Georgia Tech ‘still growing’ but blowout loss to Miami is a bummer

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets wide receiver Malik Rutherford (12) misses a pass while under pressure from Miami Hurricanes defensive back Jaden Harris (19) during the second half of play Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets wide receiver Malik Rutherford (12) misses a pass while under pressure from Miami Hurricanes defensive back Jaden Harris (19) during the second half of play Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

We still don’t know how long the Brent Key era will last for Georgia Tech. Can it even be considered an “era” when he’s the interim coach? Whatever you want to call it, and however it ends, credit Key for picking up the pieces after Tech fired Geoff Collins.

The Yellow Jackets won three of five games after that jolt. They could think about salving a bowl game from what looked like a lost season. They needed to win two of their last three games. One of them is against No. 1 Georgia so, realistically, the Jackets had to beat Miami and North Carolina.

They couldn’t complete Step 1. Tech lost to Miami on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium to drop to 4-6. Unless the Jackets beat astronomical odds, they’ll miss a bowl for the fourth consecutive year. If that’s a disappointment for Tech supporters, it’s only because Key had helped provide them with hope.

The Jackets not only didn’t quit after Collins was fired. They won two games in a row after Collins couldn’t do that in three-plus seasons. Tech lost its next two games, but won at Virginia Tech last weekend by rallying from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

Now, after getting routed at home on Senior Day, the Jackets will have to regroup to finish the season.

“One thing about this team, we never fall apart,” Tech wide receiver Nate McCollum said. “We’ve been through some tough times. We’re still growing.”

After too many no-shows with Collins, the Jackets have shown more fight with Key as coach. Even the effort against Miami wasn’t as bad as the 35-14 final score made it seem. Tech was down by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Jackets came unraveled once they went to the third quarterback on the depth chart.

Starting quarterback Jeff Sims (foot) didn’t play. Zach Pyron started and had some good moments before leaving with an injury following Tech’s last drive of the third quarter. Zach Gibson replaced him and threw two interceptions. The Hurricanes returned the second one 99 yards for a touchdown that pushed their lead to 35-7 with 2:36 to play in the fourth quarter.

The Jackets failed to score on six consecutive possessions in the second half. Those drives ended punt, punt, interception, interception, turnover on downs and interception.

“Anytime you lose, it’s a disappointment,” Key said. “The true disappointment is if you don’t come back the next week ready to work. I challenged the guys in the locker room that the character of our team has got to develop.”

It looked like the Jackets might rally in the middle portion of the game. They found a rhythm with Pyron on their final drive of the first half.

Tech went 99 yards for a touchdown as Pyron converted two third downs on that drive with runs of 11 and 14 yards. The drive ended with Pyron’s 9-yard TD pass to McCollum. It was a fine throw with soft touch against tight coverage. The Jackets got the ball first to begin the second half, but they couldn’t keep the momentum.

With Tech trailing 14-7 on its third possession of the half, Pyron threw his second interception of the game on Miami’s side of the field. He looked to be favoring his left shoulder when he came off the field. Key said Sims was cleared to play and available on an emergency basis, but “was not able to go” when Pyron got hurt. Key wouldn’t elaborate on that muddled message. Sims certainly could have helped the Jackets if, as Key said, he was available to play.

The Hurricanes also played without their starting quarterback, Tyler Van Dyke (shoulder). Coach Mario Cristobal decided to start freshman Jacurri Brown, a four-star recruit from Valdosta. The Jackets should have been ready for Brown to run the ball often in his first start. He’d averaged 5.1 yards on 23 carries this season as the “wildcat” QB getting direct snaps and completed only 5 of 10 passes with an interception.

“We game-planned for both quarterbacks,” Key said. “We weren’t surprised when (Brown) was in.”

Brown ended up hurting Tech both running and throwing. He powered for tough yards between the tackles and slipped away from the pass rush while running for 96 yards on 18 tries (not including sack yardage). Brown also was 14-of-19 passing for 136 yards and three touchdowns.

Brown was a big reason why Tech’s defense struggled to get off the field. The Canes converted five of their first six third downs. They made it look easy. Usually, Brown or one of his backs simply ran straight ahead for the necessary yards. The Hurricanes totaled 226 yards rushing on 43 carries.

The Canes got the ball first and marched 75 yards on 11 plays. They converted two third downs via runs on that drive. Brown’s 22-yard TD pass to Will Mallory put Miami ahead for good. Tech’s first drive ended with an interception by Pyron. He tried to connect with McCollum along the left sideline, but Miami safety Kamren Kinchens made a nice play on the ball.

Tech’s next possession ended with a punt. Miami tallied another TD drive by twice turning third-and-short into big plays. Tech’s offense had faced two third downs at that point. The first one resulted in Pyron’s first interception. The Jackets needed 11 yards to convert their next third down. Coordinator Chip Long had Pyron try a sneak up the middle that went nowhere and accomplished nothing.

The Jackets trailed 14-7 at halftime. That wasn’t bad considering they’d been outgained 215-161, committed two turnovers past midfield and gotten only two stops on seven third downs. The teams traded punts twice after halftime before the Jackets finally got something going with Pyron sparking them again.

Tech started the drive at its 9-yard line. Pyron passed to McCollum for 42 yards on the first play. Two plays later he ran for 19 yards for a first down at Miami’s 35-yard line. The Jackets tried to trick Miami on the next play by having a receiver run a reverse and flip the ball back to Pyron.

It didn’t work. Tight end Dylan Leonard was open initially. He wasn’t by the time Pyron delivered the ball. Miami’s Tyrique Stevenson intercepted the pass. That would be the last time the Jackets threatened to score until they were down 35-7.

Tech won’t be going to a bowl game. But that was unthinkable when Key took over for Collins, who won three games in each of his three full seasons. Collins was 1-3 this season before he was dismissed. The Jackets are 3-3 with Key as interim coach. Credit to him for keeping the Jackets together.