Brent Key stood with his arms akimbo. Then, standing on the Georgia Tech sideline, the Yellow Jackets coach crossed them. Then akimbo again. He took off his hat and fidgeted with it.
This was not a man feeling at ease. In his debut as the full-time coach of his alma mater, Key had seen his team backslide from a 15-point halftime lead to a one-point deficit with a little more than eight minutes remaining. He was about to find out what his team, which since his hire after last season he has molded to be tough, disciplined and poised, could do with the game on the line in its season opener.
Key would not like what he would learn in those final minutes, or at least the next 5-1/2 of them. With a chance to rescue a game that they had lost control of, the Jackets were the inferior squad when it counted. In a game that was at turns sloppy and others thrilling, Tech lost 39-34 to Louisville in the Aflac Kickoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday night.
Asked at the postgame news conference if his team had lost a game it should have won, Key responded that “a loss is a loss.” Another appropriate answer would have been “Yes.”
When it needed to be tough, poised and disciplined, Key’s team was lacking in those aspects and others.
“Our identity was in spurts,” Key said. “We had flashes of an identity. We had flashes of the team we wanted to be. That is part of the process.”
It’s way, way too early to make any judgments on the merits of Key’s stewardship. But, evidently, he and his staff needed more than one spring practice, offseason and preseason camp to instill the qualities necessary to finish off games when the team builds a 15-point halftime lead.
“I feel like we made the mistake of thinking we had the game at half,” safety Jaylon King said.
Tech was down 29-28 with 8:08 remaining in the game and had the ball on its 25 when Key went through his antsy gesticulations on the sideline. The Cardinals had scored 26 points in a row after falling behind 28-13 at the half.
Still, there was hope as the Jackets wobbled into field-goal position. Abetting the Tech march – an under-pressure pass by quarterback Haynes King that linebacker T.J. Quinn could have easily intercepted but dropped and a defensive holding penalty drawn by freshman wide receiver Eric Singleton that wiped out a 12-yard sack on a second-and-10, one of seven Louisville infractions that bailed out the Jackets over the course of the game. (One positive for Tech – only two penalties on the night.)
A King keeper for 10 yards and a 14-yard completion to receiver Malik Rutherford (perhaps the Jackets’ biggest star, with five catches for 85 yards) delivered a first-and-10 on the Louisville 16 with about four minutes to play. At the least, the Jackets were in position for a go-ahead field goal. But on the next play, King was sacked and stripped of the ball, which was recovered by Louisville.
On the play, the pass protection broke down, but King also could have thrown the ball away and played for second down as the play prolonged. Instead, the Jackets gave the ball away in the red zone.
“We were in plus territory right there, field-goal range, all that,” King said. “Just can’t hold onto it. That was a mental error by me.”
Said Key, “Situational things, some were good, some weren’t.”
On the next play, Louisville running back Jawhar Jordan broke a tackle attempt by safety Clayton Powell-Lee and disappeared like a puff of smoke for a backbreaking 74-yard touchdown run. After the game, Jaylon King made the honorable admission that the fault wasn’t Powell-Lee’s alone, that he had assumed that Powell-Lee would get Jordan to the ground and let up, which gave Jordan the space to run free – another costly mental error.
Louisville now led 36-28 with 3:41 remaining. The Jackets still had a chance to tie and force overtime. But Tech went four-and-out, with the last gasp an incompletion from Haynes King to tight end Brett Seither. King put the ball on the money in a tight window for what would have been a first down, but Seither was unable to secure the pass, giving the ball back to Louisville – an execution error in a must-have moment.
It was one of several instances where Jackets players failed to come through. Missed tackles were a problem. Kicker Gavin Stewart, so trustworthy last season (12-for-13 on field-goal tries), missed from 54 and 33 yards, the latter which would have pushed Tech’s lead to 31-23 with 11:06 remaining in the game.
“You’ve got to be able to execute when your number’s called,” Key said.
Louisville 39, Georgia Tech 34
Following the four-and-out, a Louisville field goal built the lead to 39-28 lead with 2:37 left. The Jackets drove for a touchdown – King’s third scoring pass of the game, this one to Singleton – with 1:07 remaining to cut the lead to 39-34. A failed onside-kick try drained any lingering drama from the game.
The final damage in the second half: The Cardinals outscored the Jackets 26-6 (including the first 26 points) and outgained them 302-167.
In a season with not much margin for error in which every toss-up game figures to be critical, Tech’s hopes for its first bowl appearance since 2018 took a body blow.
A brilliant second quarter went to waste. In that 15-minute stretch, the Jackets outscored the Cardinals 28-7, their first 28-point quarter since 2014. (Additional perspective: Last season, Tech played 11 FBS opponents and scored 28 points just once.) With new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner one step ahead, Tech outgained Louisville 282-73 and generated three pass plays of 33 yards or more. Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker’s unit gave up one touchdown drive but also collected three three-and-out drives, the last ended by a diving interception by Powell-Lee.
After halftime, though, the Jackets could not press the advantage or close out the game.
“Credit to Louisville and their staff,” Key said. “They did a really good job of really making a couple of adjustments and sustaining us in that third quarter.”
The second quarter could have helped build the enthusiasm of Jackets fans eager to jump in line behind this most prominent member of the institute’s class of 2001. Alas, the final 30 minutes of Key’s sales pitch were a bit of a downer.
Ken Sugiura is a sports columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Formerly the Georgia Tech beat reporter, Sugiura started at the AJC in 1998 and has covered a variety of beats, mostly within sports.