On the day annually reserved for the latest installment of Clean Old-Fashioned Hate, we were given one of the odder matchups of this oddest of all seasons. Georgia Tech, working its first and last game of November, faced Duke, playing for the second time since Halloween. Between them, the Yellow Jackets and Blue Devils were 4-11.
The Jackets had been scheduled to face Pittsburgh on Nov. 14. That game was postponed. They were then set to meet Miami on Nov. 21. Didn’t happen. A team that went 27 days without playing now faces a rearranged schedule that could – could, we stress; in 2020, nothing is certain – jam four games into 21 days. Not to belabor a point, but we need to ask if playing football this fall was such a great idea.
But enough of that. Saturday night at the Flats served as the Jackets’ restart – and maybe something of a rebirth. Final score: Tech 56, Duke 33. The team that, when last we saw it, managed but 238 yards in a dreary loss to Notre Dame celebrated its return by throwing up crazy numbers.
Forget an open date. Until Duke came to town, the Jackets had undergone an open month. If Geoff Collins had deigned to install the Wishbone offense and the Wide-Tackle-Six defense, he’d have had ample time. He opted otherwise. The result would indicate he was sagacious in his choices.
“That was fun,” Collins said afterward. “It was a really good positive sign for the organization.”
Seventy-six seconds into Saturday’s game, Tech had managed both its longest play from scrimmage in 2020 and its first lead since Oct. 9. Jahmyr Gibbs, the smallish freshman, whooshed 61 yards to a touchdown. He would score again, this time from 26 yards out. Then he turned a short pass into a 43-yard gain, at the end of which he crumpled to the turf with what appeared a tweaked hamstring. He watched the second half on crutches.
All the above happened before halftime. Pretty much everything that could possibly transpire happened before halftime. Tech’s Nate McCollum handed Duke a touchdown by seeking to field a punt at his 4-yard line, never a great idea, and flipping it over his head into the end zone, where the Devils’ Shakar Heyward recovered for a touchdown. The stadium lights flickered and dimmed after Gibbs’ second touchdown, prompting a five-minute recess.
With 2:23 remaining in the second quarter, Duke’s Mataeo Durant made an outrageous one-handed touchdown catch to tie the score. Then the going got weird. Returner Dontae Smith managed to step out of bounds at the 4 while fielding the kickoff. Two snaps later, Jordan Mason tried to bounce an inside run outside and wound up being halted for a safety. Duke led 23-21. Tech’s ensuing free kick came close to yielding a score at the other end. Duke returner Damond Philyaw-Johnson, apparently believing he was receiving a punt, left the ball untended until he seized it at the 1, where he was, ahem, swarmed by Yellow Jackets.
Two snaps later, Tech was back in front. Jordan Domineck sacked Chase Brice in the end zone and covered the resulting fumble. The Devils’ lead lasted 15 seconds. But that wasn’t all, folks. There was time enough in the half for a Duke punt, a tipped Jeff Sims interception and a Duke field goal.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
At halftime, Duke coach David Cutcliffe told the TV audience his team was about “to play its best half” of the year. Which only goes to show: Coaches can be as clueless as the rest of us. Duke’s first three possessions of the third quarter ended in turnovers. A game between two sub-.500 teams had become a wildly entertaining thing. (Emphasis on the “wild.”)
That said, the longer it lasted – and it lasted nigh on forever – the more it was clear that Tech had, for the first time in 50 days, found somebody it could handle. So long as the Jackets didn’t stop themselves, they were pretty much unstoppable. They rushed for 377 yards. Mason and Sims each topped 100. Gibbs had 91 in less than a half. Smith scored the game-breaking touchdown on a 36-yard burst; then he scored again. Just to show this wasn’t a complete Paul Johnson throwback game, Sims also passed for three touchdowns.
After some frightful losses and 27 days in limbo – “unprecedented circumstances,” Collins called his team’s enforced hiatus – the Jackets now have a chance to give us a finish. There are no Clemsons and Notre Dames remaining on the schedule. On the weekend usually reserved for finishing against Georgia, these Jackets might just have caught a second wind.