For the Jackets, this game against a skim milk of an opponent was a series of little disasters. Its offense suffering eight sacks and a pair of turnovers. Its running game was non-existent – 55 rushing yards. There would be all of three points scored in the second half Thursday, none of them by the Jackets.
And marked by one larger disaster: Starting quarterback Jeff Sims leaving in the second quarter after aggravating a foot injury, never to return this night.
Add to the messy scene the first real opportunity in interim coach Brent Key’s three-game head coaching career to run him through the millstones of doubt and second-guessing.
For in a game that remained stubbornly winnable no matter how Tech tried fight off the urge, the Jackets were oddly desperate in their play-calling. They were behaving like underdogs who didn’t think they could win without doing something beyond their means.
One series said it all: With nearly 10 minutes still to play in a one-score game, Tech blocked a punt and took possession on the Virginia 36. The moment had turning point written all over it. Yet the Jackets squandered it instead. They put the game in the hands of their backup quarterback, Akron transfer Zach Gibson, rather than even considering running the ball. The result was two incompletions and a sack that deprived them of even a field-goal attempt.
It’s not so much that Tech couldn’t run the ball on Virginia. It never much tried, handing off the ball for but a single rushing attempt in the fourth quarter. There was left the bitter aftertaste of not having given itself the best chance to win. The Jackets had asked too much of its emergency quarterback and too little of those around him.
“There were times in the game we got a little one-dimensional,” Key said. “We put ourselves in poor position offensively. That falls on my shoulders.” After his first loss as interim, Key demonstrated a firm grasp on the blame part of the job.
How deflating, right to the end, as Gibson ran out of bounds with no time left rather than lofting a very longshot prayer downfield.
Thursday night always casts a flattering light on Tech. This Thursday, with the lights of a great city looming over Bobby Dodd Stadium, the view figured to be better than it had been in years.
Change had energized these Jackets. Those things that Key could fix by simple executive order, he could and did. He wiped away the trappings of nonsense that the man he replaced, Geoff Collins, installed in a mistaken quest to treat football like a marketing campaign rather than the blunt object that it is.
The sideline once again was a place of studied intensity rather than a chorus line of bench players breaking into a goofy conga on every third down. Talk of a 404 Takeover had been replaced by the novel idea of trying to get through the next play without a dead-ball penalty. Scattered and smothered and covered now seems more a defensive philosophy than the head coach’s Waffle House preference (and this defense was stubborn Thursday night). A measure of rank and accountability had returned along with the good, old-fashioned depth chart over Collins’ vague above-the-arbitrary-line arrangement.
A circus had left town.
Taking its place was a substance into which any serious program could sink its pillars. And what Collins had done well – upgrade the talent a notch – even flashed across this evening when one of his prized recruits, LaMiles Brooks, returned an interception for the Jackets only touchdown.
But some of the effects of Collins’ three-plus seasons will require more time to overcome. The Thursday setting had it all – a cool, clear evening, the beautiful urban palette, a nationally televised sense of importance. Everything except a house full of amped fans. The audience Key had called for earlier this week didn’t quite gather on command, great swaths of the upper deck unoccupied. The announced attendance was a bit shy of 30,000.
Victims of a fraud, these fans need more time to trust again.
Just as Vegas needs time to recalculate.