Oct. 13, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
– Not so fresh off a game that went nothing like the one before it, Georgia Tech’s football team will return to the practice field Monday with the goal of returning to form physically and mentally.
The Yellow Jackets were razor sharp in a 28-17 win over Miami on Oct. 4 that moved Tech into the national rankings, and nearly the opposite in a 31-25 loss to Duke last Saturday that dropped them out.
They made physical mistakes, most notably in two interceptions thrown and a fumble lost after suffering just four turnovers in five previous games, and enough mental gaffes to leave themselves fighting uphill just about all afternoon.
As head coach Paul Johnson said, this team is not so over-staffed with talent and experience to play that way and have a reasonable chance to win.
So, as the Jackets (5-1, 2-1 ACC) prepare to play at North Carolina (2-4, 0-2), coaches and players will focus not only on X’s and O’s, but their collective psychology as well.
When senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy was asked after the game if Tech had suffered a letdown entering the Duke game, he did not deny the possibility that the Jackets were not as dialed in as they had been just one week earlier.
After pausing, he said, “Those guys just wanted it more than us. Honestly, we knew what was at stake. They knew what was at stake. They went out there and played their butts off. I give credit where it’s due. We just have to learn from this. It’s not that hard to get up for a game like this. They just came to play harder.”
Tech’s mistakes came early, and then often.
With a 3-0 lead, the Jackets looked to have pushed Duke into a three-and-out on the Blue Devils’ first possession.
But the devil would show up in details.
As Duke went about punting on fourth-and-4, a Yellow Jacket was penalized for being offsides.
The Blue Devils gained a first down, and then drove 64 more yards in eight more plays to take a 7-3 lead they never lost.
Johnson only partially bought the idea that the Jackets were flat.
“We didn’t play . . . I don’t want to take anything away from Duke. Their guys played hard,” the head coach said. “So that’s not an excuse.”
The Blue Devils were able to snap a 10-game losing streak to Tech with some rare help from the Jackets.
All three Tech turnovers came in the second half. The first, when senior B-back Zack Laskey fumbled on third play after a halftime extended 77 minutes by lightning in the vicinity, was uncommon to say the least.
He last lost a fumble in 2012 when fielding a punt.
In 2013, he didn’t fumble on 87 combined rushes and receptions, and in the first five games this season he had 94 combined touches without fumbling.
Sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas threw one interception in 72 attempts over the first give games.
In a little more than a quarter of second-half action before he was replaced by Tim Byerly, Thomas completed two of eight passes and two were intercepted.
First, he under-threw A-back Tony Zenon on second-and-9 from the Duke 10 on a play that looked like a touchdown as Thomas was cocking his arm to throw.
“I thought I was open, but I guess the Duke safety made a good play on the ball,” Zenon said.
Actually, Duke freshman reserve linebacker Zavier Carmichael intercepted the pass with relative ease.
Unlike previous games, where Tech so often turned takeaways or nice defensive stops into points, the Jackets failed to cash in on their big defensive moment against Duke.
Freshman end KeShun Freeman and his teammates stopped Duke running back Josh Snead on fourth-and-1 from the Tech 25 early in the fourth quarter.
Four plays later, however, Thomas scrambled hard right and threw down the sideline only to be intercepted by Blue Devil safety Jeremy Cash.
That would be Thomas’ last play, as the third-year sophomore was struggling with a sprained ankle.
“He was hurt. He tried to gut it out in the second half. He got his ankle rolled,” the coach said. “He said he was trying to throw it out of bounds. We just had that discussion on our sidelines about throwing it out of bounds.”
It took just three plays for Duke to expand its lead to 31-12.
Byerly played very effectively from there, scoring a pair of touchdowns to pull the Jackets within 31-25, but the Blue Devils recovered both Tech onsides kicks in the final minutes of the game to hold on.
The Jackets do not control their fate in the ACC’s Coastal division, but they are still in pretty good shape.
Virginia (4-2, 2-0 ACC) is alone in first place, ahead of the Jackets (5-1, 2-1), Duke (5-1, 1-1), Virginia Tech (4-2, 1-1) and Pitt (3-3, 1-1).
The Cavaliers will visit Tech Nov. 1, the Jackets have already won at Virginia Tech, and they will play at Pitt Oct. 25.
Should the Jackets win out in their ACC games, which include North Carolina Saturday, a trip to N.C. State (4-3, 0-3) on Nov. 8 and Clemson (4-2, 3-1) Nov. 15, Duke needs to lose another ACC game.
The Blue Devils play Virginia, at Pitt, at Syracuse, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest.
There is plenty of football left. The Jackets have to get up again.
“Every week it’s a big game. My role is to encourage guys to keep their heads up. We’re still in good standing in the division,” Nealy said. “Work on the little things so we can make the big things happen.”
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