Georgia Tech’s Brent Key trying all he can to secure back-to-back wins

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

On Tuesday morning, Georgia Tech football players were eating breakfast in the athletics cafeteria with televisions tuned as usual to ACC Network. The programming was a replay of the Yellow Jackets’ stunning win over then-No. 17 North Carolina on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

And that’s when coach Brent Key entered the room. His intentions had little to do with grabbing a biscuit.

We turn to quarterback Haynes King for an eyewitness account.

“I was definitely in there,” King said. “We were eating breakfast. He comes in hot and wanting all the TV’s turned off. That was kind of the deal. ‘Why are we living in the past, still watching on TV?’”

And with that, the televisions flicked off, not just in the cafeteria but in the locker room, as well. Key clearly will stop at nothing to help his team win consecutive games, even going so far as denying the ACC its much-needed TV ratings points. Whether the Jackets win back-to-back games this season remains a mystery. But it won’t be because Key stops turning over rocks looking for a solution.

Besides the TV ban, Key had long snapper Henry Freer explain the concept of E+R=O, a formula found in self-help books, at a team meeting Sunday evening. It stands for event plus response equals outcome. In this case, Key cautioned to players that they would be inundated with talk about the defining event of Tech’s season – the Jackets’ pattern of losing a game and winning the next, and moreover winning games in which they’ve been the underdog (twice by double digits) and losing ones in which they were favored. The Jackets have been uncompromising in following the loss-win-loss-win sequence, leaving them at 4-4 ahead of their game at Virginia on Saturday.

Key’s admonition to players was that they not consider said event and not respond to it.

“I said that isn’t the event, and we are not going to respond to any event that’s in the past because you can’t change that event, can’t do anything about it,” Key said.

Two weeks ago, Key implemented another change after noticing on the flight to play Miami (which proved a successful trip) that players quickly fell asleep. Connecting the extra sleep with performance, he tweaked the team’s schedule for Fridays before home games to carve out more down time for players to address their shortcomings at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (The first execution of the napping plan did not gain the anticipated outcome, as the Jackets followed the win over Miami by losing to Boston College as six-point favorites at home, though they did upset North Carolina as a 12-point home underdog Saturday.)

Maybe the answer is out there for Key. And maybe the actual explanation is that it’s merely been a strange coincidence. The odd part (or at least one of the odd parts) is that the Jackets led by double digits in two of the four losses and led at the start of the fourth quarter of a third while they trailed in two of the wins by double digits. The issue might be more in-game inconsistency than week to week. Key said he told players before the North Carolina game to play each quarter individually. The team then proceeded to get outscored 21-0 in the first and third quarters and outscore the Tar Heels 46-21 in the second and fourth.

“It’s not something that we just go out there and just want to do,” wide receiver Malik Rutherford said of the win-loss pattern. “It crosses our mind, but we don’t think about it.”

Rutherford added that, in a team huddle at Wednesday’s practice, Key asked players what they thought the team’s identity was.

“A couple guys said ‘Inconsistent,’” Rutherford said. “And I think that’s something we can all agree on. But that’s something that we’re working towards, working towards being consistent. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

It’s not the sort of thing you want to have team unanimity on, but Rutherford can be appreciated for his honesty. He was asked what made achieving consistency so difficult.

“Just coming to work every day with the same mindset, really,” Rutherford said. “Just not taking any plays off, just watching film, things like that. Coaches stress that on us a lot.”

It must drive Key batty that he has not been able to produce the desired results, given that one of his central tenets is for his team to play without regard for the scoreboard or clock. Going back to his interim stint last year, the Jackets won his first two games, at Pitt (which was ranked) and at home against Duke. Since then, the Jackets have not won back-to-back games since, a total of 14 games. Apart from the consecutive wins against Pitt and Duke, Tech has not won back-to-back games since 2018, coach Paul Johnson’s final season. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise for it to be such a difficulty when players don’t have the experience of having done it. This is how one reaches the point where presenting a self-help concept (the aforementioned E+R=O) becomes a possible solution.

“I think it hit our Georgia Tech football players right where it needed to,” Key said.

A bowl game remains within reach. If the Jackets can beat North Carolina and Miami (a combined 12-4), there’s no reason why they can’t beat any of their next three opponents – at Virginia, at Clemson and Syracuse. (Tech ends the regular season with No. 2 Georgia.) Taking two of the next three gets Tech to six wins and the Jackets’ first bowl since 2018.

It’ll just require more than what the Jackets have done so far this season. More to the point, it’ll be a test of Key’s leadership.

“We can be really good,” said King, the Jackets’ decorated quarterback. “Now we have to move forward and learn how to be consistently good. Not just good, but consistently good.”

With watching TV apparently off-limits, might as well.

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