Georgia Tech’s Brent Key aims for mistake-free play, but ‘we’re not there yet’

Georgia Tech’s first-ever football journey to Oxford, Mississippi, will be rife with challenge for coach Brent Key and his team.

To start with, the Yellow Jackets rank 119th in FBS in rushing defense, having allowed 211.5 yards per game through their first two games (a loss to Louisville at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and a win Saturday over FCS South Carolina State at Bobby Dodd Stadium.). South Carolina State gained 196 yards on the ground against the Jackets, posting a higher total and per-carry average (4.7 yards) than it had in its first two games against two teams one would count on Tech to outperform, Jackson State and Charlotte.

Add in the fact that Key proclaimed Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins to be “one of the best running backs in the country, if not the best,” and there’s potential for some serious wincing among the Tech faithful making their initial visit to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday. The Rebels have had their problems running the ball thus far, but Key said of Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, “he’s going to run the football. He’s going to get No. 4 (Judkins) going.”

It’s probably not the sort of confident proclamation that Jackets fans want to hear from their head coach. It would be a little like hearing your wedding planner tell you, “Please rest assured – at least one or two tables won’t get dessert.”

Certainly, any plans to completely shut down Judkins would be ill-conceived. Key’s expectations for Kiffin to feed the SEC’s leading rusher in 2022 are harbored in obvious logic. Regardless, it could be a tough night for the Jackets. There’s a reason that No. 17 Ole Miss was favored by 18.5 points as of Wednesday.

But, here’s the thing. At this point in the Key regime, what’s important is to show progress. A road win over a Top 25 team would blow gale-force winds into the Jackets’ sails, and it wouldn’t even be Key’s first. As the interim coach last season, he led Tech to wins over Pitt (then No. 24 in his debut) and North Carolina (then No. 13). A repeat Saturday is unlikely, but not out of the question, particularly given the flimsy form that SEC teams have demonstrated thus far out of conference.

But it’s not a critical outcome for a program that quite reasonably could count making a bowl game as a successful season. If the Jackets can show the sort of disciplined, mistake-free style that Key has tried to hammer home as a program staple – and that it’s shown in the past – that would be a positive result. Losing while playing efficiently would be acceptable. Relinquishing control of the game by making unforced errors would be less so.

Asked Tuesday for a progress report on that facet of his team’s play, Key answered, “we’re not perfect, so we’re not there yet. We’ve made improvement.”

He went on to say that discipline isn’t reflected only in penalties (of which Tech has committed five, tied for third fewest per game in FBS) but in players executing their assignments, defensive players pursuing the ball at the proper angle and offensive linemen sticking their helmet on the correct side of a defensive player when making a block.

Key presumably was not tossing out those examples as hypotheticals. Even in the lopsided win over South Carolina State, there were correctable mistakes.

Wide receivers and tight ends missed blocks on the perimeter. There was a play early in the game in which quarterback Haynes King fired a quick pass to the sideline behind the line of scrimmage to receiver Chase Lane.

There were a few problems with the play. One, either a South Carolina State linebacker made a pretty brazen guess or he recognized it before it started (Tech ran a similar play against Louisville). DJ Bethea crept up to the line before the snap and then advanced at Lane even before King threw, even though Bethea wasn’t assigned to cover him. Second, tight end Luke Benson failed to effectively block Bethea. Third, the play-side defensive end was not blocked and batted down the pass, which probably was a good thing, as Bethea was in position to crumple Lane had he caught it.

A play call that the defense apparently anticipated, a defensive end who attacked the quarterback untouched and a block not made – not the height of clean football.

True, that was only one play out of nearly 130 scrimmage plays in Saturday’s game, most of which went in Tech’s favor (which, given the opponent, they should have). However, if the Jackets try the same thing Saturday and an equally aware and more athletic defender is waiting for it, it could well be an interception returned for a touchdown – exactly the sort of outcome that the Jackets can’t have happen as double-digit underdogs on the road in what likely will be a raucous environment.

There were other glitches. The defense repeatedly failed to effectively account for the pitch man when South Carolina State ran option plays to the perimeter, one of which hit for 47 yards in a style and speed reminiscent of former Tech coach Paul Johnson’s offense. The Bulldogs benefited from not having shown that chapter of the playbook previously this season, so Tech may not have been versed for such a scheme. So it’s to a degree understandable, but it doesn’t bode well if Ole Miss – a vastly better and more talented team than South Carolina State – also introduces a wrinkle that Tech isn’t ready for.

Tackling could have been better, as could have been the pass defense. South Carolina State’s two-minute offense at the end of the first half went 70 yards in eight plays to reach the end zone, 54 yards gained via pass. For context, the Bulldogs averaged 61.5 passing yards per game in their first two games.

Tech running back Trey Cooley fumbled just shy of the goal line, enabling South Carolina State to recover for a touchback.

On Saturday night, Tech will be walking on a high wire. Almost certainly, there won’t be room for the Jackets to make the same mistakes they did against South Carolina State.

And, again, for Tech and Key to keep moving forward, the Jackets don’t have to win. They just have to demonstrate they’re a better operation than they’ve been in previous seasons. Avoiding mistakes will be central to that effort, not to mention all of the rest of the games going forward.