Sept. 30, 2012
By Jon Cooper
Every game has a turning point, regardless of the final score.
Georgia Tech’s 49-28 loss to Middle Tennessee State on Saturday afternoon had one. It was basically a two-play swing which, had things gone differently, might have had Tech fans whewing over a close escape rather than booing a not-so-close loss.
The plays came late in the third quarter, and came — and went, for that matter — almost in the blink of an eye. Both were made by MTSU and may have made the difference.
Despite all of the bad things that had happened during the first 35 minutes, the Yellow Jackets still were in the game and started to show signs of life. Trailing 28-21, the defense rose up after a lost fumble deep in Tech territory and forced a three-and-out on the short field, MTSU’s first punt of the game.
Starting on their own four, Georgia Tech’s offense began to make plays, grounding out modest chunks of yardage and putting together a drive. There was a six-yard Zach Laskey run, an 11-yard dash by Orwin Smith for a first down, then a Deon Hill nine-yard run.
After a seven-yard sack, Tech regrouped, getting five yards from Laskey, then a Darren Waller eight-yard completion.
On fourth-and-four, Tevin Washington sprinted for six yards to get Tech a first down at the MTSU 47. The crowd, which was looking for a reason to get back in the game, suddenly had one.
But then the drive broke down, with two runs losing two yards sandwiching an incompletion. The game would change for good on the next play.
On fourth-and-12, typifying Tech’s frustration all day, Smith caught the ball 11 yards from the line of scrimmage then headed east-west, looking to get the necessary yardage to sustain the drive. He would be stopped at the 36, a yard short. In fairness, even if Smith had tried to go north-south, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference, as he was wrapped up almost immediately by corner Sammy Seamster.
The tackle was Seamster’s only one of the day.
Tech had marched 15 plays, gained 71 yards and held the ball for 7:15, only to leave the field still down seven. Their momentum had been derailed.
“We made plays but when it was time for the real crucial ones, that didn’t require much yardage, we just couldn’t get them,” said Smith. “That hurt us.”
A bigger hurt would come on the next play, as MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore took a two-step drop and rifled a pass over the middle that hit sophomore wide receiver Marcus Henry in stride on a slant route. Henry took off down the middle of the field toward the South end zone, with linebacker Malcolm Munroe and safety Isaiah Johnson in futile pursuit.
The reception was Henry’s lone catch on the day.
The score put Middle Tennessee up 35-21 and would be even more painful as Tech would pull within 35-28 on its next possession before the Blue Raiders pulled away, winning by 21. The Jackets wouldn’t get inside the red zone in any of their final three drives, turning the ball over once, losing the ball on downs once and running out of time on their final drive.
In the end, Tech had no answer for MTSU’s spread offense, but lack of preparation or a hangover from last week’s game against Miami wasn’t an issue.
“We were prepared,” said linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days. “Each guy had his job and his responsibility to do out on the field. We were just trying to make plays.”
The inability to finish plays was a sore spot after the game.
“A big part of Middle Tennessee’s success was our missed tackles,” said linebacker Quayshawn Nealy. “In the first half, I’d say we missed over 25 tackles. We emphasize tackling so much that it’s kind of second nature. But this game shows us missing tackles and the disadvantages it caused.”
“Honestly, we have so many tackling drills in practice and we emphasize it so much, it’s like we were prepared because we practice so much,” he added. “It was just guys missing tackles. I don’t know what to say about it.”
Head Coach Paul Johnson also was at a loss.
“I have no idea. I guess you have to practice it more,” said Johnson. “We just didn’t tackle. We haven’t tackled very well the last two weeks. We look like we’re running in mud. Really on both sides of the ball we look like we’re running in sand. We’re not practicing any more than we’ve ever practiced or doing any more, but we sure don’t look like we have much energy.
“I think true fans try to stick with it. I’m as disappointed as they are,” he added. “I can promise you, I’m embarrassed, too, and I’m going to do everything in my power to get it fixed and get it right. That’s all I can do.”