The 2017 Georgia Tech football season – also known as TaQuon Marshall’s Spinning Teacup Ride – is nearing an end. Looming last on the regular-season schedule is Georgia, a prohibitive favorite with a taste for payback.
About all you need to know about the many moods of Marshall’s first season running Paul Johnson’s foot-powered offense can be distilled to, of all things, a pair of passes.
Harken back to the fourth quarter against Virginia Tech in Game 9. Pinned deep in his own end, Marshall scrambled right with every intention of throwing away the ball. Instead, off-balance, he threw a numbingly bad interception that was returned for a touchdown, giving the Hokies a one-point lead.
Inside his golden helmet, his best instincts fought for control of his thoughts.
“We’re playing on TV, I know if something like that happens the camera is going to be directly in my face, seeing what my facial expression is. I know my teammates are looking at me, trying to see how I’m going to react,” Marshall remembered. “I knew in the back of my mind, yeah, you made a mistake, you got to let that go because we still have a chance to go down and put up some points and win the game (seven minutes remained). It was bad, but it wasn’t the most terrible thing.”
Two plays later, still deep in the wrong end of the field, this time Marshall dropped straight back, found a shockingly open Ricky Jeune, hit him in stride over the middle for what was the difference-making 80-yard touchdown play. Tech had its best win of the season.
Marshall left that game with the most schizophrenic stat line imaginable: A mere two completions in eight attempts, both for long touchdowns, totaling 140 yards. Ever helpful, Johnson noted that actually all three of his completions went for TDs, if you count the one Marshall threw to the wrong team.
Yes, Marshall’s first season as Tech’s quarterback has been an exercise in extremes. Beginning with the beginning, as he emerged from the shadows in the spring to claim the starting job just before the opener. There would be tall, jagged peaks in performance. And multiple below-sea-level moments, like losing every road game. Even those occasionally came bundled with conflicting emotions, as in Saturday’s crushing loss at Duke when Marshall ran for 140 yards and crossed the 1,000-yard rushing threshold.
A lot of A, a lot of Z, and very few of the letters in between.
Marshall still has the most dynamic performance in the brief history of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the distinction may stand awhile. Against Tennessee, in his debut, he carried the ball 44 times for 249 yards and five touchdowns. Threw for another 120 yards atop that.
... And still lost.
So, you have the biggest kind of personal splash set against the backdrop of the kind of loss that left Marshall on one knee on the field afterward, head bowed, as dejected as he was spent.
There would be other knee-buckling losses – by one point in Miami, by four in Virginia. Both road games played in the rain. A slight quarterback with relatively small hands, Marshall doesn’t enjoy at all trying to grip and throw a wet football. But he can’t convince the NCAA to go Nerf.
And some stirring victories against the likes of Wake Forest and Virginia. It truly has been the point-counterpoint season, his numbers seeming to be engaged in some kind of formal debate among themselves. Six games this season Marshall has rushed for more than 100 yards. Three other games he ran for 25 yards or less. There have been hints of passing adequacy. And yet the past four games his completion percentage has hovered around 25 percent.
The one constant through all the inconsistencies is how Marshall has ridden the extremes. You never know how the new guy will deal with the demands of playing quarterback until he’s actually given the keys to the offense.
For one thing, even while possessing a less sturdy build than, say, his predecessor, Justin Thomas, Marshall kept getting up. That’s significant. No, he’s not asked to carry the ball 44 times every game as against Tennessee, but running Tech’s option does have certain crash test dummy implications.
“He’s tough as nails. You can’t question his toughness,” Johnson said.
“Does he do everything right all the time? No. But nobody does. You can count on him to go out and compete every down. He’s going to try to give you what he’s got,” the coach said.
An odd thought occurred to Marshall the day after his ninth game, spent in the company of rugged Virginia Tech: “I got up and said, ‘dang, I don’t feel too bad.’ This late in the season, I was a little surprised.”
Win or lose, achy or not, Marshall has turned the same determined face to the next practice, the next game, the next challenge, learning this leadership thing on the run. The 21-year-old junior wears the responsibility of his position very seriously.
It’s no accident, really.
Dad owns a lawn-maintenance business back in the small town of Hamilton, near Columbus. Mom is a nurse. Alibis aren’t big in that household in that part of the world.
If Marshall is highly tuned to the projecting the right image, there’s a reason.
“My mom also makes sure I’m aware of that,” he said.
“I have to watch what I say on social media. Watch the places I go. Watch the people I hang around with. How I carry myself in general. Even what I wear. I try to keep it where the spotlight isn’t on me when it doesn’t have to be, stay really low key. Otherwise, you could bring attention to the team that could be a distraction.”
Said his mother, Tiffany Marshall, “I tried to instill in both TaQuon and his older brother from a young age that you’re a role model regardless if you were an athlete or just a student because you never know who you’re making an impression on.”
For a relatively new college quarterback that has meant a conscious effort to remain consistent in things like attitude and even body language through all the swings of this season.
That has meant a determination to stay positive, even when it is not a natural condition – “He’s a pretty confident kid, he’s confident in his ability,” Johnson said of his quarterback. “The biggest thing for him is not confidence, it’s that he gets down on himself. He gets disappointed if he doesn’t make the right play all the time.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to keep the positivity, but I know I have to keep it because the guys around me feed off me. I make sure, even though I’m hard on myself and down on myself sometimes, my facial expression shows different,” Marshall said.
Putting on a positive face is not a problem 90 miles away from Bobby Dodd Stadium, back in Hamilton.
Not even this week, with a powerful rival looming, with Tech having lost three of its past four, and despite the fact that Marshall’s hometown is largely Bulldogs country.
“Our community is huge Dogs fans,” Tiffany Marshall said. “We always tell them: We love you before the game. We’re going to love you after the game. But during the game we’re going to come and whip some butt.”