With three minutes remaining in the third quarter, Georgia Tech had gained 348 yards, which isn’t bad. Quarterback Jeff Sims had completed 73.1 percent of his passes, which bettered the 65 percent of Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett. The Yellow Jackets had made 20 first downs to Pitt’s 19. They’d committed two turnovers, those having been interceptions on Tech’s first two possessions.
And now we play, “Guess the score.” Tech down seven but very much in the game? Tech up three and looking to distance itself from its visitor? All square at 21-apiece?
Nope. At that moment, Tech trailed 49-14.
Playing at home, Tech trailed Pitt by 35 points. One week after overwhelming No. 21 North Carolina at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Jackets were themselves overwhelmed – at least score-wise, which is kind of important – by an unranked opponent lugging a loss to Western Michigan.
It was 21-7 after a quarter, 42-14 at the half, 52-21 at the end. The defense that held Clemson to 14 points turned Pitt 2021 into LSU 2019 and Pickett into Joe Burrow. (If you squinted, the Panthers’ yellow pants and helmets bore a resemblance to those Tigers.)
Said Geoff Collins, Tech’s coach: “As good as last Saturday night felt, (it’s) the exact opposite today. I spent a lot of time in the locker room trying to make sure we understood why what happened, happened.”
And why, he was asked, did it? “Turnovers. Points off turnovers. Third downs. Fourth downs.”
Those are big deals in every game. Spotting a spiffy offense 14 quick points isn’t the ideal start. Going 0-for-5 in the first half on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth is, statistically speaking, as bad as you can get. But there was more going on, or not going on, than just some sloppiness in execution. Both Tech turnovers came in the first quarter, in which they were outscored 21-7. The Jackets made no turnovers in the second quarter, which Pitt likewise won 21-7.
We pause to note: Tech is nearly halfway into the third season of Collins’ #404Takeover. Paul Johnson last coached the Jackets on Dec. 26, 2018. Can we still lay fault at the feet of PJ’s stylized offense?
We stipulate that Collins makes an easy target. He can come across as Dan Quinn with a deeper voice. (Also Dan Quinn without a Super Bowl appearance.) To hear Collins, we’ll consider ourselves blessed to have witnessed the greatest rebuild in the history of architecture, and never mind that he inherited a program that had gone 7-6, not 0-12.
I get that Tech needed to be brought, scheme-wise, into the 21st century. I get that the Jackets’ recruiting, about which Johnson cared little, needed a massive upgrade just to be graded respectable. Disclaimers aside, how does Tech go from its biggest victory under Collins to yet another wipeout loss? How do you gain 432 yards, throwing for 359 – the first 300-yard passing game by a Tech quarterback since 2007, the year before Johnson arrived – and still get obliterated?
Tech’s flip card offered a hint. Most flip cards contain a depth chart. As with most things involving Collins, Tech’s is a bit different. He lists players “above the line,” which is supposed to carry some deep meaning, though I confess it has escaped me. Of the 59 Jackets listed ATL – yeah, like the A-T-L, which is where we live – for Saturday’s game, six are seniors.
If you’re still inclined to buy what Collins is selling, that’s why. Give the man credit. He has built a faster defense. He has made the forward pass a point of emphasis. His players seem to love him. He expresses his love for them after every game, Saturday’s included. If all goes right, these freshmen and sophomores will grow into something special. If it doesn’t, Tech will be seeking another new coach.
As loopy as some of Collins’ pronouncements can seem, he appears to have the respect of his peers. Last year’s loss to Pittsburgh ended with him nearly jerking Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s shoulder out of socket with a huffy handshake. This one ended with the Panthers at Tech’s 1-yard line. Were Narduzzi, say, Steve Spurrier, Pitt would have run for another touchdown and gone for two just to hang 60 on the board. Narduzzi had his men let the clock run out. He and Collins hugged at midfield. Aww.
After 2-1/2 seasons, Tech is 8-19 under Collins, 6-14 in ACC play. As heartening as the near-miss at Clemson was, it was still a loss. (And Clemson mightn’t be very good.) Five games into Year 3, his Jackets have lost to Northern Illinois, which dropped its next two games by an aggregate 113-53, and now by 31 to Pitt.
“We’ve got to be better,” Collins said. “I’ve got to be better.”
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