Georgia Tech entered the day Saturday with hopes of getting North Carolina into a shoot out and stealing a division in a win in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels did their part but the Jackets were unable to keep pace and found themselves on the wrong side of an embarrassing blow out, falling 48-20. The loss eliminated Tech from the Coastal Division race and erased much of the good will built up during the preceding two game winning streak.
We considered just putting the gif from Saturday of Paul Johnson cursing into the camera here and calling it a day but thought better of it. As tough as this game was, it does deserve some examination and there were some positives to be found, on one side of the ball at least.
One week after recording one of the best offensive performances in school history, Justin Thomas came back down to earth this week. That’s not to say the senior performed poorly. Thomas had a fine day, rushing for 82 yards on a 5.5 ypc clip and going 5-10 through the air for 184 yards, but for one reason or another never looked fully comfortable. There were a couple of plays in which he abandoned the pocket a bit early to scramble and, of course, the play in which he spun out of several defenders hands trying to make something happen before taking a big sack. In the run game, he rarely found the space to really turn on the jets. One of the few runs in which he did find some open field was on the play he was injured.
Thomas was replaced by backup Matthew Jordan, who performed admirably but with what seemed to be a simplified playbook. The sophomore signal caller mostly ran the midline option or quarterback follow, with a few rocket tosses mixed in. Jordan was called on to pass once, but instead gave the defense a nice pump fake before taking off for a 15 yard gain. All in all, Jordan was a respectable 11 for 54 on the ground, though he did fumble once (he recovered for no gain) and had a botched handoff that resulted in a redzone fumble. Matthew Jordan is serviceable, but if Thomas is out for any extended period of time, that spells trouble for the Yellow Jackets.
Fully recovered from the concussion that held him out of the Duke game, Dedrick Mills returned to action Saturday and reclaimed his lead back role. Against the Tar Heels, Mills was every bit the tough, bruising runner that has quickly made him a fan favorite on The Flats. Mills refused to go down easy, as was best evidenced on his 39-yard run, where he used teammate Andrew Marshall to keep himself off the ground and broke several open field tackles. His touchdown came on a short yardage play where he ran straight into the teeth of the North Carolina defensive front and forced his way into the endzone. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Mills. The freshman struggled with ball security, coughing up the ball twice in the second half. The second fumble came on a bad exchange with backup QB Matthew Jordan, but the first effectively put an end to any hopes the Yellow Jackets had for a comeback.
Marcus Allen once again took the backup B-Back role as normal backup and last week’s starter Marcus Marshall was held out with an upper body injury. Allen made little impact on the game, only seeing action to briefly spell Mills.
Deciding on an appropriate grade for the B-backs’ performance Saturday is difficult. For much of the game, Mills looked like Tech’s best player but it’s impossible to overlook the fumbles. As good as he has looked to this point, he is still a freshman and will make freshman mistakes.
As seems to be the case every game, Clinton Lynch provided the Yellow Jackets’ biggest play of the afternoon. This time, the sophomore reeled in a pass and took it 83 yards to the house. The score came on a beautifully designed play-action, where Justin Thomas faked the option, taking the defenders’ focus and leaving Lynch wide open with plenty of green space in front of him. Lynch just has an uncanny ability to produce monster plays and should be a joy to watch the rest of this season and into the future.
Outside of Lynch’s big play, the A-backs corps was solid, if unspectacular. The rotation was shortened Saturday with J.J. Green, one of the normal starters, out after sustaining a leg injury against Duke and Lynn Griffin’s abrupt departure from the team. This essentially left the Yellow Jackets with a three man rotation of Clinton Lynch, Isiah Willis, and Qua Searcy. Willis never touched the ball but continues to be one of the better blockers on the team. Lynch and Searcy combined for a quiet 59 yards on 11 carries. The two had a tough time getting to North Carolina’s second level, and were often met on the edge by a Tar Heel defender.
Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart continued their recent good play against the Tar Heels. The duo each had one big play on the day. Early in the second quarter, Jeune lined up in the slot as an ineligible receiver and was thus left uncovered. The Jackets showed an option play away from Jeune before Thomas turned around and hit a wide open Jeune behind the line of scrimmage on a screen pass. Jeune turned on the jets for a 40-yard gain before eventually being chased out of bounds. Later in the quarter, Stewart came back to the ball to catch an underthrown 3rd down heave from Thomas, all while being interfered with. All year long, Stewart has shown that he knows how to make good plays on the ball in one-on-one coverage and this was just another example.
Jeune and Stewart may not yet be at the level of some previous Tech receivers who have gone onto pro careers, but the duo have grown and improved as the season has gone on and have built a pretty steady rapport with Justin Thomas. It would be nice to see both get a little more separation from defenders, but both have shown they can put themselves in positions to win one-on-one battles.
All told, this was one of the offensive line’s better games this season. They paved the way for a running game that racked up 334 yards on the ground and generally gave Justin Thomas enough time to either hit a receiver or throw the ball away. For the first time this season against Power 5 competition, the line did not allow a sack and Tech ball carriers were only tackled for a loss three times, also a season low against Power 5 competition. There were still missed assignments and blocks and no one is mistaking North Carolina for a defensive stalwart, but this game was, on the whole, a sign of progress for the line.
One individual highlight was Will Bryan’s block on Dedrick Mills’s touchdown run. Bryan was able to open up a huge hole in the middle of the Tar Heel defensive line, giving Mills plenty of space to find the endzone. Backup center Kenny Cooper, who was inserted into the lineup after Freddie Burden’s injury, played fairly well for his first significant action against first team ACC defenses. Cooper got off the ball quick, though he sometimes made it to the second level without hitting any Tar Heels on his way.
Late in the game, Tech was able to move the ball at a pretty good clip behind a line that included Cooper and fellow true freshmen Parker Braun and Jahaziel Lee. Lee was listed as a starter on the official depth chart but did not see much, if any, time until that late game situation. Instead, Eason Fromayan got the start at left tackle. Lee had shown promise in previous weeks against Duke and Georgia Southern, so his lack of playing time was puzzling, especially because Fromayan did not play particularly well.
Forget the scoreboard for a minute. Just look at the box score. The offense totaled 518 yards on 68 plays, an average of 7.6 yards per play. They held the ball for over 32 minutes and converted on 57% of third downs. Looks like a pretty good day for the offense. Yet for all that success, they were only able to put 20 points on the board.
The Jackets could not get out of their own way on Saturday. Early in the second quarter, Tech got down to the Tar Heel 1 yard line before getting backed up to the 12 on holding penalty away from the play. The Jackets ended up settling for a field goal. Late in the quarter, Tech was moving the ball well before an illegal forward pass set the Jackets behind the chains. They settled for another field goal, but this time it was blocked. In the third quarter Tech’s last real chance at mounting a comeback was squashed by Mills’s first fumble.
Grading the offense as a whole is confusing. Going unit by unit, it feels like everyone did their job Saturday, yet it’s hard to say it was a good day for the offense. They were able to move the ball almost at will, but were unable to convert yards into points. It feels like it was a game where the whole was less than the sum of the parts.
There's no point in sugarcoating it: the defensive line got absolutely dominated all afternoon. UNC's offensive line had their way with the Tech front four on virtually every running play, creating massive holes for the running backs and enabling UNC to average over eight yards per carry as a team. The only tackle for loss by the defensive line—which saw Tyler Merriweather knock a running back backwards and Brandon Adams close in for the tackle—came with 1:15 left in the game, when UNC had a 28-point lead and had their second-team offense on the field. The pass rush was no better: Tech's linemen combined for zero sacks and zero quarterback hurries.
Perhaps the most telling stat is that three of Tech's four starting defensive linemen failed to even record a tackle. Put simply, the line's impact on the game was almost nonexistent.
Let's start with some positives here, courtesy of the two senior linebackers. Chase Alford had a pair of tackles for loss on the same drive in the second quarter, and P.J. Davis returned from injury to make a couple of nice tackles. Sophomore Brant Mitchell also had Tech's lone QB hurry in the first quarter on a third-down play, forcing UNC to settle for a long field goal attempt.
The overall problem was the same one that Tech has faced for several weeks: the linebackers simply are not making enough impact plays. Davis and Mitchell, the starters, combined for zero tackles for loss, and the linebackers (like the rest of the defense) were unable to force any turnovers. Against an offense as formidable as UNC's with NFL-caliber talent at every skill position, Tech needed the linebackers to have a near-perfect day of closing gaps up the middle, quickly flowing to the ball on the outside, and forcing a fumble or two. None of those happened.
Again, there are a couple positive notes. Strong safety Corey Griffin made a few nice plays in run support and finished the game with a team-high 12 tackles. He wasn't perfect by any stretch, and a couple of his mistakes proved costly. But for a player who was far too often the last man standing between the ballcarrier and the end zone, Griffin largely did his part to hold the line. Aside from that, the best Tech coverage play was in the third quarter, when cornerback Lance Austin, who knocked the ball out of UNC receiver Austin Proehl's hands in the end zone to prevent a would-be touchdown.
Beyond that, things got ugly. UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky had a field day working against no pressure and Tech's soft coverages. Receiver Bug Howard, a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-5, was a one-man wrecking crew as he racked up six receptions for 120 yards. He hauled in a 68-yard touchdown after free safety A.J. Gray bit on a stop-and-go move and left him wide open down the sideline. In effect, Tech managed to contain the ever-dangerous Ryan Switzer but instead allowed Howard to run wild.
The safeties had to make lots of tackles out of necessity, as receivers were finding holes past the corners and the running backs—particularly Hood—were slashing past the first two levels of the defense with ease. They mostly got the job done, with Griffin and Gray combining for 21 tackles, but when they did miss a tackle or take a bad angle, Tech paid for it dearly.
Saturday was a complete disaster for the defense on every level. The numbers were abysmal: Tech allowed 636 yards and allowed UNC to average 9.1 yards per play. Trubisky averaged over 10 yards per passing attempt, and running back Elijah Hood averaged 14 yards per carry as he ran for 168 yards and three scores. UNC converted on eight of 13 third-down attempts against a team that already had the nation's worst opponent third down conversion rate.
It was bad on a micro level as well, even from the very beginning. UNC's huge run on their second play from scrimmage happened in part because both of Tech's linebackers managed to get blocked by the same offensive lineman... and then something similar happened again two plays later. Linebackers and defensive backs frequently overpursued or took bad angles, enabling UNC’s playmakers to create extra yardage for free. A combination of holes in coverage and defensive lapses enabled Trubisky to repeatedly find open receivers 20 yards downfield and rack up 300 passing yards with ease.
The short and blunt truth is that this was one of the worst defensive performances in team history.
Usually the defensive breakdown ends there, but truthfully, it's unfair to slam the players with terrible grades and not speak to the heart of the matter. Yes, the players could certainly be executing better, but Saturday also served as a clinic on the failures of Tech's defensive scheme.
To defensive coordinator Ted Roof's credit, Tech has ramped up the amount of blitzes recently, which is a definite plus for a team that's had almost no success generating pressure this season. The problem is that said blitz packages have been very vanilla. On Saturday, Roof repeatedly fell back on sending both linebackers into the same B-gap off left guard. It worked well the first time midway through the first quarter: Davis occupied a blocker to free Mitchell, who forced Trubisky to throw it away and chalked up Tech's only QB hurry of the day. But there were two issues. First, Roof kept throwing the same blitz at UNC... which might have been fine, but Davis and Mitchell made no effort to disguise their intentions, making it clear to UNC’s linemen that the blitz was coming and enabling them to adapt. That too falls back on coaching; the staff needs to do a better job of disguising linebacker blitzes.
The coverage issues have been even more frustrating. A frequent third-down alignment for Tech features boundary corner Step Durham playing close to the line of scrimmage while nickel corner Lawrence Austin and field corner Lance Austin play several yards off the line. Several times on Saturday (as in weeks past), this resulted in the Austins lining up right around the first down marker and then backpedaling at the snap to give the receivers additional cushion. Trubisky took full advantage, completing passes for first downs on that side of the field on at least three occasions.
It's one thing to leave a cushion for someone like UNC's Ryan Switzer, one of the fastest players in the conference, but the hyper-conservative coverage meant Tech was basically conceding the first down on that side of the field. It's far from the first time too. That softness has burned the Tech defense in the past, and it almost seems like a given that it will continue.
The receiver matchups were a mess. On multiple plays, Howard ended up being covered by 5-foot-9 Lance Austin, creating a massive size mismatch. This had to happen a couple times before Roof finally adapted and had Step Durham start marking Howard. There's absolutely no excuse for letting a mismatch like Austin-on-Howard transpire, particularly when 6-foot-2 Lamont Simmons, a capable man-to-man cover corner, is available in reserve. Teams have exploited Roof's strict reliance on a field/boundary corner split in the past, and he needs to be ready and immediately willing to change things up when the situation calls for it.
Even if the players improve their collective technique and play recognition, it won’t matter if the scheme doesn’t put them in position to succeed.
Harrison Butker had an up-and-down day. He was his usual automatic self on kickoffs and connected on two of his three field goal attempts, but the one that failed—a 32-yard attempt from the right hash mark—was ultimately on Butker for not putting the ball high enough to clear the defenders in front.
Punter Ryan Rodwell only punted twice, but he delivered a solid performance, particularly on his first punt. After taking the snap deep in Tech territory, Rodwell ran off to the right as if he planned to take off (and presumably he had the option to do so), but enough UNC defenders were in the area that he decided not to risk it and kicked it away. The bonus was that UNC return man Ryan Switzer had moved up to defend against a potential fake, so the punt bounced and rolled to a stop for a net gain of 58 yards.
The main area of interest, though, was in the kick return game, where redshirt freshman A-back Nate Cottrell took over kick return duties for the injured J.J. Green. On his two returns, he flashed his straight-line speed but not much in the way of agility—particularly on the second return, where he ran straight ahead into a pile of blockers and defenders and was quickly brought down. His speed gives him huge potential as a returner, but he’ll need to learn to follow his blocks.
It was a rough day in the end for Tech. The offense moved the ball very well most of the time, but they stalled in/near the red zone on multiple occasions and had several untimely turnovers. In a game that was expected to be a high-scoring shootout, 20 points was never going to be enough, and it almost certainly won’t be enough to beat Virginia Tech next week. Ball security will be the key; Dedrick Mills had protected the ball well after his first fumble against Boston College, and there’s little doubt he’ll make that a priority in practice this week.
The defense needs work at every level, all the way up to the coaching staff. Let’s just leave it at that for now.
Realistically, the Coastal Division title was already out of reach, but being mathematically eliminated is still a tough pill to swallow. Still, one more win gets Tech back to a bowl game, which would be a step forward from last season. Beyond that, a nine-win season is still theoretically possible... but with trips to Blacksburg and Athens remaining on the schedule, that’s a long shot at this point.