ATLANTA — It was just a ho-hum, right-on-target start for Georgia Tech on Saturday.
The defense performed admirably and held an improving Clemson offense to a three-and-out to begin the game. The Yellow Jackets’ offense was getting antsy on the sideline, anticipating their first drive. And the punt return unit looked poised to finally come alive and get specialist Jerrard Tarrant going.
Then it happened.
As Clemson punter Dawson Zimmerman lofted a 41-yard punt toward Tarrant’s waiting hands, one rushing special teamer collided with him, causing a string of yellow hankies to dot the field.
“We roughed the kicker on a guy where they turned two guys loose and it should have been a punt block,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said.
As a result, the Tigers held onto the ball, moved up to their own 45, and tried to make the Yellow Jackets pay.
One play, 55 yards and a cannon shot later, they did.
Thanks in large part to the penalty, Clemson tailback Andre Ellington ripped off a 55-yard touchdown run that gave the Tigers an early lead at Memorial Stadium. As future drives would indicate, that infraction wouldn’t be the only one that hurt the Yellow Jackets in their 27-13 loss.
Following Georgia Tech’s ensuing drive — a three-and-out — another major penalty reared its head, as linebacker Anthony Egbuniwe was flagged for a late hit during a Clemson punt return. Trying to slow himself down, he crashed into the Tigers returner after he crossed into the sideline.
Clemson kicked a field goal to go up 10-0 on that subsequent series.
“It was a nightmare,” Johnson said about the Yellow Jackets’ punt coverage.
The Yellow Jackets now have an off week coming as they prepare for Virginia Tech in two weeks.
According to one player, the bye couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
This is gut-check time on the Flats, B-back Anthony Allen said, as the Yellow Jackets’ gauntlet of tough, chip-shouldered ACC teams continues.
Now that they have gotten past a Clemson team that lost four consecutive games to them and was hungry for a win, particularly after losing last year’s ACC title game to them, the Yellow Jackets travel to Blacksburg, Va. to face a Hokies team that was angered by the way they lost in Atlanta last season. Add that story line to the fact that the Hokies—like the Tigers and the Miami Hurricanes soon to follow—are challenging for a spot in this year’s conference championship, and the road back to glory remains a tough one for the Yellow Jackets.
If Georgia Tech wants to relive what it saw last December, it has to respond to this recent loss in practices these next two weeks, Allen said.
“This is going to show a lot of people on the team’s character right now,” Allen said. “We’re going to see who really wants it and who really wants to be here right now, and who’s going to fight to the end.”
From fake to fumble
Georgia Tech B-back Lucas Cox nearly played hero for the Yellow Jackets.
He had two chances to do so, and put the responsibility on his teammates to take advantage of the opportunities he gave them.
But they couldn’t.
Early in the second quarter, with the Yellow Jackets already down 17-0, Cox, in punt formation, called for a fake run. As the ball was snapped directly to him, he surprised the Tigers and raced 22 yards for a first-down, negating a fourth-and-short situation.
“It was something we worked on and felt like was there,” Johnson said. “It gave us a little jolt, but we didn’t get anything out of it.”
Driving into Clemson territory after the first-down run, the Yellow Jackets’ series stalled, as they failed to convert on a later fourth-and-long.
“It just opened up right and I guess you guys saw me almost fall because I saw too much green and I didn’t know what to do,” Cox, a converted former fullback, said to reporters after the game. “It was a good time to call it.”
Along with the fake, Cox had a chance to play hero early in the third quarter, when he forced loose a fumble from Ellington, who was playing at kick return. But as the ball hit the turf, and Cox fell into the pile for it, Ellington snatched it away from Yellow Jackets players who seemed to initially recover it.
“He might be one of the best kick returners we’ve faced all year,” Cox said. “We were just trying to butt up the guys and make them move laterally so they wouldn’t take it to the house. I just got lucky and swung and hit the ball.”
Cox admitted Ellington made what may have looked to the outside eye as a controversial recovery.
Poole continues to impress
There were times early this season where punting was a problem for the Yellow Jackets. Kicks barely traveled beyond the line of scrimmage, or went blocked like Chandler Anderson’s attempt against North Carolina State.
Across the last four games, however, progress has seemed to have been made in the special teams area. Much of that can be attributed to the success of redshirt freshman Sean Poole, who has emerged in recent weeks as Georgia Tech’s primary punter.
Against Virginia two weeks ago, he booted one kick that was downed right on the 1-yard line.
On Saturday, he looked much the same.
Poole had three punts — all in the first quarter — that traveled an average 47.7 yards. His first was a 53-yarder that was returned by Clemson specialist Marcus Gilchrist, but was largely negated by Egbuniwe’s late hit out of bounds. In addition to Gilchrist’s 18-yard return, an additional 15 yards were tacked on due to the personal foul.
Georgia Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt remains 42 yards shy of the ACC’s rushing record for quarterbacks, as he tallied just two yards against Clemson. The current mark is held by former Tigers signal-caller Woodrow “Woody” Dantzler, who set it in 2001. Dantzler finished his career with 2,761 yards. … Ellington’s 166-yard rushing tally marked a career-high. He became the fifth running back to rush for more than 100 yards in a game against the Yellow Jackets this season.