It wasn’t the prettiest of games (sound familiar?), but chalk it up as another win. A week after defeating Boston College five time zones away from home, Tech took care of business against in-state FCS foe Mercer in the home opener, rolling to a 35-10 win to move to 2-0 on the season. The BC game saw Tech rely heavily on the starters and a handful of backups, but Paul Johnson took the opportunity this week to get more players involved, with several younger players making their debuts.
An FCS game is never a particularly great referendum on a team, but there were some clear bright spots... and some of the opposite as well. Either way, two weeks into the season, the strengths and weaknesses of the team are becoming more and more clear.
For the second consecutive week, Justin Thomas had an excellent day under center for the Yellow Jackets. On passing plays, Thomas looked comfortable and confident, trusting his offensive line to give him time and his receivers to make a play on the ball. After being limited on the ground by the Boston College defense, Thomas was finally able to show his speed and elusiveness, scoring his first touchdown of the season and later breaking off a 31-yard run in which he out ran his blockers. Thomas got a little banged up late in the first half and did not play in the second half, though coaches downplayed the injury after the game.
Backup Matthew Jordan again saw playing time as the goal-line QB, scoring a couple of short yardage touchdowns. With Thomas on the sideline, Jordan saw extended playing time in the second half. He played fairly well, though he showed a tendency to call his own number, keeping the ball when the better option may have been to pitch. Late in the game TaQuon Marshall made his debut under center, carrying twice including an 11-yard touchdown run. Tech was able to run effectively and keep the clock moving in the second half, so we were not able to see how either backup fared through the air as no passing plays were called for either.
With last week’s hero, Dedrick Mills, suspended for the home opener, sophomore B-back Marcus Marshall reclaimed the starting role and had a solid, if unspectacular, day. Considered the more explosive of the two backs, Marshall averaged 5.1 yards per carry, but was never really able to break off a long run. His best run of the day may have come on his 10-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter where he showed good vision, making a nice cut to find his way into the end zone. With Mills and redshirt freshman KirVonte Benson suspended, the B-back rotation was shortened, but Marcus Allen and Quaide Weimerskirch both got some run this week.
The biggest cause for concern coming out of this game is ball security among the B-backs. After Mills had a fumble last week against Boston College, both Marshall and Weimerskirch put the ball on the ground this week. Marshall’s fumble came early on, killing an otherwise productive drive and leading to a Mercer touchdown. Weimerskirch’s came late in the game near the goal line on his first career carry. For Georgia Tech to reach its ceiling this season, the B-backs must take better care of the football. Thus far, the Jackets have been able to overcome these mistakes, but the margin for error will shrink considerably as the season goes on.
After combining for 3 yards in Ireland, the A-back corps came out and put on a show this week. Led by Qua Searcy’s 7 carry, 91 yard performance, the A-backs averaged over 9 yards per carry as a group. Two games into the season, Searcy has emerged as one of the biggest playmakers on the team. He showed both speed and strength, getting to the edges quickly and breaking through multiple would-be tacklers to pick up extra yardage. Clinton Lynch also had a big day and would have scored two touchdowns if the field was only a few inches wider. Late in the game, redshirt freshman Nate Cottrell made his Yellow Jacket debut, rushing once for 6 yards.
While the rushing was much better this week from the A-backs, the blocking still has plenty of room for improvement. There were a few runs where the blocking A-back either completely missed or only partially blocked their assignment. The perimeter blocking looks to be better than last season, but could still end up being a problem spot against better defenses.
He hasn’t put up monster numbers yet, but Ricky Jeune has been very impressive this season. The junior receiver has built up a good rapport with Justin Thomas and has come through in clutch situations. Jeune has shown excellent hands and body control, especially on a 31-yard reception late in the second quarter on a slightly under thrown ball. He has also been very good run blocking on the outside. Jeune is quickly developing into an extremely reliable and valuable player in this offense.
Mikell Lands-Davis recorded the only other reception by a wide receiver, an 11-yard catch that turned a 1st and 20 into a more manageable 2nd and 9 situation. Brad Stewart dropped a tough catch, but otherwise had a good game as a punt returner and a blocker. Antonio Messick seems to have the fourth receiver job for now and came very close to coming down with a long Hail Mary at the end of the first half. True freshman Jalen Camp and redshirt freshman Harland Howell both saw a good bit of playing time, though neither was targeted.
Following a less than stellar performance against Boston College, the offensive line had a better day Saturday against Mercer. Yet again, they showed a lot of progress from last season in the pass blocking department, giving Justin Thomas plenty of time to work through his progressions and find receivers. Run blocking was slightly improved from last week. The offensive line was able to consistently push the line of scrimmage against the Bears front, though that may not be indicative of the caliber of defense the Jackets will face in the upcoming weeks.
During the week, Paul Johnson promised to shake up the offensive line and he delivered, giving Andrew Marshall the start at left tackle in place of Eason Fromayan. Both Marshall and Fromayan saw plenty of playing time due to the first quarter injury to starting right tackle Trey Klock. The severity of this injury will be something to watch this week as it could severely impact the depth of an already thin unit. True freshman Parker Braun, the younger brother of former Yellow Jacket Trey Braun, made his debut on the game’s third series in place of Shamire Devine. Braun played well, making a key block on his second snap that helped free Justin Thomas for a 31-yard run.
The end result may not been the eye-popping numbers Tech has put up in the past against FCS teams but the offense got the job done on Saturday. The only thing that was able to stop the Yellow Jackets was the Yellow Jackets, as two fumbles and a bad pitch doomed the only three possessions that didn’t end in touchdowns. Ball control will remain a major concern and the blocking always has room for improvement, but it was a good day on the Flats for the offense. A tough Vanderbilt defense looms this week and that should tell us a lot more about this offense than an FCS opponent.
Overall, the line had a better afternoon than the week prior. Mercer, a team that averaged 212.5 rushing yards per game last season, had just 85 on Saturday as Tech closed up running lanes and brought down ballcarriers quickly on running plays. The front four had some success getting into the backfield in the pass rush, as Anree Saint-Amour and Pat Gamble each recorded a sack and Tech hurried Mercer QB on several other occasions.
On the flip side, the linemen had trouble staying in their lanes at times, particularly when Tech relied on a three-man rush from a 3-3-5 formation, and that gave Russ room to maneuver in the pocket. They also struggled to chase him down on rollouts. Russ rarely tried to take off running, but there are signs that Tech could have trouble with mobile quarterbacks in the future.
There was one notable debut here: true freshman nose tackle Brandon Adams, who did well at holding the point of attack and occupying multiple blockers. Tech has had Gamble and Kyle Cerge-Henderson line up at nose tackle so far, but both are better suited for the three-technique defensive tackle position, where they can be more disruptive. If the 340-pound Adams works his way into the regular rotation, it would give Tech a more natural fit at nose tackle and possibly enable one of the others to shift to the three-technique spot.
For a while, it looked like it would be a good day for these guys. P.J. Davis was flying around the field in the early part of the game, and he was particularly effective on the handful of jet sweeps that Mercer ran, tracking the eventual ballcarrier across the formation and chasing him down. Brant Mitchell had a team-high six tackles and provided strong run support. Weakside linebackers Terrell Lewis and David Curry were often tasked with covering slot receivers and held their own.
Things were okay until the barrage of screen passes started. Mercer completed six in a row on their opening drive of the third quarter, converting three third downs and a fourth down as they put together an eight-minute drive. The linebackers had trouble sticking to their assignments, and on multiple occasions, the player responsible for marking the eventual receiver lost his man and was out of position to make a play.
They did improve in the final quarter, but the screen pass debacle exposed a major weakness for this unit, one that they’ll have to work on heavily in practice going forward.
With only a couple exceptions, the secondary kept things in front of them and prevented Mercer from attacking downfield. Still, there was room for improvement.
Strong safety Corey Griffin had another up-and-down game; the “down” part occurred early on, as on Mercer’s opening drive, Griffin missed an easy tackle and then got beaten by his man on Mercer’s long touchdown pass. A.J. Gray had a quieter day at free safety, mostly playing deep coverage against a team that rarely attacked deep, but he did provide useful support on several of Mercer’s second-half screen passes.
The bright spot was boundary corner Step Durham, who for the second straight week provided blanket coverage throughout the game. When receivers did make catches against him, he was there to make a quick play.
As at every other position, the backups saw a good amount of action. Lamont Simmons spelled Durham for a good part of the game in his first career action, and Dorian Walker and Meiko Dotson made their debuts at corner. Simmons in particular could be a useful reserve going forward.
Regardless of the opponent, it’s hard to be too critical of a unit that only allowed 10 points and essentially silenced Mercer in the fourth quarter. Still, there are problems that need to be addressed—starting with missed tackles at all levels of the defense. It’s not a new issue, but it’s an area where Tech must improve to have any hope of contending in the ACC this season. Also of note is that Tech did not record a turnover on Saturday, but this was at least partly a result of Mercer’s heavy reliance on short passes.
The coaching staff deserves a good bit of the blame for the other issues. Mercer took full advantage of Tech’s traditionally soft coverages early on, with Russ often finding his receivers in short pockets near the sidelines for decent gains. Allowing an FCS team to complete screen pass after screen pass without any significant adjustments was a very bad sign. If the defensive staff doesn’t show an ability to adapt on the fly, athletic opponents with no-huddle offenses will be positioned to punish Tech’s defense as soon as they find a weakness.
It was just another day at the office for kicker Harrison Butker, who drilled all of his extra point attempts and sent all five of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. While he didn’t have a field goal attempt, he looks primed for a very strong senior campaign.
As for the punt team... things aren’t looking so great. Junior Grant Aasen took over punting duties from senior Ryan Rodwell in practice this week, and when he got his first opportunity in the second quarter, he shanked it off the side of his foot. It’s unfair to judge Aasen on just one punt, but it is clear the punter competition may not be resolved any time soon. To the punt team’s credit, the fake punt run in the third quarter was executed cleanly, but it’s a little distressing that Paul Johnson felt the need to resort to a fake punt against an FCS team.
On a brighter note, the field goal block unit struck again early in the fourth quarter, as Cerge-Henderson got a hand on Mercer’s 37-yard attempt, causing it to fall short. It’s the second straight week that Tech has blocked a field goal, continuing the success of a unit that’s made a habit of knocking down kicks in recent years.
It’s nice to see some more familiar offensive totals on the stat sheet, with Tech piling up 364 rushing yards and the A-backs combining for 9.3 yards per carry. It’s also nice to see the defense hold a very capable rushing offense under 100 yards on the ground. Most importantly, it’s another win. But it’s still an FCS game—where an impressive stat sheet is the norm—and Tech walks away with lots of work to do in practice this week, from the B-backs working on ball security to the defensive front working on sticking to assignments.
They’ll need to work quickly, because the schedule is about to get tougher in a big way. Vanderbilt is up next, and the Thursday night game against Clemson looms in just 10 days.