“Our guys understand that if they’ve earned the right to play in this football program, there is a high expectation for them,” he said. “And we believe in them. Any mistakes that were made, we will work really, really hard to correct those.”
Tech fell behind 17-0 as two first-quarter interceptions by freshman quarterback Jeff Sims – both were the result of the ball popping out of his grasp as he was hit in the pocket – helped generate 10 points for the Orange (1-2, 1-2). Syracuse scored its first touchdown when safety Juanyeh Thomas was unable to bring running back Sean Tucker all the way to the ground and his teammates slowed up, believing him tackled, enabling him to stay alive for a 38-yard scoring run. Syracuse, which had gained 119 yards in its first two games (against Top 25 teams North Carolina and Pittsburgh), ran for 163 against the Jackets.
Despite the three-score deficit, the Jackets rallied and closed the gap to 23-20 with 1:29 left in the third quarter when running back Jamious Griffin finished a 67-yard drive with a 3-yard scoring run. But Syracuse answered in a way that exemplified the afternoon. A short kickoff was returned to the Syracuse 35-yard line. A run and a pass, both lengthened by missed tackles, moved the ball to the Tech 43-yard line.
On first-and-10 from the 43, quarterback Tommy DeVito hurried the Orange to the line and then took advantage of ample time in the pocket to allow receiver Nykeim Johnson to get behind nickel back Charlie Thomas for a 43-yard touchdown pass. After the PAT, in which the Jackets lined up with 12 men on the field, Syracuse moved the lead back to 30-20.
Collins said that Tech “let go of the rope,” wording he used last week to describe a critical letdown against UCF, and said that coaches brought it up to the team after the Jackets had closed to the three-point deficit.
“When you fight your way back, you cannot then relax,” Collins said. “You’ve got to pour it on. We had a lot of momentum, and then we just let that momentum go. Those are learning experiences. We’ve got to learn from it. That’s on me, and we will learn from them moving forward.”
DeVito, who had not completed a pass play longer than 22 yards in his first two games and had been sacked 14 times, had completions of 43 and 46 yards and was sacked once on 24 pass attempts.
Down 30-20, Tech then failed to advance past its 37 on its next two possessions. On the third, after a false start put Tech at third-and-13, Sims threw a pass to the sideline that may have been tipped and was intercepted by safety Ja’Had Carter at the Syracuse 34-yard line. Carter returned the ball to the Tech 40, where, being tackled by wide receiver Jalen Camp and guard Jack DeFoor, he lateraled to safety Trill Williams, who outraced the Tech offense to the end zone for a 37-20 lead with 8:10 left in the game.
With his offensive line struggling against Syracuse’s 3-3-5 defense, Sims was 13-for-28 with one touchdown and four interceptions. He was replaced in the fourth quarter first by Jordan Yates, then Tucker Gleason.
“There was some pressure, but regardless of any pressure, where the guys are coming from, we have to protect the football,” Collins said.
Sims had much company in his flawed effort. The Jackets' 15 penalties, for 104 yards, were the second most in school history and actually did not include two that were declined and another that was offsetting. Tech had another errant field-goal try, this one from Gavin Stewart, as his kick appeared to glance off the helmet of a Jackets lineman.
The mistakes negated an impressive run-game effort for Tech, which accounted for 275 yards, a high for Tech since Collins' hire. With starter Jordan Mason sidelined with a foot injury, freshman Jahmyr Gibbs recorded his first 100-yard rushing game (105 yards on 18 carries), Dontae Smith contributed 75 on eight carries and Griffin added 54 on 15 carries, including his first career touchdown. Smith was particularly impressive with multiple tackle-breaking runs. Defensive end Jordan Domineck recorded two tackles for loss. Cornerback Zamari Walton secured his first career interception. Punter Pressley Harvin averaged a whopping 49 yards on seven punts.
“We had a downfall (Saturday), but I promise you we’ll be back and we’ll have it together,” Walton said.
The start of the game was delayed by about a half-hour for a most 2020 circumstance – three Syracuse players underwent COVID-19 tests to confirm their negative tests. Both teams had been warming up and were pulled off the field before returning after the additional negative tests.