After another big loss, Georgia Tech’s Collins still trusting process

Georgia Tech football coach Geoff Collins addresses the 31-13 loss to Notre Dame.

Coach Geoff Collins insists that he will guide Georgia Tech football to greatness one day. Until then, Collins would like the focus to be more on the process rather than results. He has a lot more insight than anyone on that progression, but it’s going to take a lot more work before the Yellow Jackets can challenge a team like fourth-ranked Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish grinded Tech to dust for a 31-13 victory Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Notre Dame bullied the Jackets by persistently running the ball straight ahead, and its defense allowed next-to-nothing when it mattered. Tech tied the score with a fumble return for a touchdown in the first quarter, then Notre Dame reeled off 24 consecutive points.

This wasn’t like Tech’s losses to Boston College and Syracuse. The Jackets fell hopelessly behind in those games in large part to their miscues. This time they were simply over-matched.

“You walk out on the field and you see the size and the speed and the strength that they’ve built, that they’ve developed,” Collins said of the Irish. “That’s a really good football team.”

The Jackets are not. They are stuck on two victories. They were good wins: at Florida State to begin the season and here against Louisville three weeks ago. But all five losses have been lopsided. Throw out Clemson, which is on another level, and the other four victors won by an aggregate score of 165-63.

That has not prevented Collins from being relentlessly upbeat. He has a vision of Tech football that he’s selling. Some good recruits have bought it. That and Collins' past performance suggest the results eventually will match his ambitions.

Tech’s timeline seemed accelerated with the victories over Florida State and Louisville. Collins said as much after the Louisville game. But now he’s back to noting the difficulty of the transition from Paul Johnson’s unique style to a new Tech era.

“I thought it was very easy last year, in the first year, just to continue to progress, continue to build, get better on things because we had to go so far,” Collins said. “What happens is ... when you are picked to be the 15th team out of a 14-team league, and you get two really good (ACC) wins early, things start being viewed in a very different lens. My lens is very clear.”

ExplorePhotos from the Tech-Notre Dame game

This game was the latest to provide clarity on how far the Jackets still have to go to be a good team. Tech had no response against Notre Dame until it was too late.

The Jackets made the one great defensive play. The Irish led 7-0 and were on their way to another touchdown when Tech safety Juanyeh Thomas ripped the ball away from running back Kyren Williams. Zamari Walton scooped it up and ran 93 yards for the longest fumble-return TD in Tech’s history.

Tech also stopped the Irish in the red zone to force a field goal before halftime. That made the margin 17-7, which was hard to believe if you were watching this game. Midway through the second quarter Notre Dame had outgained Tech by more than 200 yards. The Irish had the ball nearly three times as long, converted all six of their third downs and were suffocating Tech with clock-consuming drives.

Defense is the area in which I expected Tech to be further along. Collins coordinated good units at Mississippi State and Florida. He did it as head coach at Temple, with Andrew Thacker as his coordinator for one season. Collins may yet build a good defense for Tech, but it’s regressed this season when all signs, including his track record, pointed to a leap forward.

The offensive struggles are less of a surprise. Moving from Johnson’s triple-option to a modern spread shocked Tech’s system last season. The Jackets had been better on offense in 2020. Penalties have been a problem, and freshman quarterback Jeff Sims has had growing pains, but Tech still scored a touchdown more per game through six games

The Jackets didn’t score on their first eight possessions against Notre Dame. They were in the game because of Walton’s touchdown. They forced Notre Dame’s first punt seven minutes before halftime. Tech’s offense moved past midfield for the first time in four possessions. The Jackets finally had something going.

Jalen Camp caught a 10-yard pass from Sims on third-and-12. The Jackets trailed by only seven points. But it was clear they wouldn’t get many possessions because Notre Dame’s ball-hogging. Nor were the Irish yielding many yards.

Collins decided to go for it. It was the right decision with a bad outcome: Tech’s Jahmyr Gibbs lost six yards on a run. Notre Dame quickly moved downfield and gained a first down 14 yards from Tech’s end zone. But the Jackets forced three consecutive incomplete passes by Ian Book, and Notre Dame kicked a field goal.

Georgia Tech's running back Jordan Mason (27) pushes Notre Dame's cornerback Nick McCloud (4). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech's running back Jordan Mason (27) pushes Notre Dame's cornerback Nick McCloud (4). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Tech got the ball to open the second half. On the third play Sims delivered a sizzling 39-yard completion to Camp, who was closely covered, to Notre Dame’s 22-yard line. The Jackets had something going again. It ended with Tech’s persistent twin troubles: penalties and turnovers.

A false start pushed Tech back five yards. Then Notre Dame’s Dailen Hayes hit Sims, who didn’t see him coming. The ball came out, and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa recovered it. Notre Dame scored a touchdown six plays later, with Book running for 14 yards on third-and-short and passing 31 yards to Javon McKinley to set up the touchdown.

There were still 25 minutes left, but a 24-7 margin felt like a lot more for Tech on this day. The Jackets ran five plays and punted on their next possession. Notre Dame’s first three-and-out followed. Tech got the ball back and moved the ball again. A targeting penalty resulted in a first down at Notre Dame’s 25-yard line.

The drive fizzled with two sacks. Tech tried a field goal, which it would rather not do. The 44-yard attempt missed. That made the Jackets 1-for-6 on field-goal attempts this season. At least this one didn’t get blocked.

Collins said he liked the way his young team kept competing once the game was essentially over.

“The cultural piece is real here,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to build it and fight for it every single day.”

That process might lead to better results for Tech one day.

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