Oct. 12, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Future opponents won’t learn a whole lot more about Georgia Tech from watching the Yellow Jackets’ 31-25 loss to Duke Saturday afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The Yellow Jackets likely won’t gain a whole lot of new information about themselves either. The biggest gain is a reinforcement of what they knew about themselves going in.
“We’re not good enough to lose the turnover battle 3-0 to anybody and win the game,” said Head Coach Paul Johnson. “Couple that with penalties, especially in the first half, that kept drives alive for them, where they took it in, and in the red zone, where they scored touchdowns and we had to kick field goals and there’s the game. So hopefully you can learn from it and move on. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t disappointed.”
Basically, the Yellow Jackets learned they can’t come out and do the things they did and didn’t do on Saturday.
The Jackets, who came into the game with an ACC-leading plus-five turnover margin and only one miscue over its previous five quarters, turned the ball over three times in four possessions in the second half. The Blue Devils, who came in right behind Tech at plus-4, capitalized on two of the three, turning a 14-12 halftime lead into a 31-12 rout and basically convincing Johnson to finally pull quarterback Justin Thomas, who had been playing through a bad ankle, which Johnson said he’d turned in the first half.
“When you’re playing a team like Duke, we you can’t spot them any turnovers and penalties,” said B-Back Zach Laskey, who ran for 72 yards and a touchdown and moved into 21st place all-time in Georgia Tech career rushing, but also fumbled for the first time this season on the opening drive of the second half. “Three turnovers in the second half is atrocious.”
In knocking Tech out of the ranks of the unbeaten, winning for the first time in the series since 2003 and the first time in Atlanta since 1994, Duke completely flipped the script on the Jackets in points off turnovers. The Jacket, who had outscored opponents 45-7 over the first five weeks were outscored 14-0.
Red zone defense also was a problem for Tech. Last week against Miami, even though the Jackets didn’t turn either of their interceptions into points the picks came in the red zone and kept the Hurricanes off the board. Saturday, Duke went 5-for-5 in the red zone, scoring touchdowns four times. This was a Blue Devils team that came in 12th in the ACC in red zone scoring converting 79.2 percent of the time (19-for-24).
Tech had no answer in keeping Duke away from the red zone, either. They allowed 250 yards on the ground 25 above the Blue Devils’ per-game average and allowed them to convert 6 of 13 third downs. Duke had been 11th in the conference, at 35.6 percent.
“[It was] just our gap responsibilities. Guys were peeking in the wrong gaps and they were finding open gaps,” said linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, the game’s leading tackler with 10 stops (8 solo, 2 for loss). “Duke isn’t going to beat itself and their guys were able to make plays. With us peeking in the wrong gaps, they got some big runs on us.”
Nealy had no explanation for what happened.
“They were doing the same things we practiced all week,” he said. “I guess with the turnovers and the field position, our guys kind of got out of their ways and they hit us with some good plays.”
Johnson wasn’t letting the defense take all the blame, however.
“We didn’t play well enough on offense to win the game, either,” he said disgustedly. “In the red zone and turning the ball over. I mean we fumbled the ball on a damn straight hand-off. Just a straight handoff. It wasn’t even an option.”
The Jackets scored on five of six red zone opportunities but that included a pair of first-half field goals and two touchdown drives coming late in the fourth quarter, when Tim Byerly led the team on a pair of scores once the Jackets got down by 19.
To his credit, Byerly completed 7 of 10 passes for 125 yards in a stellar effort off the bench, which pumped some life back into the crowd, and he fittingly capped off both drives with runs off 11- and one yard.
Prior to the fourth quarter, the Jackets repeatedly hurt themselves with penalties. Tech matched its season-high, getting flagged eight times, for 69 yards, but the damage wasn’t reflective just in yardage. There were penalties that kept Duke drives alive, penalties that took away strategic opportunities and one specifically, a first-quarter targeting call on Corey Griffin, which not only came when the Tech defense was in an advantageous position (second and 28), but also cost them Griffin’s services services for the remainder of the game.
It was an all-around flat day.
“Any team you play, when you have turnovers like we did and penalties like we did, nine times out of 10 you won’t win the game,” said A-Back Tony Zenon. “But give credit to Duke. They had a good defensive plan and they stopped us and they won the game.”
The targeting call wasn’t the only call that went against the Jackets — of course, that call would have been moot had it not been for the careless offside call three plays earlier on fourth down. Even when Tech appeared to make a break for itself, it was not to be.
Two plays after Laskey’s fumble, DT Adam Gotsis fell on what was ruled a fumble by running back Shawn Wilson. The call, however was overturned on review, allowing Duke to retain possession. They would hit paydirt eight plays later.
“We come back out there, it’s third and five. We need to get off the field and we couldn’t do that,” said Gotsis. “We couldn’t do it really at all today. Our third-down defense wasn’t too good.”
Unlike the past two weeks, when Tech committed eight penalties in a win at Virginia Tech and seven against Miami, the Jackets were unable to compensate by either by putting the ball in the end zone or by forcing a turnover.
So what comes out of Saturday?
The Jackets know what they can NOT do if they want to complete their goals of winning the Coastal — they’ll play at first-place Virginia in three weeks — and getting to a top-tier bowl.
“I told the team we’re not good enough to turn the ball over and have penalties and let people out there,” said Johnson. “We have to play clean game. We can’t roll our helmet out there and beat anybody. This game didn’t go a whole lot different than the other games we played. Except we had three turnovers and they had none and we weren’t scoring touchdowns whenever we got the ball every possession.”
In the end, there were no excuses — not the controversial targeting call, not the injury that slowed Thomas, not even the 77-minute lightning delay which came just as the second half was about to begin.
“Duke had to go through the same thing we did,” said Byerly. “We hung in there like it was an extended halftime. The coaches were coming up talking to us, making any adjustments that were needed. By no means is that an excuse.”
The players know excuses won’t get it done, nor will it get Saturday back. So they’re not looking back. It’s over. Period. They’ll get to prove they are as resilient as Johnson said in the week leading up to the Duke game and as they showed with their grit in pulling to within one possession in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve just got to move on, make some adjustments and move on to North Carolina next week,” added Gotsis. “It’s going to be a big game.”
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