After losing to Duke in each of the last two seasons, the Yellow Jackets came into the weekend aiming for revenge and a key win against a divisional opponent. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but Georgia Tech ended up getting that much-needed win to improve to 5-3 on the season.
On Homecoming weekend, the Yellow Jackets jumped out to a big lead, going up 28-7 in the first half but it would not be that easy to put away the Blue Devils. Duke took advantage of two turnovers early in the third quarter to claw their way back into the game and took a four point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Then Justin Thomas once again put the team on his back and led the way, scoring the go-ahead touchdown and later milking the clock to preserve a 38-35 victory.
Facing a two game stretch on the road against the best teams in the Coastal Division, Tech badly needed this win. It took a transcendent performance from their senior quarterback to get there, but the Jackets now head into November one win away from bowl eligibility and with opportunities to make some noise in the ACC.
It is hard to find the words to adequately describe Justin Thomas’s performance on Saturday. The star quarterback had a day for the record books, putting up 459 yards of total offense, the third most all-time by a Yellow Jacket, and earning himself the Walter Camp National Player of the Week award. Thomas was in a rhythm all day long, firing off accurate passes and hitting receivers in the perfect spots for them to make plays on the ball. He seemed more confident staying in or stepping up in the pocket to make throws instead of scrambling backwards to buy time, as had become a bit of a habit in weeks past. On the ground, Thomas was as electric as he has ever been, putting up 3 rushes that went for 45 yards or more, including two fourth quarter scrambles on designed pass plays. His calm and composure while under pressure and while trailing late in the game saved the Yellow Jackets’ season. In short, Thomas did everything that could be expected from a senior leader and then some.
Aside from Thomas’s heroics, backup Matthew Jordan saw a few plays near the goal line in the 1st and 3rd quarters. He scored on a two yard keeper to get the game’s first touchdown. On the second goal line series, he was stuffed just short of the goal line and never got another shot due to a false start penalty backing Tech up and sending Thomas back into the game.
Starter and leading rusher Dedrick Mills was held out of this game due to an injury suffered in practice, meaning last year’s leading rusher, Marcus Marshall was left to carry the load. Marshall performed admirably, but the Yellow Jackets definitely missed Mills’s power run game. When Tech was able to get Marcus Marshall into space he was able to produce big plays, notably a 50-yard rush on a drive that ended in a field goal. However, too often Marshall would bounce off of the first defender that hit him and fall backwards. Marshall’s ball security issues surfaced again, giving Duke new life early in the third quarter. LB Ben Humphreys and other Blue Devils blew up a play at the mesh and Marshall ended up putting the ball on the ground.
Mills’s injury also opened up opportunities for senior Marcus Allen to get significant playing time. The backup was fairly effective running the ball, putting up 21 yards on 5 carries, though he did struggle pass blocking. As a whole, Marshall and Allen were effective enough to get the job done, but a healthy Mills will be key to Tech’s success down the home stretch.
Yet again, Clinton Lynch was one of the biggest contributors on offense. He had five carries for only 18 yards, but had 3 catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns. In the first quarter, he broke past the Duke secondary and Thomas hit him for a wide open touchdown. Lynch also scored the game winning touchdown, with Thomas hitting him over the middle for a 21-yard touchdown pass. On the season the sophomore is averaging a touchdown every 7 touches and has emerged as Tech’s top big-play threat.
Outside of Lynch, the weekend was a fairly quiet one for the AB corps. There were no big, game-breaking runs but they did combine for 53 yards on a good-not-great 5.3 yards per carry. Qua Searcy, Isiah Willis, and Clinton Lynch were all able to break off runs for first downs, though most of the other AB runs were stuffed for little, if any, gain. Perimeter blocking was inconsistent throughout the game.
This was probably the best game of the season for the wide receivers. Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart combined for 6 catches and 155 yards. Thomas showed great confidence in his receivers and they rewarded him with big days. On a third down during the first drive of the game, Stewart made a great move to get past the Duke and caught a perfect pass in stride for a 50-yard gain. All three of Jeune’s catches resulted in first downs for the Yellow Jackets. The big receiver did a good job putting defenders on his back and was almost always where he needed to be to make a play on the ball. If the receivers can continue to play on this level, it opens up a new dimension for the offense and makes Tech a much more dangerous team.
As has been the case throughout the season, the offensive line play was inconsistent at best. Individually, no player really stood out, good or bad. True freshmen Jahaziel Lee and Parker Braun had their ups and downs on the left side of the line but were adequate, especially given their youth.
As a unit, the line tended to do a good enough job in pass protection, giving Justin Thomas time to make good throws or find a lane to scramble and pick up a few yards. That said, the line also gave up three sacks and struggled to pick up linebackers that blitzed from the second level. Outside of a few big runs, the offense struggled to move the ball on the ground consistently. Much of the blame for this problem lies on the offensive line. The interior of the line had a hard time getting a consistent push, which made it difficult to get BB Marcus Marshall into space, where he excels. It seemed as if Duke constantly had defenders in the backfield and the Blue Devils racked up seven tackles for loss.
On the day, the offense totaled over 600 yards and averaged nearly 10 yards per play, so it is hard to take issue with the offensive production. That said, if we’re going to nitpick, the offense had a hard time putting together drives without the aid of a big play or two from Justin Thomas. There was never really a drive in which the Yellow Jackets marched down the field four or five yards at a time. While big plays are certainly a part of the offense, it is hard to count on Thomas to put the team on his back and bail out the Yellow Jackets week in and week out. Heading into a very tough two week road stretch, it would have been nice to see at least one possession where Tech was able to chip away at the Duke defense but that is a minor quibble on an outstanding day for the Yellow Jacket offense.
Other than a forced fumble by Pat Gamble in the early going and a sack by Anree Saint-Amour before halftime, the front four was not much of a factor on Saturday. Duke's interior linemen neutralized Tech's defensive tackles all afternoon and created room for the running backs up the middle, and the defensive ends had little success in setting the edge on outside runs. Antonio Simmons, who had been Tech's most disruptive defensive end throughout the first half of the season, was used as the key on several read option plays and was unable to do much in the pass rush.
In the end, Duke averaged nearly seven yards per carry. That's bad enough on its own, but it's compounded by the fact that Duke entered the game averaging just 2.8 yards per carry this season. The linemen were not that effective in the pass rush either; aside from Saint-Amour's sack, the few occasions where Tech did get pressure were mainly the result of linebackers getting around blockers on blitzes. Also, as was the case for the entire defense, the defensive line dealt with communication issues, which are addressed further down.
With P.J. Davis out for the game, Terrell Lewis, who normally plays WLB in the 4-3, got the nod as the starter alongside Brant Mitchell. When they were responsible for attacking the ball, the duo made a number of nice plays. Lewis made several key stops, including a tackle in the backfield on fourth down to force a turnover on downs late in the first half, and Mitchell delivered the hit that caused Duke quarterback Daniel Jones' lone interception in the third quarter. Lewis and Mitchell finished the game with a combined 17 tackles and two tackles for loss. Still, on a number of plays they covered the wrong lanes and left room for the running backs to break off big gains.
The biggest problems were in coverage. Duke's tight ends had a field day in the passing game largely by taking advantage of lapses in coverage, and it was often the linebackers who were responsible for marking them. The three tight ends combined for 12 receptions for 173 yards, and second-stringer Daniel Helm had both of Duke's touchdown receptions. It's questionable whether Davis's presence would have helped a great deal in this regard, as the senior is most effective in run support and blitzing rather than in coverage, but his experience would no doubt have been useful for sorting out many of the issues with assignments and alignments that plagued the linebackers.
A big positive is that the secondary factored into all three turnovers that Tech forced on Saturday. Strong safety Corey Griffin alertly recovered a fumble in the first quarter and nickel corner Lawrence Austin made a diving interception on a tipped pass in the third quarter. Between those, late in the second quarter, free safety A.J. Gray made the defensive play of the game: after Duke running back Shaun Wilson broke into the open field nearly untouched, Gray chased him down and stripped the ball. It bounced away nearby, and cornerback Step Durham disengaged from a blocker and scooped it up, giving Tech possession and shifting the momentum after what went into the books as a 57-yard run by Wilson.
But beyond the turnovers, there were plenty of reasons for concern. The secondary was also responsible for the lack of coverage on Duke's tight ends; one of Helm's scores came when Griffin fell behind in coverage, then made a diving attempt to tip the ball away and fell short. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones connected with his receivers on a few big plays, including one where corner Lamont Simmons was burned on a deep pass that set Duke up for a touchdown. They also completed several short passes to try to take advantage of the soft coverage by corners Step Durham and Lance Austin. Durham was generally able to contain the receivers after the catch, but Austin tended to leave more of a cushion, which gave the receivers more room to run.
Overall, Duke quarterback Daniel Jones averaged 8.5 yards per passing attempt, a significant increase over his 6.8 YPA average entering the game. A number that high is not a good sign for any secondary, and bigger challenges loom over the next couple weeks.
Duke had a freshman quarterback and didn't do anything particularly special on offense on Saturday, and yet they ran up 559 total yards and 35 points. There's really no way to spin that as a positive for the Tech defense. The bright side is that after struggling to force turnovers all season, the defense generated three, and they may well have been the difference.
Even more concerning than the on-field struggles were the coaching-related problems. Seemingly every third play had players scrambling around before the snap, trying to figure out where they needed to be—often just a few seconds before Duke snapped the ball. In one three-play sequence with Duke on the goal line, Tech first got penalized for having 12 men on the field, then stacked everyone in the box and failed to have anyone cover Duke's lone receiver on the outside (which forced Paul Johnson to call a timeout), and finally lined up without run-stuffing defensive tackle Brandon Adams on the field for a play where Duke needed half a yard.
In the postgame press conference, Corey Griffin mentioned recurring issues with getting lined up before the snap, which was partly a result of Duke running a hurry-up no-huddle offense. There are certainly areas where the players need to improve in terms of execution, and if the players were simply having trouble communicating with one another, then they need to find a solution immediately. But if the communication issues stem from the coaches relaying plays onto the field late or something similar, the players can't be held responsible, and it's on the coaching staff to get that sorted out so that the players can do their jobs.
It was a solid day for the kicking units. Kicker Harrison Butker was five-for-five on extra point attempts and booted a 22-yard field goal, and six of his seven kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Punter Ryan Rodwell had perhaps his best game of the season, as his three first-half punts went for 49, 47, and 49 yards. The first two pinned Duke inside their own 15-yard line, and the last one came at a good time after the Jackets had been stuck at their own nine-yard line (though a personal foul on Tech negated a chunk of the punt yardage).
The bad news was on the kick return unit. While returning a kickoff early in the third quarter, J.J. Green tried to spin away from a tackler and took a hard hit to his right side, which caused him to fumble and left him unable to get up after the play. Green could not put any weight on his right leg, and he had to be helped off and did not return. With backup kick returner Dedrick Mills also out, the job fell to cornerback Lance Austin, who was unable to get the ball past the Tech 17-yard line on his three kick returns. Austin was most likely an emergency option, but regardless, there was a clear drop-off in performance. Paul Johnson said he expects Mills to return against North Carolina, but there has been no word on Green's condition. If both are out next week, Tech could be in trouble in the return game.
Sometimes a star player really can put the team on his back. On a day when the ground game was mostly held in check and the defense could hardly get a stop, Justin Thomas delivered one of the best games ever by a Tech quarterback, creating one big play after another to carry the team to a second straight victory this season and a fourth straight Homecoming victory. Of course, having Thomas do everything is not a formula that Tech can rely upon, particularly since the senior quarterback took a lot of hits on Saturday. He's in no danger of missing next week's game at North Carolina, but the other playmakers will need to deliver for Tech to pull out a win next week. Mills’ potential return would be a huge boost as well.
As for the other side of the ball, the communication issues that persisted against Duke need to be resolved immediately. The fact that a mediocre Duke offense smashed its season averages against the Tech defense does not bode well for what North Carolina and Virginia Tech, two teams with explosive offenses, could do if Tech shows no improvement from this week's showing. On the bright side, the defense did force three turnovers, and they’ll need to continue to be opportunistic in the weeks ahead.