Officially, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets arrived having played a game. Realistically, they had trampled over an opponent that yielded 70 points in a scrimmage-like atmosphere — indeed, Elon asked that the clock keep running in the fourth quarter — and scurried to bank its appearance fee. That display told us nothing.
What transpired here Saturday was a bit more instructive. Tech beat Duke, an achievement that loses some sting when we realize Tech has beaten Duke 18 times in 19 years. The next three games — North Carolina and Virginia Tech at the Flats, Miami down there — will be more testing. Still, the season’s second walkover was carried out with such dispatch as to suggest that the Jackets could well be on to something.
Attention to detail against an overmatched opponent in a partially filled stadium is never a given, but the Jackets looked engaged from the first. They did trail for 190 first-quarter seconds, at which point Vad Lee and his mates restored order to nature and went about the annual ritual of blowing out the Blue Devils. (Aggregate score of six Tech-Duke games with Paul Johnson coaching the former and David Cutcliffe the latter: Jackets 224, Devils 99.)
In his first road start, Lee rushed for 76 yards and completed eight of 16 passes for 125 yards and four touchdowns. But can we call it a “road” start when Lee grew up four minutes from Wallace Wade Stadium — he estimated his personal rooting section Saturday numbered 70 friends and relatives — and still drops by campus when home to run the Wallace Wade Stadium steps? (Memo to Dukies: Might want to lock that gate.)
Tech fans have waited two seasons — Lee spent the first as a redshirt, the second as Tevin Washington’s backup — to see if this heralded recruit could oversee an offense the way Johnson wants his overseen. Early signs are encouraging. Lee has run the ball well and thrown it better than any Tech quarterback since George Godsey and has turned the ball over only once. (That came on an early interception Saturday; afterward Johnson said Lee missed seeing an open man on the other side of the field.)
The caveat here is that, against Duke as with Elon, Lee was conspicuously the most talented player on the field; it would have been hard for him not to excel. We saw early in this game the same thing we see whenever these teams meet: Duke is reasonably well-coached but massively undermanned, and these Devils were without starting quarterback Anthony Boone.
On Tech’s first snap, Robert Godhigh took a reverse pitch from Lee. Two defenders were positioned to stop him in the backfield. Godhigh outran both to the corner and then broke a tackle. Duke diagnosed the play, and still Tech gained 15 yards.
The Jackets led 24-7 at the half, 31-7 after three quarters, 38-14 at the end. (No running clock in this fourth quarter.) Not everything went right this day — against Elon, Tech scored touchdowns on each of the seven possessions in which Lee took a hand — but not everything has to go right to beat Duke.
“I’m not sure we played a great game,” Johnson said, and then this: “We’ve got a lot of things to clean up.”
Said Lee: “We left a couple of points on the field.”
Johnson: “We’ve got to get a lot better in the reads on the run game. (Lee) made some big plays. He also missed a couple that were wide open that could have been big plays. A young guy’s going to do that. The more he plays, the better he’s going to get.”
He’s not bad as is. Leading 17-7 with 1:44 until the half, Lee ran twice and threw three passes, completing them all. He took his team 74 yards in 62 seconds. Johnson’s stylized offense isn’t the best at moments that require haste, but in this moment Lee made like Tom Brady. (OK, I exaggerate, but it was rather impressive.)
Tech’s final touchdown was a beauty by anyone’s standards. On third-and-8 from the Duke 19, Lee dropped back off play-action. Faking to his right, he delivered to his left. B-back Zach Laskey, who beat a linebacker, caught it in stride in the corner of the end zone.
Afterward someone suggested that a Tech quarterback throwing four touchdown passes wasn’t the norm. “It’s the norm for me,” Lee said, smiling. “The sky’s the limit for us.”
Maybe it is. Being his grouchy self, Johnson tried hard not to sound impressed. “We’ve got to get better next week,” he said. “We’ve got to play a lot better if we want to win our division.”
Let the record reflect that Tech is 2-0, having outscored its opposition 108-14. But the heavy lifting begins now.