“I woke up (Saturday) morning and I woke up pretty early,” Pyron said. “I was up before a lot of people. I was a little emotional out there, knowing I was going to be playing in my first college game, something I’ve been working towards my whole life.”
Saturday wasn’t exactly a fairy tale for Pyron, but he did more than do well to get in starter Zach Gibson (who was starting in Sims’ place) after a two-run, three-run inning. Pyron completed 18 of 28 passes for 198 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He was involved in arm plays and avoided mistakes common to freshmen, such as forcing passes, taking hold-of-play penalties or running out of the pocket at the first sign of pressure.
“He showed a lot of poise, he showed a lot of maturity as a freshman,” Key said.
Pyron credited quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke, offensive coordinator Chip Long and Sims for helping him not get overwhelmed at this point.
“It was good to get there,” Pyron said. “It felt good to get hit. So I calmed down really quickly, I just trusted the guys around me that I had it. And I just put my trust in the Lord knowing that he has a way for everything. He felt really good.”
Key said the plan was for Pyron to step in for Gibson after two sets and that playing time after that would be determined by how they played. Pyron picked up the team’s first first down on his second series, a 13-yard completion to receiver Nate McCollum on third-and-7, and played the rest of the game.
He and the offense were much better in the second half, with the Jackets gaining 240 yards and scoring 13 points after managing but 24 yards and three scores in the first.
More about Zach Pyron
Pyron did something on a 4th-and-3 play with about three minutes left in the fourth quarter at the Florida State 40-yard line. After a 7-yard run by running back Hassan Hall on third down, Pyron rushed the offense to the line and made a rare hit up the middle.
Two FSU defenders broke free on a run at Pyron, and he pulled back but kept his eyes downfield. Knowing an incompletion or a sack would result in lost downs, Pyron stayed in the pocket and threw a back-foot target pass to wide receiver EJ Jenkins for a 6-yard gain and a first down.
On the next play, a flea blitz with Hall, Pyron again had two Seminoles pass rushers in his face but was still able to connect with McCollum downfield for 18 yards and another first downfield. Later in the drive, he dropped a shotgun snap on third-and-10, but had the presence to scoop up the ball and run for 9 yards, stiff-arming the defensive backs on the way. The drive ended scoreless — Tech went for it on fourth-and-goal from the FSU 3 and came up empty — but on the final drive of the game, Pyron led a two-minute drive that went 75 yards in 1:09, ending with his 8-yard touchdown run as time expired .
His play left an impression.
“I told Zach after the game that I loved the way he played,” defender Ayinde Eley said. “He played with his heart and I can’t ask for anything more than that. He gave us everything he had and emptied the tank. I’m good with Zach and I told Zach that no matter what happens, we’ll have his back.”
Especially as a career debut, it was a promising game. Pyron figures to be the starter next Saturday at Virginia Tech if Sims is unable to play.
After the game, “(Key) said he was proud of me, but he said, ‘We’ve got to keep working,'” Pyron said. “It wasn’t the result we wanted, no matter what the performance was, so we’ve got to get it going (on Sunday) and put in the work and build on it because I just hate losing. And they hate losing and everybody hates losing. We want to change that .”
Running game foiled
For the second straight game, Tech’s run game was unproductive. The Jackets netted 66 yards on 30 carries, an average of 2.2 yards per carry. It was the fewest allowed this season by FSU, which had given up 167.7 rushing yards per game in six previous games against FBS opponents. Even after removing the yardage sack (four for 27 yards), Tech’s numbers were still 93 yards on 26 carries (3.6 yards per carry), far from enough for a team whose strength is in the run.
This came after Tech rushed for 56 yards on 37 carries (including 50 yards lost in sacks) against Virginia, a game in which Sims left the game with an injury and the offense was ineffective. The performance against the Cavaliers prompted Key to acknowledge that “we have to have answers.” In general, the Seminoles’ strength in the middle and speed on the perimeter made it difficult for the Jackets to pass the ball. Tech’s longest drive of the day was a 15-yard gain by Hall, who had 10 carries for 45 yards.
Especially if Sims doesn’t return for the Virginia Tech game on Saturday or his absence is extended, the Jackets need more of the answers Key has been looking for. The Jackets are in a tough spot as the line is coached by graduate assistant Nathan Brock, who is two years removed from his playing days as a backup at Ohio State. (Key was the offensive line coach before becoming interim.) Tech has been without its 10th assistant coach since the resignation of running backs coach Mike Daniels on Oct. 14. Key, who said last week that he had identified a replacement and would announce it next week, may offer his expertise but clearly has other responsibilities.
Trying out younger players
Tyler Gibson started the first half in a streak with starting left tackle Corey Robinson and then played most or all of the second half. Like Pyron, this was his first collegiate event.
Gibson, the younger brother of quarterback Zach Gibson, started the year on the scout team but has been moved to game prep in recent weeks.
“We decided we wanted to take some young guys that have talent and start really putting them in the mix to play in the game,” Key said.
Gibson had some pass-blocking issues — as did Robinson — but “did some really good things,” Key said. “He’s going to be a really good footballer.”
While it’s unclear if this was part of Key’s plan to play younger players, cornerback Kenyatta Watson played much of the second half in place of starter Zamari Walton.
“There’s no way we’re going to just slide anybody into a football game,” Key said. “They’re the people who have a chance to go out there and compete, number one, and give us the best chance to succeed.”
While Key is the first head coach and an interim, his plan to filter out younger players suggests he is taking a big-picture, long-term approach to the job, even if he desperately needs to win. It indicates that he has been preparing for this occasion for a long time.
The run defense ragged
Aside from two turnovers (one of them caused by a dropped snap) and a turnover on downs on Florida State’s first possession, there wasn’t much to recommend Tech’s defensive play. Tech allowed five touchdowns and two field goals on its next seven possessions. Touchdown drives averaged 84.8 yards. FSU quarterback Jordan Travis lit up the Jackets by completing 24 of 38 passes for 396 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The tackling was poor as Florida State’s ball carriers either passed on tackle attempts or avoided them by changing direction. The jacket defenders beat the ball. Other times, Key said, players tried to strip the ball rather than secure a tackle and give teammates a chance to go for the ball.
“(Passing the ball) sometimes happens to one person,” Key said. “But where are the rest of the guys in pursuit?” That’s a question we have to look at when we see the tape.’
The pass rush generally hasn’t been effective against Travis, leaving the secondary vulnerable. Travis was able to maneuver away from the pass when he reached it.
After the open week, FSU had time to rest and prepare, and it certainly looked that way.
Freshman safety Clayton Powell-Lee, who drew praise from the coaches, led the Jackets with a career-high 14 tackles in his third career start. (Tied with Eley for most tackles by a Tech player in a game this season.) Walk-on defensive tackle Jason Moore had a productive game with two tackles (half tackles for loss), a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. .