Georgia Tech dropped its season opener Monday night to Tennessee.
Despite the 655 total yards ... despite the 33 first downs ... despite the 41:27 time of possession, the Yellow Jackets inconceivably failed to start the season on a high note with another win against an SEC East opponent.
Instead, Tech turned the ball over twice — resulting in two Tennessee touchdowns — and had a disastrous night on special teams with two missed field goals, a shanked punt, bad kickoffs and poor kick returns.
“Well, I was so sorely disappointed with the outcome,” coach Paul Johnson said after the game. “I think there were some positives that we can build on in the game. Our young guys on offense I thought went out and played pretty well.”
Pretty well is an understatement for the performance from junior quarterback TaQuon Marshall. Learning just before the game that he would be the guy Johnson chose behind center — though he ended up saying he knew weeks ago — Marshall exceeded expectations by miles with one of the most historic performances ever by a Georgia Tech quarterback.
In his first career start, Marshall ran for 249 yards and five touchdowns on a whopping 44 carries ... all Tech records for a quarterback. He ran for touchdowns in the first quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter and added two more in overtime.
“He played his tail off,” Johnson said. “I thought he played tremendously, and I knew he was going to be the starter for about two and a half or three weeks. He gives us a guy -- he can actually throw the ball well, too. We didn't throw it a lot. But I thought he played well.”
Tech found itself in overtime after a few untimely mistakes in the second half. The first one came in the third quarter with the Jackets driving deep into Tennessee territory. Kenny Cooper’s illegal block below the waist negated a Qua Searcy run that would’ve put Tech at the Volunteer’s 21-yard line — instead pushing it back to the 36 to face a second-and-13. After gaining six yards on the next two plays, Shawn Davis missed his first field goal of the night ... failing to put the Jackets up three scores for the first time.
Tennessee immediately scored to make it a 21-14 game heading to the fourth quarter. After both teams added a touchdown drive and a punt early in the final period, Tech’s costliest mistake gave the Vols a chance to tie the game.
Once again driving into Tennessee territory on a long drive, J.J. Green took a pitch to the right sideline and found room by cutting back midfield. He had the ball knocked loose from behind at the 25-yard line, and Tennessee fell on top of it at the 7 to give it a chance to tie the game with 4:50 left on the clock. Instead of taking a two-score lead with less than five minutes remaining, the Volunteers needed one long drive to even a game that had been surprisingly mismatched.
They did just that. In only seven plays, Tennessee drove straight down the field with the help of a dominant performance by wide receiver Marquez Callaway — a Georgia native. John Kelly also started to pick up his pace. He finished with 19 carries for 128 yards and four touchdowns.
Tech nearly managed a win in regulation by setting itself up with a 37-yard field goal attempt in just 1:29. Davis never got close to getting the ball over the line of scrimmage, and Tennessee’s block sent the game into overtime.
Neither team thought about stopping the other in the first two overtime periods, and Johnson made the decision to go for two and the win after Tech made it 42-41 in 2OT. After a timeout by each side, Johnson went with a counter B-back option on the weak side with the left guard pulling in front of Marshall. Jake Stickler missed his block at right tackle and Parker Braun missed his block on the pull as Marshall tried to cut inside ... and the play was doomed, giving Tennessee the victory.
“We screwed it up,” Johnson said. “That should have been a walk-in. That play was so ... that should have been a walk-in, and we screwed that up, so we didn't deserve to win. I mean, they didn't have enough guys over there, and we tried to reach out and grab somebody as opposed to releasing inside and clinging the corner because there's one guy you could have pitched to or run it in yourself, and we didn't do it. So we didn't make the play, they did.”
After a strong start defensively, the second half of the game quickly became much of the same story as the past few years ... missed tackles, soft coverage and a defense that failed to get off the field in key situations. Tennessee totaled 369 yards of offense despite holding the ball for fewer than 19 minutes.
“We had the ball 41 minutes, they had it 18,” Johnson said. “If they wore down in this game, they'd better get their butts home. We never create a negative play, so you never get them behind, and it's like then they get some big plays. Well, they threw a couple jump balls and got them, and we missed tackles. They throw a little stop route over there and missed two tackles; give their kid credit. I mean, he made nice plays, broke a tackle. But that's it in a nutshell. If you never get a negative play, it's hard to play.”
Even more disappointing than the defense was the kicking game, which is something that will certainly be changed during the short turnaround. Davis missed both field goals and struggled to kick it deep on kickoffs.
“Try a different kicker, I guess,” Johnson said about what he’ll do. “You know, it was disappointing. I mean, either of those field goals ices the game, too. The one at the end of the game is 36 yards. He kicked that thing head-high, you know, the kickoff, so you know, we'll give the other kid a chance and see what he does.”
Though Marshall had a spectacular game in hist first start, he did take blame in the game-ending two-point conversion saying he could’ve likely pitched it to KirVonte Benson.
"We had numbers on the backside,” Marshall said. “Reversed out and tried to get outside of it. They overran us and I thought I could get up under it. I tried to make the play at the time but it might have been a little selfish of me. But, you’ve got to put it in the past and move on."
Benson didn’t have a bad night himself in his first career start. He finished with 124 yards rushing and a touchdown on 26 carries. As Johnson and teammates advertised, he ran hard up the middle and often needed multiple Tennessee defenders to help bring him down. He never got a chance in the open field to display the speed Johnson has raved about.
"TaQuon and I are both good runners and both explosive when we have the ball,” Benson said. “This season is going to be amazing and something to look forward to."
It’s a conflicting season-opening loss for the Yellow Jackets. On one hand, the offense looked as good as anyone could have possibly imagined — perhaps as good as we’ve ever seen it look in the Paul Johnson era. The defense showed a few promising signs with pass rush from the defensive line and an ability to get a push up the middle in the running game. The secondary made some plays early, though the linebackers did appear to be underwhelming at first glance.
On the other hand, Georgia Tech still starts 0-1 with a loss against an SEC opponent even though it did nearly everything right. The Jackets were one play away in multiple situations from starting the season on a high note and building some momentum with a phenomenal performance from first-year starters at quarterback and B-back.
Once the emotion settles, it can mostly still be looked at as a positive for what is to come — though a change in strategy and scheme defensively would be promising, and the kicking game could be a nightmare all year. The offense could be a huge plus after concerns just weeks ago after Dedrick Mills’ departure.
The Yellow Jackets will have to forget quickly as a tricky Jacksonville State heads to town on Saturday to give Tech an opportunity at a bounce-back win.
“I mean, this doesn't do anything to your goals other than it's a game that we should have won, and we didn't,” Johnson said. “So we've got to play a team here on three days' rest that's pretty good. You know, my big concern right now is those kids on offense that just played 96 plays, and then they have to turn around and play again on Saturday. There won't be a whole lot of practicing going on. We'll have to try to get them rested to play.”