Saturday should prove quite the learning experience for Georgia Tech. At least coach Paul Johnson hopes so.
Tech learned what can happen when it’s not totally focused on beating a worthy opponent. You can be a little out of focus against some teams, but sooner or later you’ll get stung.
Of course, we’re never quite sure what actually does get through to today’s student-athletes. As Johnson noted in his opening statement at his post-game press conference, “Hopefully, you can learn from it and move on.”
Tech had good reason to take Duke lightly. Despite being the reigning ACC Coastal Division champion, Duke hadn’t beaten Tech since 2003. That was the day Tech’s current defensive coordinator, Ted Roof, made his debut as Duke’s interim head coach.
More history: Duke hadn’t beaten Tech in Atlanta in 20 years.
But that’s ancient history, soundly ignored by today’s players. They hearken to current events. Like the last two weeks, which surely blurred Tech’s focus.
The fortnight began with Duke losing to Miami, 22-10, and looking awful doing so.
Anthony Boone completed 22 of 51 passes and hurled two interceptions. This garnered an incredibly infinitesimal quarterback rating of 16.6. Boone’s inefficiency led to Duke converting but 2 of 16 third downs.
Meanwhile, the unstout Duke defense allowed Duke Johnson to ramble for 155 yards on 25 carries. This helped Duke hold the Hurricanes to only 426 yards of total offense.
This in turn became the Miami team that lost to Tech, 28-17, in Atlanta the next week. The game was more than a victory for Tech. The Yellow Jackets imposed their will on Miami.
The total yardage was almost even, with Tech ahead, 371 to 352. But Tech ran the ball 65 times for 318 yards, which led to a staggering 40:45 time of possession for the game.
Tech’s first two drives of the second half were almost identical: 13 plays, 75 yards, touchdown, 6:50 time elapsed; and 13 plays, 75 yards, touchdown, 6:54 elapsed. Those drives lifted Tech from a 14-14 halftime tie to a 28-17 lead with 11:31 left in the game.
The first drive featured only two passes, an incompletion followed by a nine-yard pass on third and seven. The second drive included one pass for 30 yards.
So, after careful film study of these two games, the last prediction you’d make would be Duke 31, Tech 25.
Sadly for Tech, its players must have felt the same way. That’s about the only explanation for an undefeated team which just crashed the national rankings to come out and play an unfocused game.
And when Boone threw incomplete three straight times to end Duke’s first possession, and Tech followed by driving 70 yards in 14 plays for a field goal, who on the Tech sideline didn’t think this would be easy?
Turns out that settling for a field goal became the initial indication that Tech’s focus wasn’t total. A delay of game penalty would help Tech settle for a field goal on its second possession.
In between, Duke completed an 11-play, 75 yard touchdown drive, aided by Tech being offside on a punt (on fourth and four) and a personal foul penalty. Tech aided Duke’s fourth drive with a pass interference call on third and eight, and then allowed Boone to complete a 30-yard pass to Max McCaffrey on third and 26 from the Tech 33. Duke’s Thomas Sirk scored on the next play.
Trailing 14-12 at the half—and a long half it was, extended by an hour-long weather delay—you’d think Tech would have focused on the task at hand. But, no.
“Yeah, we could tell,” B-back Zach Laskey said after the game. “We came out flat in the second half.”
Linebacker Quayshawn Nealy also noticed the low energy level after the half. “We knew what was at stake. They went out there and played their butts off and were able to come out with the win. I give credit where credit is due. They came out and fought hard. We just have to learn from our mistakes and move on.”
Coach Johnson had no trouble clarifying those mistakes for educational purposes. “If you can’t line up onsides on punt team, you give them a first down. We had a couple of play-action balls deep that we dropped. …You’ve got to make those plays. …We fumbled the ball on a damn straight handoff. It was just a handoff. It wasn’t even an option. …We let them convert on their two drives on third and 26 and second and 22...We are not good enough to turn the ball over and have penalties and let people out there.”
Tech must now focus on not letting the loss to Duke derail what could be a fine season. The Yellow Jackets can start by learning from their mistakes.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears weekly.