Video courtesy of ACC Digital Network

ATLANTA, GA – For the second time in as many games and for the fourth time this season, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (5-4, 4-3) found themselves in a familiar yet uncomfortable situation. Another blown lead in the fourth quarter with little time to salvage a win.

In the three prior attempts they came up short, with the opposition making just one more play, forcing the good guys in white and gold to contemplate, “what just happened?”

On Saturday against the #17 Virginia Tech Hokies (7-3, 3-3), the Jackets dictated a different ending. By way of big plays on offense and defense, Georgia Tech responded to a late deficit and sealed a big win against their Coastal division rivals, 28-22.

In doing so the Jackets ended the speculation about whether this year’s team could deliver in the clutch. Instead they may find themselves pondering, “Why couldn’t we figure this out sooner?”

Junior quarterback TaQuon Marshall offered his take. “We were just trying to prove a point,” said Marshall. “I mean, we hear all the time, ‘You guys can’t finish.’ This week we really tried to put an emphasis on it like ‘Hey, this is our time to show everyone that we actually can finish,’ and you see what happens when we do finish.”

As Tech’s signal-caller, Marshall’s day was unsurprisingly emblematic of the Jackets’ as a whole. Offensively, the Jackets operated in fits and starts in large part due to a Hokies’ defense that limited their ACC opponents to 13 points per game coming into Saturday.

Big plays led Georgia Tech to four touchdown drives, with none bigger than Marshall’s strike to wide receiver Ricky Jeune in the fourth quarter. Following a pick-six by Virginia Tech’s Greg Stroman, a momentum-seizing play that catapulted the Hokies ahead of the Jackets by one point with 7:27 to go in the game, Marshall went back to work. Just two plays later, Jeune was running free behind the Hokies’ secondary and Marshall found him in stride thru the air, an 80-yard strike that proved to be the difference in the game.

It was Marshall’s second completion of the game – his second touchdown pass no less – that put the Jackets in the driver’s seat. And his head coach was content with that performance. Said Paul Johnson, “[TaQuon] made, what, two completions and they were both for touchdowns and it ended up being 140 yards?” So we’ll live with that. That’s a pretty good average.”

Not to be outdone, the Jackets’ defense delivered when the game pressure hit its peak. Virginia Tech’s last grasp drive of the game almost resembled those of games past with Tennessee, Miami and Virginia. In each of those games, a late fourth quarter drive by the opposition was the clincher.

Today, the Jackets’ defense was the difference. After shutting down the Virginia Tech offense for much of the day, the Hokies built some early momentum on their final drive. The Hokies converted two fourth downs and moved the ball 42 yards to the Georgia Tech 32-yard line. The Jackets faced a third 4th down attempt to end the game. On 4th and 1, the Hokies’ dialed up a play-action pass to their prolific wide receiver Cam Phillips.

Said Hokies’ head coach Justin Fuente, “We had the best matchup that we could possibly get. We had press coverage with our best guys. Everything we did offensively was a struggle, and we had a couple opportunities to go win the game… I felt like we had an opportunity with as good of a look as we were going to get to go win the game.”

The good news for Georgia Tech? Redshirt freshman cornerback Ajani Kerr ran step-for-step with Phillips down the seam. Hokies’ quarterback Josh Jackson gave Phillips a chance to be the hero on his toss to the end zone, but Kerr blanketed Phillips all the way thru the ball, knocking it to the ground with 1:03 to go. Kerr, a seldom used cornerback, stole the spotlight instead.

The performance by the Jackets defense as a whole should not be an afterthought. The Hokies offense struggled their way to 258 yards and 16 points for the game.

Saturday’s win was the Georgia Tech’s 8th straight at home and Paul Johnson’s 9th vs. a ranked team at Bobby Dodd Stadium. But those achievements are small compared to a confidence-boosting win that the Jackets needed and earned. There are few better ways than versus Virginia Tech to exorcise those last-minute loss demons, and today the Yellow Jackets proved clutch.

Other news and notes

  • As mentioned above, Georgia Tech’s four touchdown drives were propelled by big plays:

    • On their first, A-Back Nathan Cottrell ripped off a 69 yard run down the Hokies sideline to set up a short Marshall touchdown run.
    • On their second, B-Back KirVonte Benson had a run of 21 yards while A-Back Clinton Lynch shook defenders on his way to a 16 yard gain.
    • On their third, Marshall hit wide receiver Brad Stewart for 60 yards thru the air for Stewart’s first career touchdown.
    • On their fourth and final drive, Marshall found Ricky Jeune thru the air and Jeune sprinted to an 80-yard touchdown reception.
  • Linebacker Brant Mitchell returned to the field fully healthy this week and led the Jackets in tackles with 9 total, 6 solo, and 1 sack.
  • A-Back Omahri Jarrett made his debut as kick returner, bringing out three kicks with a long of 24 yards.

CLEMSON, SC – For the fifth time in as many visits to Clemson’s “Death Valley”, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (4-3, 3-2) faltered in an attempt to take down their ACC crossover division rival. An ugly first half of rain was met with a lackluster performance on the field, and the #7 Clemson Tigers (7-1, 5-1) took advantage early on their way to a 24-10 victory.

The 14 point difference tied for the lowest margin of victory in those five tilts.

The Jackets were jumped at the start, fumbling the ball just four plays into their opening possession. Two plays later, the Clemson offense delivered its first big blow. Quarterback Kelly Bryan struck via the air on two consecutive hitch routes to wide receiver Deon Cain, the latter a 6 yard connection that turned into a 38 yard touchdown strike after Cain made a lone Georgia Tech cornerback miss in the open field.

“The first series… we got a little first down going, got the [offense] going and then fumbled the ball,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “And then of course like years past, ‘boom boom’, two plays, three plays later it’s a touchdown. Then you’re digging out from behind.”

To the Jackets’ credit they responded later in the first quarter. Clemson’s next possession was stopped deep in Tech territory following defensive end Antonio Simmons’ strip of Clemson running back Travis Etienne, recovered by cornerback Step Durham.

Still down 7-0, the Jackets’ offense put together their strongest drive of the entire first half, sparked by a first-play 65-yard KirVonte Benson gash up the middle to the Clemson 9-yard line. Unfortunately the drive was stymied from there, and Tech was forced to kick a 25-yard field goal to trim the lead to 7-3.

From there it was an avalanche of miscues on both sides of the ball for the remainder of the first half. The Tigers responded immediately with another score of their own, capped by a 20-yard touchdown catch down the seam by tight end Milan Richard.

Clemson padded their lead further by way of a 71-yard touchdown drive in the 2nd quarter to take a 21-3 halftime lead. The Jackets’ offense was rendered largely ineffective for the first half, and most of the game, save for Benson’s aforementioned sprint.

All told, the Jackets were held to 110 yards of offense in the first half despite Benson gaining 120 yards of his own. Only four other offensive players found their way in the box score in the first half, all of which registered negative yardage. Tech managed just three first downs, largely due to a 1 of 8 showing on 3rd down for the half and ultimately a 3 of 15 for the game.

“We didn’t get started as fast as we would like to,” said quarterback TaQuon Marshall. “We also didn’t play as well as we would like to. I didn’t play as good as I would like.”

Marshall was held in check all night by the Tigers’ stout defense, limited to 3 of 13 passing and 23 yards on the ground in 15 carries.

“I really don’t think I got too settled in,” said Marshall.

Two bright spots for the game. One, while gashed early on, the Tech defense responded. The Tigers had 271 yards of offense and 21 points in the first half. In the second, the Jackets held Clemson to just 157 yards more and a paltry 3 points.

What changed? According to safety Corey Griffin, “[We] really didn’t make any changes. Just executed a lot better. [We] played well with our eyes and guys flew to the ball.”

Second, true freshman Tech punter Pressley Harvin III put together a spectacular effort Saturday night. Across nine punts, he launched five of those 50+ yards. He pinned three inside the Clemson 20-yard line. Altogether he averaged 46.9 yards/punt, and most importantly he flipped the field even when the Jackets’ offense sputtered deep in their own territory.

One would be hard-pressed to draw sweeping conclusions from a 14-point loss to the #7 team in the country on their home field at night, coming off of a bye and in a steady rain. After all, the Tigers managed the same margin of victory at Lane Stadium, in primetime, against a top 20 Virginia Tech Hokies team.

Following the game, the Jackets echoed a common spirit to learn from the game and move on quickly. “We can watch the film, look at our mistakes and grow from it,” said defensive end KeShun Freeman. “We lost today. We can’t let them beat us next week.”

Next week is another road trip, this time to Charlottesville to take on the Virginia Cavaliers (5-3, 2-2). Visits to Charlottesville have treated the Jackets better than those to Clemson, with Tech managing a 2-2 record at Scott Stadium under the direction of head coach Paul Johnson. The game sets up to be an important one for both schools’ postseason hopes.