ATLANTA — For one half of one opening night, Georgia Tech experienced some semblance of hope. The Yellow Jackets showed life. They ran in the right direction, made tackles and scored touchdowns — things that haven’t been assumed in these parts for a while. They tried to impress people with football, not pushups on the sideline or empty catchphrases or somebody screaming “Money Down!” on the public address system.
It was stunning and beautiful — until everything went horribly wrong and began to look frighteningly familiar.
Take heart, Brent Key. Most successful exorcisms aren’t completed in one night.
In the first real game of the Key era, the Jackets dazzled the masses with a four-touchdown second quarter to take a 28-13 lead into halftime, then committed the mother of all faceplants by allowing 26 straight points on the way to a 39-34 loss to Louisville.
“We had flashes of an identity. We had flashes of the team we want to be,” Key said later.
Here’s the problem. Georgia Tech still has flashes of its old identity, a team that goes south at any moment — going dormant on offense, missing tackles, suddenly looking overwhelmed by the moment. The flashes of the team they are still outweigh the flashes of the team they want to be.
The Jackets haven’t had a winning record since winning their opener against Florida State in 2020, when then-coach Geoff Collins thought he had things turned around. Then he lost five of the next six and seven of nine, and nobody ever assumed success under Collins ever again.
This game wasn’t Key’s first as a head coach. He went 4-4 last season after Collins was fired. But those games came as an interim replacement when he figured to be just a placeholder for a permanent replacement. When he got the job, that’s when the judging really started.
He is a new coach under a new athletic director (J Batt) at a school that has to count nickels to make the athletic budget work. The ACC isn’t nearly the greatest football conference in the nation, but it has Clemson and Florida State and a half-in/half-out Notre Dame and some pretty solid programs. It also just decided to expand with Stanford, Cal and SMU, which means the conference now touches not only the Atlantic coast but the Pacific coast and the Texas Stockyards.
We can certainly debate whether Stanford, Cal and SMU make the ACC “stronger” in football. But when you’re a program like Georgia Tech and you’ve had one winning conference record in the last eight years, and you haven’t felt really good about things since Paul Johnson went 11-3 with an Orange Bowl win in 2014, do you really need any more competition for players, and dollars, and attention?
Georgia Tech has enough problems getting attention. The campus sits 70 miles west of Godzilla in Athens. That would give any program self-esteem issues.
Key believes he can do this, and if Batt comes through with resources and fundraising initiatives maybe he can. Players like Key. He just needs more good players. But it’s going to take time. There’s just too much bad juju to wish away.
“Our margin for error is small. It’s very small,” he said.
“When you put things on tape and you show what you can be, you need to be that. You can’t part-time it.”
That’s exactly what happened Friday night. They part-timed it.
Good times: Buster Faulkner is Tech’s offensive coordinator by way of Georgia, where he studied under Todd Monken. In the second quarter, he looked more like Bill Walsh. The Jackets scored four straight touchdowns thanks to some impressive passing by transfer quarterback Haynes King and even more impressive play design by Faulkner.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) September 2, 2023
Bad times: The offense couldn’t adjust in the second half when Louisville switched from its man-to-man defense to more zone, changed fronts and focused more on smothering Tech’s running game. The Jackets also botched two potential scoring possessions in the fourth quarter: Faulkner went conservative with three runs after reaching the Cardinals’ 19, as if playing for a field goal with a 28-23 lead — then missed the field goal. On the team’s next possession, Tech had a first down at the Louisville 16 but King got sack and fumbled, leading to a touchdown in the other direction.
Some injuries in the secondary may have contributed to the defensive collapse, but when an opponent scores on five of six possessions in reeling off 26 straight points, it’s not just because of a couple of injuries.
“I felt like we kind of got sloppy in the second half,” free safety Jaylon King said. “I wouldn’t say it was scheme. It was more tackling. There were a couple of times we let (quarterback Jack Plummer) get out of the pocket. He was able to make a couple of throws when we should have had him bottled up, and our open-field tackling wasn’t the best. So I wouldn’t say it was anything we couldn’t control.”
Key said he would watch closely to see how his players would respond to adversity. Being on the wrong end of a 26-0 run would suggest they didn’t handle it well. But the coach maintained otherwise.
“It’s something you watch closely,” he said. “Are they getting down? Are they moaning at each other? There was none of that.”
If the moment wasn’t too big, maybe it’s just the reality that there is too much to fix in one night, and probably one season. This doesn’t look like a team that can beat Clemson or Ole Miss or Miami or North Carolina or certainly Georgia. With some cleanup, it can certainly win a few games. But right now, you’re going to have to settle for flashes.
(Top photo of Haynes King throwing a pass under pressure against Louisville: Rich von Biberstein / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)