Fresh off their first win of the season against a ranked opponent, Tech's football team returned home and received plenty of good news: four offensive starters, including seniors Justin Thomas and Freddie Burden, would be returning to the lineup just in time for Senior Day. With the defense coming off its best showing of the season and a 2-8 Virginia team up next, this looked like an opportunity for Tech to pick up a big win in the ACC finale and build some momentum for the season finale.
Instead, Tech came out flat on both sides of the ball. All-too-familiar problems resurfaced: the defense allowed Virginia quarterback Matt Johns to pick them apart underneath, and the offense repeatedly stalled while struggling to get a consistent push up front. Really, in a number of ways, the game seemed to favor Virginia on paper, but Tech won in two crucial areas: the turnover battle (3-0) and number of plays for 30+ yards (again 3-0). Those big plays carried the day, as all of Tech's offensive touchdowns came on plays that went for over 50 yards.
It's not the most repeatable formula, but it worked for the Jackets on Saturday, and they improved to 7-4 and finished an even 4-4 in ACC play. Still, there’s a lot of work to do ahead of this week’s regular season finale at georgia.
After several top-notch performances in October, Thomas was not quite up to his usual standard in his final home game. He made a mistake on Tech's very first play from scrimmage, pitching to lead blocking A-back Clinton Lynch instead of pitch man Isiah Willis, which resulted in a fumble. Thomas generally had little room to run on the perimeter as UVA's defense focused on containing him on option runs, and he finished the game with -9 rushing yards. He also had a couple of ill-advised throws, including one deep pass to a double-covered Ricky Jeune that was very nearly intercepted.
That's not to say he necessarily had a bad game. Overall, Thomas's decision-making in the option game was strong, and he delivered several on-target deep passes in a very windy environment. He finished 5-for-10 for 122 yards and a touchdown through the air, and he would have had another touchdown pass if not for a drop on a perfectly placed throw in the third quarter. It’s possible he simply had a little rust after sitting out a week earlier, and he should be back in top form for the regular season finale.
After a terrific performance in relief a week ago, Matthew Jordan resumed his role as the backup. He was called upon for one play, a fourth-and-1 conversion attempt midway through the third quarter; head coach Paul Johnson called a QB follow, but the predictable playcall and multiple failed blocks on the play resulted in the play being stuffed.
In his two starts earlier in the season against Mercer and Duke, sophomore Marcus Marshall didn't do a ton to stake a claim to the starting B-back job. The past two weeks have been a very different story. Marshall had his second straight 100-yard game on Saturday, rushing for 128 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
Just over half of those yards came on Tech's first touchdown, on which Marshall took a pitch at the sideline, got a few good blocks, and outran a few defenders en route to a career-long 67-yard touchdown. Where he was most impressive, though, was on runs up the middle where he didn't get the ball in open space. Marshall showed a much greater willingness to take on contact than he's demonstrated in the past; to that end, one of his most impressive runs of the day saw him stiff-arm a defender at the line and shed multiple tackle attempts en route to a 20-yard gain.
True freshman Dedrick Mills will return from his suspension this week, but with two strong games in a row, Marshall has done enough to make Johnson think twice about immediately plugging Mills back into the lineup.
This group once again became a four-man show with J.J. Green's return to action, and they delivered a solid performance, accounting for 185 of Tech's 321 total offensive yards. As usual, Clinton Lynch was the biggest playmaker, hauling in a 54-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to give Tech the lead and finishing the day with 96 total yards. The biggest highlight, though, came courtesy of Qua Searcy, who took a toss to the right side and ended up cutting across the field, evading multiple defenders en route to a 60-yard score.
The big plays were crucial, but the blocking was far from perfect, with missed assignments on the perimeter adding up. The game seemed to sum things up for Searcy in particular: he has massive big-play potential with the ball in his hands, but he's not all that reliable as a blocker yet. Green's presence should help, though; he only saw limited action on Saturday after missing the previous two games, but the georgia transfer should be back to full strength to face his former team, and that would be a huge boost to the A-backs' collective blocking ability.
One additional note: Isiah Willis deserves credit for a pair of heads-up plays. He was able to recover the off-target pitch on Tech’s first offensive play, and on the botched snap in the fourth quarter, he dove in to secure the ball and prevent Virginia from taking over in Tech territory.
Regrettably, the most notable play by a wide receiver on Saturday was one that resulted in nothing. On Tech's second drive of the third quarter, Brad Stewart ended up wide open on a vertical route after a defensive back lost track of him. Thomas delivered a perfect pass that hit Stewart in stride... and it bounced off of the receiver's hands. It was a rare mishap for the normally sure-handed Stewart, who missed out on a chance to haul in his first career touchdown reception.
Beyond that, it was a very quiet day for the receiving corps. Ricky Jeune had one catch, an 18-yard reception on a comeback route that he could have turned into more if not for a shoestring tackle by the cornerback covering him. The most interesting development was that true freshman Jalen Camp was on the field for much of the second half, though he was not targeted in the passing game.
The group wasn't perfect in blocking but did a decent job overall, and good receiver blocking contributed to both of Tech's long touchdown runs. Jeune completely took his man out of the play on Marshall's early touchdown, and Camp blocked a defensive back all the way down the field--even after he accidentally ended up facing the wrong way--to spring Searcy over the final stretch on his run.
It's a strange thing to say--particularly for a Paul Johnson team--but the line really seemed to miss its true freshman left tackle. With Jahaziel Lee out, junior Eason Fromayan replaced Lee in the lineup, and he did well in pass blocking but missed a number of assignments in the run game. He wasn't alone, though. Sophomore right guard Will Bryan and sophomore right tackle Trey Klock (who played most of the game even though starting right tackle Andrew Marshall returned from injury this week) had similar issues--particularly Bryan, who took a step back after winning the starting job and gradually improving over the last few weeks.
Klock and Bryan did make crucial blocks on some of the big plays, particularly Searcy's long run, but the missed assignments stopped several other plays in their tracks. Some of it was simply dealing with difficult personnel, as Bryan frequently had to contend with Virginia defensive lineman Andrew Brown (a former five-star recruit) in the first half. Even senior Freddie Burden struggled to keep nose tackle Donte Wilkins in front of him.
The other true freshmen made a couple costly mistakes. Kenny Cooper stepped in for Burden at center for most of the second half, and while his snapping issues were less prevalent than they were a week ago, he had one crucial error when he snapped too early and Virginia nearly recovered. Left guard Parker Braun was flagged for clipping in the third quarter; that turned a manageable third-and-1 situation (which had been converted on the play where clipping was called) into third-and-16, pushing the Jackets out of the red zone and forcing them to settle for a field goal.
It just was not a good day all around for the offensive line. If Lee is able to return next week, that will help, but the issues that have plagued the unit on and off throughout the season seemed to come to a head against Virginia.
The offense does deserve credit for the day's handful of big plays. They weren't total anomalies--they were the result of both excellent running by the ballcarriers and well-executed blocks across the board, and the offense has shown this season that it's very capable of that level of play when everyone is clicking.
That said, those plays were nevertheless the exceptions to the rule, and the overall picture for the offense was anything but pleasant. They simply could not sustain drives at all; the longest drive of the day lasted just six plays. Tech ran a total of just 41 plays in the game, lost the time of possession battle by more than 17 minutes, and converted only two of 10 third downs on the afternoon. The Jackets repeatedly shot themselves in the foot on third down, with a penalty negating one would-be conversion and a botched snap killing another attempt. Take out the three long touchdowns, and Tech ran 38 plays for just 140 total yards.
Some of the offensive troubles can be chalked up to Virginia's defensive talent, which includes two former five-star recruits in Brown and safety Quin Blanding. Brown in particular had a knack for jumping the snap, which proved disastrous on a few occasions. But blocking execution was the overarching issue, and there isn’t much time left to fix up the lingering issues.
One week after arguably their best performance of the season, the defensive line took a small step backwards against Virginia. That isn’t to say they weren’t effective - the line definitely had good stretches - but they did not dominate the opposing offensive line like they did against Virginia Tech. Smoke Mizzell gashed the Yellow Jackets on the ground and the Cavaliers offensive line did a good job of opening up running lanes for him. The ends had a tough time setting the edges in the run game, allowing Mizzell to run wild. Against the pass, the d-line was largely held at bay when not getting help from blitzing linebackers, though this was more due to Virginia keeping extra men in protection than poor play on the line’s part. Several times, they were able to get good pressure on Cavaliers’ QB Matt Johns, including on the second play from scrimmage when he was flushed from the pocket by DE KeShun Freeman and chased down by DT Patrick Gamble for the sack.
Speaking of Gamble, the senior came up big during his last game on The Flats. In addition to the highlight-reel sack, he recorded three other tackles but was constantly around the ball. Gamble’s fellow senior DT, Francis Kallon also recorded a sack, coming late in the game as Johns tried to step up in the pocket. The third senior on the line, DE Rod Rook-Chungong was fairly quiet, with only two tackles. Of the underclassmen, sophomore DT Kyle Cerge-Henderson probably had the best game. Like Gamble, he seemed to be around the ball often. Late in the game he put Johns on the ground for the first sack of his Yellow Jacket career.
Despite Virginia relying heavily on sets with two running backs and a tight end, Georgia Tech employed a 4-2-5 nickel package most of the day. This meant that starters P.J. Davis and Brant Mitchell were the only linebackers on the field most of the day, but they were everywhere. The duo led the team in tackles, combining for 25 plus a pass breakup from Davis and an interception from Mitchell on the game’s last play. It was particularly reassuring to see strong play from Davis and he seems to be fully back from the hamstring injury that caused him to miss time earlier in the season.
While the linebackers were able to rack up the tackles, the same coverage issues that have plagued the unit all season cropped up on Saturday. Both Mitchell and Davis are sub-par in coverage, and Virginia was able to take advantage of that with short passes over the middle. They also tended to bite on play action fakes, which helped free up WR Keeon Johnson on the game’s first play for a 24-yard gain (the longest pass the Cavaliers had all day). Similarly, on Smoke Mizzell’s 29-yard run, the linebackers both bit on the fake handoff to the Mizzell’s backfield-mate and had to change directions to chase down Mizzell.
An interesting wrinkle that the Jackets used a few times to varying levels of success was to have the normal 4-2-5 personnel on the field but drop a DE, typically Anree Saint-Amour or KeShun Freeman, back to the linebacker level and slide Pat Gamble over to DE. If nothing else, this 3-3-5 gives the offense an odd front and a different look from the defense.
For much of the game, the tighter coverage the Yellow Jackets used against Virginia Tech was nowhere to be seen, replaced by the all-too familiar 7-yard cushion. Virginia and QB Matt Johns took full advantage of this, picking Tech apart with short routes (as mentioned above, the Cavalier’s longest pass was the 24-yard catch and run to Keeon Johnson on the first play from scrimmage). Time and time again, Tech essentially gave Virginia a free first down on 3rd and medium by lining up corners behind the sticks and backpedaling at the snap.
In the third quarter, the Jackets played a little bit tighter coverage, and it made a difference. In the period, Matt Johns was 1/6 passing, the only quarter in which he completed under 62% of his passes. The third quarter also saw Johns throw his first of three interceptions. Corey Griffin was in the right place at the right time and took full advantage, picking off a pass that was over thrown (possibly aided by a stiff wind) and returning it 33 yards. The interception was a big play on an otherwise quiet day for Griffin, who only had one tackle despite entering the day as the team’s leader.
The second interception came courtesy of Lance Austin, who took it back to the house, icing the game for the Yellow Jackets. This time, Johns pump-faked, hesitated, then slightly overthrew his target and put the ball into Austin’s hands. For the second consecutive week, Austin had a fairly strong day. He was effective when in man-to-man coverage, leading the team with three pass breakups despite being matched up against bigger receivers.
As mentioned during the Secondary section, 3rd down defense continued to be a problem for Georgia Tech on Saturday. The Cavaliers converted on 7 of 17 third downs, which is actually an improvement on Tech’s season average. At the same time, a 41% third down conversion rate is nothing to write home about, especially against a team like Virginia (99th in FBS in third down conversion rate) and would place 80th in FBS for the full season. It’s been said after every game, but lining up the secondary beyond the yard to gain on 3rd down is no way to run a defense.
Making matters even more frustrating this week was that Tech would often only rush four, dropping seven into coverage, even when Virginia kept a tight end and/or a running back in to pass block. On one occasion, the Cavaliers kept 8 players in protection, only sending two receivers out against our seven in coverage...and still got a first down. Rushing at a numbers disadvantage is going to give the quarterback plenty of time to throw and the coverage needs to be able to make up for that.
All that said, the turning point of the game seemed to come from the defense. About halfway through the third quarter and down 10-7, Georgia Tech went for it on 4th & 1 from their own 29 yard line and failed. With the ball deep in Yellow Jacket territory, the Cavaliers had a chance to go up two scores and take command of the game. On the first play of the drive, Johns took a shot at the end zone, but CB Lamont Simmons made a great play to close on the intended receiver and get a hand on the ball, knocking it away. The Tech front held strong on two running plays, forcing a three and out. Virginia’s kicker missed the ensuing field goal, his second of the day, and three plays later Clinton Lynch was headed to the end zone. The big plays on offense will take the headlines, but the defensive stand in a tough spot felt like it was what started to turn the tides in Tech’s favor. Its hard to say that the defense played well when they gave up 409 yards of offense to Virginia but considering they were on the field for over 38 minutes and only gave up 17 points, it could have been much worse.
Despite the windy conditions, the Georgia Tech kicking game was strong. Senior Harrison Butker continued his march towards the school’s all-time scoring record, adding nailing all four extra points and his only field goal attempt for 7 more points. Butker also sent three of his six kicks into the end zone for touchbacks. That would normally be a poor day for him but was no surprise given the winds. The kickoff coverage team was solid, not letting the Cavaliers break off a long return.
Butker’s fellow senior specialist, punter Ryan Rodwell, also had an excellent Senior Day. Rodwell punted five times for an average of 52.5 yards, including a career-long 65 yard punt. Two other punts were downed at the Cavaliers’ two yard-line, pinning them deep in their own territory. The coverage team did a good job downing those kicks, but did allow Virginia returner Daniel Hamm to break off a 26-yard return.
Tech’s own return teams were unable to come up with a big play. Nate Cottrell was used as the primary kick returner again, despite J.J. Green’s return to action. Cottrell only had one return on the day, which went for 25 yards. Punt returner Brad Stewart had a day he would probably like back. Drop on offense aside, Stewart fair-caught a punt on Tech’s own 5 yard line early in the game and was only able to get 2 yards on his lone return of the day, which ended with him injuring his ankle (though Stewart did return to the game).
Ignoring the actual score of the game and just looking at the box score, it would be hard to tell that Georgia Tech left the field Saturday with a win. Turnovers are really the only indicator that goes in Tech’s favor. Virginia out gained Tech 409 to 321. The Cavaliers had 25 first downs to the Yellow Jackets’ 8. They converted 41% of third downs, Tech converted 20%. Most surprisingly, they held the ball for over 38:37, while Tech’s ball-control, clock-melting offense was only on the field for 21:23.
It was a strange day on The Flats, but as has been the case time and time again this season, Tech got big plays when they needed it the most. Another long touchdown run from Marcus Marshall. Clinton Lynch finding the gap in the opposing secondary. Qua Searcy reversing field and running through the Cavalier defense. Corey Griffin and Lance Austin picking off overthrown passes and putting (indirectly in Griffin’s case) points on the board. Saturday’s game was not always a pretty one, but the bottom line is Tech guaranteed the 2016 season will finish with a winning record and was able to send Justin Thomas, Pat Gamble, Freddie Burden, Harrison Butker, and the rest of the senior class out with one last win in Bobby Dodd Stadium.
On to georgia. What’s the Good Word?