Interim Brent Key figured out where to go in Tech victory

When he took the field at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday night for warmups, Georgia Tech interim coach Brent Key was a little unsure of himself. Mainly, what was he supposed to do? As offensive line coach, his job was clearly defined for that time – ready the offensive line for the game. For all of his preparations for this moment, Key hadn’t reached an answer for this situation.

“I’m, like, walking around with a whistle hanging around my neck going, ‘What the heck do I do with this thing?’” Key said.

ExploreBreakdown: Georgia Tech 26, No. 24 Pitt 21

Quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke had a word of wisdom, Key said: “Just walk around and act like the head coach.”

In his first game in place of the fired Geoff Collins, Key found his place once the game started, and so did the Yellow Jackets, upsetting then-No. 24 Pittsburgh by a 26-21 score. It ended the Jackets’ nine-game losing streak to FBS opponents.

“It’s a great feeling,” linebacker Ayinde Eley said. “It’s one of those feelings you can’t really describe.”

Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s win:

Making it happen

If one play could summarize Tech’s grit against the Panthers, it would be running back Hassan Hall’s 13-yard run at the start of the fourth quarter. On a third-and-11 from the Pitt 33-yard line, offensive coordinator Chip Long called for a handoff to Hall, likely to get into closer range for kicker Gavin Stewart to try to add to the Jackets’ 9-7 lead.

On the play, Hall broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage before running smack into defensive back Brandon Hill just inside the 30. Going down there would have given Stewart a roughly 47-yard try, which would have been by 7 yards his career long. But Hall kept his legs churning and then, one by one, left guard Paula Vaipulu, right guard Pierce Quick, tight end Dylan Leonard, left tackle Corey Robinson, wide receiver Nate McCollum and center Weston Franklin all joined the scrum to push Hall forward – a total of 1,612 pounds applying force behind Hall and getting him to the 20 for a 13-yard gain and a highly unconventional third-down conversion. It was a fitting example of Key’s urging to his players to make something happen and play to win vs. waiting for something to happen and playing not to lose.

ExploreGeorgia Tech stuns No. 24 Pitt in Brent Key’s interim debut

The new set of downs enabled the Jackets to get to the 13 for a much more makeable 30-yard try for Stewart, which he chipped in for a 12-7 lead.

The offensive line didn’t play its best game – pass protection was an adventure – but limited itself to one penalty and won the fourth quarter, generating 130 rushing yards on 15 carries in the final period. Key, who handed over line coaching duties to graduate assistant Nathan Brock, did not hide his pride in his group.

“That kind of tells you you’ve got the defense where you want them and you’re starting to wear on them,” Key said of the fourth-quarter surge. “That’s a credit to the preparation those guys have had during the week.”

Making his presence felt

Quarterback Jeff Sims did not have his best day throwing the ball, completing 11 of 26 passes for 102 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Favor graced the Jackets as at least four of Sims’ throws could have been intercepted by Pitt but were dropped.

“Just counting that as blessings,” said Sims, who has had more than his share of hard-luck interceptions in his career. “Obviously, I had a few passes that could have been bad. I’ve just got to forget about it and move on to the next play and just do everything I can to help the team win.”

But Sims, in a game in which he was knocked around in the pocket (four sacks), showed leadership by running the ball with more daring than in previous games. He was more willing to take on contact even scrambling on a third-and-23 in the first quarter than he had been on a last-ditch fourth-down run against Central Florida last Saturday when Tech needed a first down to stay alive. On Hall’s 63-yard run late in the fourth quarter, Sims hustled to run ahead of Hall and throw a block that helped Hall pick up perhaps an extra 25 yards. Sims acknowledged that he ran with more of an edge Saturday than he had in previous games. It’s a version that Tech would love to have behind center.

“Just went out there and put it all on the line for the team,” he said. “I prayed before the game, prayed protection over my body, and I just went out there and gave it all I had.”

Simpler defense

After his superior second-half performance against the Panthers, linebacker Charlie Thomas offered a telling observation of how the defensive game plan had changed for Saturday’s game.

“If we were confused with anything, we let the coaches know and they might not call that as much, or something like that,” Thomas said.

It would stand to reason as a coaching priority, but, certainly, sticking to play calls that players know and can execute is one way to help the defense play fast. It showed through most of the game. Through their first 12 possessions, the Panthers averaged 4.3 yards per play, had scored seven points and turned the ball over three times. (Tech had averaged 5.4 yards per play on defense before Saturday, and Pitt’s offense had averaged 6.1 yards per play in its first four games.) It was a masterful effort by the Jackets, complete with physical and sound play, led by Thomas in the second half after his return from a targeting suspension.

Said Key, “I told (the defense) before the game, I said, ‘You guys are the fastest group on the field. You are. Now go play like it.’ And I thought they did. They swarmed the football.”

The Jackets lapsed in Pitt’s final two possessions, however, giving up touchdown drives of 99 and 68 yards as the Panthers tried to rally in the final four minutes. The Panthers deserve credit, certainly. But it served a useful lesson about finishing well. The next time, Tech might be having to defend such a drive with the game on the line.

Win for kicking game

Credit new special teams coordinator Jason Semore with solving – at least for one week – what was Tech’s defining problem. The linebackers coach, appointed by Key to take on oversight of special teams, relied on one punt-protection scheme to keep punter David Shanahan safe for six punts.

Sacrificing speed for security, Semore stationed defensive end Josh Robinson, guard Joe Fusile and defensive tackle Jason Moore in front of Shanahan to turn back any would-be punt blockers. All 259 pounds or more, they are bigger and stouter than past conscripts for the punt-protection shield. In a week’s time, Key said that Semore coached up the unit to be able to execute the one scheme in a trustworthy manner, which on Saturday was enough. Despite the more heavy-footed lineup, Tech’s net punting average was 42.8 yards, an excellent rate.

It helped Tech win the field-position game, having an average starting position on its 37 compared with Pitt’s being on its 24, a significant advantage. Stewart, who became the first Tech kicker since Harrison Butker (in the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl) to make four field goals in a game, said the special-teams unit was helped by Key including more special-periods teaching periods in the practice schedule than Collins had.

A team in need of a lift wherever it can be found, Tech won the special-teams phase of the game, which was not often the case with Collins.

Going forward

What does this game mean for Tech, now 2-3, and its remaining seven games? First, some tempering considerations for the overheated Jackets fan. In Collins’ ill-fated tenure, at least two games (the season-opening win at Florida State in 2020 and the win over North Carolina at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2021) were seen at the time as potentially pivotal in the Jackets’ course, but neither proved to be such. Upsets happen regularly in college football, but they don’t always signal a change (though sometimes they do).

Second, breaks went Tech’s way, namely the interceptions that Tech narrowly averted.

Third, 26 points may not win the Jackets many games, and the Jackets can’t be counted on to limit opponents to 21 points. Coverage busts and shortcomings on the offensive line are two areas to continue to address.

“We’ve got to enjoy this on the way home (Saturday night), but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Key said.

On the other hand, before Saturday, Pitt was considered the second most difficult opponent on the remaining schedule after No. 1 Georgia. The final seven opponents are, in order, Duke, Virginia, at Florida State, at Virginia Tech, Miami, at North Carolina and at UGA.

Could Tech find four wins among those seven games and qualify for a bowl game? It still seems unlikely but much less so than it did before Saturday evening.