Georgia Tech’s performance Saturday night against Western Carolina had its merits.
Running back Dontae Smith ran for 102 yards with three touchdowns. Linebacker Charlie Thomas’ frenetic second half of play (after sitting out the first half because of a targeting penalty in the season opener against Clemson) earned him recognition from the Senior Bowl as its “Stock Up” player of the week. The defense’s pass-rush pressure generated four sacks, raising its season total to seven. That leads the ACC after the Yellow Jackets were tied for 12th in that category last season.
But, most likely, a repeat performance will not position the Jackets to give No. 20 Ole Miss a worthy challenge Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium (3:30 p.m., ABC). Tech’s performances in the first two weeks of the season have had encouraging elements but also have been littered with mistakes.
“There are some positives, but the biggest piece is the things that we’ve got to improve on every single day so that we can be able to play at a high level in front of our home fan base on Grant Field and (at) Bobby Dodd Stadium,” coach Geoff Collins said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “Those are the biggest things that we’re working on.”
Among the areas of attention cited by Collins were keeping the quarterback in the pocket and defending screen passes, two areas that Western Carolina exploited to amass 390 yards of offense (albeit on 75 plays) and 26 first downs. While Tech did get its four sacks, Collins said the defense missed chances for another four by letting Catamounts quarterbacks Carlos Davis and Cole Gonzales escape pass rushers either to scramble for gains or to find receivers for completions.
Pre-snap penalties, which were damaging in the season-opening loss to No. 5 Clemson, were another.
“So we’ve got to continue to work on those because you can’t have those flaws against a team like we’re getting ready to play,” Collins said.
In Collins’ tenure, the Jackets have managed wins in games that they weren’t given much chance to win. The wins over Miami in 2019 (when the Jackets were 18-point underdogs), Florida State in 2020 (13-point underdogs) and North Carolina in 2021 (14-point underdogs) have indicated their ability to manage the unexpected. (Those three teams finished their seasons a combined 15-20, which suggests maybe the point spreads misjudged Tech’s opponent.) That said, the Jackets have also slid down the hill when the point spread suggested such a fall. There have been six times when Tech was a double-digit underdog that it went on to lose by 28 points or more.
But adding a fourth win as a double-digit underdog – the Rebels were favored by 16 points as of Tuesday – will require a far cleaner effort than Tech has managed in its first two games.
It’s one thing to let Western Carolina escape a sack and keep a drive going. The Jackets had a talent advantage over their FCS opponent and after the first two drives had control over the Catamounts offense. Giving extra chances to Ole Miss, which a year ago led the SEC in total offense, likely will be far more costly.
“We had four sacks that the kid (Davis) made really nice plays because we were going to the quarterback instead of the upfield shoulder of him, and he was escaping,” Collins said. “So that’s been a big point of emphasis this week for the whole defensive staff and for the whole defense in general.”
Receivers have dropped catchable passes. The punting unit allowed two blocks against Clemson. Kicker Jude Kelley is 1-for-3 on field-goal attempts, including a miss from 25 yards against Western Carolina. The Jackets had four possessions against the Catamounts that started in Western Carolina territory that netted only seven points. As Tech likely can’t afford to give Ole Miss’ offense any breaks, the same holds for the Jackets’ offense. The Rebels have a seven-game streak of keeping their opponents to 21 points or fewer. The Jackets may not be availed many scoring opportunities and would do well to capitalize on the ones they receive.
It has been a theme of Collins’ three-plus seasons. Last season, Tech was 1-4 in one-possession games. In six of their nine losses, the Jackets had a possession in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie or take the lead. Collins asserted last season that the last phase of development for his program was to find ways to win those close games.
As the Jackets try to get to six wins and the first bowl berth of Collins’ regime, it likely will require them to win a game like Saturday’s that they’re not expected to have a chance in. And to do that will require the sort of performance that hasn’t been their custom.
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