This time last week, Georgia Tech was coming off an embarrassing loss to North Carolina and staring down the barrel at a trip to Lane Stadium to face #14 Virginia Tech. The Yellow Jacket defense was among the worst in the nation. The offense looked sloppy against the Tar Heels and was facing old nemsis Bud Foster. Optimism was low.
On Wednesday, the school announced that leading rusher and starting B-back Dedrick Mills would be suspended for two games.
On Thursday night, Duke upset North Carolina, meaning Virginia Tech would have an opportunity to clinch the Coastal division title with a win.
Shortly before kickoff, word came down that star quarterback Justin Thomas and center Freddie Burden, both of whom had started 35 consecutive games, would be held out after missing practice all week while nursing injuries.
It seemed like the stars were aligning against Georgia Tech and that it would be a long afternoon in Blacksburg but a funny thing happened. Virginia Tech came out and fumbled the opening kickoff and the Jackets took advantage to take an early lead and set the tone for the rest of the game. Virginia Tech never settled into a rhythm and looked out of sorts all day. Meanwhile, the Jackets kept the game plan simple, didn’t make mistakes, and capitalized on every mistake the Hokies made. It was a recipe for success as Georgia Tech came home with their biggest win of the 2016 season. Before moving onto Virginia and Senior Day, let’s take a look back at how the upset came to be.
With starter Justin Thomas held in reserve as an emergency-only quarterback, the reins of the offense were handed over to sophomore Matthew Jordan. While Jordan has played in several games as a short-yardage quarterback this was his first career start and his first extended action since last season’s Miami game, where he took over for an injured Thomas. Relying on a heavy dose of mid-line options, Jordan ran the ball often, totaling 32 carries on the day. The sophomore gave the Yellow Jackets more of a power-running quarterback, calling back to the days of Joshua Nesbitt and Tevin Washington. That’s not to say that Jordan didn’t also get to flash some speed and elusiveness. He exploded through Hokie defense on his long touchdown run and on several occasions, he was able to make the first defender to him miss with a nice cut upfield.
As good as Jordan was with the ball in his hands, it was still obvious that he is a young quarterback and not half the passer Thomas is. Jordan struggled in the pass game, going only 2-7 for 34 yards. His first pass of the day, a 10-yard completion to Brad Stewart, may have been his best pass of the day. Outside of that, Jordan tended to just throw the ball up and was lucky not to be intercepted at least once. In the option game, Jordan was hesitant to pitch, preferring instead to hold onto the ball himself and pick up a few yards. Most of the times he did pitch were on rocket tosses or other designed plays. The quarterback-center exchange was also a problem, resulting in one turnover and several near misses. Jordan performed better than anyone could have expected and assuaged some fears about the quarterback situation in 2017 but will need to get more comfortable passing and pitching to have full command of the offense.
Matthew Jordan wasn’t the only backup to step up this week. With starter and leading rusher Dedrick Mills suspended, Marcus Marshall stepped back into the starting B-back role and played one of the best games of his career. Last year’s leading rusher, Marshall was passed on the depth chart by Mills in large part because of Mills’s more powerful, downhill running style. Against the Hokies, Marshall was every bit as powerful as Mills has been. Marshall hit his holes decisively and aggressively. Earlier this season and last season, Marshall was more productive in space and would often get tripped up in the mess of bodies between the tackles. This week, Marshall ran exclusively between the tackles and picked up yards in chunks.
In the second half, when the Hokies were starting to bottle up Matthew Jordan and limit the offense, Marshall put the offense on his back. His 56-yard touchdown run was the final blow, but the 5.6 yards per carry he averaged on his other seven second half runs were what really iced the game, melting the clock and keeping the ball out of Virginia Tech’s hands.
The simplified game plan the Yellow Jackets used with Matthew Jordan under center largely kept the ball out of the A-backs’ hands, as the position combined for only five carries. Clinton Lynch once again provided one of the bigger plays on the day, taking a rare option pitch 27 yards down the sideline late in the first half to put the Jackets in position to add to their lead. The perimeter blocking from the A-backs was solid, though the game was mostly played between the tackles.
One thing to keep an eye on going forward - for the second consecutive week, the A-back rotation was essentially a three man rotation between Clinton Lynch, Isiah Willis, and Qua Searcy. Paul Johnson typically uses at least four A-backs, but with J.J. Green injured and Lynn Griffin off the team, he seems to be down to three that he trusts. If Green is out long term, there might be an opportunity for walk-on senior Austin McClellan or redshirt freshmen Nate Cottrell and Omahri Jarrett to get some playing time.
As with the A-backs, the game plan and game flow did not call for much production from the wide receivers. Each starter hauled in one reception on the day. Brad Stewart’s came on the first drive and set up a fourth and short situation. In the fourth quarter, Ricky Jeune made a great move to come back to an under thrown ball while keeping a defender at bay. The 24-yard reception came on 3rd and long and kept alive a drive that eventually became a field goal. Jeune also drew a key pass interference penalty to move the ball into Hokie territory on a first quarter drive.
In addition to the absences of Justin Thomas and Dedrick Mills, two starters on the offensive line missed the Virginia Tech game. With the absence of tackle Andrew Marshall and center Freddie Burden, the Yellow Jackets were forced to start three true freshman on the offensive line. Despite the line’s youth and the hostile environment, the line performed pretty well. They only gave up one sack on the day and paved the way for a rushing attack that put up 309 yards against one of the best run defenses in the country. The line continually opened up big holes in the middle of the Hokie defense for Marshall and Jordan to run through. The interior of the line was particularly good on a day when a lot was asked of them.
There were a few miscues along the offensive line, as would be expected from a group that started three true freshmen and a sophomore. The Jackets were called for six false starts on the day. Guard Will Bryan had two false starts on Georgia Tech’s second drive of the game, while tackle Eason Fromayan had two false starts in three plays at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Both drives resulted in field goals but the false starts put Tech behind the chains early. Additionally, Kenny Cooper and Matthew Jordan had a tough time with the quarterback-center exchange. These issues only resulted in one turnover, but it could have easily been worse for the Jackets.
On a day when little was expected of them, the offense came through in a big way, led by the backup quarterback, backup B-back, and a very young offensive line. The Hokies were a little banged up on defense, but the Yellow Jackets came into Lane Stadium and ran the ball down their throats all day long. Coach Paul Johnson called a masterfully simple game. He kept the ball on the ground and played to his backup quarterback’s strengths, daring the Virginia Tech defense to stop him. In the first half, they had no answers. In the second, the Hokies keyed in a bit more on Jordan, which left plenty of room for Marcus Marshall to run free. While there was not much trickery in the game plan, it was a nice sleight of hand by the Yellow Jacket staff not to let any indication of Justin Thomas’s availability slip until just before kickoff, possibly catching Virginia Tech off guard. I’m not sure if Coach Johnson will be able to get away with such a one dimensional game again, but for one night in Blacksburg, everything came together perfectly.
Out of all the units on defense, the defensive line's turnaround from last week to this week was the most remarkable. Against North Carolina, the line got pushed around and made almost no impact on the game. Against Virginia Tech, they were stout against the run and disruptive against the pass. Leading the way was senior defensive tackle Patrick Gamble; his sack and half-sack were toward the end of the game, once Tech had built up a 30-7 lead, but on several occasions he was able to collapse the pocket to pressure Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans. He nearly added another sack on a third-quarter play where he almost wrapped up Evans, but instead he ended up chasing him into the arms of fellow defensive tackle Francis Kallon, who blasted Evans to record his first career sack.
The defensive ends collectively had a strong day. Sophomore Anree Saint-Amour had a pair of sacks in the fourth quarter, helping to put a dent in Virginia Tech's comeback attempt. KeShun Freeman had a pair of QB hurries, and Antonio Simmons was frequently able to push back the tackles to help collapse the pocket.
Sophomore Brant Mitchell led the team in tackles, but other than that, there wasn't too much exciting news to report related to the linebackers. Mitchell made roughly half of his tackles on passes over the middle, and he was generally able to prevent even moderate gains; none of the plays on which Mitchell made a tackle went for 10+ yards. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof continued to use P.J. Davis and Mitchell aggressively in the blitz, often sending one or both to bring some extra heat alongside a four-man rush. There were at least two plays where Roof sent the entire house with as many as seven players rushing, including all three linebackers--Davis, Mitchell, and in this case Lewis--and it proved surprisingly effective.
Still, on a day when pretty much every other defensive trend was shattered, the linebackers still failed to deliver any big plays. They had an impact in the pass rush, but mostly in the sense of occupying blockers to free up linemen to reach the quarterback. It was fine on Saturday for the linebackers to be relatively quiet, and they didn't make too many mistakes, but more production out of the 2-3 linebacker spots would go a long way toward making the Tech defense more consistently effective.
It's been a quiet season for Lawrence Austin, one of the team's top players a year ago, but on Saturday he was the team's defensive MVP. The junior was responsible for three of the Jackets' four forced turnovers, and all three came at very timely moments. The first pick came in the second quarter, with Virginia Tech at the Georgia Tech 25 and threatening to score. Evans took a shot at the end zone and overthrew his receiver, running back Travon McMillian, but Austin put on a burst of speed and made the interception in the end zone. Later, Virginia Tech had all the momentum after scoring to make it 20-7 and then forcing a punt... but when Evans tried to hit receiver C.J. Carroll over the middle, Carroll broke off his route too early, and Austin stepped up to make the pick. Austin’s forced fumble was a joint effort with his brother, cornerback Lance Austin: when Lance struggled to tackle Bucky Hodges early in the fourth quarter, Lawrence rushed over and knocked the ball out of Hodges' arms, and Lance recovered it shortly afterward.
It was a challenging game for Lance Austin, a 5-foot-9 field corner who ended up having to cover the 6-foot-4 Hodges for most of the game thanks to Virginia Tech's tendency to split him out wide. But on this day, Lance was up to the task. Despite the size mismatch, he largely silenced Hodges, limiting the star receiver to just 37 receiving yards. Lance was also matched up with Isaiah Ford at times, and in the third quarter he made a terrific play on a jump ball in the end zone, knocking away a pass right as it reached Ford's hands.
The secondary as a whole played aggressively, in part due to some schematic changes. Georgia Tech has largely relied on soft coverages across the board this season, with the corners leaving a large cushion while the safeties start 13-14 yards off the line and maintain deep Cover 2 zones. On Saturday, defensive coordinator Ted Roof used the standard soft Cover 2 on occasion but mostly deployed the safeties more creatively, having them play closer to the line alongside corners in soft coverage or letting the corners press up while the safeties patrol deep. This allowed the defensive backs to provide better run support and close on the ball more quickly on short receptions, enabling Tech to limit yards after the catch and force punts more frequently. The safeties benefited greatly and were able to make more of an impact--particularly Griffin, who finished with nine tackles, one for a loss.
For several weeks, we had essentially been writing the same old story about the defense: frustratingly passive scheme, poor tackling, no pass rush, no turnovers, nearly guaranteed third-down conversions. It didn't seem like anything could or would change unless the playcalling changed radically or the defensive staff were overhauled.
That's what made Saturday so surprising and refreshing. The unit that showed up in Lane Stadium looked like a different group in every way. Officially they allowed 437 yards, but over the first 52 minutes of the game—before Georgia Tech built up a three-touchdown lead to essentially put the game away—they only allowed seven points and 255 total yards. Virginia Tech was able to move the ball well at times, and many of their issues were self-inflicted, but Georgia Tech constantly found ways to either get a third-down stop or cause a turnover—things that simply have not happened much this season when the defense has been on the field.
On this afternoon, Georgia Tech's defense did what any good defense should do: they tackled well, limited yardage after the catch, maintained assignments effectively, and capitalized whenever the opponent made a mistake. They weren’t perfect, but they've no doubt earned a high grade.
The special teams units came up big for Georgia Tech, and it began with the very first play of the game. On the opening kickoff, returner Der'Woun Greene found a seam on the return and appeared on his way to a long return. Instead, Terrell Lewis delivered a huge hit and forced the ball out, and Nate Cottrell dove on it. Just like that, Georgia Tech stole away the opening possession, and the Jackets went on to take an early lead on a Harrison Butker field goal.
That was the beginning of a busy but strong day for Butker, who connected on three field goals (from 40, 39, and 35 yards), kicked a trio of extra points, and sent four of his seven kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. The field goals were especially notable because Butker has struggled on attempts from 30-39 yards; entering Saturday, he had been 1-for-3 on the season and 10-for-20 for his career from that range.
Ryan Rodwell's first punt was a short kick that ended up netting just 18 yards after a long return, but three of his four other punts helped to force Virginia Tech's offense to start from inside their own 15-yard line. His inconsistency remains an issue, but Rodwell's performance has no doubt improved as the season has gone on.
The field goal coverage unit had an interesting moment when, on a Virginia Tech field goal attempt in the second quarter, a bad hold resulted in a low, off-target kick that bounced off of a blocking lineman's helmet. The ball ricocheted directly to Lance Austin, who snagged it, took off to his right, and had only the kicker to beat... but unlike a certain play involving Roberto Aguayo a year ago, Virginia Tech kicker Joey Slye brought him down.
On paper, there was absolutely no way the Jackets should have won this game. They were walking into Blacksburg—home of one of the nation’s best defensive coordinators—with an offense littered with backups and true freshmen at key positions. The Jackets’ defense, after weeks of being gashed by opposing tight ends and dual-threat quarterbacks, was being asked to defend two of the ACC’s best in Bucky Hodges and Jerod Evans. It seemed all but impossible, but amid all that, Georgia Tech found a way and took down a ranked opponent in a tough road environment.
Several strong individual performances helped to power the victory. Matthew Jordan protected the ball (mostly) and executed the simplified offensive gameplan well, Marcus Marshall flashed the explosiveness that won him the starting job a year ago, Patrick Gamble led the charge up front for the defense, and Lawrence Austin capitalized on every opportunity to hand the ball back to the offense. The result was the second straight win for the Jackets in Blacksburg (following the 2014 victory) and one of the least expected wins of Paul Johnson’s tenure with Georgia Tech.
The Jackets are bowl-eligible now, but challenges still lie ahead. Virginia is the final divisional opponent, and the rivalry game with Georgia looms a week later. If Jordan needs to remain the QB for much longer, he’ll need to put in lots of work at handling the center-quarterback exchange with both Burden and Cooper and making more accurate pitches on the perimeter. Separately, the defense played with renewed fire and focus on Saturday, and they’ll need to find a way to continue channeling that. Georgia Tech’s two remaining opponents are vulnerable, and if the Jackets’ defense can keep up the newly disruptive pass rush and opportunistic play in the secondary, the team has a definite chance to finish strong.