After a month layoff, Georgia Tech returned to the field Saturday night to resume this most peculiar of the season. In a 56-33 win over Duke at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Yellow Jackets made their contributions to the unlikely events that have defined the 2020 college football season before rolling to a satisfying, if costly, win.

Overcoming 11 penalties and three turnovers, the Jackets came out ahead of an unusual second-quarter sequence and proceeded to outscore the Blue Devils 28-7 in the second half to log their highest tally in coach Geoff Collins’ 20-game tenure. Tech also won its eighth consecutive Saturday night home game, a streak that dates to 2011.

“Complimentary football – if something bad happened on one side of the ball, the other side of the ball just tried to make up for it,” Collins said. “That’s a really good, positive sign for the organization.”

The win came at a price, however, as freshman running back Jahmyr Gibbs left the game in the second quarter with what appeared to be a leg injury at the end of a 42-yard reception and did not return. Gibbs, who continued his dazzling performance while in the game (91 rushing yards and two touchdowns along with 48 receiving yards), was on crutches on the sideline in the second half.

He was replaced by Jordan Mason, the 2019 starter and third-team All-ACC selection, who ran tough for 105 yards.

“Just ran physical, ran tough,” Collins said. “This might have been the first game that he was fully healthy.”

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Dressed in navy jerseys and white pants, the Jackets (3-5, 3-4 ACC) took the field for the first time since their Halloween loss to Notre Dame, having sat out the past three weeks with an open date and two postponements. Before the game, players could barely contain themselves to play again. At the team hotel, strength and conditioning coach Lewis Caralla crowd surfed across a wave of players.

“Everybody was excited, jumping up and down, ready to go, and that was before we even got to the stadium,” offensive tackle Zach Quinney said. “So you could really tell that the team was ready to go, fired up, excited to be back on the field.”

What ensued was a game that contained a number of unlikely plays and questionable decisions that perhaps were because of both teams’ layoffs – Duke (2-7, 1-7) had not played since Nov. 7 – but also perhaps spoke to why the teams were a combined 4-11 coming into the game.

In the first quarter, Tech’s Nate McCollum fielded a punt inside the Jackets’ 10-yard line that he could not catch cleanly and bobbled into the end zone for a Duke touchdown. On a second-quarter kickoff return, Tech returner Dontae Smith caught the kick and stepped out of bounds at the 4-yard line, leading to a safety.

On the ensuing free kick, Duke’s Damond Philyaw-Johnson tried to call for a fair catch of Austin Kent’s free kick at his 1-yard line, something he couldn’t do since the kick already had touched the ground. Once he began to run, Philyaw-Johnson appeared to be tackled in the end zone for what would have been back-to-back safeties, but officials ruled he was tackled at the Duke 1. (That proved beneficial for Tech, when defensive end Jordan Domineck strip-sacked Duke quarterback Chase Brice in the end zone and recovered for a touchdown and a 28-23 lead for the Jackets with 1:42 left in the first half.)

“We were able to just keep our composure, keep our head,” Domineck said. “No matter what call it was, no matter how good, how bad, we were able to just keep each other together, keep each other tight, and stay focused on the mission, the goal and the vision, and at the end of the day, we came out with a win.”

Collins explained how returners are put through a battery of unusual situations at practice every Thursday. He said Smith made the right decision, and had he had his foot down out of bounds when he caught the kickoff, it would have been a penalty on Duke with Tech starting on its 35-yard line, as the play was initially ruled. Upon review, it was determined that Smith caught the ball just before his right foot came down on the sideline. Smith more than redeemed himself with 60 rushing yards on five carries, two for touchdowns.

“Sometimes, young men get in the heat of battle, some of them are true freshmen, and are put in situations and some bad things might happen,” Collins said. “I am so proud of them.”

Tech benefited from five Duke turnovers, no surprise given that the Blue Devils entered the game with the most giveaways in FBS with 25. (Tech was third from the bottom with 19.) Tech also had a noted improvement in its placekicking, as kicker Gavin Stewart was 8-for-8 on point-after tries.

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Tech's running back Jordan Mason (27) reacts during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 28, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech's running back Jordan Mason (27) reacts during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 28, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Tech's running back Jordan Mason (27) reacts during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 28, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Whatever the manner, the Jackets were nevertheless able to end their three-game losing streak and improve upon their conference win total from Collins’ first season, when they were 2-6 in ACC play. Tech was lifted by a number of playmaking runs and throws from freshman quarterback Sims, who threw for 146 yards and three touchdowns (a career high) and ran for a team-high and career-high 108 as the Jackets ran for 377 yards, the most given up by Duke in the past two seasons.

“We love passing the ball – we got to do it – but there’s just something about running the ball that we love,” Quinney said. “It felt great to be able to do that against a really good team.”

Sims was not without his mistakes, perhaps most notably a second-quarter interception on a throw off his back foot that Duke converted into a field goal. However, Sims evaded multiple sacks and turned them into positive-yardage scrambles. His first, on a third-and-8 on the opening drive, picked up the first down to set the stage for Gibbs to burst 61 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Sims said he felt more comfortable after a month of practice. For the first time, he had offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude on the field with him. Patenaude has normally called plays from the coaches box.

“It really helped a lot, because he was able to see things that he usually wouldn’t see from the box,” Sims said. “Just getting that communication right on the sideline and him telling me what I missed and what he sees as soon as I come off the field, it was a great experience for me, just knowing I had my coach right there by me telling me what I could do better and what I did wrong.”

The defense held Duke to 68 rushing yards, well below the Blue Devils’ season average of 169.4 yards. Linebacker David Curry (11 tackles, one forced fumble), nickel back Kaleb Oliver (1.5 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery) and safety Tariq Carpenter (two tackles for loss, one interception, two pass breakups) were among the Jackets’ top defensive playmakers.

“It feels good to win,” said Carpenter, whose team last enjoyed victory Oct. 9, against Louisville. “I’m going to enjoy this with my mom and my girl and (Sunday), reset and go 1-0 again.”