Georgia Tech ‘let go of the rope’ and fell backward at Syracuse

The upset victory at Florida State to open the season seemed to confirm my belief that Georgia Tech is on the rise in Year 2 for coach Geoff Collins. The loss to Central Florida last weekend could be thrown out as a bad day against a superior foe. I figured a performance somewhere between those two efforts would be enough for the Jackets to top winless Syracuse on Saturday.

Instead, the Orange ambushed Tech. The Jackets, favored by 7-1/2 points, lost 37-20. They were down 17-0 in the first quarter. They clawed back to get within a field goal in the second half before Syracuse put them away with touchdowns on long plays via pass and interception return.

What a letdown for Tech. Afterward, Collins ran down a list of goals he emphasized for his team: protect the football, finish drives, avoid unforced errors, start fast. The Jackets didn’t meet any of them, so they got what they deserved.

“I take full responsibility for those,” Collins said. “We will get better.”

It’s hard to imagine Tech doing much worse. This was an all-systems failure.

The Jackets were called for 15 penalties for 104 yards. Before garbage time they had 13 completed passes and four interceptions. The defense missed key tackles and got beat for two long TDs. The special teams had their fifth kick blocked this season.

A week after Collins said the Jackets gave in late to UCF, they weren’t ready to start at Syracuse. Then, after rallying to within a field goal, Tech faded away again.

“For the second week in a row — and at times we did this last year — we fight our butts off to get into a tight ballgame,” Collins said. “We get into a hole, fight our way back, and then we let go of the rope."

The Jackets will get a bye week to work on the issues that surfaced in this game. Then Tech plays host to Louisville, which likely will be favored. No. 1 Clemson comes to town the next week. It would be a shame for Tech to follow that stirring victory at FSU with a four-game losing streak.

There are mitigating factors for the Jackets. They are a young team. The depth is thin at some positions. Saturday’s game was delayed by more than 30 minutes. Collins waved off all those excuses, as he should after a performance this bad.

But I’ll say the late start was some bull. Syracuse said it delayed the game to confirm negative COVID-19 tests for three of its players. Obviously, athletes shouldn’t take the field if there’s some question about whether they are infected. But that should be resolved well before kickoff and, if not, begin the game without those players.

The ACC looks small-time for letting Syracuse delay the game. Collins didn’t answer when asked what officials told him about the situation. He said it’s his fault if the Jackets weren’t juiced after the postponement. They sure didn’t look like it.

It took more than an hour for the Jackets to get started. They were behind 17-0 as their first three drives ended punt, interception and interception. Syracuse’s offense had shown little while scoring a total of one touchdown in losses at North Carolina and Pittsburgh. The Orange needed just four drives to score two TDs against Tech.

The Jackets were down 23-13 at halftime, which wasn’t that bad considering how they’d played. They clawed back within a field goal in the third period, only to give up a 43-yard TD pass three plays later. That put Syracuse ahead 30-20 near the end of the third quarter. That pretty much finished Tech.

It’s hard to come back when nearly every deep pass attempt risks a sack or turnover. It looked a lot like early 2019, when Tech’s passing game could barely function. The only thing the Jackets did consistently was run the ball. It seemed to take coordinator Dave Patenaude a while to accept that reality.

The Orange immediately made it clear their pass blitzes could get to freshman quarterback Jeff Sims. Both his first-half interceptions were the result of getting hit as he threw. Sims had a defender in his face when he threw another pick on Tech’s first drive after halftime.

Running the ball was the Tech’s best anecdote for Syracuse’s aggressiveness. Down 17-0 in the second quarter, Tech hammered away with runs to move from its 37-yard line to Syracuse’s 26. But problems started whenever they tried passing again.

A second-down pass to an open receiver in the end zone was too short and hit the back of safety Trill Williams' helmet. A Syracuse defender jarred the ball loose from a receiver on third down. Collins, perhaps desperate for a rallying moment, opted to go for it on fourth-and-8.

It looked like it would backfire when Syracuse defenders chased Sims from the pocket. But just as they caught up to Sims, he zipped an impressive pass through a tight space to Gibbs for a 24-yard TD. The problem for Tech was Sims too often had to make superlative plays like that to complete passes.

Despite their awful start, the Jackets were down just 17-6 with about 10 minutes until halftime. That’s when their special teams and defense took turns making mistakes.

After Gibbs' TD catch, the Jackets faked the point-after kick but Syracuse easily corralled holder Presley Harvin to prevent two points. The Orange ran back the ensuing kickoff 61 yards to Tech’s 47-yard line. Two plays later, wide receiver Taj Harris got behind Tech’s defense for a 46-yard TD catch from Tommy DeVito.

The Orange led 23-6. The Jackets went back to the ground. A seven-play, 75-yard TD drive was all runs save for one pass attempt that resulted in defensive interference. The Jackets were down 23-13 at halftime and getting the ball first after it.

But their first drive after halftime ended with Sims' third interception. The next drive ended with a blocked field-goal attempt (the Jackets have one made field goal and had four blocked this year). The Jackets scored a TD on their next drive after Sims set it up with another good throw while on the run. Somehow, Tech was only down a field goal.

Then came another deflating, deep touchdown pass from DeVito. Syracuse led 30-20 lead late in the third quarter. In Syracuse’s first two games DeVito had a total of 144 yards passing on 46 attempts with no touchdowns. His two TDs against Tech totaled 90 yards.

The Jackets had no response. After making it to Syracuse’s 41-yard line, Tech committed its sixth false-start penalty of the game. Ja’Had Carter intercepted Sims' next pass. He ran to Tech’s 43-yard line and then flipped the ball to Williams, who ran it the rest of the way to the end zone.

This was a bad loss for the Jackets.

“We have a lot of high-character men in that locker room who want to get better,” Collins said. “They have the tools to get better, they have the coaching to get better and they will get better.”

The victory at FSU convinced me the Jackets already had improved, but it turns out they’ve still got a lot of work to do.