There's something appropriate about a guy named Blewitt clanking a last-second, game-winning field goal attempt off the upright.
There's something equally appropriate about that field goal attempt going in anyway to seal a win over Georgia Tech.
Saturday's 37-34 loss at Pittsburgh was deflating because of both the way it ended and the broader implications. A win here would have given the Jackets some much-needed momentum and kept them somewhat alive in the ACC Coastal race. Instead, Tech now sits at 3-3 overall and 1-3 in ACC play. A decent bowl game remains a possibility with a strong finish, but simply getting back to a bowl is the more immediate goal.
There were some positive signs, though--particularly on offense, where Tech moved the ball reasonably well and put together five scoring drives. The kick return unit added another score, the first for Tech in four years. As for the defense... well, there's work to do.
After a couple rough weeks at the helm, Justin Thomas genuinely looked comfortable on Saturday, thanks in part to improved perimeter blocking. The increased comfort naturally translated to better production. Thomas ran for 55 yards on 11 carries and was 7-for-10 for 130 yards and a touchdown through the air.
Thomas had a couple bad reads, one of which could have been disastrous. In the second quarter, he made an option pitch to A-back Qua Searcy, who was immediately blasted by Pitt linebacker Matt Galambos. Searcy held onto the ball, though, and Tech eventually went on to score on that drive.
Overall, Thomas didn't really light it up with his legs, but he did what Tech needs from its senior quarterback: he protected the ball, made accurate reads, and delivered mostly accurate passes.
Facing a Pitt defensive line anchored by senior nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett, Tech had little success running up the gut on Saturday, and overall the B-backs had limited production. Most of their carries came on B-back option plays as Tech tried to create space for the backs, and that led to speedy backup Marcus Marshall getting a good number of snaps. But as usual, Dedrick Mills carried most of the load and racked up 57 yards on a team-high 15 carries. His rushing total was nothing special, but he fought for extra yards on several occasions where he was hit near or behind the line of scrimmage. More often than not he succeeded, but he could not get the couple of extra inches needed to reach the first-down marker on Tech’s final possession.
Perhaps most notably, Mills made a crucial block to take out a pass rusher on the 29-yard pass to A-back Clinton Lynch late in the first half. It was a good sign for a young player who's struggled with pass blocking, but that needs to become the norm for Tech to maintain a productive passing game.
Attacking the perimeter was the focus for Tech in this game, and Lynch led the way. The sophomore delivered multiple big plays in critical moments: on second and 15 late in the first half, he hauled in a 29-yard reception down the sideline to put Tech in field goal range, and he showed great burst and agility on a game-tying 45-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. He finished the day with 93 total yards on five touches and made a critical block to pave the way for J.J. Green's late touchdown run.
Green's biggest impact was on special teams, but he too mostly blocked well and added 26 yards on four carries, including the 10-yard score that gave Tech its first (and only) lead of the game. Searcy, Isiah Willis, and Lynn Griffin all factored into the rotation, and the unit as a whole combined for 117 yards on 14 carries--an average of 8.4 yards per carry.
They weren't perfect--both Lynch and Green were penalized at important moments, and Lynch's illegal block penalty helped to stifle a drive. But all in all, the A-backs were the main engine for the offense's success on Saturday.
It's been a quiet year for the receiver corps, but they showed up in a big way on Saturday. Both starters, Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart, had highlight-reel catches as they combined for 101 yards on six receptions. Jeune made a nice leaping snag on Tech's second play of the afternoon, and he hauled in a 31-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, going over a defender in tight man coverage to make a leaping catch in the end zone.
Stewart made a similar catch in the fourth quarter, going up to bring it in with a defender right in his face the whole time. He's mostly taken on a role as a possession receiver for Tech, but he does still have big-play potential. Stewart almost got a shot at a WR reverse pass, but Pitt defended the play effectively and Stewart had to tuck it for a four-yard loss without getting off a throw.
The receivers did make a couple critical mistakes. Mikell Lands-Davis had a big drop on a fourth-down conversion attempt on Tech's opening drive of the second half; the pass was a little behind him, but it was catchable. On Tech's final drive, Stewart caught a third-down pass on a comeback route but lost track of the first-down marker, putting Tech in a fourth-and-1 situation that they failed to convert.
Still, on the whole, the positives outweighed the negatives--particularly when factoring in blocking, as good WR blocking was crucial on several of Tech's longest runs of the day. The three main receivers still have work to do in this area, but they showed progress on Saturday, and the increased downfield receiving threat (albeit against a bad secondary) helped to open things up on the ground.
As usual, the line play was a bit of a mixed bag. The left side of the line struggled, particularly on runs up the middle, where on a few occasions Pitt's interior linemen were able to surge into the backfield almost untouched. The right side had more success in that arena, and the line paved the way for good yardage on several perimeter runs, often thanks to Paul Johnson's frequent use of an offset tackle formation to get an extra blocker on the play side. Pass blocking was also fairly good across the board; Thomas was sacked twice, but he generally had time to set his feet and deliver accurate passes.
The line remains a work in progress, but they were far from a wreck overall. Left guard Will Bryan had a tough matchup against Pitt's nose tackle Jarrett and got beaten a few times, but he also delivered a block that helped to pave the way for Lynch's 45-yard touchdown run. Parker Braun, who played most of the game at right guard, was effective at getting in position to neutralize defenders.
The injury situation is worth monitoring going forward, particularly at offensive tackle. Trey Klock and Andrew Marshall went down at various points, forcing true freshman Jahaziel Lee into the lineup at left tackle. A fellow true freshman, Braun, got the majority of the snaps at right guard, so Shamire Devine's status may need to be monitored as well.
It's hard to fault the offense too much for their work on Saturday. They produced points on every possession in the first half (one TD, two field goals) and put together five scoring drives in the game, only punting once. Tech averaged 6.7 yards per play, a notable step up from the team's season average of 5.4 yards per play going into the game. After two weeks of little to no success attacking the perimeter, it was refreshing to see Tech produce several long A-back runs and get the ball to the B-backs in space.
Their main disappointment was failing to convert twice on fourth down. However, if anything, they were let down by questionable to bad playcalling on several occasions. The decision to both go for it on fourth and 1 from Tech's 34 and to run Mills up the gut (instead of attacking the edge) was a dangerous call that backfired badly. Trusting Mills to gain one yard--even by driving the pile if needed--seemed fair, especially given the defense's ongoing struggles, but it was a massive gamble at the same time. The attempted WR reverse pass, meanwhile, was completely shut down and essentially killed a valuable late-game possession before it even began.
Early in the game, the defensive line struggled to make their presence felt. On their first three drives, the Panthers were able to move the ball at will on the defense and that began in the trenches. Pitt’s offensive line was able to get a good push against our defensive front and pick up yards in chunks. Though he had some good moments, including a tackle for a loss, the Panthers were able to attack DE KeShun Freeman, who continued to struggle against the run.
It was an entirely different story in the second half. The defensive line was better in all facets, led by the strong play of senior DT Patrick Gamble. After a quiet first half, Gamble exploded in the second with 5 tackles, including a sack and another 1.5 tackles for loss. Pass rush specialist Antonio Simmons continued his good play, recording two quarterback hurries and a big tackle for a loss that set up a 3rd and long situation for Pitt.
Georgia Tech’s linebackers had almost as hard of a time finding the ball carrier in Pitt’s somewhat unconventional run game as the ACCNetwork cameraman. The Panthers used a lot of pre-snap motion and misdirection to get the defense and especially the linebackers headed in the wrong direction. Early in the game, these plays worked to perfection, as the Panthers marched down the field on their first three possessions. The linebackers (and defense as a whole) were able to adjust to the misdirection as the game went on but it was too little, too late.
The linebackers did come up with the lone turnover of the day, as an opportunistic Brant Mitchell jumped on a fumble following a mistimed handoff between QB Nathan Peterman and WR Quadree Henderson. While not necessarily caused by anything Mitchell did, the sophomore was in the right place at the right time and made the most of the opportunity. Going forward, the injury to P.J. Davis is something to keep an eye on. While backup Victor Alexander played well in Davis’s absence, the experience and leadership Davis brings would be missed should he be out significant time.
For the majority of the game, the Georgia Tech secondary was able to limit Pitt’s passing attack. Playing the traditional Ted Roof soft zone, the Yellow Jackets kept the play in front of them and were largely able to limit runs after the catch. With Step Durham sidelined, Lamont Simmons and Lance Austin shouldered the load at cornerback. Peterman picked on Austin often, as he gave up nearly half a foot in height against Pitt’s big receivers. Despite that, Austin managed two pass breakups, though one was a dropped interception that should have been a game-changing pick-six.
Through the game’s first 56 minutes, Georgia Tech had held Pitt to 118 yards through the air. The secondary wasn’t playing great but they were getting the job done. Then it all changed. On 3rd and 9, Corey Griffin read Nathan Peterman’s eyes and made a break on a ball thrown for a streaking Scott Orndoff. Griffin got a hand on the ball...and tipped it into Orndoff’s hands, who was off to the races. Griffin took a big gamble to make a play that could have iced the game for the Jackets but in doing so, he left himself no safety net. It was an incredibly risky play for Griffin. If he makes the catch or knocks the pass down, he’s a hero. If he plays it safe and sticks with Orndoff, there’s a decent chance the pass falls incomplete. Instead, Pitt tied the game.
As has been the case all season, it was a story of two halves for the Yellow Jacket defense. In the first half, Pitt was seemingly able to move the ball at will as the defense looked confused by all the pre-snap motion and misdirection. For the fifth consecutive week, the defense gave up a touchdown on the opening drive, this time on a lateral to an offensive lineman. It was late in the second quarter before the defense was able to stop the Panthers’ attack.
After halftime, the defense bent but didn’t break on the first two Pitt drives, getting a couple of big plays from the defensive line to put the Panthers behind the chains and holding them to a pair of field goals. Before the fateful tipped pass, Pitt had totaled only 113 yards in the second half, after putting up twice that in the first half. The defense has not been able to force turnovers or make big, game-changing plays but they have played well in the second half of the last three games. Simply put, the defense must find a way to play the first half of games in the same way they have been playing the second half. Giving up a touchdown on the first possession of every game is unacceptable and a trend that must stop.
J.J. Green’s 96-yard kickoff return was one of the highlights of the game. Green made a good cut to make the first man miss, then followed a convoy of blockers into the end zone. Unfortunately, his other three kick returns were not as special, averaging just over 18 yards per return. Brad Stewart wasn’t able to get in the open field on his only punt return but was able to dance his way out of a couple of tackles and pick up 8 additional yards.
Harrison Butker continued his outstanding senior season, putting 4 of 7 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. Additionally, he went 2/2 on field goals, hitting from 37 and 41 yards. Similarly, Ryan Rodwell continued his inconsistent senior season, with his only punt going for 36 yards. That wouldn’t be so bad if the punt was from midfield. Unfortunately, he was punting from deep in Tech territory and the punt did not even reach midfield.
As the old cliche goes, football is a game of inches and that has rarely been more clear than it was on Saturday. A few inches separated a tipped pass caught for a touchdown from a potentially game-deciding interception. A few inches would have turned a missed fourth down conversion into a drive-extending first down. A few inches and the game-winning kick bounces off the upright and out, sending the game to overtime. On Saturday, the inches favored Pittsburgh.
Moving forward, the offense needs to keep building on the momentum from this weekend. Justin Thomas and company were able to move the ball consistently against what had been a stout Pitt run defense. Ricky Jeune reemerged as a viable downfield threat after largely disappearing the past two weeks. On the other side of the ball, the first half woes and problems creating turnovers have to be addressed. This team may still be a good football team but it is hard for any team to constantly have to dig out of early game holes.
The halfway mark of the season is here and Tech may already be out of the Coastal Division race. While certainly a disappointing start, there is still a lot of football left to be played in 2016. There are no gimme games on the schedule but there are plenty of chances left for the Yellow Jackets to get the inches in their favor and finish the season strong.