‘Big-time player’ Jeff Sims saves Georgia Tech at Duke

Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (10) rolls out against Duke defensive end Ben Frye (93) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (10) rolls out against Duke defensive end Ben Frye (93) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

DURHAM, N.C. — Georgia Tech was great while blowing out North Carolina, then got pummeled by Pitt. Jeff Sims was good when the Yellow Jackets threatened to bury Duke on Saturday, then careless passing as the Blue Devils came back. It can be maddening trying to figure out the Jackets and their young quarterback.

Tech had lost three consecutive games at Wallace Wade Stadium. It was looking like four in a row when Duke edged ahead by a field goal with five minutes left and punt went three-and-out. Then Sims saved the Jackets with a marvelous 36-yard touchdown pass to Adonicas Sanders in the final minute.

“Jeff is a big-time player, and the guys believe in him,” Tech coach Geoff Collins said after the 31-27 victory.

It’s been a wild ride for the Jackets this season. They opened with a home loss to Northern Illinois of the Mid-American Conference. They beat Kennesaw State and had a chance to force overtime in Clemson. Then came the mirror-image performances against North Carolina and Pitt.

Now the Jackets go into their bye week with an even record overall (3-3) and in the ACC (2-2). They’ve already matched their victory total from 2019 and 2020.

“Coming up here and getting a win on the road, getting the bad taste out of our mouths from last week, just really proud of the guys,” Collins said.

Tech had to work hard for it. The Blue Devils trailed 14-0 and 17-7 in the first half. They rallied to tie twice after halftime, then took their first lead on Charlie Ham’s field goal with 5:06 left. Tech went three-and-out on its next possession. Sims missed an open receiver on second down and took a sack on third down.

A bad punt set up Duke at its 42-yard line. Now the clock was a problem for the Jackets. They forced a three-and-out but had to use all their timeouts. Tech got the ball back at its 12-yard line with 1:42 to play.

Sims had thrown two interceptions that set up Duke with good field position. The Blue Devils didn’t score after either takeaway. But those turnovers loomed large now that Tech was behind with not much time left.

“I had to clear my head and tell myself to forget about what happened earlier and go out and ‘clutch up’ for the team,” Sims said.

The game-winning drive almost ended after one play. Sims was under pressure in the end zone when he flipped a pass to Jahmyr Gibbs, who ran for a 2-yard gain before fumbling. Several Duke defenders had a chance to recover the ball, but it squirted out of bounds. Tech kept possession.

Sims ran for a first down on the next play, then passed to Sanders for 37 yards. The next two Tech plays totaled four yards. When the Jackets lined up on third down, Sanders said he liked what he saw from Duke’s defense: “I just knew for a fact that ball was coming to me because that’s the look we saw in practice all week.”

Sanders beat Duke defender Jeremiah Lewis off the line. Lewis tried grabbing Sanders, but it was too late. Sanders ran by Lewis as Sims lofted a pass to the end zone. Lewis dragged Sanders down near the goal line. Sanders caught the ball, anyway.

For Sims, this performance was reminiscent of his first collegiate game. He directed two fourth-quarter scoring drives to win at Florida State to open last season. Same as that game, Sims overcame some mistakes to come through in the end.

“We started well, then I had some struggles during the middle of the game,” Sims said. “I just told myself it happens to the best of ‘em. You are not going to go out there and play like an All-American every time. There are going to be some times when it’s not your day.”

It was Sims’ day in the end. After his touchdown pass to Sanders, Duke made it to Tech’s 41-yard line. Safety Juanyeh Thomas intercepted Gunnar Holmberg’s pass to finally secure the victory for Tech.

It was a road game for Tech by location. It didn’t feel that way early. The damp weather create a dour atmosphere. There were maybe 5,000 fans in the stadium bowl. Early in the game, Tech’s band made the most noise.

Give the Jackets credit for coming out energized despite the sour setting. They scored touchdowns on their first two possessions while holding Duke to consecutive three-and-outs. Duke helped by leaving Gibbs uncovered out of the backfield on his 77-yard score for a 7-0 lead.

Sims delivered the key plays on Tech’s next touchdown drive. The Jackets ran on the first five plays. On the sixth, Sims rolled right and zipped a pass to Malachi Carter for a 39-yard gain to the 2-yard line. Even when things went wrong for Tech, they went right: Sims dropped the snap on second down, picked the ball up and ran in for the score to put Tech ahead 14-0.

Holmberg’s 37-yard touchdown pass to Jake Bobo got Duke back in it. Then Sims threw an interception that Duke returned to Tech’s 29-yard line. Tech’s defense limited the damage by stopping Holmberg’s quarterback sneak attempt on fourth-and-1 at the 20.

After the teams traded punts, Tech started on Duke’s side of the field thanks to Azende Rey’s 35-yard punt return. It stalled at the 5-yard line when Duke batted down Sims’ pass attempt. The Jackets kicked a field goal for a 17-7 lead. Here was another chance for Tech to take control.

Instead, Duke converted three third downs during a 12-play touchdown drive. This game was going to be much harder for the Jackets than it seemed at the start. Luckily for Tech it also was hard for the Blue Devils. Both teams kept faltering at key moments.

Tech’s next possession ended with a punt. Duke ran three plays and punted the ball back. The Jackets had something going on their next drive when Sims passed to Kalani Norris for a 29-yard gain to put them in scoring range. Three plays later Leonard Johnson intercepted Sims’ pass near midfield. Johnson just barely stepped out of bounds at Tech’s 34-yard line with a clear path to the end zone.

The Blue Devils again couldn’t score after a takeaway set them up in prime position. Tech stopped Mataeo Durant for a 2-yard gain on third-and-3. Duke’s offense lined up to run a play, but coach David Cutcliffe called timeout and sent out the field-goal unit. The 42-yard attempt was no good.

Tech led 17-14 at halftime and got the ball first after. Here was another opportunity to put Duke in a big hole, but Tech punted after five plays. Then Holmberg started finding holes in Tech’s defense. He passed to Kame Marwede for 11 yards to convert a third down and to Jalon Calhoun for a 29-yard gain to Tech’s 25-yard line.

The Jackets held Duke to a field goal, but the home team had forged a tie after trailing 14-0. After another three-and-out by Tech, the Jackets had Duke stopped on third down, but Tech’s Jordan Domineck unluckily grabbed Holmberg’s face mask while trying to sack him from behind. The Jackets got the stop on the next third down, and Duke missed a 31-yard field-goal try.

Tech went ahead 24-7 on Sims’ 18-yard pass to Kyric McGowan. This was another time the Tech could have finished off the Blue Devils with one a stretch of competent play, but they kept letting them off the hook. This would have been a deflating defeat for the Jackets. Instead, Sims delivered a rousing victory.