By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Teams often talk about having a “next-man-up” mentality, with a goal of all members being mentally and physically ready to step in to action just in case they are needed.
On the first play of the second half on Saturday afternoon against USF, “just in case” showed up for Georgia Tech.
Following a 26-yard run on the first play of the third quarter, starting quarterback TaQuon Marshall, the personification of workhorse, was tackled from behind along the left sideline. After a handoff one play later, he would leave the game.
That left Georgia Tech down 21-17, facing a fired-up USF defense out to make a statement, doing so in inferno-like conditions, and without Marshall (as well as B-back KirVonte Benson, who was lost in the first half). That duo combined for 2,199 rushing yards last season (65 percent of Tech’s rushing total as a team), 3,126 yards of total offense (72.6 percent) and 140 points (45.3 percent of Tech’s scoring).
Finding themselves behind the eight ball, the Yellow Jackets offense played their own version of eight ball, calling on No. 8, redshirt freshman quarterback Tobias Oliver.
The Yellow Jackets called Oliver’s number on each of the next seven plays and 17 of the next 21 — all on the ground. The 6-2, 182-pounder pounded away, orchestrating three-consecutive touchdown drives, capping off each one by finding the end zone himself, to build a 10-point lead.
The Oliver overload resulted in the Jackets turning a 21-17 halftime deficit into a 38-28 early-fourth quarter lead.
“They told me to stay ready the whole game. I was alert,” said Oliver, who finished as the game’s second-leading rusher with 97 yards on 18 carries and became the 48th player in Georgia Tech history to rush for three touchdowns in a game, needing less than 15 minutes of action to do so. “When [Marshall was injured], I was ready to go.
“Coach had confidence in me. I can’t thank him enough for having confidence,” he added. “The guys up front, they blocked like crazy. Coach Johnson just had confidence.”
Oliver also was confident in his preparation.
“We knew what was coming — plays we ran, we hadn’t run yet,” he said. “We knew the defense. It worked perfectly for [USF’s] defense. We knew it would be successful.”
“It was option, the speed option,” Johnson said of the majority of the plays that Tech ran with Oliver under center.
On a day that saw electrifying sprints and big pass plays, Oliver proved to be quite effective, albeit in a much more subtle way.
Upon him entering the game, Tech went Oliver right, Oliver left, Oliver right, Oliver up the middle, and finally Oliver right and into the end zone behind Jordan Mason, a fellow redshirt freshman was filling in for Benson. Oliver’s five-yard burst completed a 69-yard, seven-play touchdown drive that gave Tech a 24-21 lead.
It was the first career touchdown for Oliver, who saw the field for the first time as a collegian last week against Alcorn State.
Tech’s next two drives featured more of the same. In fact, Oliver carried the ball 12 times in 16 snaps over the two series, accounting for 56 of the 149 yards that the Yellow Jackets covered and, more importantly, both touchdowns that have the Jackets a 38-28 lead just 45 seconds into the final period.
In just 15 minutes of action, Oliver had run for 97 yards and went 3-for-3 in leading touchdown drives. He gave way to Marshall on the next series, when Georgia Tech’s starter returned to throw a 21-yard strike to Clinton Lynch on a third-and-nine play and remained in the game.
“He really stepped up to the plate,” said Lynch about Oliver. “He made a whole bunch of plays. He ran the offense to perfection.”
Oliver credited his hot hand to his fresh legs.
“Fresh legs definitely had something to do with it. The guys had been out there all day,” he said, adding, “I can’t thank the offensive line enough. They did their job of blocking up front but I definitely knew my fresh legs had a lot to do with it.”
In addition to fresh legs, Oliver also carried a fresh memory of not completing a touchdown drive in the season opener, when he was stopped on a fourth-and-one from the one.
“Last week against Alcorn, I was in the same situation and I got stopped at like the half-yard line,” he recalled. “I just refused to be stopped this week. I can’t let that happen again. The guys up front got a good push and I got in.”
Marshall was itching to get back in but admitted he enjoyed watching his understudy thrive and had his back.
“It wasn’t hard (to watch),” said Marshall, the game’s leading rusher with 113 yards. “I could tell he was a little tired, a little winded, but he did a phenomenal job.
“I told him on the sidelines how good of a job he was doing, how he was being a great leader out there for the guys, getting guys in the right spot, just really running the ball really well, which I know he can do,” he added. “I’ve seen him play before. He did a phenomenal job coming in and taking over the offense and putting points up on the board. He put us up. I was proud of him.”
Oliver said he wasn’t really surprised to see the offense have success against the Bulls’ defense.
“I prepared all week to play. It’s nothing new,” he said. “I prepare to play every week. They didn’t throw anything at us that I didn’t see at practice. So it was really just like practice.”
Oliver is fine falling back into a backup role at practice on Monday, when the Jackets begin preparation for Saturday’s ACC opener at Pitt. It will be the continuation of what’s already been a wild ride this season for Oliver, who stepped into the back-up role after redshirt sophomore Lucas Johnson was lost for the year due to a foot injury sustained during fall camp. Oliver’s glad to have his first contact against a quality D-I opponent behind him.
“It was tough. Going throughout the spring and the fall, the quarterbacks, we really didn’t have a lot of contact. So this was really my first time with live bullets getting hit but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. It was alright.” he said.
“We missed a couple of key things,” he continued. “I could have done some things better. Just some things simple. Nothing that can’t be fixed.”