A Tale of Two Halves (And Virtually Two Teams)
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
Welcome back to The Upper North Perspective. Can’t we all just sit back and say that it truly feels great to be at 5-3?
It was not the easiest path to getting to 5-3, but the game ended with Georgia Tech having the result that matters most. As I have always said, a win is a win, and after this past weekend’s contest, I cannot think of a more appropriate time to use the phrase.
We all could be sitting here debating what could have been and how a collapse could take place to provide such a terrible loss. Instead, we are heading into UNC with a little bit of positive momentum and a chance to get bowl eligible with four games left. If you need to continue looking for a silver lining, you could just look down to Athens to see a team that is 4-4 with just one guaranteed (maybe?) win on the schedule.
Getting back to the Yellow Jackets, this game had its fair share of highs and lows. That is no joke. This game seemingly provided the highest of highs and the lowest of lows interchangeably. How just two halves, or a matter of seconds at times, could differ so much should not be expected. But is that the new norm? Is that the unfortunate expectation? More importantly, with the wide variety of results happening so frequently, who is this team that we watch every single week?
The Best of Times
Oh, that magnificent first half. Sign me up for that every single week. Well, duplicate it into a whole game, and I would be down for it.
Even the lows of the first half had its highs. After Duke running back Shaun Wilson broke through the line untouched heading directly for the end zone, AJ Gray decided to dress up as DJ White for Halloween and do his best impression by walking down Wilson and stripping the ball as he inched toward the end zone. Step Durham scooped the ball up and preserved the 21-7 lead that the offense managed to build upon just a few minutes later.
The first half ended with GT up 28-7. My wife even said to me, “Where has this team been?” The offense was clicking, and the defense was playing the perfect blend of bend-but-don’t-break defense that Ted Roof prides himself on. The passing game was dynamic. Justin Thomas was putting on a show with two touchdowns running and one passing already.
This is the team that I knew was possible in 2016. Yes, this group could be very good by creating turnovers and playing efficient on offense. That was the recipe for success coming into this year, as it is most years for GT, and it was on full display in the first half.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Worst of Times
I regretted that question immediately. I regretted the assumption that this team had turned a corner. I regretted saying that this was the team I had waited for all year.
The first half didn’t start out bad. Actually, the defense did their jobs and forced a turnover on a beautiful Lance Austin diving interception. However, this elation was short lived. Within moments, Justin Thomas and Marcus Marshall miscommunicated on an option read, and Duke had the ball right back. Duke followed that up rather quickly with a score.
Everything is OKAY, right? Nope. JJ Green gets destroyed on a kick return and another turnover. Less than fifteen seconds after the initial Duke score, they were back in the end zone. 28-21. The downfall continued throughout the entire half all the way to the point of Duke going up 35-31 in the fourth quarter. Without Justin Thomas and his playmaking ability, I do not know if this Jacket team rebounds to win.
Let’s not focus on JT quite yet. This second half ineptitude on the defensive side of the ball was absolutely embarrassing. That second half performance was exactly why some of the fan base is so dang negative. After the last Duke score, it almost seemed like all hope was lost. My entire section sat in disbelief at what we had just seen.
This is the team that we have seen come out of nowhere to show up at various points this season. This was the type of poor performance that has appeared over varying timeframes over the season to cause losses and tight games. Is this who this team is?
Margin for Error
What this game tells me is that Georgia Tech is a combination of both performances. Wait for this hot take: the performance in the second half wasn’t all that different from the first….at least in terms of how the defense played.
Duke still had 300 yards of total offense at the end of the first half. However, the 300 yards were limited by timely stops, great plays, and key turnovers. That is bending and not breaking. That is where this defense likes to operate.
The offense lost two possessions to turnovers in the second half, but it seemed to regain its efficient footing as the second half continued to unfold.
So this proves what exactly? The margin for error is very slim with this team. I think fans have known this, but Saturday was a perfect example of how small of a margin there actually is. The offense cannot afford dumb turnovers or drive killing penalties. The defense cannot afford to give up touchdowns on every possession with little resistance. This team cannot consistently overcome multiple things going wrong on any given Saturday and still expect to win.
We saw the whole spectrum of who this team is on Saturday. Hopefully, the season unfolds showing a lot more of the group from the first half than the second.
Bonus: Please Give Tech the Ball Last
In three out of five ACC games so far for GT, the team with the last true full possession won the game. As Tech approaches the final stretch of UNC, VT, UVA, and UGA, this is something to keep in mind. At this point, I am assuming GT will be participating in tight games where the final possession of the game will truly matter. The last trips to UNC, VT, and UGA all went this exact way, and I think this year will be more of the same. The ball needs to be in Justin Thomas’ hands as the seconds’ tick away late in the game. GT needs to continue to give the offense the chance to win these games late. With a guy like Justin Thomas leading the way, I have no reason to doubt their ability to pull it out more often than not. I do not care who gets the ball first, but I for sure know that I want GT to have the ball last.
Bonus Number 2: Justin Thomas
I said earlier that this team could not consistently overcome multiple things going on and still expect to win. I say consistently because I would not be able to write a full column in good conscience without acknowledging that Justin Thomas played the absolute game of his life on Saturday. This kid went out and showed that he is still the Justin Thomas everyone fell in love with back in 2014. Justin displayed his athleticism, leadership, and playmaking ability all day long. He showed an absolute drive to fight and win that this team needs. This team needs a leader like Justin as it prepares for the last four opponents of the regular season.
This team will go as far as Justin Thomas takes it; by the looks of Saturday, that is a good thing.