For bowl bid, time running out on Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech's Kyric McGowan (2) makes a touchdown reception ahead of Virginia Tech defensive back Chamarri Conner during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech's Kyric McGowan (2) makes a touchdown reception ahead of Virginia Tech defensive back Chamarri Conner during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Hailing from Peach County, Georgia Tech linebacker Quez Jackson grew up a fan of Atlanta’s pro sports teams. So when he woke up early Wednesday morning for practice, learning that the Braves had clinched the World Series on Tuesday night after he went to bed made him happy for the city.

“But I’m really worried about how we finish out this season right now, to be real with you,” Jackson said. “It’s kind of got me down a little bit right now, but I’m just really trying to fight my way out this season and try to get everybody together and go out on a good mark with my brothers.”

After eight games and a record of 3-5 (and 2-4 in the ACC), urgency has heightened for the Yellow Jackets in their pursuit of a bowl bid and the season they envisioned. Their Saturday afternoon game at Miami isn’t technically a must-win, but the Jackets are running out of chances.

“Oh, most definitely,” said Jackson, asked if there was a recognition of the necessity to play better and avoid the mistakes that have cost the Jackets games. “Because there’s seniors on this team that only have four games left. I want to give them the respect and play my heart out for them and have everybody play their hearts out for them and try to get this bowl game. We’re trying to get a bowl bid. We’re not trying to go home in December.”

If they can’t put a stop to the mistakes that have tilted the field in their opponents’ direction – maybe even if they can, particularly given who awaits the Jackets in the season’s final two games – a bowl-free December may be their fate. Through eight games, Tech easily could be sitting at 5-3 – possibly even a game or two better than hat – with more disciplined play and a break or two.

The onus again will be on Tech’s defenders not to get caught letting their vision stray away from their keys, the door that opponents have opened to pop a series of explosive plays. That temptation catalyzed Virginia Tech’s two longest plays of the game, pass plays of 69 and 61 yards, that directly led to 10 points in the Hokies’ 26-17 win Saturday.

“Different formations, different schemes, they’re playing with where they’re putting guys,” said defensive tackle Djimon Brooks, explaining the challenge of playing with focus and maintaining “eye discipline” on each play. “Like, you’re keying a guy, and they’re playing with where he’s lined up. It’s just a bunch of different things you’ve really got to lock in on and make sure you’re seeing what you’re supposed to be seeing out there.”

Jackson believes that players are focused, but that trust is the issue.

“That’s the one thing I’m kind of confused about,” he said. “I think it’s just the trust. Trusting the defense. Trusting all the other 10 guys that’s out there. We all have to be on the same page. All 11 guys have to be on the same page. If one person’s not on the same page, it’s going to be an explosive (play).”

On the offense, lineman Ryan Johnson stressed the importance of the little details. Late in the first quarter against Virginia Tech, for instance, the Jackets trailed 14-7 and began a drive at their 18-yard line. A Jeff Sims pass to Adonicas Sanders and a run by Jahmyr Gibbs, quickly advanced the ball 35 yards to the Hokies 47-yard line.

From there, the line didn’t block a run play well on first down, limiting running back Dontae Smith to a 1-yard gain. On second-and-9, Sims’ check-down throw to Smith, who had space to run for a first down, appeared to be tipped and fell incomplete. That set up third-and-9, which resulted in another incompletion when the pocket collapsed and Sims was flushed and threw under pressure. Tech punted, its opportunity to tie the score squandered.

“A lot of people think the game of football is about the big touchdown pass, the huge run, but really, it comes down to a game of inches,” Johnson said. “It’s small details that win or lose a game.”

Johnson, Brooks and Jackson are not advancing new explanations, as Tech fans know. After the season-opening loss to Northern Illinois, for example, coach Geoff Collins lamented “lapses in situational football” that contributed to the defeat. Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said that the defense lacked composure on the Huskies’ game-winning drive.

After the Oct. 23 loss to Virginia, Collins targeted the Jackets’ attention to detail in that game, or their shortage of it. After the loss to Virginia Tech, he took time in a team meeting to highlight a handful of pivotal plays that sealed the game for the Hokies after Jackets players didn’t execute them correctly for various reasons.

Fan discontent is escalating given how the lapses have continued as Collins’ tenure reaches the close of its third season. Collins has insisted that the Jackets are close to finding a way to win.

In Collins’ first two seasons, the Jackets had a chance to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter of three of their 16 losses. This season, they’ve been in that position in four of their five defeats.

“We’re really close,” Collins said this week, going on to say that recruiting, player development and culture have put the Jackets on the doorstep. “Now we’ve got to win these close games that we’re putting ourselves in by the development that we’ve shown and grown and all those kind of things.”

While the Hurricanes’ four ACC games all have been decided by four points or fewer, Tech’s level of difficulty would appear considerably heightened this week. Miami (4-4, 2-2) has defeated two ranked teams (N.C. State and Pitt) in the past two weeks and has a thunder-armed quarterback in freshman Tyler Van Dyke.

“I don’t think he’s your average freshman,” Jackson said of Van Dyke. “He definitely has a lot of arm talent. He’s probably farther ahead than most freshman quarterbacks, so it’s going to be challenging.”

The Jackets are 10.5-point underdogs. ESPN calculates that Tech has a 2.7% chance of getting to six wins and making a bowl game. After Miami, the Jackets finish with Boston College, No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 1 Georgia. To get to six wins, beating the Hurricanes and the Eagles would seem all but mandatory.

If Collins and his team are going to get their problems fixed, they’d best do so soon.

“It’s getting towards the end of the season,” Jackson said. “A lot of guys nicked up, beat up. We just have to put all that aside and put on our big-boy pads and play football.”