Where Georgia Tech’s comeback win last weekend offered evidence of how far the Yellow Jackets have come since the end of coach Geoff Collins' first season, Saturday’s home opener against Central Florida painted a picture that said, against the elite of college football, the Jackets still have more climbing to do.
It perhaps was especially the case on this particular afternoon, when the Jackets were short five would-be starters. Above its new artificial turf and below a gray afternoon sky, Tech lost 49-21 to the No. 14 Knights at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Tech (1-1) gave the 11,000 fans – 20 percent of capacity amid social distancing – plenty to take hope from, starting with the debut of freshman running back Jahmyr Gibbs. After missing the opener, Gibbs was a playmaking marvel from the opening kickoff, which he returned 75 yards.
The highly-touted signee from Dalton High finished the game with two touchdowns and 219 all-purpose yards – 66 rushing, 60 receiving and 93 in returns. This came on a day when key running back Jordan Mason was absent.
As in the first half against Florida State, Tech missed scoring opportunities, and the Jackets finished the game with five turnovers, including two interceptions and a fumble by quarterback Jeff Sims. A total of 21 points was not much to show for 471 yards of offense, the most recorded in Collins' 14-game tenure (surpassing last week’s 438 against Florida State).
“Offensively, we put up a lot of numbers, put up a lot of yards but we have to capitalize in the red zone and we can’t turn the ball over when we’ve got it,” Collins said.
While the Jackets opened scoring on their first drive after Gibbs' long return – a Sims 1-yard run – the Jackets advanced the ball on their next two drives inside the UCF 15-yard line, but came away with no points. Sims lost the ball on a fumble on the second drive, and freshman kicker Jude Kelley – who had three kicks blocked last week before making the game-winner – was blocked again. (Collins called upon freshman Gavin Stewart – the brother of former Tech wide receiver Brad Stewart – to take the rest of the kicks.)
“They’ll learn from their mistakes, they will get better,” Collins said, “but the future and present is bright if guys just continue to build on the things they’ve been taught, the things the older guys are teaching them and just not let things go sideways on us in a hurry.”
Coming up empty in those situations in any game is dangerous; doing so against a team against that averaged 43 points last year invited defeat. The Knights took advantage, scoring the next 28 points to take a 28-7 lead with 2:17 left in the first half on a 25-yard pass from quarterback Dillon Gabriel to Tre Dixon. At times, the Jackets appeared overmatched by the extremely fast pace that the Knights employed in racing to the next snap, a tempo that Tech players have not seen in the ACC. Collins spoke of the team “letting go of the rope” as the offense turned the ball over and the defense was unable to produce a stop.
The Jackets did create two takeaways, a fumble caused by linebacker Demetrius Knight and recovered by defensive back Avery Showell and an interception by safety Juanyeh Thomas, and also stopped the Knights on downs twice. But Tech also allowed UCF to convert 10 of 16 third downs.
“We’ve got to cause turnovers on defense and we can’t cough the ball up on offense,” linebacker David Curry said. “All respect to them, but, we could have very easily won that game, despite what the score says.”
However, after going into halftime down 28-14, the Jackets defense held the Knights (1-0) scoreless on the first five possessions of the second half, giving the offense the time and opportunity to close the margin to 28-21.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Charlie Thomas, in the game after an injury to nickel back Kaleb Oliver, was particularly effective with three tackles for loss. The defense’s play was all the more notable given that the unit was short cornerback Tre Swilling, defensive ends Antonneous Clayton and Curtis Ryans, three would-be starters. The lack of depth on the defensive line compelled coordinator Andrew Thacker to use an alignment with three defensive linemen instead of the normal four, not a small change.
Tech scored its third touchdown on a breathtaking 33-yard touchdown run by Gibbs in which, freed by blocks from guard Jack DeFoor and tight end Jack Coco (playing because tight ends Dylan Deveney and Dylan Leonard were out), outran defensive pursuit for his second touchdown of the game. (Being without the team’s first two tight ends forced a change in the offense, too, as the Jackets almost exclusively used two backs and three wide receivers or one back and four wide receivers.)
“It was fun, getting to go back out there on the field, playing against a team with a different colored jersey," Gibbs said. “It was football.”
Down 28-21 with 13:12 left in the fourth quarter, the possibility of another double-digit rally emerged. However, UCF answered with a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, punctuated by a dispiriting 40-yard pass play from Dillon to wide receiver Marlon Williams, and then reached the end zone twice more.
The Knights finished with 660 yards of offense in 92 plays, 417 by pass and 243 by run. Tech has given up more yards in a game only once, 667 to Notre Dame in 1977.