ATLANTA — For nearly 30 minutes of football Saturday, Jacksonville State looked on course to put another Power Five conference opponent on upset alert.
Then the mistakes came. And came. And came.
Three crucial turnovers helped Georgia Tech turn a late-second-quarter deficit into a three-score lead by midway through the third quarter, and the Yellow Jackets turned the perfect “setup job” into a setup for 37-10 victory in Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“It shows you how important the ball is,” JSU coach John Grass said. “The importance of the ball in a game is humongous.
“It bit them Monday night. They had 535 yards rushing against an SEC defense and turn it over twice and gets them beat. You can’t turn it over three times in four possessions and expect to win a game, especially against a caliber of a team that Georgia Tech is.”
So much for the “setup job” about which Tech coach Paul Johnson worried aloud last week, noting that his former athletics director scheduled JSU (1-1), a top-level FCS program, fewer than five full days after the Yellow Jackets would play Tennessee on a Monday night. Tech (1-1) lost to Tennessee 42-41 in double overtime in Monday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff game despite gaining 655 total yards.
“I’m relieved that it’s over,” Johnson said after Saturday’s game. “I think I’ve said my piece on that, but that’s really tough on guys to come back and play.”
Not so much on Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who made his second start Saturday.
After rushing 44 times for 249 yards against Tennessee, setting a school record for quarterbacks, he became the first Tech quarterback to throw three touchdown passes in a game since Justin Thomas against Virginia in 2014. Marshall, who also rushed for a 1-yard score in the fourth quarter, hit touchdown passes of 27 and 23 yards to Ricky Jeune and 10 yards to J.J. Green.
The pass to Green put Tech up 23-7 at 8:57 of the third quarter, and Jerry Howard broke a 65-yard touchdown run shortly thereafter. That’s how quickly Tech seized control after trailing 7-3 late in the second quarter.
JSU took possession after stopping Tech on fourth-and-one at Gamecocks’ 36-yard line at 2:38 of the second quarter and appeared well on its way to leading at halftime, say nothing of receiving the second-half kickoff. Things went wrong quickly, however.
JSU quarterback Bryant Horn, making his second start as replacement to former All-American Eli Jenkins, rolled right and threw to Shaq Davidson on an intermediate out route. Tech nickel back Lawrence Austin read it, charged from the middle of the field and ran under the pass, setting up Marshall’s first touchdown pass to Jeune and a 10-7 Tech lead at halftime.
The third quarter started with Horn throwing a quick out behind Demontez Terry. Tech cornerback Step Durham read the play, stepped up and wound up in position to intercept it, setting up Marshall’s second touchdown pass to Jeune.
“I think Bryant will correct those things,” Grass said. “He just made two bad reads and laid the ball on the ground one time, and that’s so uncharacteristic of him to do that.”
Horn fumbled on a zone-read keeper JSU’s next play from scrimmage, at the Gamecocks’ 29, setting up Marshall’s touchdown pass to Green.
That’s how quickly JSU went from pulling another Auburn — two years after nearly upsetting the then-sixth-ranked Tigers — to falling too far behind against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent.
This after the Gamecocks played 28 minutes of promising football.
JSU’s defense forced third-and-long situations in Tech’s first four possessions and made stops on three of them. The Gamecocks gave up just 210 rushing yards against a triple-option team that thrives on the running game.
Johnson said his offensive line “looked like we were playing in sand.” JSU’s defense, coming off an open date, looked like the kind of the sandpit for much of the game.
“We had to play a schemed-up game,” said JSU defensive end Darius Jackson, who ran down Marshall from behind twice on option plays. “Everybody had to do their assignment. I feel like everybody did their assignment, for the most part.
“I feel like we really came together this game and showed that we can play ball together and hold the offense down any time we need to.”
Grass noted the difference in Tech’s plays and yards from the Tennessee game to Saturday.
“They snapped it 56 times (Saturday) for 322 yards,” he said. “They snapped it 95, 96 times Monday night and had 650 yards offense, so got to be proud of the way we played, defensively.”
JSU’s offense, needing to keep Tech’s option attack off the field, mounted a 14-play, 75-yard drive over 8:11 for the Gamecocks’ go-ahead touchdown. Horn’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Krenwick Sanders gave JSU a 7-3 lead at 12:26 of the second quarter, and it nearly held up into halftime.
JSU had a 15:03-14:57 edge in time of possession at halftime. Tech held the ball for 41:27 of regulation against Tennessee.
“We really felt like we were controlling the line of scrimmage at that point and felt like we did that the rest of the game,” JSU offensive lineman Justin Lea said. “Just a couple of costly missed blocks and turnovers led to us getting behind the chains and them scoring three touchdowns off of that.”