1. Defense gets the job done
Tech’s defense knew it was in for a tough night against the Syracuse offense. And despite some shaky moments Saturday, that unit hung on to prevail and got a crucial takeaway in the waning moments.
The Orange, down a number of quarterbacks due to injury, came into the contest poised to almost exclusively run the ball – and run they did. Syracuse ran 42 times out of 58 plays and totaled 206 yards on the ground using running back LaQuint Allen and quarterback turned tight end turned running back Dan Villari lining up behind center in the shotgun formation.
Villari also threw the ball 14 times – completing all 14 attempts – for 59 yards, passes that were mostly quick outs to wide receivers toward the sideline.
Tech prepared all week for such an offense and held its own, especially in the first half when it held the Orange to 94 yards of offense. Linebackers Kyle Efford and Paul Moala combined for 19 tackles and defensive back Jaylon King, who coach Brent Key said was tasked with being sort of a roaming defender for the night, made six stops.
“With them coming out in that Wildcat offense and running the ball a bit more it kind of allowed us to showcase our talents as a linebacker group and show that we can actually stop the run,” Moala said.
Syracuse ran for almost 400 yards the previous week in a win over Pittsburgh. The Jackets contained the Orange to half that total.
“We really simplified things in this game, ran some simplified things within the plan, allowed the big guys up front to be able to do what they do,” Key said. “Good plan put together by the defensive guys in being able to do that and came up with some key turnovers at some key times.”
2. A drive to remember
Syracuse had all the momentum and then some in the second half Saturday.
Down 24-3 just after the start of the third quarter, the ‘Cuse scored three touchdowns in a row to cut the score to 24-22. A botched extra point and a failed two-point conversion kept the Orange from tying the game.
So leading just 24-22, and after offensive drives that went lost fumble, punt, punt and punt in that order, Tech’s offense took the field with 7:41 to play at, the very least, needing to take some time off the clock. It did that and more.
After a Syracuse defensive pass interference on the first play of the series, Tech ran the ball eight straight times (save for a defensive offsides penalty on the Orange that Tech tried to convert into a deep throw that went incomplete) down to the Syracuse 19 before Syracuse called timeout with 2:27 to try to catch its breath.
On the next play from scrimmage, Tech quarterback Haynes King kept the ball on an option keeper up the middle and went nearly untouched on a 19-yard touchdown run to put the Jackets up by two scores.
“You talk about four-minute offense and being able to end the game like that, that’s what you want to do,” Key said. “You want the lowest risk that there is for the other team to be able to get the ball back and that’s to secure the football and be able to run it and get positive plays. I was pleased to see that.”
Tech finished the night with 206 yards on the ground, getting 82 each from King and running back Jamal Haynes. The Jackets averaged 5.6 yards per carry and gained 64 yards rushing on that final drive.
“We got in that huddle before we even came out on the field and we said we gotta finish the drill. We didn’t get this far to get this far. We have to finish the drill,” Haynes said. “It started up front. Huge shoutout to the O-line. They came ready to play and definitely came ready to play on that last drive.”
3. Tech Takeaways
The Jackets’ defense has been much-maligned in 2023, but that unit continued to make opportunistic plays that helped lead Tech to victory.
Such was the case again Saturday when Efford’s interception with 2:18 to go in the game sealed Tech’s win. It was the second takeaway of the night for the Jackets, which made Tech 5-0 this season when the defense finishes with two takeaways or more in a game.
The Jackets now have 21 takeaways this season and 45 over the last 23 games. Efford’s pick will be up there with the more memorable turnovers of the season along with Moala’s fumble recovery in the fourth quarter at Miami and K.J. Wallace’s fumble recovery in the fourth quarter against North Carolina.
In six wins this season, Tech has a combined turnover margin of +10. In five losses Tech’s turnover margin has been -9.
4. Defying the experts
In the ACC’s annual preseason poll voted on by members of the media, Tech was picked to finish 12th out of 14 teams. That poll proved to be way off.
The Jackets, with their win over Syracuse, will finish no worse than tied for fourth after next week’s end of the regular season. Should North Carolina State lose to rival North Carolina on Saturday, Tech would wind up tied for third and two games back of second-place Louisville (who the Jackets lost to by a 39-34 score Sept. 1).
Tech had not won five conference games since the 2018 season.
5. Ovation from O’Leary & Co.
Tech’s 1998 team, a team that went 10-2 and won the Gator Bowl, was honored during Saturday’s contest. Then, after the game, former Tech coach George O’Leary sat in on Key’s postgame news conference – O’Leary’s presence reminded Key unprompted to turn his Tech hat from being worn backward to forward.
Key played offensive line on that ‘98 team, a squad that had been 5-6 just two seasons prior. But the 1997 team went 7-5 and returned to a bowl game for the first time since 1991. Key couldn’t help but draw parallels to where that team was then to where his team is now.
“We talk about the ‘98 team that was here and the success we had as a football team, but success doesn’t come unless you’ve had failures. You learn from those failures, you learn when you stumble,” Key said. “The prior year we had made a first bowl game in a long time. It was the Carquest Bowl in 1997 (a 35-30 win over West Virginia). That’s what I equate this to now. That was a huge steppingstone for us as a program.”
- King now has 26 touchdown passes this season, second only to Joe Hamilton’s program record of 29 in 1999.
- The 26 touchdown passes for King are also the ninth-most in a Tech career.
- King’s 2,597 passing yards are the fourth most in a single Tech season. George Godsey is third with 2,906 in 2000.
- King’s 208 completions are tied for the third-most in a single Tech season.
- King’s 15 interceptions this season are the most by a Tech quarterback since Reggie Ball threw 18 in 2004.
- King and Haynes each have seven rushing touchdowns this season, the first Tech players with seven rushing touchdowns in a season since Jordan Mason had seven in 2019.
- Running back Dontae Smith is now 29th on Tech’s career rushing list with 1,519 yards.
- Tech is now 4-1 all-time against Syracuse.
- The Jackets improved to 5-0 this season in games following a loss.
- Attendance was announced as 33,332 giving Tech an average of 33,296 after five home games this season, currently the program’s lowest average since 32,200 in 1986.
- Former Tech standouts Keion White and Calvin Johnson attended Saturday’s game.