Sept. 5, 2017
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word –
Georgia Tech football worked on an electric national stage on Monday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where quarterback TaQuon Marshall and B-back KirVonte Benson authored auspicious beginnings in a game that met a bitterly inauspicious ending.
In volume, there was more to feel good about than not even though a 42-41 double-overtime loss to Tennessee in a nationally-televised contest – the only college game anywhere – left a bitter taste.
For all the questions fans may have had about the Jackets opening with new starters at quarterback and B-back, in particular, Marshall and Benson gave resounding answers.
Making their first career starts, Marshall rushed for 249 yards and five touchdowns and passed for 120 and a score while setting a slew of school and even ACC records, and Benson rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown.
They weren’t alone in tormenting the Volunteers.
Tech rushed for 535 yards and gained 655 in total, stacked up 33 first downs and held the ball for 41:27 of regulation to Tennessee’s 18:33.
But for committing the game’s only two turnovers and missing the game’s only two field goal tries, the Jackets rather than the Vols quite likely would be 1-0.
“I was sorely disappointed with the outcome,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “Our young guys on offense I thought went out and played pretty well, the quarterback, the B-back . . . [Marshall] played his tail off. I thought he played tremendously . . . I thought KirVonte ran hard. I thought he played hard, too.”
That the Jackets could be so proficient with four first-time starters on offense, including A-back Nathan Cottrell of Knoxville, Tenn. (six carries, 79 yards) and right tackle Jake Stickler was the ultimate global positive takeaway.
Marshall had played before, rushing for 72 yards on 15 carries in the combination of two games last season as a third-string quarterback and nine games in 2015 as a reserve A-back.
Yet nobody could’ve predicted his debut stepping in for three-year starting quarterback Justin Thomas.
After a sluggish offensive start – the Jackets went three-and-out twice and then Marshall tossed a pitch behind streaking A-back Qua Searcy to set up a third-and-12 – the former Harris County High star cranked up his engine.
His 44-yard pass to wide receiver Ricky Jeune on the next play was pretty and six plays later, he scored just outside right guard Shamire Devine – who subbed in for Will Bryan – for the first of his school-record five rushing touchdowns.
“After the first couple of draws, I calmed down,” he said. “I got in a groove and KirVonte was helping me out. Our backs made plays and then we all got into a groove. It just went from there.”
With the exception of Marshall’s lost fumble on the next Tech possession, the Jackets grooved for a while.
The Vols drove to tie the game after the miscue only to see Tech answer with a 16-play, 75-yard scoring drive for a 14-7 halftime lead. Marshall converted three third downs on that possession with runs and Benson scored his first career touchdown on a one-yarder with 1:11 left in the second quarter.
The second half was more of the same – a lot of Marshall and a good bit of Benson.
By the time it was over, Marshall set Tech records with his five rushing scores and 44 carries (Robert Lavette carried 39 times against Tennessee in 192 and Jerry Mays rushed 39 times vs. Georgia in ’89), and set an ACC mark for quarterbacks with 249 rushing yards.
Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner, rushed for 226 in the 2015 Music City Bowl against Texas A&M to set the previous mark.
Marshall’s 249 rushing yards are third-most in Tech history (356 by Eddie Lee Ivery vs. Air Force in ’78 and 307 by P.J. Daniels vs. Tulsa in the Jan. 4, 2004 Humanitarian Bowl) by a player of any position.
“First of all, he’s very talented, very quick, very, very elusive, and a very, very good football player,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said in summary. “They did a great job with some triple option stuff and trap option, getting him out on the perimeter and he’s elusive, he’s fast, and he’s a good football player.”
For a good while, Tech’s defense was stellar as well.
The Vols managed just 94 yards on 28 first-half plays, averaging 3.36 yards per snap while running 15 fewer plays than the Jackets.
Tennessee found extra gears late in the third quarter, however, and scored touchdowns on five of its last six possessions, including the two overtimes.
Vols quarterback Quinten Dormady completed 12-of-17 passes for 169 of his 221 passing yards after halftime.
“Fatigue meant nothing. It was just mistakes,” said Tech linebacker Brant Mitchell. “We’ve got to learn to play harder in the second half. We came out in the first half and shut it down and we’ve got to keep the momentum going in the second half, learn how to finish.”
Third-year sophomore kicker Shawn Davis missed field goals of 47 yards in the third quarter and 36 as regulation time expired. The final one was blocked by UT.
If there was a regulation play equally pivotal to the missed potential game-winning kick, it probably was Tech’s second lost fumble.
Leading 28-21 and driving with about five minutes left, senior A-back J.J. Green broke across the field on an 36-yard run only to have the ball poked loose by Tennessee’s fourth-year junior defensive back, Rashaan Gaulden at the Vols’ 25.
The football bounced toward the goal line before UT senior linebacker Cortez McDowell of Locust Grove High School recovered at the 7.
“You know, the last fumble killed us,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got the game in control down there, and . . . I think we could have scored there, run the clock down, and I’m not sure they would have had enough time to score twice, but we didn’t [and] they did.”
Tennessee went 93 yards in seven plays to tie the game and the Vols scored on three plays in each overtime possession.
The Jackets matched the score in the second extra period when Marshall sped around right end for 13 yards.
After a timeout, Johnson opted to go for two points and a win.
“I just felt like we had a better chance of getting a two-point conversion than we did of stopping them,” he said. “The second half, once they got rolling, there wasn’t much stopping them.”
Tech optioned right, and while it appeared as though a pitch from Marshall to Benson would’ve afforded a chance to beat Tennessee defenders to the corner, Tech’s quarterback cut upfield, and was met hard on a play that Johnson said was not run as planned.
While going down, Marshall tossed to Benson late. The ball was ruled incomplete and, even if Benson caught it, he was stopped short.
With short rest before Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. game against Jacksonville State in Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Jackets will start by trying to cleanse a bad taste.
“It’s still going to be in the back of my mind that we should have won,” Marshall said. “But I’ve got to move on from this . . . It’s exciting to lead the team and I’m looking forward to doing great things this season . . . I’m going to bring the guys on board with me and we are going to get ready to play on Saturday.”