Saturday night’s game figured to be Tech’s chance to bank a win, pad the stats and boost its self-esteem before this schedule gets serious, which it will. Losing to Northern Illinois calls everything about Tech and Collins’ masterful building into question.
Midway through the second quarter, the Jackets were staring at a scoreboard that showed one team with 20 points, and that team wasn’t wearing gold helmets. Northern Illinois had just recovered what was ruled a Jordan Mason fumble and had apparently scored its third touchdown. At that point, Tech had no touchdowns and no points. The Jackets had failed on fourth down and missed two field-goal tries. Over the first 20 minutes, the Jackets were outgained 146 yards to 92.
The game changed when Mason’s fumble was ruled by replay – correctly – not to have been one. Behind backup quarterback Jordan Yates, Tech moved to a touchdown just before the half. Yates twice turned scrambles that became somersaults into first downs. Then Kyric McGowan popped open on a slant to score.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Down 14-7 at the half, Tech appeared – that word again – to have pulled within a point on another McGowan touchdown. This had come on fourth-and-goal from the 2. To the displeasure of the home folks, Collins’ first choice was to try a field goal. Having seen what happens when Tech tries to kick, Jackets backers booed. Collins called timeout and had a rethink. He decided to go for it, which worked until replay discerned that one of McGowan’s feet had been on the sideline as he caught the ball. Meaning no catch, no points.
This was in no way how a #404Takeover is supposed to work. Starting quarterback Jeff Sims completed only three of eight passes and fumbled while faking a handoff. On top of that, he got hurt. He was taken to the locker room for closer scrutiny. He returned with his left arm – he’s right-handed – in a sling. That left the game to Yates, the redshirt freshman from Milton High who’d thrown eight collegiate passes.
The Jackets tied matters with 7:44 to play. On the first play of the drive, Yates threw long to Malachi Carter. That got the Jackets going, but another pesky fourth down arose. On fourth-and-1 from the Northern Illinois15, Collins never hesitated. His team ran a play, a good one. Dontae Smith took Yates’ pitch and burst through the left flank. Touchdown. Tie score.
Two plays later, Tech had the ball back. Wesley Walker forced a fumble. Quez Jackson recovered. Yates kept on an option to score. Tech had its first lead of 2021. ‘Bout time, you might have been saying. Collins might have been saying it, too.
But wait a second. Northern Illinois bowed up, as they say in the trade, and out-gutted Tech at the end. (How else does a meek mid-major win on the road against any Power 5 team, especially one on the cusp of global domination?) The Huskies patched together a lovely drive, Tech playing not much in the way of defense. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi – is that not a football name? – found Clint Ratkovic alone in the corner of the end zone. Whoa, Nellie.
Coach Thomas Hammock left it in his players’ hands, opting to go for 2 and the win. Often this ends up with the daring coach walking away as a laudable loser. Not this time. Tyrice Richie made a sliding catch and somehow managed to keep the ball from hitting the ground. Somehow it was 22-21.
Thirty-eight seconds remained. Tech put itself in position to win with a 60-yard field goal, which meant the Jackets weren’t in position at all. The kick was blocked.
“I’m very confident in these guys,” Collins said of his players. At issue is whether Tech fans feel the same about him.