Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott remarked on Tech playing “a lot of cat and mouse” in its scheming, playing a structure that “was completely different” than what Tigers coaches had seen in game planning.

“Hats off to Georgia Tech,” Elliott said. “They had a good plan, they stuck with their plan. I wouldn’t say they caught us off guard, but it was totally different than what we were expecting going into the game plan. A totally different structure, and it took us a little while to get adjusted.”

Clemson’s scoring (14 points) and yardage (284) were the lowest since the Jackets defeated the Tigers 28-6 and limited them to 190 yards in their 2014 meeting. With so many players behind the defensive line, Clemson could not break free for big plays, with its longest play measuring 17 yards.

“They did a great job and made it difficult on us,” Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagelelei said. “But we found a way to win and got the ‘W.’”

Big game for Charlie Thomas

Linebacker Charlie Thomas was an indispensable piece in Tech’s defensive performance. At linebacker along with Ayinde Eley and Quez Jackson, Thomas was normally lined up to the wide side of the field, where his speed and open-field tackling ability could be maximized.

Thomas was credited with a career-high 12 tackles, including one for loss. Thomas has been highly productive through Tech’s first three games, including his two-interception game last Saturday against Kennesaw State. Going into the Clemson game, in fact, he was graded the No. 2 linebacker in FBS by Pro Football Focus.

Thomas said that with three linebackers in the lineup, “we got more speed on the field, so we could get to the ball faster. Just like, mix it up so the offense is off balance.”

Safety Tariq Carpenter led the Jackets with 13 tackles, a career high for him, also. With a targeting penalty called on him in the fourth quarter, Carpenter will have to miss the first half of the North Carolina game next Saturday.

The next step

Despite the loss, Collins took encouragement from what he had seen out of his team, for the way his players had fought, stuck to the game plan and not given up.

“We’ve got to find out how we can respond and put this one behind us, learn from it against one of the top five teams in the country and and then come back out (and) put in a real good week’s work in this week,” Collins said.

For Collins’ third team, if learning to consistently prepare with excellence isn’t the greatest challenge, it’s close to it. Collins returned to the theme later in his news conference.

“If we prepare and we play like this, we can play with anybody,” he said.

The corollary would seem to be that if they don’t prepare and play as they did for Clemson, they can lose to anybody. The remaining schedule, at least in the ACC, doesn’t seem quite as daunting, particularly given what Tech demonstrated Saturday. Of the Jackets’ seven remaining ACC opponents, only Boston College is undefeated after three weeks. Pitt lost at home to Western Michigan Saturday. Miami dropped out of the top 25 with a loss to Michigan State and could easily be 0-3 instead of 1-2.

Two weeks after the confounding loss to Northern Illinois, the Jackets looked Saturday like a team ready for the next step. But it’ll require a commitment of effort, starting with preparations for No. 21 North Carolina next Saturday.

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