“The only thing I want to say about last year is the experiences that we had last year – the leadership that we had last year – set us up to have this kind of night (Saturday),” he said.
Becoming the first Tech freshman quarterback to start a season opener since Reggie Ball in 2003, Sims led second-half touchdown drives of 80 and 72 yards to drive the comeback. Defensive end Curtis Ryans, who began last season on the scout team, was a difference maker in his own right, ending one FSU fourth-quarter drive with a strip sack of Seminoles quarterback James Blackman to set up the go-ahead field goal and FSU’s next possession with a tackle and forced fumble on a fourth-down scramble by Blackman to preserve Tech’s lead.
Tech (1-0 overall, 1-0 ACC) ruined the first game of FSU coach Mike Norvell’s tenure, a game delayed 30 minutes before kickoff and another 79 minutes in the first quarter by lightning in the vicinity.
After an up-and-down start in the first half, when he ended two promising drives with interceptions and nearly threw a third, Sims shined in the second half, standing coolly in the pocket and firing on-target passes. Among them was a looped 15-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Malachi Carter that tied the score at 13-13 with 13:17 left in the fourth quarter.
He finished the game 24-for-35 passing for 277 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. It was the most completions in a game by a Tech quarterback since 2005 (Reggie Ball), according to sports-reference.com.
“I definitely tried to go out there and force some things, but I fixed it and just told myself, just live to see another down, I don’t have to be a superhero,” Sims said. “I tend to do that sometimes, tend to try to put everything on me and put too much pressure on myself. But I told myself to just take some of that pressure off and not try to force things.”
“He was not flustered, he stayed poised,” Collins said. “He never got too high, he never got too low. He learned from his mistakes.”
After kicker Jude Kelley’s point-after try following the tying touchdown was blocked – the third miss of the game for the freshman walk-on after two field-goal tries in the first half were blocked – Ryans sped around the right side of FSU’s line to jar the ball loose from Blackman, with linebacker David Curry picking up the fumble and returning it 19 yards to the FSU 11-yard line.
“The whole game, when I was resting, (defensive ends coach) Marco Coleman kept saying I was looking at the quarterback the whole time, looking at the backfield,” Ryans said. “So I finally looked at my keys and looked at the tackle’s hands, did a simple cross chop and just sprinted to the quarterback. When I saw the ball, I said, ‘ I want the ball before the quarterback and just got the ball.’”
From there, Kelley came on and connected from 32 yards to give the Jackets their first lead of the game at 16-13, a clutch make after his rocky start. While FSU fans were yelling at him from behind the bench, Kelley said that what he felt prior to the kick wasn’t uncertainty or fear, but anger.
“I mean, I was a little ticked off right? I mean, after a couple blocks that will do it to you,” Kelley said. “But like I said, I was kicking the ball great all week, (and in) pregame. At no point did I have any doubts in what I do. So, that made a lot easier. Just like every other kick, it was goes go out there and go through your process.”
The Jackets pulled off the win with four key players sidelined – defensive tackle T.K. Chimedza, defensive end Antonneous Clayton, running back Jahmyr Gibbs and cornerback Tre Swilling. Chimedza and Swilling are returning starters, Clayton was expected to start after transferring last year from Florida and Gibbs was to make his eagerly awaited debut. Gibbs was on the sideline, but did not dress.
Safety Tariq Carpenter, a two-year starter, did not play in the second half after leaving the game following a collision with FSU wide receiver Tamorrion Terry.
Tech’s defense, which struggled to pressure quarterbacks last season, racked up three sacks and limited the Seminoles to three points in the second half. Tech held FSU (0-1, 0-1) to 307 yards of offense, fewer than the Jackets allowed in all but one game last season.
“(The defensive line) was the difference in the game, and all 11 playing as a unit,” Collins said.
Running at an up-tempo pace, the Seminoles took a 10-0 lead on their first two possessions, gaining 118 yards on 17 plays (6.9 yards per play). Over the final three quarters, FSU was held to 289 yards on 63 plays (4.6 yards per play). Collins said that the changes in practice format due to COVID-19 precautions, that led him to lower the frenetic rate at which the Jackets train, was a factor in the Seminoles’ quick start.
“They were tempo and it took us a second to get used to them,” he said.