1. The turnover well finally ran dry. After Georgia Tech had forced 17 turnovers in the past five games – -one per 18 plays that opponents had run on offense – the Yellow Jackets were not able to squeeze even a single giveaway out of Florida State in 63 plays.
For Florida State, it was just the second game of the season without a turnover and also just the second in which it didn’t fumble the ball once. It goes against the grain of the pre-game talk that the Seminoles had been giving the ball away so much and Tech had been forcing turnovers so frequently that it was practically a given that quarterback James Winston was going to give at least a couple balls to Tech.
I’m sure FSU was more cognizant of it both running and passing, Winston was far sharper than he had been in recent weeks, Tech couldn’t provide as much pressure to force an interception, the Jackets’ coverage particularly in the first half wasn’t as tight as it has been and, sometimes, teams just don’t create turnovers. Some of it is a factor of chance. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof had been asked repeatedly, particularly after the six-turnover game against Pittsburgh, if he had changed anything in the way he trained the defense, and the answer was always no.
Perhaps Tech’s best opportunity was in the fourth quarter, when linebacker Quayshawn Nealy got his hand on a Winston pass, but it still had enough pace on it to still reach its target in the end zone, Travis Rudolph. The ball was tipped again in the air in the end zone, but fell harmlessly to the ground for an incomplete pass.
The last five games, that has been an interception. Had it, it would have prevented the ensuing field goal, and perhaps been the difference in the game. Saturday night, it was an incomplete pass.
2. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof chose largely to rush four defensive linemen in the first half, presumably concerned about isolating his defensive backs. It wasn’t an unfounded concern. On the handful of plays Tech did bring extra pressure, the FSU offensive line picked it up, giving Winston the time to take shots against a defense playing man coverage.
Winston was on his game, particularly in the first half, and there was little Tech could do about that. He was 12-for-17 for 222 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. That was the Winston who won the Heisman Trophy last year. He hit a few crossing routes that were evidently misplays by the secondary.
“We actually had a hole player that was supposed to be jumping that, but he was too deep,” Johnson said. “He was dropping too deep and he wasn’t really a factor. But we never really got too much pressure on him the whole game.”
The blitz pressure increased in the second half and appeared to work, although Winston wasn’t sacked, was rarely pressured and often bought time by escaping when it came. It definitely worked to the extent that Florida State was held to three field goals after scoring touchdowns on four consecutive possessions in the first half. Winston was 9-for-13 in the second half for 87 yards and no touchdowns. Running back Dalvin Cook ran 14 times for 99 yards in the first half and 17 times for 82 yards in the second half.
“They did a good job of just finding the holes in the running game,” cornerback D.J. White said. “They kind of gashed us a little bit and when they did throw it, (Winston) was able to buy time and find open receivers. Like I said, good player (referring to Winston), good plays.”
3. The game MVP was Cook, but I think the Florida State offensive line won the game for the Seminoles. It was remarkable the time to throw that Winston often had, even when Tech brought extra pressure. The Seminoles put four of their linemen on the All-ACC team for a reason.
Further, Cook had lanes to run and often get into the secondary thanks to the blocks the front was making for him.
4. Attendance for the game was 64,808. In the five years that the game has been at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., it’s the second lowest attendance figure, following the Tech-FSU game in 2012 (64,778). Upper deck seats in the end zone were covered by tarp. That said, it was a considerable showing by Tech fans, who were loud and I’d think made up the majority of the crowd.
5. It probably isn’t what one would call a silver lining for Tech, but there is some cold comfort in that the scenario that Tech likely needed to sneak into the College Football Playoff didn’t happen, so the Jackets wouldn’t have gotten in even with a win.
The Jackets needed No. 1 Alabama to beat Missouri (yes, 42-13), No. 2 Oregon to beat Arizona (yes, 51-13) and No. 3 TCU to beat Iowa State (yes, 55-13), but that’s where the help ended.
No. 5 Ohio State also had to lose, and the Buckeyes, making a last attempt to impress the CFP selection committee, throttled Wisconsin 59-0. Tech also needed No. 6 Baylor to lose, and the Bears took care of No. 9 Kansas State 38-27.
6. Taking a look at Tech’s four non-scoring drives, not counting the one to end the first half.
– Tech got behind schedule on the fourth possession of the game when B-back Synjyn Days didn’t have room to run on first down, getting stopped for no gain, then A-back B.J. Bostic was unable to get a defender to the ground on second down and A-back Charles Perkins was stopped for no gain on second down. On third down, tackle Chris Griffin false started, forcing third-and-15. Tech ran a give to Days, an interesting choice but one I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt on to the team leading the country in third-down efficiency, which gained one yard. Punt.
– Perkins was stopped for a loss on second-and-7, setting up third-and-8. Quarterback Justin Thomas threw incomplete to Bostic on third down. Punt.
– Tech had a manageable third-and-4 but Perkins was stopped on a pitch. Bostic cut down cornerback P.J. Williams, who made a phenomenal play befitting his status as one of the top cornerbacks in the country. Running to the short side of the field, Perkins didn’t have as much room, and, from the seat of his pants, Williams grabbed Perkins and brought him down for a one-yard loss. Maybe the hidden play of the night. On fourth-and-6, Thomas and wide receiver Darren Waller misread each other, with Waller running past Williams while Thomas expected him to run a hitch (Williams played for it, too, allowing Waller free passage downfield) and threw short and incomplete. Turnover on downs.
“We weren’t on the same page,” Thomas said.
– First-and-10, Thomas was just off throwing to A-back Deon Hill, resulting in an incompletion. Thomas was stopped for no loss on second down. On third-and-10, forced to throw, Thomas either threw a very errant pass or he and Waller had another miscommunication, resulting in an interception that gave FSU the ball with 3:22 and severely cut down the Jackets’ chances at winning.
7. What difference could DeAndre Smelter have made?
Thomas allowed after the game that he and Smelter “just have that knowing where he’s going to be at all times, but we still came out today and had opportunities.”
He probably would have made a difference. For that matter, so could have A-back Tony Zenon, who left the game with an injury.
But it’s a moot point. Presumably, Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson would have made a difference, Georgia running back Todd Gurley would have made a difference, FSU defensive tackle Eddie Goldman would have made a difference and so on. I’m not saying Clemson or Georgia would have won the game with those players, but who knows? It’s part of the game.
The bottom line is that Tech didn’t take advantage of the opportunities with the players it did have.
“I wouldn’t say they slowed us down,” guard Shaquille Mason said. “We absolutely shot ourselves in the foot.”
Obviously, Florida State had a little bit to do with it, but Tech needed to play a clean game and didn’t, or couldn’t.
8. That said, Waller had, statistically speaking, one of the best games of his career with five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. Each catch produced a first down or a touchdown. The touchdown, a 25-yarder in the final drive of the game in which he ran a hitch, escaped Williams and then reached with the ball for the pylon, was an impressive effort play.
B-back Synjyn Days also produced again, taking advantage of solid blocking (again) and running hard to gain 67 yards on 19 carries with three touchdowns. Thomas ran for 104 yards on 11 carries, his third 100-yard game of the season.
“It was nice to have three touchdowns, but we lost, so that kind of negates the three touchdowns in my book,” he said.
9. I spoke with White and Mason after the game. Both were composed and disappointed in the loss but neither was distraught, nor should they have been. The Jackets missed some chances and will undoubtedly regret that, but they gave all that an undefeated team and the defending national champion all it could want. Tech was within perhaps one play of a considerable upset. After the run that the Jackets have had, I think you have to accept that sometimes it isn’t going to be your night.
“As much as this one hurts, I’ll take 10-3 any day,” White said.
The Orange Bowl, most likely against Michigan State, is a considerable consolation prize.
“I’m disappointed in the outcome of the game, but I’m awfully proud of the football team,” Johnson said. “I thought they kept playing. Florida State is a very talented team and, you know, it was the kind of game where you couldn’t make a mistake. I mean, you had to play really clean, and to their credit, they did that, and we missed a couple turns, and we couldn’t make it up.”