Georgia Tech can’t keep up with No. 4 Clemson in season-opening loss

The night began with the sense that disaster was about to fall upon Georgia Tech like an avalanche. An interception thrown by quarterback Jeff Sims on the first play from scrimmage. Penalties thwarting Yellow Jackets possessions. A blocked punt to set up Clemson’s first score of the game.

ExploreBreakdown: A closer look into the Jackets' loss to Clemson

The calamities befit a team that took the field as a 24-point underdog, led by a coach fighting to keep his job after a 9-25 record in his first three seasons. But, Tech temporarily steadied itself and, in losing, gave an account of itself that was at different points encouraging and dispiriting in its 41-10 loss to No. 4 Clemson on Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff game.

“Obviously, we’ve got to do a better job, and I’ve got to do a better job as the head football coach, and we’ll continue to learn from those things,” coach Geoff Collins said.

With Tech (0-1, 0-1 ACC) facing the distinct disadvantage of trying to move the ball against arguably the best defensive line in the country with an offensive line featuring three players making their first career start (two playing their first college snaps), the Jackets managed to move the ball at least intermittently in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s debut. (Tech finished with 238 yards of offense.)

And Tech’s defense, at least until it was undone by a heavy load of plays and the loss of linebacker Charlie Thomas because of a third-quarter targeting call, kept Clemson (1-0, 1-0) flustered.

Given the potential for a catastrophe before an ESPN audience – a national championship contender squaring off against a team that had lost key players across the roster – the whole of play offered at least glimpses of possibility that Collins’ fourth team has the potential to surpass the dim expectations that have been cast for them.

ExploreCunningham: Clemson isn’t great, but there’s still a big gap to Georgia Tech

“I think one of the key things I think, even though it’s a very disappointing loss and we’re very upset about it, and it hurt, there were things to build on,” Collins said. “We’ve just got to find that balance of making sure we fix the things that have to be fixed but also build on the things that were good in (Monday’s) game. But right now, nobody wants to hear that.”

The Jackets didn’t surrender the gashing pass plays that defined their defense last season. The secondary made plays on the ball. Defensive end Keion White was as good as advertised, with a sack and repeated pressure off the edge. Even with the Jackets yielding a significant edge to Clemson at the line of scrimmage, quarterback Jeff Sims executed Long’s game plan, making quick-hitting throws and avoiding mistakes.

“We knew Jeff would be pressured all night,” wide receiver E.J. Jenkins said. “Clemson is known for their front. But it was all part of the game plan. I feel we executed to a certain extent, but we just left stuff on the field that we should have executed.”

On the other hand, more could – and perhaps should – have been expected for the Jackets, who promised to improve in their attention to detail but sabotaged their own efforts with numerous false-start penalties and 10 flags total. Likewise, dropped balls on catchable passes thrown by Sims also hamstrung Tech’s slim upset hopes. Collins used all of his three second-half timeouts with less than two minutes gone in the fourth quarter.

“Obviously, as a leader of the program, I take great responsibility in getting the things cleaned up,” Collins said. “And the biggest piece, too, and I just told the guys, it’s a five-day week right now (as Tech plays Western Carolina on Saturday). We’ve got a five-day week to put this game to bed and start on the next opponent. We’ve got a lot of work to do to clean those things up and just go from there.”

ExploreScene, action from the Georgia Tech-Clemson matchup

A lack of depth on defense – paired with some ill-timed three-and-outs by the offense – left the Jackets susceptible to the Tigers taking control of the game in the second half.

And special-teams mistakes – especially two David Shanahan punts blocked deep inside Tech’s own end – gave the powerhouse Tigers more margin than they needed. (It didn’t help Tech’s punt operations that the long snapping was performed by backup Henry Freer, with three-year starter Cade Long out of the lineup with an apparent hand injury.) The first, early in the second quarter, set up the Tigers on the Tech 5-yard line and greased the path to their first score, a 1-yard run by running back Will Shipley. After Tech kicker Jude Kelley barely missed on a 50-yard field-goal try – the Tigers drove 67 yards for a second touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Tech answered with a 45-yard field goal by Kelley near the end of the first half.

Clemson 41, Georgia Tech 10

The Jackets rallied in the third quarter with their best play of the game. Clemson went three-and-out to start the half. Sims responded with a 57-yard drive capped by an on-target throw to transfer wide receiver E.J. Jenkins for a 13-yard scoring pass that cut the lead to 14-7. Tech made a gritty stop after the targeting penalty on Thomas gave the Tigers a first-and-10 on the Tech 11-yard line, holding Clemson to a field goal to nudge its lead to 17-10. Tech fans, emboldened by the defense’s effort, chanted “Overrated!” at Clemson.

ExploreClemson wins, but still looks beneath Alabama-Georgia tier

It was perhaps a moment too soon.

With a chance to tie the score and put a serious scare into the Tigers, Tech went three-and-out, and Clemson drove 74 yards against a depleted Tech defense for another touchdown and a 24-10 lead that went unchallenged the rest of the night.

Tech lost its eighth consecutive game to the Tigers, the longest losing streak in the history of the series that dates to 1898.