College football is home to rich traditions, and with the return of full capacity stadiums comes the renewal of many of them. One of Tech’s most storied traditions returned as the team was led onto the field by the Ramblin Reck in front of a full and electric student section.
Tech came into the season opener as 19-point favorites while hosting a Northern Illinois team that had an 0-6 record last season. After a strong offseason, there was much anticipation about how this Tech offense would look.
There were multiple promising signs for the Jackets in the opening quarter. After the defense forced a three and out, the Jackets began the drive by leaning on their running game and preseason All-ACC running back Jahmyr Gibbs. Later in the opening possession, when faced with a fourth and four at the Northern Illinois 49-yard line, Collins showed his willingness to be aggressive and drew up a passing play for Jeff Sims. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, it showed Collins’ trust in the young quarterback and Sims’ offseason growth in his passing ability.
On Tech’s second drive, Sims showed off his dangerous running ability with back-to-back designed runs that set Tech up to attempt a 43-yard field goal. Towards the end of last season, Collins had become reluctant to attempt field goals, but with the arrival of a new transfer kicker, Tennessee’s Brent Cimaglia, Collins did not shy away from long field goal attempts.
Northern Illinois took advantage of the missed field goal and capped off a run-heavy drive with a 35-yard touchdown from running back Harrison Waylee. Tech had a chance to respond, but Sims was unable to connect with an open Nate McCollum in the endzone. The drive ended with Collins showing trust again in his special teams unit to attempt a 51-yard field goal, but it fell short again.
With 10 minutes to go in the first half, a passing touchdown from Michigan State transfer quarterback Rocky Lombardi pushed Tech into an early 14-0 deficit. In the ensuing drive, Sims mishandled a handoff and Northern Illinois recovered the fumble, but the bigger story of that play was Sims walking off the field grabbing his arm. The severity of the injury was still unknown, but he would not return to the game.
On backup quarterback Jordan Yates’ first drive, he led them out as they were pinned on their own 3-yard line. On the second play of the drive, the refs initially ruled that a fumble by Tech was recovered by Northern Illinois and returned for a touchdown. However, upon further review it was overturned and Tech kept possession. This proved to be a critical point in the game as it served as a big momentum shifter.
Running back Jordan Mason made an important run to give Tech a needed first down and some space from their own endzone. Yates remained poised throughout the drive and did not become fazed by the pressure of the moment nor the defense. One of the biggest highlight plays of the drive came on a critical third and 10 when he extended the play, rushed for 11 yards and flipped over the defense to pick up the first down. On the very next play, he found Kyric McGowan down the middle for a touchdown to cut the deficit to seven with 47 seconds remaining in the half, capping off a 97-yard drive.
A scoreless third quarter from both teams found Tech in a one-score game entering the fourth. With 10:07 left in the game, Tech took over possession at their own 23-yard line. Yates began the drive by finding his go-to target Malachi Carter down the sideline for a 53-yard gain. Dontae Smith capped off the drive with a 15-yard rushing touchdown to tie the game at 14 with just under eight minutes left in the game.
The offensive score energized the defense as they forced a Northern Illinois fumble and recovered it at the 25-yard line. Tech’s offense took full advantage of the opportunistic field position. A couple of strong runs by Mason set Yates up to finish the drive with a rushing touchdown, giving Tech their first lead of the game with just over six and half minutes left.
Following a strong defensive stand where Tech forced a critical sack on second down, Tech received the ball with just over four minutes left. Playing with the lead, a methodical and time-consuming drive would have ended the game, but Northern Illinois played tight defense and got their offense the ball back, mounting their final drive down by seven with just under three minutes to play at their own 20-yard line.
During the drive, Lombardi was able to make big throws and counteract a Tech defense that had neutralized Northern Illinois for much of the game , having not allowed a single point since the second quarter.
This allowed Northern Illinois to set themselves up to score their needed touchdown with 38 seconds left.
Rather than settle for the tie, they attempted to go for two. Although it was a play that sparked some debate, it was ruled that conversion was successful and Northern Illinois had regained the lead, 22-21.
After a crucial roughing the passer penalty, Tech was set up at their own 40-yard line. With ten seconds left, Yates was able to find McGowan to bring Tech to the opponent’s 43-yard line, leaving one second left. Collins sent out Cimaglia to attempt a 60-yard field goal for the win.
Although his previous long was 53 yards, Cimaglia had made field goals from 60+ yards during practice. Northern Illinois blocked the kick and successfully knocked off the Jackets.
While Tech did not come away with the win, they have several areas to build from as they look ahead to the rest of the season. They made important plays in all facets of the game while limiting their mistakes.
The Jackets will look to regroup and bounce back next week as they host Kennesaw State, offering Tech a chance to even their record against a FCS team. The game is slated to kick off at noon.