ATLANTA -- A week ago, the Georgia Tech football team saw the possibilities that existed for it when it plays a mistake-free game.
Saturday, the Yellow Jackets got a look at the other extreme and witnessed the ugliness that’s still out there when things don’t go just right.
No. 22-ranked Georgia Tech committed three turnovers, losing one fumble and throwing a pair of interceptions, and was flagged for 69 yards in penalties. The result was a 31-15 loss to Duke.
Goodbye national ranking. Hello reality check.
“We’re not good enough to turn the ball over and have penalties and let people out there,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “We’ve got have clean games. That’s the way we’ve got to play. We’re not good enough to just roll our helmet out there and beat anybody.”
Georgia Tech didn’t have a great first half but trailed only 14-12 and had the ball to open the second half.
The fans at Bobby Dodd Stadium, who withstood an delay of an hour and 17 minutes because of lightning in the area, were waiting for the same team to show up that knocked off mighty Miami a week ago.
Only it never happened.
Georgia Tech turned the ball over on its first possession of the second half on a fumble by the sure-handed Zach Laskey, and Duke scored. Thomas, who turned his ankle just before halftime, threw two interceptions that led to another touchdown.
Four possessions, three turnovers, 14 Duke points. Not exactly Miami-like.
“I was disappointed in the way we played,” Johnson said. “We are not good enough to lose the turnover battle 3-0 to anybody and win the game. Couple that with the penalties, especially in the first half that kept drives alive for them. And in the red zone where they scored touchdowns, we scored field goals. And there’s the game.
“Hopefully you can learn from it and move on. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t disappointed.”
Quarterback Justin Thomas looked more like a third-year sophomore with five starts under his belt than he resembled the magician who played against Miami. Thomas ran for 119 yards but completed 6-of-15 passes for 61 yards and two interceptions. On one of the interceptions, he was trying to throw the ball out of bounds.
Laskey ran for 72 yards and one touchdown, but his first fumble of the year was critical in giving the second-half momentum back to Duke.
“You could tell we came out flat in the second half,” Laskey said. “When you play a team like Duke, you can’t come out and do that.”
If there was a bright spot Saturday, it was the play of backup quarterback Tim Byerly, who came in to run for 30 yards and two touchdowns and complete 7-of-10 passes for 125 yards.
The Georgia Tech defense couldn’t push Duke off the field. The Blue Devils kept possession for 29:44 and accumulated 373 yards. Quarterback Anthony Boone completed 15-of-25 for 123 yards and one touchdown, and Josh Snead ran 14 times for 102 yards and one touchdown.
“The bye week let us re-evaluate ourselves,” Boone said. “(Saturday) we showed what kind of team we could be. When everything is clicking, we’re hard to stop.”
The win ended a 10-game losing streak to Georgia Tech and marked Duke’s first win in Atlanta since 1994.
The first sign of distress came on its first possession, when Georgia Tech lost its steam with a holding call. Still, the Yellow Jackets had first-and-10 at the 12 but couldn’t break through. On third down, Thomas fired way over the head of DeAndre Smelter, who was shaken up when he fell on the concrete walkway beyond the right corner of the north end zone. Georgia Tech had to settle for a 27-yard field goal.
The Georgia Tech defense appeared to have Duke stopped cold on its next possession. But Boone connected with Shaun Wilson for a 29-yard pass, and Georgia Tech’s Corey Griffin was flagged for targeting and ejected. From there, it took Duke six plays to score, the final 4 yards coming on a pass to Max McCaffrey.
Georgia Tech appeared to have regained the momentum when Jamal Golden returned the ensuing kickoff 68 yards to the Duke 28. This time, the drive broke down at the 8, and Georgia Tech settled for Butker’s 26-yard field goal, which left Duke ahead 7-6.