After three straight ACC losses, Tech is finally back in the win column. The offense struck quickly with big plays, scoring twice in their first five plays from scrimmage to set the tone early, and Tech got enough defensive stops to finish off a 35-24 victory over in-state opponent Georgia Southern.
It was far less dramatic than the last time Tech hosted Southern, a September 2014 battle that saw the Jackets squander a 25-point lead but pull out the victory after quarterback Justin Thomas (then making his third career start) led a game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive to give Tech a 42-38 victory. While Southern never led this time around, the game was broadly similar: Tech struck early and often to build a first-half lead, then watched Southern chip away at the lead before ultimately hanging on to seal the win.
It could have been prettier, and an 11-point victory over a Sun Belt opponent isn’t the most impressive resume booster for an ACC team. But Tech simply went looking to rebound after a rough three-week stretch, and they did just that. With the win, Tech can head into the much-needed bye week on a positive note and will carry a little momentum into the last few weeks of the season.
Everything's rolling right now for Justin Thomas, who had yet another very productive game. The senior went 7-for-11 through the air for 172 yards and a touchdown, and he added 78 yards and two scores on the ground. He played every series up until Tech's final possession, when Matthew Jordan entered the game to get some reps and grind out the last few minutes.
Most of Thomas's rushing yards came on Tech's third play from scrimmage. On an option play to the right side, he faked a pitch to freeze the read defender, dodged a linebacker who had taken a bad angle, and simply outran the rest of the Southern defense for a 58-yard score. Over the final three quarters, Southern contined the perimeter effectively and mostly limited Thomas to short gains on option keepers, but his decision-making was sharp and he was able to create some room with fake pitches. The only real scare was on a second-quarter play where a pitch seemed to slip out of his hand; it was nearly corralled by a Southern defender, but it bounced away and Thomas alertly fell on it.
In the passing game, Thomas was locked in and made good decisions all afternoon. The biggest play of the day was his 65-yard strike to a wide-open Clinton Lynch on Tech's second drive, which made the score 14-0 early in the first quarter. Thomas also hooked up with receiver Ricky Jeune for four receptions for 51 yards. His four incomplete passes were well out of reach of any defenders, and his lone completion to a tightly covered receiver—the deep strike to Brad Stewart—was a well-placed throw to Stewart's back shoulder.
Tech had plenty of success handing off to the B-backs, and both Dedrick Mills and Marcus Marshall made a splash. They had only seven combined carries in the first half, but they made the most of those touches and continued to run well in the second half.
The longest B-back run belonged to Marshall, who took a second-quarter pitch on a counter option and turned on the jets to beat several Southern defenders on what ended up being a 50-yard run. Marshall was pushed out of bounds at the six-yard line, at which point Mills entered the game and scored on the very next play. Mills added another score in the fourth quarter, and overall he had a strong day on the ground, showing great burst whenever the line freed him up to reach the second level of the defense.
All told, the duo combined for 17 carries for 159 yards—an average of over nine yards per carry—and two touchdowns. Blocking remains a work in progress for Mills, but he does seem to be improving with every game, and that’s the most important thing for a true freshman.
What else is there to say about Clinton Lynch at this point? The sophomore has been a big-play machine all season, and while he didn't have a carry on Saturday, he was a weapon in the passing game. On Tech's second possession, Lynch took advantage of an aggressive Southern defensive alignment, flying past a defender near the line of scrimmage and hauling in a 65-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass. Lynch added another reception late in the second quarter, bringing his total for the day to two catches for 81 yards.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Tech got almost no other production out of the A-backs. Qua Searcy, J.J. Green, and Lynn Griffin—the only A-backs to get any carries—had a combined seven carries for 12 yards on the afternoon. The lack of production stemmed from a combination of good perimeter defense by Southern and poor blocking on the edge by Tech, but subpar A-back lead blocking contributed to the latter issue. The A-backs were good at getting bodies in front of Southern defenders on the edge, but they didn't do enough to slow those defenders down or take them out of the play. It was one of the only offense-related issues that Paul Johnson brought up in his postgame press conference, and it needs to improve across the board for this unit.
For the second straight week, Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart delivered in the passing game. Thomas's chemistry with Jeune on curls and comebacks shined on Saturday, as all four of his receptions were on one of those routes. Most importantly, Jeune was able to create space from the defenders on every reception—a big deal considering how much he and Stewart have struggled with getting separation this season. Stewart had only one reception, but he made a spectacular play on the ball. Thomas fired a deep strike to the sophomore, who had a one-on-one matchup, and Stewart timed his jump perfectly to make a leaping grab on the back-shoulder throw.
As for their blocking work, nearly any big perimeter run for Tech requires good downfield blocking by a receiver, and that was the case on Saturday. Jeune shoved a Southern defensive back far downfield on Thomas's early touchdown run, and Mikell Lands-Davis helped to pave the way for Marshall's 50-yard scamper down the sideline. They do share some culpability for the general lack of production on perimeter runs otherwise, but the receivers largely did their job.
This honestly could have gone very poorly, given the circumstances. Both starting offensive tackles—Andrew Marshall and Trey Klock—ended up having to miss the game, and that forced true freshman Jahaziel Lee into the starting lineup. On top of that, Lee was lining up alongside new starting left guard Parker Braun, another true freshman making his second career start.
All things considered, it turned out pretty well. Lee made his share of mistakes in terms of missing blocks and being in the wrong place, as did Braun, but ultimately they acquitted themselves well against a very capable run defense. Tech ran to their side of the field early and often, and they helped to pave the way for several good runs by Mills. The biggest issues were when they had to get outside on perimeter runs, and both players struggled to reach their defenders in time, giving Southern an insurmountable numbers advantage on several plays. But in fairness, that was also an issue for the more experienced linemen on the right side.
One area where the entire line (freshmen included) deserves commendation is for their pass blocking. It's been effective for much of the season, and on Saturday Thomas got terrific protection on all sides. On nearly every throw, he was able to sit in the pocket for several seconds, set his feet, and fire an accurate pass.
The next games for the freshmen will be significantly tougher, as Tech will resume ACC play after the bye week. But at least in Lee's case, with luck the starters will be healthy once more and he'll be able to enter as a reserve to spell them.
It was a strange game for the Tech offense, as the Jackets only had nine possessions and lost the time-of-possession battle by over seven minutes. But when they did have the ball, they made the most of it. Five of the drives ended with touchdowns, and a sixth ended with a rare missed field goal from relatively short range after a 60-yard drive. Tech only had to punt twice on the afternoon.
The struggles on the perimeter are a cause for concern going forward, particularly given that Clemson and Miami also had success shutting down runs to the edge. However, the run game with the B-backs is as effective as it's been all season, and in back-to-back weeks the receivers have shown a renewed ability to get separation from defensive backs (though admittedly against weaker secondaries than the ones they'll face down the stretch). And most important of all, this was the second straight week of turnover-free football for the Tech offense.
The bye week will give the Jackets time to get Marshall and Klock back to full strength and iron out the line rotation. Based on his play on Saturday, Lee should factor into the tackle rotation going forward. It’s also a much-needed opportunity for Thomas to rest up after a bruising few weeks, and he should be in top form for the last few ACC games of his career.
The defensive line was rather unremarkable Saturday. The defense struggled to get off the field in third and short situations in large part because the defensive line couldn’t hold ground or clog up running lanes with any consistency. On several occasions, most notably Southern’s first touchdown, the Eagles’ offensive line was able to have their way against the defensive line and open up holes seemingly at will. That’s not to say that there weren’t positives for the defensive line. Though it didn’t show in the final stat sheet, the line got enough pressure on the Georgia Southern QB’s to make things difficult for Upshaw and Ellison. Both QBs did a good job of standing up to pressure in the pocket and making good throws under duress.
Individually, Rod Rook-Chungong was fantastic the first two drives, getting 3 tackles for loss, before largely disappearing the rest of the game. Brandon Adams, a favorite of many around here, only played a few snaps in short yardage situations, but stood up an offensive lineman and made a tackle for no gain on 2nd and goal before Southern’s second touchdown. On the next played, Adams again got penetration but it wasn’t enough to stop L.A. Ramsby from reaching the endzone. Adams has shown some promise in limited action this season but for one reason or another can’t crack the main rotation at DT.
With long time starter P.J. Davis out nursing a hamstring injury, Chase Alford was promoted to the starting weakside linebacker role alongside Brant Mitchell. As a unit, the linebackers were deployed in a much more aggressive manner than previous games. On many plays one or both linebackers were brought on blitzes. These blitzes were moderately successful, putting the Eagles’ QBs off balance and nearly connecting for a couple of sacks. Victor Alexander should have had a big third down sack, but let Favian Upshaw get away and extend the drive. The blitzes did leave the middle of the field exposed to underneath passing routes, which Southern took full advantage of, completing 7 passes to their running backs. On running plays, if a back broke through the blitz, they often had a good chunk of open field between them and the safeties. The aggression was a nice change of pace, but there will need to be some adjustments to cover the middle of the field when linebackers blitz.
The defensive MVPs for this game were the safety duo of A.J. Gray and Corey Griffin. The two combined for 17 tackles, 6 of which went for a loss. Gray in particular had maybe his most impactful game of the season. He was unleashed to play closer to the line of scrimmage and make plays in the run game in ways he hadn’t been allowed to earlier in the season. Pass coverage still isn’t Griffin’s strong suit but he has been pretty good against the run all season and played well on Saturday.
On the outside, starting boundary corner Step Durham made his return from a nagging injury and had a fairly good game. Despite strong play in place of Durham, Lamont Simmons returned to a backup role with Lance Austin starting and playing most of the game at the field corner position. Southern did not throw down field often and when they did, the corners provided solid coverage. There was really only one play that stood out as a blown coverage but, luckily, the opposing QB overthrew his receiver.
On the day, the defense played well enough to win the game. Looking at the total stats, Tech was able to hold Georgia Southern roughly 100 yards under their season rushing average despite being on the field for a whopping 83 plays (for comparison, Clemson ran 82 plays against Tech and no other opponent has topped 70). The most glaring issue for the defense this game and all season has been an inability to get off the field in third down situations. Georgia Southern converted 13 of 20 third downs and 2 of 3 fourth downs on Saturday. On the season, Tech has allowed opponents to convert on 49.5% of third down attempts, ranking 125th in FBS and ahead of only Colorado State, New Mexico State, and Purdue.
As was said in the linebacker section, this was the most aggressive defense Tech has put on the field to date this season. Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof blitzed more often and in more situations than has been typical during his time on the Flats. It will be interesting to see if this was a one game philosophy shift or a sign of things to come down the home stretch of the season.
The special teams were a little disappointing on Saturday. Most notably, Harrison Butker’s quest for a perfect kicking season came to end as he missed his first field goal of the season, hitting a 32-yard field goal wide left near the end of the first half. Ryan Rodwell continued his inconsistent punting career, punting twice on the day. The first punt went for only 34 yards, while the second was boomed for 51 yards. Unfortunately, the 51-yard punt went into the endzone for a touchback, making it only a 31-yard net.
Tech only had one return on the day, a 13-yard kick return by J.J. Green that was ended when he was tackled by the facemask, resulting in a 15-yard penalty. In kick coverage, the Jackets were able to keep the Eagles from breaking off any long returns with Shaun Kagawa and Victor Alexander both making good stops.
After losing three straight and heading into the bye week, this game was a must win regardless of the opponent. That the opponent was an in-state Sun Belt team made it all the more crucial to avoid any trips-ups. It may not have been the blow out that many would have liked, but Georgia Tech took care of business on Saturday and dispatched Georgia Southern in a game that was never really in much doubt. The offense once again clicked on all cylinders with big plays coming in droves from Justin Thomas, Clinton Lynch, and more. The defense wasn’t spectacular but they were good enough and attacked the ball more than they had all season.
The bye week couldn’t come at a better time for Tech, who needs the week to heal up (especially along the offensive line) and prepare for a tough stretch of games to close ACC play. This team still needs to make improvements on both sides of the ball but they still have plenty of opportunities to make those improvements.