The MMQB is back on Monday morning following a second consecutive tough loss for Georgia Tech. Unlike the Clemson game, where the Yellow Jackets found themselves woefully outmanned, Georgia Tech was able to play at the same level as Miami for much of the game. It was a remarkably even game both on the field and on the stat sheet, and were it not for a handful of bad mistakes, the game would have come right down to the wire.
Unfortunately for the Jackets, the mistakes count just as much as every other play and Tech finds itself sitting at 3-2 headed into the first true road game of the season. Before turning our attention to Pitt, let’s take a look back at how the team graded out on Saturday.
After protecting the ball well against Clemson’s defensive onslaught, Justin Thomas struggled to keep the football off the ground against Miami’s pass rush. Thomas fumbled three times on Saturday, two of which were returned for touchdowns by the defense. The blame for these turnovers doesn’t rest entirely on the quarterback’s shoulders - he was completely blindsided on the first fumble - but ball security problems are always a cause for concern.
Outside of the fumble issue Thomas played pretty well against Miami. He did not call his own number very often but he didn’t need to, as the dive and pitch were both finding success. In the fourth quarter, Thomas did manage to find some running lanes, picking up a couple of 1st downs on the ground.
Thomas was extremely accurate through the air in the first three quarters. Entering the final frame, he was 7-8 for 63 yards and a touchdown. He also connected with J.J. Green on a 30 yard pass in the second quarter that was negated by a holding penalty. In the fourth quarter, Tech found itself in more obvious passing situations and Thomas struggled to connect with receivers who were often blanketed by Hurricane defenders. Despite the tight coverage, Thomas threw catchable balls, giving his receivers an opportunity to make a play. It wasn’t Thomas’s best day, but he was far from the problem Saturday.
The star of the game was freshman B-Back Dedrick Mills. He accounted for all three of Tech’s touchdowns, bringing his season total to eight. Mills ran the ball hard with a combination of speed and power that has impressed coaches and fans alike. Georgia Tech’s third quarter touchdown drive may have been the best of Mills’s young career. On that drive, he carried the ball 7 times for 44 yards, including three runs over 10 yards to start the drive. Despite his early success, Mills is still young and has had some struggles blocking. He was part of the breakdown that led to Miami’s second fumble return touchdown.
Marcus Marshall was also fairly effective in a more limited role. He only touched the ball four times, but had one of the best runs of the day early in the fourth quarter. Marshall took a pitch and found some open space, picking up 27 yards and giving the comeback bid some life.
The A-backs corps stepped up this week after a disappointing showing against Clemson. Georgia Tech relied heavily on pitch plays Saturday, trying to get the ball in space against the Miami defense. Clinton Lynch led the way, generating several big plays on Tech’s first two touchdown drives. Most impressive was his 33-yard run late in the second quarter. Lynch had very little blocking help, but managed to avoid several tacklers and reverse field, putting Tech in Miami territory.
After seeing little playing time on offense in the first four games, Lynn Griffin found himself in the middle of the A-Back rotation and made an impact on the game. Griffin had a handful of solid runs and made some timely blocks, including one to free up Lynch for a 27-yard first quarter run. J.J. Green was also effective with the ball in his hands, picking up 51 total yards on 6 touches. A-back blocking was better than it was against Clemson but they still had lapses and missed assignments.
Wide receivers continue to be a bit of a disappointment for the Yellow Jackets this season, particularly Ricky Jeune. In theory Tech’s best deep threat, Jeune was limited to two short receptions and dropped what would have been a touchdown reception. In his defense, Jeune was well covered by Miami’s Corn Elder, who made a great play to force the drop, but that was a play that Jeune needed to make.
Outside of Jeune, Brad Stewart had a couple of key receptions, getting one first down and setting up a 4th and short, and Mikell Lands-Davis had a short reception. The big problem for the receivers going forward is their inability to get separation from defenders. The threat of a receiver breaking away from defenders and getting open deep is key to this offense working at its best and something it is sorely lacking this season.
Obviously, a loss can’t be blamed exclusively on one unit. Every player had mistakes that contributed to the final result. That said, it’s really easy to look at a handful of offensive line breakdowns and wonder what could have been. Those breakdowns start with the plays that led to Miami defensive touchdowns. On the first play, LT Eason Fromayan missed his assignment and let Miami’s Trent Harris through untouched to blindside Justin Thomas. The second play was almost a complete breakdown. LG Will Bryan and C Freddie Burden blocked the same defender while RG Parker Braun pulled out to lead block, but ran right past his man. In addition to those two plays, the offensive line had two drive-killing penalties in the first half, including a very uncharacteristic hold by Burden. Even having one of those plays back would have changed the course of the game.
While those four plays stand out as particularly bad, the rest of the day was not great for the offensive line. They played better than last week and were able to give the skill positions enough room to make some plays happen. That said, Miami still had players taking up residence in the backfield as the Hurricanes totaled 4 sacks and 8 tackles for loss on the day.
The offense had the game plan to win this game. The Yellow Jackets dominated the time of possession and were able to move the ball consistently against a talented defensive front. The game stats actually look astonishingly similar to the 2014 game against the Hurricanes, except this time it was Tech making the key turnovers. Those turnovers and the resulting 14 points Miami scored were the difference in this game. Despite that, Saturday offered some encouragement for the Yellow Jacket faithful going into October. While not at 2014 levels, this offense is a good bit better than last year’s and should continue to improve. The competition doesn’t ease up just yet though; a stout Pittsburgh run defense awaits on Saturday.
After a rough opening half that saw Joseph Yearby gash Tech for one big gain after another, the front four stepped up after halftime against the run. The ends set the edges effectively and worked well with the tackles to clog up running lanes for Miami’s backs. The end result was that Miami had four rushing yards in the third quarter and just 27 rushing yards in the entire second half. It was a very promising sign, particularly ahead of a matchup with Pitt and their strong ground game.
There were signs of life in the pass rush, particularly from end Antonio Simmons, who entered the game on passing downs and nearly reaching the quarterback on several occasions. Still, he—and the rest of the line—finished the day with zero sacks. The linemen did force a few hurried throws, but so far they have only shown a limited ability to actually reach the quarterback. That proved important on Saturday, as on several occasions when he was pressured off the edge, Kaaya stepped up in the pocket to avoid the heat and delivered an accurate pass for a completion.
Like the front four, the linebackers were effective in run support in the second half on Saturday. Middle linebacker Brant Mitchell set the tone on Miami’s first play of the latter half, flying in to bring down running back Mark Walton for a loss of a yard. The tackle was instrumental in forcing Miami to go three-and-out on that opening possession of the third quarter, and the defense managed a repeat performance on Miami’s next possession.
The problem was that that was the only tackle for loss by a Tech linebacker on the afternoon, and they had few other plays of note. Mitchell and P.J. Davis did not force a turnover, knock down a pass, or get to the ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage any other times. They were able to force Kaaya to hurry throws by blitzing, but as with the defensive line, they never managed to reach the Miami quarterback.
Playing without starting boundary corner Step Durham, the secondary had little success in slowing down Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, who averaged over 12 yards per pass attempt on Saturday. With Tech as reliant as ever on very conservative coverages alongside a four-man rush, Kaaya repeatedly found receivers in soft spots in Tech’s zone coverages, connecting on curls, screen passes, and deeper routes for easy first downs.
There were missed opportunities, though. On Miami’s first possession, cornerback Lance Austin jumped a route and was in position to pick off a long pass on the sideline, but he somehow missed the ball and Miami’s Stacy Coley hauled in for a 25-yard reception. It was a rare mistake from Kaaya and a major chance for Tech to gain some early momentum, but instead it ended up simply being a long completion that led to Miami punching in their opening touchdown.
It was a strange game for the defense, which seemed to alternate between giving up yards in droves and suddenly locking down and forcing a three-and-out. But with the exception of one rapid touchdown drive, they kept Miami’s potent offense silent in the second half and mostly shut down the Hurricanes’ ground game. Overall, it was an encouraging performance for a unit and (given that something similar happened last week as well) a reflection of good halftime adjustments by the defensive staff. Three big things remain to be seen: whether or not the defense can get more pressure on the quarterback, force more turnovers, or deliver a strong first-half performance to match the way they’ve played in the second half over the past two weeks. Improvement on any of those fronts would be a major step forward.
Kicker Harrison Butker did not have a field goal attempt, but he was effective in every other respect, drilling every extra point attempt and recording a touchback on every kickoff. Ryan Rodwell had an up-and-down day in the punting game; he boomed his first punt 53 yards and pinned Miami inside their own 20 on each of his first two punts, but his last two punts each only went 38 yards. It wasn’t a bad game by any stretch, but the senior still has yet to demonstrate the consistency that the coaching staff wants to see.
Tech did not have any kick returns, but Brad Stewart had a pair of nice punt returns. The first was largely aided by Miami’s punter out-kicking the coverage with a 55-yard punt, but on a return late in the fourth quarter, Stewart avoided several defenders who were bearing down on him and showed some burst down the sideline on a 26-yard return.
As our colleague Tyler Duke pointed out on Saturday, this game was surprisingly similar to Tech’s 2014 win over Miami in several regards—time of possession split, total yardage, and third-down conversion rates among them. The sole critical difference was the turnover battle; while Tech forced the then-freshman Kaaya into three turnovers in 2014, Tech was instead the victim of two back-breaking turnovers on Saturday.
There are several positive takeaways, such as Mills’ continued strong play at B-back and the defensive front stonewalling Miami’s run game in the second half. Both are promising signs going into next week’s game against Pitt, a team that will rely on a stout defensive front seven and a strong ground game on offense. But other serious issues remain unresolved, starting with the mediocre offensive line play and the complete lack of forced turnovers on defense.
Tech is not out of the Coastal Division race by any stretch. But a tough road game against a division opponent is up next, and if those issues do not see any improvement soon, the Jackets may be out of contention before much longer.