Thoughts after Georgia Tech’s 38-21 win over Tulane.
1. Georgia Tech had trouble getting going again. Quarterback Justin Thomas fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, leading to a quick 7-0 lead for Tulane. Tech responded with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown, but then Tech’s defense gave the lead back on the Green Waver’s next drive.
And then Tech fumbled on the first play of the third possession, this time on a Thomas pitch to A-back Tony Zenon.
“We have to get a better pitch relationship,” Zenon said. “I should have caught the ball.”
Said Thomas, “That one was on me. Tony’d probably say it was on him, but that was on me. I could have strung it out a little longer, gotten more on the perimeter instead of trying to quick pitch it.”
Two Thomas incompletions ended Tech’s next series. Linebacker Quayshawn Nealy delivered an equalizing touchdown with an interception returned for a touchdown. It seemed that perhaps the Jackets gained control, but Tulane scored again, this time on a 61-yard deep crossing route from quarterback Tanner Lee to wide receiver Xavier Rush. Tulane led 21-14.
To that point, the Green Wave had scored 21 points in five possessions. They were averaging 8.4 yards per play. They had executed a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in which they never even got to third down once. Lee was 7-for-11 for 124 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He had yet to be sacked.
But after that, the Tech defense turned the lights down. Tulane scored no more points over its final six possessions. The Green Wave averaged 3.9 yards per play, less than half of their rate until that point. Lee was 6-for-13 for 49 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He was sacked three times and was eventually replaced.
Offensively, Tech’s first four possessions went in a sequence of fumble-touchdown-fumble-punt. The Jackets then scored three touchdowns and a field goal (with one drive that ended in a missed field goal) over the next six possessions.
It was similar to the Wofford game, when Tech averaged 5.9 yards per play on its first four possession and 11.2 for the remainder of the game.
Coach Paul Johnson called it unacceptable.
“Like I told the team after the game, this is not the standard I want to play at,” he said.
2. It’s a little troubling that Tech hasn’t been able to start more effectively. A better team than Tulane could have exploited the Jackets’ inefficiency at the start of the game (by making a 27-yard field goal and not throwing a pick-six deep in its own territory, for starters) and put them in more of a hole.
However, Tech finished. It’s something players and coaches have been talking about since the summer, if not earlier.
“We’ve just been working on trying to finish this summer, because as a whole we realized that in all our games that we missed out on big opportunities because we just didn’t finish plays or finish the game,” Nealy said at the ACC Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C. in July.
“That’s really been the motto of this offseason, finish, because we’ve been in every game, but we just came up short by not being able to finish, and that’s a hard pill to swallow,” right guard Shaquille Mason said at the same event.
The Miami and Georgia losses last season stand out as games where Tech did anything but finish. Tech didn’t really start or finish against Virginia Tech.
Clearly, finishing well against an FCS team and a non-power five conference team picked to finish near the bottom of its conference is not quite the same as finishing against an ACC opponent or Georgia, and it’s also not as impressive as both starting well and finishing well. But it’s better than the alternative. Perhaps it’s a sign that the determination to finish well and the conditioning workouts designed to produce that ability have taken root.
Time will tell.
3. I counted 18 Tech players who got in the game Saturday who were playing in their first road game. There were others who’ve played on the road, but don’t have much experience. This is not a veteran team like last year’s. Maybe it’s not so surprising that the team has responded unevenly so far.
“I think there were a lot of distractions,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a young team. There was about 25 guys, this is their first road trip and you never know how they’re going to react. But the guys who have played need to react better. They need to be better examples.”
Among the distractions was the withering heat and humidity. Johnson estimated that the field temperature was 110 to 115 in the first half. He praised the team for fighting through the conditions.
4. I doubt many Tech fans have gone googly over the schedule. Wofford, Tulane and Georgia Southern aren’t terribly attractive matchups. But for this team in particular, given its inexperience, this schedule is probably an appropriate mix. As much as fans might have enjoyed a power-five matchup Saturday instead of Tulane, it’s hard to imagine Tech being ready to compete in such a game at this point of the season. It would be instructive in its own way, I imagine, and there would be value in being able to go to Lane Stadium in two Saturdays having already experienced something similar. But I think what this team needs now is just chances to play and make mistakes, ideally in a setting when it’s not as penalizing.
5. Again, the season is only two games old, and the opponents aren’t great measuring sticks, but the A-backs have looked like a pretty decent group. I had doubts, given that none had really been consistent to this point in their careers, but the primary foursome of B.J. Bostic, Deon Hill, Charles Perkins and Tony Zenon have contributed a number of plays through two games. Their ability to block on the perimeter, particularly Perkins, has been noticeable. Against Tulane, Bostic and Hill also cleared paths with their blocking.
The proof will be in their ability to block defenders more accustomed to this offense, but it’s a good start. The A-backs had 24 carries for 164 yards. The 24 combined carries is more than the position group had in any game last year. The high was the Miami game with 22.
6. Nealy rebounded well from his lackluster performance against Wofford. He had four tackles, including one for loss, and his interception return for a touchdown. Nealy said he was motivated to help his team win after the Wofford game, in which he missed tackles and didn’t pursue to his standards.
“I thought he played his butt off,” Johnson said in one of the few unqualified compliments he gave anything or anyone after the game Saturday.
The interception return for a touchdown was his second of his career, following his 74-yarder against Utah in the Sun Bowl. He has had a knack for interceptions and big plays. He now has seven career interceptions. If he can somehow get three more the rest of the season, he’ll get into the top 16 in Tech history, and he’d be the first linebacker in the group.
Nealy also plays the tuba.
7. I think Tech fans should be heartened at least by how Thomas reacted to his play in his post-game interview. First, he was well aware what was coming. My colleague Jeff Schultz broached the first question – about the fumble on the first play – with a comment along the lines of, “I’m sure you’d rather this not be the first question,” but Thomas was understanding of it and wasn’t bothered.
Second, Thomas made no attempt to sugarcoat his play.
“I’ve got to do better,” he said. “I’ve got to stay focused throughout the whole game and just put this game behind me, (and) keep moving forward.”
Of the fumble, he said, “Just a bad ball. That’s all I can say. Learn from it and keep moving.”
You don’t always see this from a winning quarterback, particularly one who did some things running the ball (10 attempts for 70 yards). It wasn’t a great day, he acknowledged it as such and he seemed bothered by it.
“I’ve got to come out and do better,” he said. “Today, it’s not acceptable, not to me. I’ve got to do better for us to be successful.”