Georgia Tech backup quarterback Tim Byerly’s status for the rest of the season may not be known for a couple more weeks.
“The quarterback situation, it’s not really day to day,” coach Paul Johnson said following Tech’s 65-10 win over Tulane at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “It’ll be a couple weeks before we really know.”
Johnson’s comment adds detail to what had said earlier this week that Byerly, who suffered a knee injury in practice last Monday, could possibly return. But the handwringing that the Tech fan base has engaged in following the injury may have proven a little overwrought. The performance by backup Matthew Jordan is not proof positive, but he at the least looked the part of a capable backup in two possessions of second-half work Saturday.
“I’m comfortable with Matthew,” Johnson said.
Jordan doesn’t have Byerly’s experience, but the tools are there. He operated the offense on a drive that covered 91 yards in nine plays, punctuated by a 35-yard strike to A-back TaQuon Marshall on the first pass of his career, and his only throw of the afternoon. His career passing efficiency rating: 724.
“I told him, ‘We won’t ever throw it again,’” Johnson said. “He can stay right there.”
He also showed off his speed on the next possession, outracing the Tulane defense (albeit one with only nine players on the field) for a 65-yard score on a triple-option keeper. Pretty good work for his quarterbacking debut. Jordan had played quarterback since enrolling in January 2014, but moved to A-back at the start of the preseason to give him a better chance to get on the field. He moved back after Byerly’s injury.
From a playing-time standpoint, Saturday worked out practically perfectly. Coaches had wanted to make sure starters took more snaps against Tulane than they did against Alcorn State, but getting Jordan and other backups more playing time (to say nothing of winning) was also a preference. It came to pass. After Tech went up 44-7 in the third quarter, Jordan replaced starter Justin Thomas and played with a number of first-string members before giving way himself to Brady Swilling. Most starters got out in the third.
“What we saw from Matt, it was great that he was able to get out there and play a little bit, because you never know when you might need him this year,” Thomas said. “I think what he did (Saturday) was good, throwing it and running it. I think that helped his confidence out, too, just being able to go in there and get that game experience for the first time at quarterback.”
Jordan figured a change was coming after Byerly’s injury, but wasn’t positive until quarterbacks and B-backs coach Bryan Cook told him Tuesday to come to the quarterback meeting.
Returning to quarterback is “definitely totally different, but, like I told coach Johnson, I’m just here to do whatever the team needs me to do,” Johnson said. “I just want to play.”
Time will tell if he’ll be needed at quarterback in coming weeks. But his play on Saturday will give Jordan something to carry with him if it comes to pass.
“He’s not scared, I can tell you that,” Johnson said.
Credit to tutor
Jordan gave a nod to Byerly, saying that “When I first got here, Tim really put me under his wing. He really taught me everything I know today with the offense.”
Byerly watched the game from the sidelines.
“Tim, he’s going to stay Tim,” Thomas said. “He still has a great attitude, smiles in the locker room, still joking around. Tim’s not going to change.”
Third-down defense strong again
The observation is prefaced once again with the fact that neither of Tech’s first two opponents appeared to be world-beating material, but the Jackets defense stood up on third down again after holding Alcorn State to 2-for-16. Tulane was 6-for-15 on third downs, following its 2-for-14 against Duke last week. (Tulane converted 33.2 percent last year, 112th in the country.)
Inside the 6-for-15 – Tulane converted four of its final six first downs, when Jackets second-stringers had begun to populate the field. Also, the average third-down distance for the game was 8.5 yards. Lastly, the Green Wave was 5-for-11 against Tech last season.
“We’re just working so hard at practice on those early downs to create damage so you won’t be in those third-and-short (situations),” defensive end KeShun Freeman said.
One such play was a blitz call for linebacker Tyler Marcordes on 2nd-and-7 in the second quarter after the Green Wave had forced their only punt of the game and, down 21-7, were trying to climb back into the game. Marcordes shot a gap and brought down Lee for a nine-yard loss, forcing a 3rd-and-16. After a false start, and a failed draw play, Tulane punted.
“It’s kind of our M.O.,” Johnson said. “We need to bring pressure. We’re not very good at getting (to the quarterback) with four people, so we’ve got to bring pressure. To this point, we haven’t been a very good coverage team, so we need to sic ’em and go get ’em.”
The defense delivered in another critical juncture early, after A-back Broderick Snoddy failed to collect Thomas’ pitch and fumbled, giving Tulane the ball on the Tech 39 and a chance to tie the score at 7 and build some confidence. After a questionable pass interference call on cornerback Chris Milton, Tulane running back Rob Kelley was gang tackled on the ensuing first down for no gain. On 2nd-and-10, defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong forced a Lee throwaway with pressure from the left side. On 3rd-and-10, Freeman’s pressure forced another incompletion. Tulane then missed a 47-yard field goal try, one of a litany of special-teams mistakes.
“When the offense turned the ball over (Saturday), the defense came together and we were, like, We’ve got to have their back, because they have our back when we put them in that situation,” safety Jamal Golden said. “The team chemistry’s there. We’re just playing for each other, trying to get a ‘W.’”
Thomas’ hunt for perfection
This didn’t make it in, but for the story I wrote for Saturday’s paper and myajc about Thomas’ development as a passer, I asked him if he had a completion percentage goal for the season. His answer: 100 percent.
“You don’t want to incomplete any passes,” he said.
Thomas was 7-for-9 Saturday for 97 yards and two touchdowns. After the game, he remembered the two incompletions. He was twice long on passes, one to wide receiver Brad Stewart and one to A-back Qua Searcy. The first looked like perhaps a miscommunication. The second overshot Searcy on a deep ball, but not by much. So he didn’t miss 100 percent by a whole lot.
Still, his efficiency rating was 241.64, his best against a FBS defense in his 14 starts against FBS teams.
“For the most part, you have one-on-one coverage with our guys, and we expect our guys to win those matchups,” Thomas said. “When we throw the ball, we expect big plays, and that’s what we got (Saturday).”
65 points in context
As I noted in a blog post shortly (sort of) after the game, it’s easy to dismiss the 65-point output as the byproduct of playing an overmatched team. And, undoubtedly, that had a lot to do with it. Tulane wasn’t a match for Tech. However, as the day’s events demonstrated, blowing out a lower-tier opponent is no given. No. 6 Auburn barely survived Jacksonville State (which will play Tech in two years with the Jackets going on short rest). Toledo bit No. 18 Arkansas. No. 21 Missouri had to rally against Arkansas State.
And it’s not like 65-point games just kind of happen. It was the third most points that Tulane has given up in a game in school history, and it should be noted the Green Wave have fielded a lot of bad teams. And this was with a group of offensive skill-position players that’s filled with freshmen.
Further, the defense’s yards-per-play average (3.8) was even better than its rate against Alcorn State (4.1), although the failed punt factored into the average.
“I’ve never been beat that bad in my life,” Lee told the Associated Press. “It stings.”
No pun intended, presumably.
That said, there are some grains of salt lying around. In 2011, Tech blasted Western Carolina 63-21 and Middle Tennessee State 49-21 before delivering its 66-24 pie in the face to Kansas on the way to its No. 12 ranking. That team finished 8-5. This team feels a bit more solid than that one, but there’s a lot of ground left to cover.
Milton now has six blocked kicks in his career after blocking Peter Picerelli’s punt in the second quarter after he bobbled the snap.
Golden had his second long punt return of the season, this one a 44-yarder on the first series of the game. The return flipped the field and required the offense to go just 35 yards for the game-opening touchdown. He had a 35-yard return against Alcorn State. Golden’s long last season was 28 yards.
“It feels pretty good to kind of get back into the groove,” Golden said. “I just credit the other 10 guys. They make my job easy.”
B-back Patrick Skov ran for a hard-earned 50 yards on 11 carries. Skov ran practically kicking and scratching as Tulane played determined to stop the B-back run game and also often played decoy as Thomas pulled the ball out of the mesh to pitch to the A-backs. Skov was asked if he thought he was frustrating Tulane’s players with his second and third efforts.
“I don’t know, I didn’t ask them,” he said. “But my goal is to frustrate the defense as much as possible and do what I can to fight for as many yards as possible. I know the other 10 guys are fighting their best to open stuff up for me, so the least I can do is try and get some yards for the team.”
With Tulane keying on the B-backs, freshman Marcus Marshall couldn’t quite recreate his magic against Alcorn State, but gained 37 yards on six carries, not shabby.
Freeman’s power game
It wasn’t a perfect game for Freeman. He had at least one missed tackle, but he had two tackles and his first sack of the season and often brought pressure on quarterback Tanner Lee. He made a play that particularly caught my attention in the middle of the second quarter.
On a 2nd-and-10 from the Tulane 23, Freeman drove left tackle Arturo Uzdavinis straight back into Lee and then wrapped up the Tulane quarterback. It wasn’t a speed move or a sack born of his typical unrelenting effort, the way Freeman has often made plays. It was straight power, a 240-pound 19-year-old end (he turns 20 in November) pushing back a 305-pound 22-year-old redshirt senior (he turns 23 in November) who is in his third year as a starter.
“Well, I was like 225 last year, and I’m 240 this year,” Freeman said.
Freeman has a year of experience and has developed from a technique standpoint, but a play like that demonstrates the benefits of an offseason in the weight room and the physical maturity that typically takes place over the course of a career.