1. Defense looks much better
The Tech defense, last seen getting pummeled by Georgia for 500 yards and 52 points, looked like the improved unit that coaches and players had assured that it had become through experience and added strength and weight.
The Seminoles' first two series bore familiarity to last season — FSU got the ball to its backs and receivers in space, the Seminoles broke tackles and converted third downs in taking a 10-0 lead. After that, however, Tech and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker got a better handle on FSU as quarterback James Blackman had more trouble finding targets, and the tackling improved.
FSU averaged 6.9 yards per play on its first two series and 3.0 for the remaining nine. The defensive line, so often unable to create pass-rush pressure, did it with the game on the line. With the score tied at 13 in the fourth quarter, defensive end Curtis Ryans easily motored by the right tackle to sack Blackman on first-and-10 at the Tech 46-yard line, and then on 2nd-and-19 did the same thing, only this time stripping Blackman to enable linebacker David Curry to scoop up the fumble, which set up the game-winning field goal.
Tech finished with three sacks, three forced turnovers, 307 yards and 13 points allowed. The Jackets' averages in those categories in 2019: 1.4, 1.3, 422.9 and 32.4
“You know, we’re used to, in our defensive package and defensive scheme, creating mayhem, creating chaos, getting turnovers,” Collins said. “It was really good to see all the work coach Thacker and our defensive staff have put in, pay off.”
2. Special teams needs attention
The most glaring plays on special teams were the three kicks blocked by FSU, two on field goals and one on an extra point. They appeared to be a combination of ineffective line play and low kicks by freshman kicker Jude Kelley. (Collins took responsibility, saying he eliminated full-speed field-goal drills in the preseason to limit close contact as a COVID-19 precaution.)
However, Tech’s three kickoff returns reached the 10-, 16-, 21- and 28-yard lines. Punter Pressley Harvin and his coverage team delivered when it counted, as he hammered a 46-yarder that was fair caught with just under two minutes to play to stick FSU on its 17 as it tried to rally, but they were so-so on the first two.
The night wasn’t devoid of positives. In his Tech debut, kicker Austin Kent recorded one touchback in three kicks, Marquez Ezzard returned a 49-yard punt 14 yards and, most memorably, Kelley set aside his misses to nail the game-winner from 32 yards out with 8:56 remaining. Special-teams play was perhaps bound to have glitches in the first game, but they nonetheless need to be addressed.
“The game didn’t start the way that I would have wanted, obviously," Kelley said. "A couple of errors, but I’m really proud of the way that the team, as well as myself, fought through it and came up big when we needed to.”
3. Sims wows in debut
It wasn’t difficult to see why Sims won the quarterback competition in the preseason. He was accurate, poised, made plays with his feet and got better as the game went on. The telltale signs of a freshman quarterback in his debut – fleeing the pocket at the first sign of pressure, unloading on throws requiring some touch, having trouble with pre-snap organization – were rarely seen.
He made critical errors with his two first-half interceptions, and a near third late in the first half that could well have been a pick-6 for a devastating 17-0 lead for FSU. But he overcame the mistakes, leading touchdown drives of 80 and 72 yards in the second half to tie the game at 13. Tech converted five third downs in those two possessions, including two on Sims passes and two on Sims runs.
For a debut, 24-for-35 for 277 yards (to 10 different targets) with one touchdown and two interceptions, along with a game-high 64 rushing yards on 13 carries, will quite suffice.
“The best thing about him is, on the sideline, he was not fazed,” Collins said. “He was not flustered, he stayed poised.”
4. Offensive line does the job
One of the most anticipated elements of Tech’s season opener — its offensive line — gave a largely good show. With the help of Sims' elusiveness, a mix of run-pass option plays and moving pockets, the Tech front effectively protected Sims in the pocket. Against one of the top defensive lines in the country, the Jackets kept the pocket intact and picked up stunts. In 35 pass attempts, Sims was sacked but once and rarely was running for his life. Compare that rate with the Jackets' rate last year of 9.6 pass attempts per sack allowed.
On Sims' game-tying touchdown pass, the line (from left tackle to right, Zach Quinney, Jack DeFoor, Mikey Minihan, Ryan Johnson and Jordan Williams), tight end Dylan Deveney and running back Jordan Mason held off a six-man pressure to give Sims time to throw to Malachi Carter in the end zone for a 15-yard scoring pass.
The Jackets line also did its job in the run game, as the Jackets gained 161 yards in 40 attempts.
“I think we’ve got to give credit to that offensive line too now, right?” Collins said. “I mean, they did a really good job moving the football, getting protection.”
5. What does it mean?
It would be easy to conclude that this was a turning-point game for Collins at the start of his second year. The dots connect — young players now have experience, a strong recruiting class (including Sims) has arrived, a come-from-behind win in a name-brand opponent’s (partially-filled) stadium that revealed the team’s mettle.
However, season openers can be deceitful, maybe especially so against a team playing for a new coach under highly unusual circumstances. Tech fans might remember the second season of coach Bill Curry. After a 1-9-1 record in 1980, the Jackets shocked No. 4 Alabama 24-21 at Legion Field in the 1981 opener and then somehow managed to lose their 10 remaining games.
The win over the Seminoles may well prove to have been a watershed moment. Even if FSU had pulled it out, it would have been a better-than-expected effort. But patience, at least through this week’s home opener against No. 20 Central Florida, might be advised.