5 takeaways from Georgia Tech’s win over Duke

Credit: ACC

Caption
The Yellow Jackets were a four-point favorite against Duke – but demonstrated that they had the savvy to win on a day when they weren’t at their best.

Credit: ACC

Georgia Tech goes into its lone open date of the season with a 3-3 record following its come-from-behind 31-27 win over Duke Saturday in Durham, N.C.

Entering the game as the team’s fourth leading receiver, wide receiver Adonicas Sanders contributed two sensational plays, making diving catches of 37 and 36 yards on Tech’s game-winning drive.

Georgia Tech 31, Duke 27

“When I got the play call from the play-callers on the sideline and I saw what defense Duke was in, I just knew for a fact that ball was coming to me because that’s the look we saw in practice all week,” Sanders said of his 36-yard scoring reception. “I just made a play on the ball when it came my way.”

There was far more to Tech’s win than that. Five takeaways from the game:

1. What did it mean?

Depending on one’s view of the team, Tech’s result can be seen as confirmation of at least a couple conclusions about the Jackets. Take your pick.

The first would be that Tech was lucky to win a game against a team that may be the weakest in the ACC Coastal Division. The Jackets were gifted two missed field-goal tries and dodged a pick-six interception by inches. They were outgained and came up on the short end of turnover margin. Duke coach David Cutcliffe described the game as one “when you have one in your grasp and it gets away.” If Tech has to struggle to beat the Blue Devils, it does not portend well for the final six games, in which the Jackets are given less than 50% chance of winning in every game, according to ESPN’s calculations. (ESPN gave Tech a 67% probability of beating Duke.)

Duke running back Mataeo Durant (21) gets upended as he is hit by Georgia Tech linebacker Quez Jackson (4) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)
Caption
Duke running back Mataeo Durant (21) gets upended as he is hit by Georgia Tech linebacker Quez Jackson (4) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The other would be that the Jackets beat an ACC opponent that has given them trouble in recent years. Despite not playing near their best, they did so by seizing critical moments — stopping Duke on fourth-and-1 on the Tech 20 after Sims’ first interception, responding with a touchdown drive after the Blue Devils had tied the score at 17 and, lastly, getting a defensive stop and producing the game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes after Duke had taken control of the game. Further, Tech did so despite losing key players to injury. With an open date to get healthy and the increased confidence such a win instills, the Jackets could be dangerous going into the final six games.

Coach Geoff Collins praised his team for its response when “some things got hairy. They didn’t fall apart, they stayed together, they kept battling.”

2. Sims goes up, down, up

After two games in which he consistently threw with accuracy and found the right targets (North Carolina and Pitsburgh), Tech quarterback Jeff Sims was not at that standard Saturday. He started hot, connecting with running back Jahmyr Gibbs on possibly the easiest 77-yard touchdown pass that either has ever experienced, exploiting a coverage bust by Duke.

But after starting 3-for-3 for 119 yards in Tech’s first two series and scoring on a one-yard touchdown run, Sims completed five of his next 17 passes (up until the game-winning drive) with a touchdown and two interceptions. He was off target, threw into tight coverage on the two interceptions and also was rushed by pressure.

Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (10) celebrates his touchdown with teammates after he scored against Duke during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)
Caption
Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (10) celebrates his touchdown with teammates after he scored against Duke during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

“We started well and then I had some struggles during the middle of the game and I just told myself it happens to the best of them,” Sims said. “You’re not going to go out there and play like an All-American every time. There’s going to be some times where it’s just not your day. And I just sat on the sideline and meditated, talked to God while I was on the sideline. I just went out there and I forgot about it, just stayed poised, stayed calm, just went out there and played the game.”

He was able to put his lapse behind him when his team needed him most, a show of confidence and poise. His two downfield throws to Sanders on the game-winning drive were pinpoint, and the second was under heavy pressure.

“Jeff’s a big-time player,” Collins said. “Obviously, we want to eliminate those early turnovers moving forward, but he’s a big-time player. Composure, the guys have faith in him and he just did a really nice job of settling back in.”

3. Faster out of the gates

With its quick start, Tech accomplished a few things that it hasn’t done often.

With the 77-yard touchdown reception from Sims to Gibbs, Tech scored on its opening possession. In Collins’ tenure, the Jackets have now scored on their first possession in eight out of 28 games, which matches the frequency of Tech’s opponents over that span. (The Jackets have yet to allow an opponent to score on the opening drive this season.) Tech is 6-2 with Collins when it scores on the first drive.

Likewise, the Jackets scored the game’s first points for only the ninth time with Collins as coach. Tech is now 6-3 in those games.

Also, prior to Saturday, Tech was 2-17 in Collins’ tenure when the opponent had better average starting field position, which Duke did against the Jackets (its own 34-yard line compared to Tech’s average starting spot being its own 24, a fairly significant difference.)

Tech also performed better in the red zone on both offense and defense, a change that helps explain the Jackets winning despite losing the field-position battle. Prior to the game, Tech was last in the ACC in touchdown rate on red-zone possessions (11 of 22). Against Duke, the Jackets got in the end zone twice in three red-zone possessions, including their second possession, when Sims scored on a 1-yard keeper behind right tackle Jordan Williams after taking (and dropping) the snap from under center rather than the standard shotgun alignment.

The Tech defense was similarly last in the ACC in touchdown rate in opponent red-zone possessions (11 out of 14, 79%), but limited the Blue Devils to two touchdowns (and two field goals) in six red-zone possessions.

Georgia Tech defensive back Juanyeh Thomas (1) intercepts a pass intended for Duke tight end Nicky Dalmolin (81) in the closing seconds of the second half to seal the win for Georgia Tech during an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)
Caption
Georgia Tech defensive back Juanyeh Thomas (1) intercepts a pass intended for Duke tight end Nicky Dalmolin (81) in the closing seconds of the second half to seal the win for Georgia Tech during an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

4. Harris’ impactful effort plays

While Sanders’ two big catches were huge, wide receiver PeJe Harris made two hustle plays that didn’t get much attention but were significant in shaping the game’s outcome. Harris made the stops after both of Sims’ interceptions. Harris, who was not the target for Sims’ first interception, closed down on cornerback Jeremiah Lewis to knock him out of bounds. Harris was the target for Sims’ second interception and he chased cornerback Leonard Johnson, diving at Johnson’s feet as he sped away to the Tech end zone and getting just enough of his foot to cause him to step out of bounds.

At the least, Harris prevented better starting field position after the first interception for Duke, which lost the ball on downs at the Tech 20. By not giving up on the play on the second, Harris might have prevented an interception return for a touchdown that would have given the Blue Devils a 21-17 advantage. Instead, the Tech defense didn’t allow a first down, and then Charlie Ham missed a 42-yard try near the end of the first half.

In a game decided in the final minute and one in which Harris caught one pass for no gain, he still managed to make a significant impact on the outcome.

5. Mistakes, but a win

There will be plenty to correct, including seven penalties and two turnovers. Duke was 9-for-21 (42.9%) on third downs while Tech was 4-for-13 (30.8%). The pass rush generated a single sack (though Duke’s did also) and, despite being on the field for 91 plays, did not create a turnover until the 91st play. Gibbs’ fumble on the first play of the game-winning drive could very well have been a game-deciding turnover.

After Tech took a 14-0 lead on its second possession and until its game-winning drive, the Jackets had 11 possessions and averaged 4.3 yards per play, which is generally not conducive to winning.

Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins directs the team against Duke during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)
Caption
Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins directs the team against Duke during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Moreover, injuries to multiple players, notably Williams, who appeared to have suffered an injury to his left knee, could be costly. (Right guard Ryan Johnson played in his place there, with William Lay moving in at right guard.)

But it goes down as a win, one the Jackets needed direly to rebound from the loss to Pitt and make progress toward a bowl bid.

“When you prepare, when you put in all the work and prepare as hard as we do and you find yourself in a tough situation in a game, down, or you’re not playing well, it’s kind of frustrating,” Sims said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve always got to keep a positive mindset, because one thing that coach Collins preaches is that positive energy equals positive outcomes.”

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