Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Saturday night did not end up the way Georgia Tech wanted, yet the Yellow Jackets' 24-10 loss at Clemson came down to what happened at the beginning of a game where perhaps the emotions of young men derailed their prospects.
Everybody in the Gold and White knew the crowd at Tiger Stadium would be raucous, which it was, and the Jackets knew the Tigers are supremely talented, but nobody thought that the Jackets might start so slowly.
Tech (4-3, 3-2 ACC) played the defending ACC and national champions better than even in the second half, but that wasn't enough to overcome a 21-3 halftime deficit. The Jackets weren't wired for a comeback on this evening.
It looked a lot like Tech was too wired up at the start.
"A lot of people were excited and caught up in the hype," said senior defensive end KeShun Freeman. "We missed a lot of tackles ... a lot of tackles."
Clemson (7-1, 5-1) had a weekend off after an upset loss at Syracuse two Fridays ago, and the Tigers were not in a good mood after that. Quarterback Kelly Bryant was back in the lineup and the Clemson defense was on point.
Redshirt freshman B-back KirVonte Benson ran three times right off the bat for a first down, but the fourth time was not a charm. He lost a fumble.
Two Bryant passes later, Clemson led 7-0.
After a Tech punt and a Clemson fumble, Benson took off on a 65-yard run to the Tigers' 9-yard line. Then he ran for four yards on first down and one on second. Unfortunately, quarterback TaQuon Marshall was sacked on third down and the Jackets had to settle for a field goal by Brenton King.
"They're physical, really physical. They're fast and they're one of the best defenses for a reason . . . they do a lot of things that a coach expects them to do," Benson said. "[But] when we're in the red zone, we've got to score [touchdowns]."
That was just about it for highlights in the first half.
Clemson countered with another touchdown pass by Bryant after Tech's field goal and added another by run before halftime.
"Clearly, it didn't go the way we would have liked. I think that Clemson has a really good football team and we didn't play very well," said head coach Paul Johnson. "And it comes back to me, starts with me.
"I thought we were ready to play, but clearly we weren't. We couldn't win any one-on-one plays, any one-on-one blocks, or if we did, not many."
The Tigers drove 75 yards on the opening possession of the second half for a field goal and that was it for Clemson's scoring.
However, while Tech's defense kept the Tigers off the board for the remainder of the second half, the offense couldn't find paydirt until late in the fourth quarter, on Marshall's 22-yard touchdown run with 4:43 remaining in the game.
Prior to the touchdown drive, the Yellow Jackets' best success on offense in the second half came when Johnson subbed in quarterback Matthew Jordan near the end of the third quarter. On consecutive mid-line runs, the junior graduate student gained five, five, 12, and three yards. But following the fourth run, he left the game with an injury.
After getting the chance to watch a few plays from the sideline, Marshall played his best football of the soggy evening down the stretch. But that was of no consolation to the Jackets' offensive captain.
"I really don't think I got too settled in. I settled down more in the second half. I let the team down. I didn't come out ready to play. My performance shows . . . "Marshall said. "This was definitely the hardest reads I've had all season."
Benson finished with a game-high 129 yards on 16 carries, and Marshall had 23 on 15 totes, including the 22-yard touchdown run with 4:43 left in the game.
"There is no magical elixir about how you line up and play. It's called beating blocks and we got rattled a little bit, especially in the first half. We got rattled on offense," Johnson said.
"I thought Matthew came in and kind of settled everything down and knocked out a couple first downs and, actually, TaQuon played much better after that. If I had to do it over again, I'd have sat [Marshall] out a series in the first half."
With another road trip pending, the Jackets are looking forward to getting back on track Saturday at Virginia (5-3, 2-2).
"It's just [about] having a short memory," Benson said. "We lost to a good team. We can play better, and we will play better. Virginia is a good team. What happened [Saturday night] is in the past. We're all about the future."
Freeman added, "In the future, we have to use that great momentum and pick it up a little bit. We just have to make sure we start off just as strong . . . One of the things we're going to have to focus on is starting strong."