Without Justin Thomas, Tech didn’t have much of a chance.
The Yellow Jackets’ most indispensable player was dispensed with after an injury on Tech’s first possession of the game, and the game probably went with him.
Matthew Jordan did his best, but wasn’t up to it in his first real test. He picked up nine first downs and a touchdown with runs and passes (six first downs on run plays, one touchdown run and three first-down passes) but also fumbled six times and threw an interception. He probably showed that coach Paul Johnson's hindsight had merit - he had considered using Jordan as a short-yardage/goal-line quarterback earlier in the season, but didn't pull the trigger.
"He took the role," A-back Clinton Lynch said of Jordan. "He wasn't scared. We just need to execute."
I’m not quite ready to say that Tech would have won the game had Thomas played the whole game – the Jackets had early success against Pittsburgh, Virginia and Virginia Tech before sputtering – nor that it was an impossibility to win with Jordan. But it made it a much different game.
Injuries took another bite out of the Jackets
A-back Mikell Lands-Davis didn’t play due to an undisclosed injury. Besides Thomas, A-back TaQuon Marshall and B-back Marcus Allen both suffered injuries and did not return. Neither’s injury was disclosed. Marshall was on crutches following the game. Center Freddie Burden also left the game with an injury suffered on Miami's fumble return for a touchdown.
By Tech’s count, Lands-Davis was the 16th player to miss at least one game with an injury this season. The list may grow for the Georgia game.
Thomas’ status, of course, will be a concern this week prior to the game against the Bulldogs. Thomas’ injury was not disclosed, but Johnson said it was due to Thomas hitting his head on the ground (it wasn't a concussion, however). On the Tech bench during the game and after as he came out of the locker room, Thomas moved stiffly and gingerly. Johnson said he didn’t know about Thomas’ status for next Saturday.
Clinton Lynch played another productive game
He had a run for 36 yards on the first play of the game, thanks in no small part to a good read from Thomas and a perimeter block from A-back Isiah Willis, a 17-yard run and catches for 15 and 22 yards.
He has eight touchdowns and 640 rushing and receiving yards this season, both of which I’m going to guess are among the highest totals for a freshman A-back. Roddy Jones had five touchdowns and 845 rushing and receiving yards as a freshman in 2008, the latter total considerably augmented by his 214 rushing yards against Georgia.
“I did what I could,” Lynch said. “I just tried to make the most of my opportunities just dealing with the elements and trying to come up with a win.”
Big plays slay Tech defense
Prior to Saturday, the Jackets had allowed just five of the 168 opposition pass completions to gain 40 yards or more. Saturday, Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya had three in his 16-for-25 performance. Tech evidently has a matchup problem with the swift and gifted Hurricanes.
In 2013, Duke Johnson ran for 184 yards and Stephen Morris completed 17 of 22 passes for 324 yards. Miami’s 10.4 yards-per-play average in that game, a 45-30 Hurricanes win, set a record for an ACC game.
In 2014, Miami downshifted to a mere 8 yards per game, but were done in by two Kaaya interceptions, strong red-zone play by the Tech defense and highly efficient play by the Tech offense.
Saturday, it was perhaps most evident after Jordan fumbled the ball away inside the Miami 5-yard line in the second quarter. Kaaya exploited a busted coverage for a 42-yard pass to wide receiver Stacey Coley to push Miami out from its 3-yard line. Two plays later, Herb Waters beat double coverage for a 46-yard reception. The Hurricanes went 97 yards in six plays, the longest touchdown drive against Tech since 2011.
Miami averaged 7.1 yards per play Saturday, its second highest average of the season.
Up and down
Figure this: the Tech defense had three three-and-outs, a five-and-out and two six-and-outs but also gave up three touchdown drives that covered a total of 247 yards in a total of 20 plays (12.4 yards per play).
“All year,” Johnson said. “Pretty good for a series or two, then nonexistent for a series or two.”
There were times the Jackets rallied to the ball, set the edge and pressured Kaaya, and others when the pass rush was ineffective, coverage loose and tackling shoddy.
“Sometimes, you just make an error or two and it can kind of bog you down,” defensive end KeShun Freeman said.
Interestingly, Tech’s defense could have the lowest third-down conversion rate in Johnson’s tenure – it’s 36.9 percent after Saturday, and the lowest was 36.3 percent, in 2013, defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s first season – which is what the priority for this season was.
Bowl streak done
Tech’s bowl streak officially ended at 3:58 p.m. Eastern time with the Jackets taking on their eighth loss of the season. Before Saturday’s result, there was still the outside chance that Tech might be able to squeak into the 80-team bowl field if there were a shortage of bowl-eligible teams.
Rather auspiciously, the 18-year streak began at Sun Life Stadium (then called Pro Player Stadium) at the 1997 Carquest Bowl, ended there at the Orange Bowl last December and was officially terminated there Saturday. Georgia had been tied with Tech for third longest active bowl streak, but will go alone in extending its run to 19 this bowl season. Florida State will play in its 34th consecutive bowl, longest in college football history. (The NCAA apparently doesn't recognize the streak because one bowl game was vacated.) Virginia Tech is 5-6 after its loss to North Carolina Saturday and will likely need to win against Virginia this coming Saturday to become bowl-eligible, although the Hokies also have a chance at making it at 5-7.
End of half mishandled
If it would have ended up making a difference, the manner in which Tech ended the first half would be under more scrutiny. Tech took control of the ball at its nine-yard line with 1:34 remaining. Down 21-7, the Jackets looked to be playing to run out of the clock, as the first play was a Jordan keeper, after which Miami called timeout (after letting time run down to 1:07). But the Jackets then made a first down and reached their 29-yard line after an eight-yard pass on first down to Brad Stewart.
There were now 39 seconds left, but then Jordan threw incomplete on second-and-2, stopping the clock with 32 seconds left. A first down would get Tech out of the half, but B-back Marcus Allen gained just one yard on third-and-1, and Miami called timeout with 27 seconds left. Then things got weird.
At its 30-yard line, Tech didn’t get the punt off in time and was backed up five yards to its 25 for delay of game. Then punter Ryan Rodwell punted the ball just 19 yards, giving it to Miami at the Tech 44-yard line with 18 seconds left. A four-yard pass by Kaaya put kicker Michael Badgley in position for a 57-yard field goal.
With the wind at his back, Badgley drilled it as time expired, tying the Miami school record. It was the second school-record kick against the Jackets this season, following the 56-yarder by Pittsburgh’s Chris Blewitt to win that game. It is the first time since 1980 that Tech has had two field goals scored against it of 55 yards or longer.
More for the record book
The loss means, among other things, Tech will experience either the largest one-season drop-off in win total in school history or tie for the largest. The 1929 team followed the 1928 national championship team’s 10-0 record with a 3-6 season. If the Jackets lose to Georgia, they’ll have fallen from 11-3 to 3-9.
I’m not sure I was expecting Tech to play 60 minutes of highly efficient football, but I wasn’t expecting this, either. Defensively, Tech had no sacks (the Jackets were credited with four quarterback hurries), no turnovers and one tackle for loss. The Hurricanes scored more points than they had in the previous eight games.
Offensively, the Jackets set a modern-day school record with nine fumbles. In some ways, I guess it makes a modicum of sense – terrible conditions, new quarterback – but nine is a lot. After the opening scoring drive, Tech went nine possessions without points before touchdown drives on its final two times with the ball.
Clearly, the injuries can’t be discounted, particularly the one to Thomas. Tech played without its most important player (Thomas) and its best defensive player (Adam Gotsis) and played with seven freshmen on offense. That said, every team has injuries (though most not to Tech’s extent) and, as Johnson has said repeatedly, they’re not freshmen anymore. TCU nearly beat No. 7 Oklahoma on the road Saturday night with its backup. And, on the other hand again, TCU went 4-8 in 2013 after starting the season in the top 25 (the point being that Tech isn’t the only team that’s ever unexpectedly cratered). And would Tech have had a better shot at beating Miami with Tim Byerly coming in for Thomas instead of Jordan? Probably so.
Still, hard to believe.