5 takeaways from Georgia Tech’s loss to Florida State

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

After the euphoria of wins in interim coach Brent Key’s first two games, Georgia Tech has experienced the other side of the spectrum. Hoping to bounce back from their disappointing home loss to Virginia, the Yellow Jackets were unable to threaten Florida State with any sort of upset attempt in a 41-16 loss Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla.

Playing without quarterback Jeff Sims, available only in emergency situations due to a sprained foot, didn’t help. But even with Sims, it seemed there was little chance that the Jackets could have toppled the Seminoles, who overran the Jackets with 642 yards of offense and felt like they had left more on the table. Tech, a 24-point underdog going into the game, looked very much the part.

Five takeaways from the game:

Memorable day for Zach Pyron

Freshman quarterback Zach Pyron knew he was going to get in the game against Florida State. But he didn’t know how much.

“I woke up (Saturday) morning, and I woke up pretty early,” Pyron said. “I was up before a lot of people. I was kind of emotional there, knowing I’m about to play in my first college game, something I’d worked for my whole life.”

Saturday wasn’t quite a fairly tale for Pyron, but he did more than OK coming in for starter Zach Gibson (who started in Sims’ place) after two three-and-out drives. Pyron completed 18 of 28 passes for 198 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He made his share of plays with his arm and avoided mistakes common for freshmen, such as forcing passes, incurring delay-of-game penalties or fleeing the pocket at the first sign of pressure.

“He showed a lot of poise out there, showed a lot of maturity as a freshman,” Key said.

Pyron gave credit to quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke, offensive coordinator Chip Long and Sims for helping him to not be overwhelmed by the moment.

“It felt good getting in there,” Pyron said. “Getting hit felt good. So, calmed down really quick, just trusting the guys around me, that I had that. And just putting my trust in the Lord, knowing that he has a path for everything. It felt really good.”

Key said the plan was for Pyron to go in for Gibson after two series and that playing time thereafter would be determined by how they played. Pyron picked up the team’s initial first down on his second series, a 13-yard completion to receiver Nate McCollum on a third-and-7, and played the rest of the game.

He and the offense were much better in the second half, with the Jackets gaining 240 yards and scoring 13 points after managing but 24 yards and three points in the first.

More about Zach Pyron

Pyron showed something on a fourth-and-3 play about three minutes into the fourth quarter at the Florida State 40-yard line. After a 7-yard run by running back Hassan Hall on third down, Pyron hurried the offense to the line and, in a rarity, took the snap behind center.

Two FSU defenders came free in the pass rush at Pyron, and he retreated but kept his eyes downfield. Knowing an incompletion or sack would result in a loss of downs, Pyron hung in the pocket and threw an on-target pass off his back foot to wide receiver E.J. Jenkins for a 6-yard gain and a first down.

On the next play, a flea-flicker with Hall, Pyron again had two Seminoles pass rushers in his face but was still able to connect with McCollum downfield for an 18-yard pickup and another first down. Later in the drive, he dropped the shotgun snap on a third-and-10 but had the presence to pick up the ball and run for 9 yards, stiff-arming a defensive back along the way. The drive ended without points – Tech went for it on fourth-and-goal from the FSU 3 and came up empty – but on the final drive of the game, Pyron ran a two-minute offense that went 75 yards in 1:09, ending with his 8-yard run for a touchdown as time expired.

His play left an impression.

“I told Zach after the game I love the way he played,” linebacker Ayinde Eley said. “He played with his heart, and I can’t ask for anything more than that. He gave us all he had, and he emptied the tank. I’m comfortable with Zach, and I told Zach whatever happens, we’re going to have his back.”

Particularly as a career debut, it was a promising game. Pyron figures to be the starter next Saturday at Virginia Tech if Sims is not able to play.

After the game, “(Key) said he’s proud of me but said, ‘We’ve got to keep working,’” Pyron said. “It wasn’t the result we wanted no matter what the performance was, so we’ve got to get it going (Sunday), put the work in and build off of it, because I just hate losing. And he hates losing, and everybody hates losing. We want to change it.”

Running game thwarted

For the second game in a row, Tech’s run game was unproductive. The Jackets netted 66 yards on 30 carries, a 2.2 yards-per-carry average. It was the fewest allowed by FSU this season, which had given up 167.7 rushing yards per game in six previous games against FBS opponents. Even eliminating the sack yardage (four for 27 yards), Tech’s numbers were still 93 yards on 26 carries (3.6 yards per carry), not nearly enough for a team whose strength is its run game.

This was after Tech rushed for 56 yards on 37 carries (including 50 yards lost in sacks) against Virginia, a game in which Sims leaving the game with an injury rendered the attack ineffective. The performance against the Cavaliers prompted Key to acknowledge that “we’ve got to have answers.” Generally, the Seminoles’ strength up the middle and speed on the perimeter made it tough for the Jackets to advance the ball. Tech’s longest run of the day was a 15-yard gain by Hall, who had 10 carries for 45 yards.

Particularly if Sims doesn’t return for the Virginia Tech game Saturday or his absence is prolonged, the Jackets need more of the answers that Key has sought. The Jackets are in a tough spot because the line is being coached by graduate assistant Nathan Brock, who is two years removed from his playing days as a walk-on at Ohio State. (Key was the offensive line coach before being made the interim.) Tech has been without a 10th assistant coach since the resignation of running backs coach Mike Daniels on Oct. 14. Key, who said last week that he had identified a replacement and that he would announce it this coming week, can offer his expertise but obviously has other responsibilities.

Trying out younger players

Freshman offensive tackle Tyler Gibson rotated series in the first half with starting left tackle Corey Robinson and then played most or all of the second half. Like Pyron, it was his first college action.

Gibson, the younger brother of quarterback Zach Gibson, had started the year on the scout team but had been moved up to prepare to play in recent weeks.

“We made the decision that we want to take some young guys that have talent and start really putting them in the mix to be able to play in the game,” Key said.

Gibson had some challenges in pass blocking – as did Robinson – but “did some really good things,” Key said. “He’s going to be a really good football player.”

While it’s not clear if it was part of Key’s plan to play younger players, cornerback Kenyatta Watson played much of the second half in place of starter Zamari Walton.

“We’re not going to just put anybody in the football game, by any means,” Key said. “It’s the people who have a chance to go out there and compete, No. 1, and give us the best chance for success.”

While he’s a first-time head coach and an interim at that, Key’s plan to filter in younger players indicates that he is taking a big-picture and long-term approach to the job even as he desperately needs to win. It suggests he has prepared a long time for this opportunity.

Defense run ragged

Aside from two turnovers (one of them created by a dropped snap) and a turnover on downs on Florida State’s first possession, there wasn’t a lot to recommend about Tech’s defensive play. Tech allowed five touchdowns and two field goals on the other seven possessions. The touchdown drives averaged 84.8 yards. FSU quarterback Jordan Travis lit up the Jackets by completing 24 of 38 passes for 396 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Tackling was poor, as Florida State ballcarriers either ran through tackle attempts or evaded them with change of direction. Jackets defenders overran the ball. Other times, Key said, players were trying to strip the ball rather than secure the tackle and give teammates the chance to go for the ball.

“(Overrunning the ball) will happen at times with one person,” Key said. “But where’s the rest of the guys in pursuit? That’s the question we’ve got to look at when we see the tape.”

The pass rush was generally not effective against Travis, leaving the secondary vulnerable. Travis was able to maneuver away from the pass rush when it did reach him.

Coming off its open week, FSU had extra time to rest and prepare, and it certainly looked like it.

Freshman safety Clayton Powell-Lee, who has drawn praise from coaches, led the Jackets with a career-high 14 tackles in his third career start. (It ties Eley for the most tackles any Tech player had had in a game this season.) Walk-on defensive tackle Jason Moore had a productive game with two tackles (one-half tackle for loss), a forced fumble and a pass breakup.