As expected, Georgia Tech started slow on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, but a few forced turnovers turned the momentum around and led the Yellow Jackets to a 37-10 victory over Jacksonville State.
Paul Johnson and the team relayed all week that Jacksonville State would be no FCS pushover, and the Gamecocks certainly proved their worth early on. The Jackets struggled mightily to move the ball on the ground and found themselves trailing 7-3 late in the first half.
A Lawrence Austin interception got Tech the ball back late and led to a 27-yard touchdown pass from TaQuon Marshall to Ricky Jeune, giving it the 10-7 lead at halftime. The turnover train continued, and the Jackets were able to pull away.
“First of all, I’m relieved that it’s over,” coach Paul Johnson said after the game. “I think I’ve said my piece on that, but that’s really tough on guys to come back and play. Offensively, it was not pretty. We got our butts whipped up front.”
Lawrence Austin, who had the first turnover of the game, spoke to how big it was to have a few balls bounce their way after the frustrating Tennessee game in which they were unable to force one.
“Turnovers are always big,” he said. “It is great when we get the ball in the offense’s hands so they can eat up clock and score. That is one thing we could not accomplish the first game that we got better with today.”
After the 535 yards of rushing last week, Tech managed only 210 against Jacksonville State, largely showcasing the ability of the Gamecocks front seven — while also proving that exhaustion is real. The middle was mostly shut down all day, as Marshall managed only 25 yards rushing while KirVonte Benson added 26. True freshman Jerry Howard did take his second career carry up the middle for a 65-yard touchdown run.
“They were flying to the ball defensively,” Marshall said. “I think they had our number in the first half on third down. They were being real disruptive and all of the guys were flying to the ball.”
Parker Braun added on to how difficult it was to prepare for a game on such short rest.
“I definitely felt the effects of it,” he said. “It is always hard to play Monday and then turn around and play on Saturday, especially when it is a game like it was last week. Me and Kenny Cooper played all 97 snaps Monday, but we just played through it today.”
The Jackets managed to overcome the issues with the passing game and the defense turning it around in the second half. Coming out of halftime, the Gamecocks turned the ball over on both of their opening two possessions, and Tech took advantage with short-field touchdown throws both times. Marshall delivered a second touchdown pass to Jeune, and then he made a tough throw with pressure over the safety to J.J. Green in the back of the end zone to suddenly open up a 30-7 lead.
“It felt great,” Marshall said about throwing the ball more effectively than last week. “After the first game I wanted to sit in the pocket and show my arm ability. Ricky and the other guys made great plays and the line blocked for me, so I had a lot of time to get the ball out of my hand.”
After more concerns last week with the defense not getting enough pressure or playing aggressive, they ramped it up in the second half. Tech finished with five sacks and eight tackles for loss — which easily surpassed a combined two against Tennessee. The Jackets were among the worst teams in the country in both of those categories in 2016. Anree Saint-Amour and T.D. Roof led the team with two sacks each. Saint-Amour made a living in the backfield all day.
“What was working for the defensive line, I feel like it was more of a team-defense type of thing,” Saint-Amour said. “On one of the sacks, there was great pressure up the middle that kind of just popped out to me. And on the other one, Brentavious Glanton did a great job wrapping around and then it fell into my hands again. So it was a great job, the whole defense doing their jobs and just executing off of that.”
Overall, the score didn’t display it, but Georgia Tech had its hands full and came out relatively unscathed. With a full week to prepare for another tricky game against Central Florida, Johnson and the team will have much more tape to improve upon offensively. But with some odds stacked against them, Johnson was just happy to get out with a win against a very tough FCS team.
“Nobody wants to believe that, but they’re really good,” Johnson said. “I said before we started, I’m not sure they weren’t the best defense that we were going to play coming out of the gate. After watching them, I’m pretty sure they are.
“I was talking to one of their coaches before the game ... he said they don’t have a game next year because they can’t find anyone that will play them. You can see why. It’s like there’s nothing to gain and everything to lose. They’ve got a good team. I don’t suspect a lot of people in the OVC will beat them.”