Against Duke, Georgia Tech faces a test of consistency

In the space of five Saturdays, Georgia Tech has vigorously explored the range of possible outcomes for its games, consistently delivering results that have disregarded expectations.

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In the season opener, the Yellow Jackets statistically outperformed Northern Illinois, but mistakes and defensive lapses enabled the Huskies to stun Tech in a 22-21 decision. Two weeks later, many counted on Clemson to mete out a thrashing, but a valiant defensive showing by the Jackets kept them in it to the end in a 14-8 loss. A week after that, Tech gave its best overall performance in coach Geoff Collins’ tenure in a 45-22 blowout of North Carolina. And, on Saturday, with Jackets fans hoping that their team had turned a corner with the win over the Tar Heels, Tech fell on its face in a 52-21 defeat to Pittsburgh.

In those four games, the margin of victory diverged from the point spread by an average of 26.6 points, twice in Tech’s favor (Clemson and North Carolina) and twice against (Northern Illinois and Pitt). Only the Sept. 11 win over Kennesaw State fairly followed form (a 45-17 victory when the spread favored the Jackets by 20), and that was a game in which much of the fan base was terrified of an upset by the Owls.

As Collins attempts to lead the Jackets into the realm of college football’s elite, the exceeding of external expectations is a clear sign of what’s possible. The instances where Tech has come up far short, however, leave uncertainty.

“It’s hard to draw conclusions, but I think what you’re seeing is the ceiling is higher,” Roddy Jones, ACC Network analyst and former Tech captain, told the AJC. “But the delta, if you will, the difference between how they play on a week-in, week-out basis is probably not as small as you’d like because of what we’ve seen in the first five games.”

Points to Jones, the holder of a Tech MBA, for dropping math terms such as “delta.” But, regarding his comments overall, the Jackets’ game at Duke Saturday provides another opportunity for Tech to show what it is and where it’s going by how closely it can approach peak form.

“The team that rolled out there for the three previous weeks (before the Pitt game) can play with anybody,” Collins said. “The performance that our guys put together vs. North Carolina, the grit, fight, toughness on the road against the (then-No. 6) team in the country (Clemson) in the week before, playing a complete game prior to that (Kennesaw State), we just didn’t show that on Saturday.”

In the Blue Devils, Tech seems to have an advantage on paper. The Jackets are given a 67% probability of winning, according to ESPN’s metrics. But, Duke’s defense could create trouble on the interior with defensive tackle DeWayne Carter. Also, Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker is wary of Duke running back Mataeo Durant, comparing him with Tech star back Jahmyr Gibbs.

A week after limiting the Tar Heels to 63 rushing yards, the Jackets were bullied by Pitt for 181 yards on the ground a week ago.

Against Duke, “I want to see, is this the defense we saw against Clemson and Carolina, or was that just Clemson and Carolina just being poor on offense?” Jones said. “I tend to think it’s the former, but college football isn’t how good you are on your best day. College football is, how consistently can you get close to your best day?”

Linebacker Quez Jackson said that the defense’s level of play against Pitt was “simply unacceptable” and looked forward to the Duke game to make amends. The defense should get a boost from the debut of defensive end Keion White, a grad transfer from Old Dominion who has been injured but was added to the “Above the Line” chart Thursday.

“We shouldn’t leave it in the hands of coaches to motivate us,” Jackson said. “We have to be motivated ourselves and come out there and prove to everybody what we can do.”

On offense, quarterback Jeff Sims will attempt a better start than he had against Pitt, when he threw interceptions on his first two passes – one was tipped and the other was the result of a hit; offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said neither was Sims’ fault – and helped the Panthers take a 14-0 lead. However fluky, it continued a pattern for Tech in its opening drives.

In Sims’ 12 career starts, the Jackets have scored three times on their opening possession. Tech won two of the three games when it did score on its first time with the ball (including Duke last year) but lost eight of the nine when it did not.

Sims did respond well Saturday after the two interceptions. Patenaude said that “last year, he would have melted down” in that situation.

“That’s the thing that I’m most proud of with him is, the confidence, the security with what he’s doing,” Patenaude said. “He saw the field extremely well. I think he’s missed two targets in the last two games.”

The imperative Saturday will be not to have to be in a position to rebound. Jones said he wants to see if Sims’ performance after the interceptions – 359 passing yards, the most by a Tech quarterback since 2001 – was “empty calories” or if he can continue that standard in a more competitive situation.

“If he continues to play well like he did against Pitt, then I certainly think there’s some opportunity for Tech to have a good back half of the season,” Jones said.

Tech will go into its one open date of the season after the Duke game. A week after taking a step back, the Jackets have an opportunity to bring the first half of the season to a satisfying conclusion.

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