A little more than five minutes into the third quarter of Georgia Tech’s Sept. 26 loss at Syracuse, the Yellow Jackets appeared to have a problem. As Orange kicker Andre Szmyt readied to attempt a 53-yard field goal, Tech cornerback Jordan Huff hurried off the field to avoid a penalty for 12 men on the field.
But then, linebacker David Curry alertly counted his teammates and realized there were only 10 Jackets on the field and signaled to the sideline. Juanyeh Thomas sprinted out onto the field just in time to take his spot behind the left side of the line.
On an afternoon when the Jackets continually tripped themselves up with unforced errors, Tech on this play wasn’t made to pay for trying to solve a problem it didn’t actually have. Szmyt, the 2018 Lou Groza Award winner as the nation’s best kicker, missed his attempt to keep the score at 23-13 in Syracuse’s favor. Perhaps the Jackets might want to keep that one in the playbook.
However, there were other mistakes that weren’t as benign in the 37-20 loss that coach Geoff Collins vowed to fix after the game. As he met virtually with media Monday for the first time since the Syracuse game, Collins revisited the topic in advance of the Jackets' Friday home game against Louisville.
“There’s some things that were happening internally with some young guys that, we’ve got those things cleaned up,” Collins said. “Just continue to improve on that at a high level and not have those unforced errors.”
Against Syracuse, Tech was docked for 15 penalties for 104 yards and three more flags that were not enforced. Many were unforced errors, namely seven false starts. Players lined up in the neutral zone on defense on two offsides penalties, one of which was declined. After the field-goal play in which the Jackets mistakenly believed they had 12 on the field, Tech actually did have 12 on the field for a point-after try following a Syracuse touchdown, which the Orange declined when Szmyt was successful.
Perhaps the most critical penalty was an illegal shift late in the first half, when Tech was down 23-13. On a third-and-5 play from the Tech 37-yard line, wide receiver Adonicas Sanders made a slight step forward closer to the line while wide receiver Ahmarean Brown was in motion across the line. As negligible as Sanders' movement was, having two players in motion required both players to come to a complete stop before the snap. Brown did not, negating the first-down catch he made from quarterback Jeff Sims. Instead, Tech faced third-and-10, could not convert and punted away, losing a chance to potentially cut the lead to a field goal going into halftime.
“We’ve just got to learn to not hurt ourselves, not put ourselves in a bad situation, whether that be from penalties or whether that be from turnovers,” Collins said.
Tech’s 15 penalties were the second most in school history. At 10.7 penalties per game, the Jackets are tied for 68th out of 74 FBS teams. On top of that, Tech has turned the ball over 12 times, second most in FBS. The Jackets' minus-2 per-game turnover margin is tied for last in FBS.
Collins said part of Tech’s struggles with errors has resulted from the staid practice environment that he has kept to help maintain social distancing. Previously, Collins oversaw a hurried practice pace with music blasting. Starting last week, Collins cranked up the music, with the sounds of OutKast, T.I. and other artists filling the Brock Football Facility with the goal of helping players communicate and do their jobs in a chaotic environment.
“I think the highest the volume goes up to is 10. We’ve been cranking that thing up to 11,” Collins said in a reference to the cult movie “This Is Spinal Tap.”
Regarding the 12 turnovers, including eight interceptions on Sims' tab, Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude attributed it to a number of factors. One, the coronavirus pandemic curtailed or limited spring practice and prevented teams from conducting summer workouts, depriving quarterbacks like Sims the opportunity to rehearse against coverages and develop a connection with their receivers.
Two, Sims is a freshman and has a lot to learn. Three, Sims has been the victim of multiple unlucky bounces that have turned potential harmless incompletions into interceptions.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Patenaude said. “I’ve never seen so many balls go straight up in the air into a defensive lineman’s hands.”
Of the two factors that Patenaude can address, he wants Sims to be more patient, to looks more for his check-down targets in the face of blitzes and to take off and run.
“Jeff knows he’s got to protect the ball better and he can’t be cavalier with the ball,” Patenaude said. “He’s a great athlete and so I said, ‘Listen, man, if the guy’s covered, don’t jam it in there. Just take off and run. You’ve been making a ton of plays just taking off and being an athlete and running.’”
Collins takes encouragement from the progress that his team made in his second season and asserted again Monday that Tech will be “one of the elite programs in college football sooner than later.”
Tech, for instance, is 15th nationally in rushing yards per game at 221 yards per game. Last year, when all FBS teams were playing, 221 yards would still have been good for 21st in the country. As it was, the Jackets were 72nd at 152.4 yards per game.
To Collins, it is evidence of his team being on its way to better days if the mistakes can be squared away.
“And we get those things fixed, which we will, this has the makings of a really, really good football team,” he said.