TAMPA — Throughout the offseason, the Georgia Tech staff talked about finishing strong. But the Yellow Jackets were unable to cross the line again Saturday and wound up with a 49-38 loss to South Florida.
Georgia Tech had a 10-point lead with 14:15 left in the game and failed to close the deal. This time the Yellow Jackets allowed South Florida to score the final 21 points of the game.
In a game filled with big plays, the most pivotal came with 7:47 remaining. Holding a 38-35 lead, Georgia Tech drove the ball to the South Florida 19, seemingly on its way to what whould have been the insurance score.
The pitch went to ever-dependable Qua Searcy, who had the first down and was stretching for extra yardage when Bentlee Sanders stripped him of the ball. South Florida’s Nico Sawtelle recovered at the 12 to give the Bulls new life.
“We had a chance to win the game,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “All we’ve got to do is make it and we’re going back up 10 again. Got to hold onto the ball.”
South Florida, which has a habit of beating Power Five opponents, took advantage. Quarterback Blake Barnett scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 19-yard run with 5:08 remaining.
South Florida clinched the victory when Sawtelle intercepted TaQuon Marshall’s pass with 3:47. That set up an insurance touchdown, a 5-yard run by Barnett, with 2:13 left.
“We just had a hiccup with that fumble,” Marshall said. “If we don’t fumble, we go down and score and we’re having a totally different conversation. It’s just how the game goes.”
Marshall missed much of the second half with a toe injury. Backup quarterback Tobias Oliver rushed 18 times for 97 yards and scored three touchdowns until Marshall was able to return in the fourth period.
Marshall rushed 13 times for 113 yards and one touchdown. He completed 9 of 18 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
Oliver said, “I was prepared to play all week. They didn’t throw anything at me I didn’t see at practice.”
South Florida had a 21-17 at halftime thanks to a pair of kickoff returns that Terrence Horne returned for scores. Horne tied the NCAA record for most kickoff returns for touchdowns, a feat accomplished by 20 others.
Georgia Tech opened with a 35-yard field goal from Peachtree Ridge’s Brenton King’s 35-yard field goal. But Horne returned the ensuing kick for a 98-yard touchdown.
Georgia Tech answered with a touchdown on a 45-yard run by Marshall, but Horne took that kickoff back 97 yards for a score.
“I can’t tell you what happened,” Johnson said.
Georgia Tech countered with an 81-yard scoring play, with Marshall hooking up with Norcross graduate Clinton Lynch for a long touchdown pass. Lynch finished with four receptions and 111 yards, the first Tech receiver with 100 yards since Ricky Jeune in 2015.
South Florida then drove 11 plays for a touchdown to take the lead. Barnett hit Solomon for an 18-yard touchdown pass.
Georgia Tech lost 1,000-yard rusher KirVonte Benson to a lower body injury in the first quarter. He left with 5:58 remaining and did not return.
Georgia Tech had two defensive starters ejected for targeting — cornerback Tariq Carpenter and inside linebacker David Curry of Buford.