In defeat to No. 1 Georgia, Georgia Tech shows how far it’s come

Georgia Tech wide receiver Eric Singleton Jr. (13) runs for a long first down during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium, Saturday, November 25, 2023, in Atlanta. Georgia won 31-23 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech wide receiver Eric Singleton Jr. (13) runs for a long first down during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium, Saturday, November 25, 2023, in Atlanta. Georgia won 31-23 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

They’re getting closer.

You could see it in the playmaking speed of Georgia Tech wide receiver Eric Singleton Jr. and the punch that the Yellow Jackets offensive line repeatedly drove into Georgia’s defensive front. Quarterback Haynes King showed it with his dual-threat skill and his patience and cool on a successful fourth-down pass play.

It was less obvious on defense, but the Jackets did squeeze two turnovers out of a Georgia team that had surrendered 11 in its first 11 games.

The gap between Georgia Tech and No. 1 Georgia is still considerable. Advantages in resources and recruiting may forever make the margin ample. But on a chilly Saturday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the play of coach Brent Key’s Jackets in their 31-23 defeat to the Bulldogs gave evidence that the distance between the two programs – which in the last few years has seemed immeasurable – is shrinking.

The Jackets scored first. (Which, granted, does not make Tech notable. Georgia’s five previous opponents scored on their first possession.) Running back Jamal Haynes gave UGA coach Kirby Smart’s defense trouble, finishing with 81 yards on the ground.

Tech was wobbling and in danger of falling behind by three scores midway through the fourth quarter, but stayed alive with an interception in the end zone created by safety Jaylon King (and caught by defensive back K.J. Wallace) and then drove 80 yards for a touchdown to climb back to within one score.

The Jackets weren’t extinguished until less than two minutes remained in the game, when Georgia running back Kendall Milton pounded out a first down that finally put Tech in checkmate.

Yes, Georgia was without All-American tight end Brock Bowers, star wide receiver Ladd McConkey and two more offensive starters and still averaged a gaudy 7.4 yards per play, gaining 437 total. Yes, the Bulldogs never seemed in any danger of losing.

It’s not quite like Tech is breathing down Georgia’s neck. But the Jackets are at least in the Bulldogs’ rearview mirror, which is a change, and a good one for this rivalry that had grown stagnant.

Consider the recent history. Over the past five meetings, Tech lost by an average of 33.6 points per game. Between the end of coach Paul Johnson’s tenure and the entirety of coach Geoff Collins’ time in the head-coach seat, overlapped by the rise of the Bulldogs into a national powerhouse, there was really no comparing the two programs.

What played out Saturday was something very different.

Tech ran for 205 yards, easily outpacing Georgia’s season average (109.9 yards per game). The Bulldogs’ run defense is down this year compared to previous editions, but the Jackets’ run total Saturday exceeded what three top-25 teams (Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee) gained on the ground against the same Georgia defense the three previous weeks.

Particularly in the first half, offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner’s play-calling had Georgia on its heels. Haynes ran with speed and power, repeatedly running wide and taking advantage of blocking to turn the corner and get downfield.

Singleton rebounded from off performances in earlier weeks to catch four passes for 96 yards.

Georgia Tech head coach Brent Key watches from sideline during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium, Saturday, November 25, 2023, in Atlanta. Georgia won 31-23 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia’s depth and speed were ultimately too much for Tech. But the Jackets didn’t back down. Their fourth-quarter 80-yard touchdown drive, boosted by a 23-yard run by Haynes and advanced by a fourth-and-1 conversion by running back Dontae Smith with a two-yard gain, cut the lead to 31-23 with 3:46 to play. A successful onside kick would have put the Jackets in position to tie the game.

It was unsuccessful and Georgia ran out the clock, but just consider that it was even possible. Georgia has now won 29 consecutive games and the past two national championships. The Bulldogs have won 39 regular-season games in a row. Only one of their first 11 games was won by one possession (Auburn, 27-20).

This was unusual territory for Georgia. It’s not quite worthy of a trophy for Tech, but it’s progress.

Further, it was close enough that missed plays – such as King’s throw into the end zone to Singleton at the end of the first half that was caught just out of bounds – actually mattered.

After the game, Key said he was disappointed to lose to the rival Bulldogs and took no moral victories. But even the game plan – to get it into the fourth quarter and win it there – spoke to the team’s development. Tech hasn’t been in the game against Georgia in the fourth quarter since 2016.

“I’m proud of the guys’ effort, proud they played four quarters of football,” Key said.

There is more to improve, such as the run defense. The Jackets will have to be more consistent to become more than a team that scrapes to earn bowl eligiblity. And, Tech fans may want to remember that a week ago on the same field, the Jackest needed a clutch fourth-quarter touchdown drive to subdue Syracuse, which was playing a tight end at quarterback.

Regardless, the needle appears pointed in the right direction.

A notable football alumnus whose exploits include trampling Mississippi State in the 2014 Orange Bowl liked what he saw.

“Proud of the growth I have seen this season game by game,” former running back Synjyn Days said in a text message after the game. “Very impressed by Haynes King and the fight he has shown even when things were not in his favor. The team is young, which is very promising. As a Tech fan, the future is incredibly bright.”

For Tech to have Georgia as its archrival is both a blessing and a curse. The curse part is obvious. It’s become very difficult for anyone to beat the Bulldogs and that doesn’t seem like that’s going to change anytime soon.

But that’s also something Key can use. If he is as bent on toppling the Bulldogs as he says he is – and there’s no reason to think he isn’t – he couldn’t have picked a better yardstick if he tried. If he and Tech somehow succeed, it probably means they’ll be at the top of college football. But even if they just get to the point where they can challenge the Bulldogs like they did Saturday – and maybe pull the upset every so often – it means they’ll have become a highly proficient program. That’s not a bad thing, either.

Tech now has a bowl to prepare for and then will begin the climb for the 2024 season. We’ll wrap up with a final word from Days.

“Next season should be a thriller.”

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