“We just went out there against a really good football team and competed, played really good football at times, outside of unfortunate self-inflicted mistakes,” he said. “So the guys were ready to go out there and play at a high level. We just fell short at some critical times.”
Athletic director Todd Stansbury and president Angel Cabrera will have to make a decision on whether Collins will be allowed to continue as coach.
After their lamentable play in a 42-0 home loss to Ole Miss the previous Saturday, the Yellow Jackets did give a spirited effort and delivered a superior defensive performance against a high-octane offense.
“We played with a chip on our shoulder and had to compete,” safety LaMiles Brooks said.
A UCF offense that was tied for sixth in FBS in total offense (532.3 yards per game) and converting 51% of its third downs was limited to 333 yards of offense and was 5-for-16 on third downs. It starkly contrasted with the Jackets’ showing the previous Saturday, when Ole Miss trampled Tech for 547 yards in a 42-0 defeat.
“It felt like we played pretty well at all three levels – D-line, linebacker as well as the secondary,” said Brooks, who snuffed out a first-quarter UCF drive with his first career interception. “Obviously, we’ve got some things to still improve on, but I felt like it was a great showing for the defense.”
Wide receiver Nate McCollum made an all-time hustle play that prevented what could have been a backbreaking touchdown in the third quarter. With UCF ahead 16-7, after Sims was sacked and fumbled on a first-down play from the Knights 7-yard line, McCollum sprinted from the opposite side of the field to chase down Knights defensive end Tre’mon Morris-Brash, caught him at the goal line and stripped him of the ball, which rolled out of the end zone for a touchback to return possession of the ball to Tech.
“I was just running,” McCollum said. “Hopefully, maybe he could have dropped the ball, could have tripped up. It’s just finishing the play.”
But the mistakes and repeated failure to seize opportunities that have defined Collins’ tenure cost the Jackets a chance at victory. Tech penetrated UCF’s red zone five times and produced no points. UCF’s game-opening 20-play, 71-yard drive was extended with the help of two Tech offside penalties and a defensive-holding flag, all on third or fourth down. Collins said that coaches had told players all week that the Knights’ No. 1 play on third and fourth down is to draw the opponent offside. The self-inflicted mistakes called to mind Tech’s five false-start penalties in the loss to Clemson.
“We were yelling it from the sidelines,” Collins said. “Guys were yelling it, and still had some unfortunate things where we jumped offsides at critical times. Those cannot happen.”
Most notably, Tech had a punt blocked for an improbable fourth time this season and missed two field-goal attempts, from 32 and 37 yards. The blocked punt, near the end of the first half, was returned for a touchdown. That’s a 13-point swing resulting directly from three plays that the vast majority of power-conference teams consistently make, but that the Jackets have been unable to execute this season with consistency. Had those plays been made, Tech could well have earned a badly needed win. Collins said it was a pre-snap mental error that led to the punt block, which was returned 29 yards for a touchdown and a 13-7 lead for UCF. It never trailed again.
“I don’t want to get too much into the schematics or talk about any of our guys, but they’re correctable things,” Collins said. “Unfortunately, they shouldn’t have happened, but they did. We’ve got to get better.”
It was an unthinkable mistake and an undeniable stain on Collins, as he coaches the punt unit. Last year, only two teams in FBS had four punts blocked in their entire seasons. The Jackets have managed it in four games. It was the second blocked punt since the loss to Clemson in the season opener, when the Tigers’ two blocks led Collins to say afterward that “those things cannot happen.”
As Tech voice Andy Demetra asked Saturday on the broadcast right after the block, “How on earth does it keep happening?”
Central Florida 27, Georgia Tech 10
A 20.5-point underdog, Tech averaged 7.2 yards per play to UCF’s 4.6, an advantage that makes defeat highly unlikely. Since the start of the 2013 season through Friday night’s games, there have been 71 games involving FBS opponents where one team averaged between 7.0 and 7.4 yards per play and the other averaged between 4.4 and 4.8, according to sports-reference.com. Before Saturday, the team with the higher average was 68-3.
The Jackets responded to the blocked punt with more fortitude than it displayed last week against Ole Miss. With only 35 seconds left in the half, Sims drove the Jackets from their 25-yard line to the UCF 20 for a 37-yard field-goal try. However, kicker Jude Kelley’s attempt struck the right upright and bounced off. It was his second miss of the game, the first from 32 yards. With a make from 42 yards later, Kelley is 2-for-6 for the season and 3-for-12 in his career.
Tech moved the ball well, gaining 138 yards on the ground (led by running back Hassan Hall’s 54 yards) and 314 through the air (Sims was 21-for-32 with a touchdown, a well-executed 59-yard catch-and-run play to wide receiver Malachi Carter, and no interceptions). But the five empty red-zone possessions, ended by the two missed field-goal attempts, two fumbles and a turnover on downs, were both pivotal and reflective of Tech’s red-zone play with Collins. In Tech’s first three seasons under his guidance, the Jackets have not finished better in FBS than 97th in red-zone conversion rate.
“I just think critical situations, we’re not getting points on the board,” Collins said. “We’re not doing it and obviously, that falls on me as the head coach. It’s very frustrating.”
Across the Tech fan base Saturday night, frustration was a most unifying emotion.