ATLANTA — For two weeks to start the season, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ray Beno was absent from Georgia Tech’s lineup card.
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There was never a real indication as to why.
Practices came and went, news conferences took place, questions were asked and vague answers were provided.
Whatever it was that kept him away from the field before wasn’t enough to fully sideline him Saturday afternoon, as an injury-depleted Yellow Jackets line needed him to contribute.
Earlier in the week, backup center Jay Finch suffered a minor injury that nagged him to the point he wasn’t going to be able to play when Georgia Tech hosted North Carolina State on Saturday.
“It shook me up a little bit, but when I knew I was going to be the second-string and that when it was my time to be called up, I knew I had to step in and do what I had to do,” Beno said.
His time came just six offensive plays into the contest.
Following a first-quarter, lower leg injury to senior starter Sean Bedford, Beno got his chance.
“When I got in there, I was definitely nervous, but after a few plays, I settled down and did my assignments,” Beno said.
The butterflies showed on his first play, when Beno and senior starting quarterback Joshua Nesbitt apparently misconnected on a snap that hit the turf and bounced around for a fumble. To his credit, Nesbitt was able to fall on the ball and make the recovery.
Discounting the fumble, head coach Paul Johnson said he believed Beno played a reasonably well, given the responsibility that was immediately lumped into his lap.
“I’m sure he tried as hard as he could; we’ll have to look and see how it worked out,” Johnson said.
Defending his young player from concerns that using the third-string center was what hurt the Yellow Jackets the most offensively in their 45-28 loss, Johnson said it was a collective disappointment. Four total fumbles — two on pitches and another on a drop at the end of a run — helped prove that, he said.
“Ray didn’t make us fumble the ball and have penalties and do all those other things that we did,” Johnson said.
Johnson said trainers believed Bedford was kicked in the leg accidentally by an opposing player during a play. The coach expected the senior to be back for practice this week.
Johnson may contend that Bedford’s absence didn’t hurt his team’s execution, but players believe it did change the tenor of what they were able to do emotionally.
“Beno definitely did what he could, but it was that senior leadership from when Bedford was in the game,” senior B-back Anthony Allen said. “He’s always letting guys know, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s get it, it’s in your heart. You’ve got to get it, you’ve got to dig, you’ve got to fight.’ Then, it wasn’t out there anymore. It was just me and Joshua just trying to get the offense together.”
A-back Roddy Jones, an outspoken leader in his own right, wasn’t able to fully pinpoint why that void seemed to exist Saturday when Bedford went down. Last week, at North Carolina, after Bedford was sidelined several snaps due to cramps, the electricity remained high in huddles with the offensive line leader in there.
“Sean left the game last week and we were able to keep it up. We just weren’t able to keep it up this time,” Jones said. “And it wasn’t anything that Ray did. I think Ray played pretty well, especially being thrust in the game like that.”
New objective: third-down stops
Each week, it seems, a new objective surfaces for the Yellow Jackets’ defense to try to fix.
Following the first three games, those fixes revolved around stopping the run, reinforcing tackling skills and maintaining containment, particularly with the challenge of Russell Wilson looming.
Now, this week, the target likely will be third-down defense.
“The thing that stood out to me was the performance of the quarterback,” Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Al Groh said, asked about the Wolfpack’s success converting eight third-downs. “He did a good job of eluding whatever pressure there was there, moving within the pocket, getting out of the pocket, spotting empty receivers.”
None of those conversions was as damaging as Wilson’s fourth-quarter, 23-yard touchdown pass on third-and-11 to receiver T.J. Graham.
“We have to stress third-down a lot. That’s a big point where we just can’t get off the field, it seems like,” linebacker Steven Sylvester said. “Third-and-short, third-and-long and we just can’t get off the field, so that’s definitely an emphasis we’re going to focus on this week in practice.”
The Yellow Jackets made several changes to their lineup card before the game, starting Lucas Cox at A-back in place of sophomore Orwin Smith, who was expected to start at one of the positions.
Sean Poole also received the start at punter in place of Chandler Anderson. Anderson, however, had a punt go blocked late in the first quarter that resulted in a 1-yard recovery and score for the Wolfpack.
Macon native Correy Earls played both special teams and offense, coming away with his first reception of the season. Last year, he played defensive back. … Former Johnson County standout Brad Jefferson had a pair of sacks in addition to his team-high 11 total tackles. The two sacks were the first of his career. … Nesbitt’s 61-yard run on the first play of the second half was the longest of his career. It set up a Yellow Jackets touchdown. … Allen now sits 13 yards shy of 2,000 rushing for his career.