After thrilling win, Georgia Tech believes it’s only getting started

September 25, 2021 Atlanta - North Carolina's running back Ty Chandler (19) is brought down by Georgia TechÕs defense during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, September 25, 2021. Georgia Tech won 45-22 over North Carolina. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
September 25, 2021 Atlanta - North Carolina's running back Ty Chandler (19) is brought down by Georgia TechÕs defense during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, September 25, 2021. Georgia Tech won 45-22 over North Carolina. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

When Georgia Tech nearly upset then-No. 6 Clemson two Saturdays ago, the possibility loomed that the Yellow Jackets might not be able to summon the same energy and focus for their next game against then-No. 21 North Carolina.

The Yellow Jackets’ 45-22 throttling of the Tar Heels at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday served as an effective retort to any doubts about their ability to put exceptional back-to-back games together. And now comes an ACC Coastal Division matchup Saturday at home against Pittsburgh, a game that now carries implications for the division race. Tech is 1-1 in the ACC (2-2 overall) while Pitt, which has started 3-1, has yet to play a league game.

“There’s definitely an emphasis on winning the Coastal,” wide receiver Kalani Norris said Wednesday.

Among Tech players and coaches, there is a sense that, even after these two attention-grabbing efforts, the curtain is only rising.

“I’ve been on a lot of different teams, and I’ve seen a lot of teams go up and down, up and down,” said right guard Ryan Johnson, now playing his sixth season of college football as a grad transfer from Tennessee. “And I think this team is slowly going up.”

Johnson’s assessment stems from his perception of the offense.

“I see a lot of potential still that we haven’t hit that we’ve got to get out of the offense,” he said. “I’m really excited about that.”

It mirrors a message that offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude gave to his unit earlier this week. Turnovers and penalties – two trouble spots last season – are down, and they helped the Jackets score 45 points in Tech’s first win over a ranked team in coach Geoff Collins’ tenure. However, the Jackets settled for field goals on three possessions in which they had first-and-goal.

“We played good, but we didn’t play our best game,” Patenaude said.

Collins said that players have finally absorbed a message that he and his staff have been preaching since their arrival before the 2019 season – to keep focused on the present.

“We’ve said it for two years,” he said. “The Clemson game, it finally clicked. And they did it. They played one play at a time, they played one series at a time, one technique, one assignment at a time. Then they did it again vs. UNC.”

For the Clemson game, facing an opponent that beat you 73-7 a year ago helped.

“We definitely played more focused that game,” defensive end Kyle Kennard said. “I feel like we had a chip on our shoulder going into that game, obviously, because of the outcome of the previous year. So we wanted to go in that game and just be for one another, do our 1/11th and just execute every assignment that we had that night, and I feel like we did that defensively.”

Johnson noticed the level of effort in the game, which, by the metrics of the team’s wearable GPS performance-tracking system, was the highest for any game since Collins began using the technology at Temple in 2017.

“I think it all started coming together around there, and it was definitely a turning point,” Johnson said. “I think guys really started working together, started bonding together. Everything just started clicking.”

In the North Carolina game, the play-to-play focus might have been most clear when the Jackets stopped the Tar Heels on their opening drive of the second half. North Carolina ran on second-and-1, third-and-1 and fourth-and-1, and the Jackets rebuffed them each time, a game-changing sequence that gave the Tech offense the ball on the Tar Heels’ 39-yard line.

“I knew we were in trouble when we couldn’t do that,” UNC coach Mack Brown said after the game.

It was a defining moment for a defense that last season, among other things, gave up an average of 4.0 yards per carry on third-down run plays with between one and three yards to go.

It was a triumph of committing to assignments and executing them with effort. Cornerback Tobias Oliver, who made the stop of quarterback Sam Howell on fourth-and-1, simply did what he had practiced, defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said.

“Had nothing to do with the call that I made and everything (to do) just with Tobias Oliver relying on his training, then the defense just topping off the pile,” Thacker said.

Against Pitt, the Jackets will likely need that same level of focus. Quarterback Kenny Pickett leads an offense that ranks second in FBS in scoring offense (52.5 points per game) and sixth in total offense (548 yards per game), although ESPN rates its schedule strength to this point 102nd in the country. (Tech’s is 18th.)

There’s no reason to look beyond anywhere but the opening kickoff of Saturday’s game. The Jackets can take a large step toward their first Coastal title since 2014, which would be a staggering accomplishment for a team picked to finish sixth in the division. Pitt also has defeated Tech three years in a row, including a 34-20 decision last year in a chippy game at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“We have a very bad taste in our mouth, but we definitely know they’re a great team, and they’re very well-coached,” Norris said. “It’s definitely going to be a battle, and we’re definitely looking forward to it.”

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