So far, so good—and this one felt really good. After a less-than-perfect win over Mercer in the home opener, Tech took care of business against nonconference foe Vanderbilt, riding strong play in all phases of the game to a 38-7 victory. The offense played dynamic, mistake-free ball and the defense mostly shut down a very capable rushing attack, and as a result, Tech is 3-0 heading into the heart of the ACC schedule.
It wasn’t perfect, and there’s still plenty of work to do, particularly on defense. But Tech showed major improvement in some of the major areas of concern from a week ago, and at this stage of the season, that’s a terrific sign.
If there’s such a thing as “vintage Justin Thomas,” this game was a perfect example. The senior signal-caller was at his best on Saturday, guiding the Tech offense to its first 500-yard performance of the season. Given strong pass protection for most of the game, Thomas regularly had time to set his feet and throw from well-formed pockets, leading to several downfield completions—including the 81-yard pass to a wide-open Marcus Marshall on the first play from scrimmage. As for the ground game, he was sharp with his reads and pitches; on three occasions, he freed up A-back Clinton Lynch for a huge gain by timing the option pitch perfectly. Thomas also had several good runs of his own, and he finished the day with a team-high 84 rushing yards.
Thomas wasn’t the only Tech QB to reel off a highlight play. Backup Matthew Jordan entered the game in the fourth quarter and (on third and long) threw a deep strike to Lynch, who hauled it in and turned it into a 77-yard touchdown. Third-stringer TaQuon Marshall also played a series at the end, and while it was mostly uneventful, he did record the first pass and completion of his career.
The negative marks here were fairly minor. Thomas made a couple inadvisable throws when under pressure, which contributed to his relatively low completion percentage; those throws fell incomplete, but they could just as easily have been intercepted. Similarly, in the fourth quarter, Jordan lobbed a fade to freshman receiver Jalen Camp despite Camp being surrounded by three defenders, and it was easily picked off. Marshall displayed a tendency to run backward when trying to escape pressure, but he’s still adjusting to the position, and continued reps in practice should help him shed that habit.
Overall, there’s very little to complain about here. Aside from the forced pass attempts, Thomas seems to be in top form heading into the heart of the conference schedule.
While Marcus Marshall officially got the start, true freshman Dedrick Mills—back from a one-game suspension—handled almost the entire workload up until the fourth quarter, and he was locked in. True, on several occasions, he was bottled up at the line as a result of Vanderbilt stacking the box... but when he did have room to run, he was practically a steamroller. Mills finished the day with 14 carries for 58 yards and three scores, and on two of those scores, he bowled over one or more defenders on his way to the end zone.
Of course, Marshall had his moment in the sun as well. The sophomore hauled in a medium-range pass from Thomas on Tech’s first offensive play and turned it into an 81-yard touchdown, using his open-field speed and vision to evade defenders along the way. It seems clear that Mills will be the starter going forward, but Marshall will still be a valuable asset—particularly if Paul Johnson can devise more creative ways to get him the ball in space.
There’s really nothing negative to say here. Vanderbilt made stopping the dive a priority, but the B-backs went on to have a very productive day as a unit. Most importantly, they didn’t turn the ball over once.
After Qua Searcy stole the show in Tech’s first two games, Saturday belonged to last year’s breakout star, Clinton Lynch. After a fairly quiet start to 2016, the sophomore had 164 total yards on three carries and two receptions against Vanderbilt. His carries went for 19, 29, and 29 yards, and his late 77-yard touchdown might actually have been the less impressive of his two receptions, as the other one saw Lynch snag a bullet from Thomas with one hand.
The rest of the A-back corps was relatively quiet in terms of production, though Searcy did have two receptions and is now tied for the team lead with six on the season. Numbers aside, the entire unit had a good day in terms of blocking, paving the way for both big gains on the edge and good runs up the middle by Mills and Thomas.
Johnson seems to be settling in with a primary rotation of Lynch, Searcy, J.J. Green, and Isiah Willis at A-back. Whether or not others enter the mix, Lynch and Searcy have flashed tremendous playmaking ability as both runners and receivers, and all four (but particularly Green and Willis) have proven to be adept blockers on the perimeter. It would not be surprising to see those four take 95 percent of the snaps at A-back over the next two or three games.
On paper, the receivers were quiet against Vanderbilt. Brad Stewart had a 16-yard reception, and redshirt freshman Christian Philpott made his debut and recorded his first career catch late in the fourth quarter. In terms of production, that was it for the wide receiver corps.
Where they truly shined was in blocking, and sophomore Mikell Lands-Davis deserves special recognition here. Several of Tech’s big plays on the ground, including Mills’ first touchdown and two of Lynch’s long runs, featured Lands-Davis either getting ahead of the play to take out a defender downfield or cutting across to block a linebacker. His emergence has been a major boon for an offense that’s relied heavily on the starting tandem of Stewart and Ricky Jeune since the start of last season, and Lands-Davis continues to improve with every passing week.
There were some missed blocks and moments where a receiver could not reach the player he needed to engage, and there was not much production from this unit. But within the context of the offense, the receivers did what they needed to do.
As usual, there’s good news and bad news with this unit, which played without starting right tackle Trey Klock this week. The good news is that the players on the right side of the line—center Freddie Burden, right guards Shamire Devine and Parker Braun, and right tackle Andrew Marshall—were almost unstoppable on Saturday. Burden was a bulldozer in the run game, and Devine and Marshall were nearly as effective in clearing space up front. When Thomas dropped back to pass, they were practically a wall against Vanderbilt’s front seven.
There were some issues on the other side, though. Left guard Will Bryan had a tough day and either missed his assignment or let a defender through on several occasions. At least twice early in the game, it led to him getting an earful from Paul Johnson on the sideline. Left tackle Eason Fromayan had similar issues, though he was generally able to keep edge rushers occupied. All that said, Bryan and Fromayan protected Thomas’s blind side well enough that the quarterback was not sacked once, and they paved the way for some of Mills’ better runs of the afternoon.
If Klock is able to return from injury this week, it would enable Marshall to shift back to left tackle and would restore depth to a position group that sorely needs it. The line seems to be jelling more and more with each passing week, but one big question remains unanswered: given their struggles with defensive pre-snap motion, will the line be ready if Clemson, or some other future opponent, uses that tactic to confuse them?
If not for a few penalties—most notably a couple chop blocks on an early drive that started with two big plays—Tech could easily have added another touchdown or two. The offense made few mistakes overall and was deadly on the perimeter, and Thomas seems to be developing very good chemistry with his running backs and receivers. There’s a ton of playmaking potential here, and if Tech is going to hang with Clemson this week, the offense will need to be every bit as effective as it was on Saturday.
After struggling to gain much traction on Vanderbilt’s first possession, the defensive line settled in and held their ground against the run. They held Vanderbilt’s generally productive rushing attack to just 85 yards on 30 carries, an average of under three yards per carry, and were able to get the offense off the field fairly quickly. The one time Vanderbilt strung together a 7+ play drive, Tech forced a fourth-and-1 situation, and defensive tackles Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Brandon Adams stuffed the subsequent run to force a turnover on downs.
The main concern was (and remains) the inability to get pressure with a four-man rush, as Tech had trouble getting anyone into the backfield without sending one or two linebackers on a blitz. Oddly, Tech had the most success in this arena when the second-string line (Anree Saint-Amour and Antonio Simmons at end, Cerge-Henderson and Brentavious Glanton at tackle) was on the field. Glanton had Tech’s lone sack of the afternoon, and Saint-Amour nearly added another.
Simmons is proving to be a major asset for this unit. He’s been Tech’s most effective pass rusher, frequently going around or through his man to get into the backfield—all despite playing a position more focused on stopping the run, which he’s done effectively as well. He’ll be on the field quite a bit over the coming weeks, if not challenging Rod Rook-Chungong for the starting SDE job.
P.J. Davis seemed to be everywhere in this game, flying to the ball on just about every running play. He ended the game with just five tackles, but he was instrumental in closing up running lanes and containing Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb. Davis only made one major mistake: on Vanderbilt’s first possession, he drifted away from his short zone to track a running back in the flat, and that left receiver Kalija Lipscomb wide open on a slant route for Vanderbilt’s lone touchdown. Aside from that, he was serviceable in coverage and shined in run support.
The starting lineup saw a change as redshirt freshman David Curry stepped into the starting role at weakside linebacker. With Tech leaning on the 4-3 front against a Vandy offense that relies on power running, Curry ended up on the field for most of the game. Much like Davis, he always seemed to be around the ball; he had to scramble to catch Vanderbilt receivers on a couple occasions, but that had more to do with his zone assignments than a lack of awareness.
Beyond that, coordinator Ted Roof mixed in his reserves early and often. In the second quarter, Victor Alexander helped to stuff a run up the middle to force a third-and-long situation, and later on, Chase Alford nearly recorded a sack on a blitz that forced a third-down incomplete pass.
By and large, Vanderbilt chose to avoid Step Durham in the passing game, targeting fellow starting corner Lance Austin instead. Austin held his ground, giving up the occasional reception but also knocking away two passes, one of which was when he was stuck in single coverage on a deep strike. He had an up-and-down game in run support, tying for the team lead with six tackles but also missing a few attempted hits.
Strong safety Corey Griffin had a busy day as well as he played up in run support frequently. Griffin ended up tying Austin with a team-high six tackles, and at least two of those were very hard hits delivered soon after the catch. He was generally good in pursuit, but like Austin, he did have occasional issues with missed tackles.
While the defensive line and linebackers rotated players out frequently in the second and third quarters, the secondary starters mostly remained on the field, likely due to the need to get them additional experience. The reserves did play most of the fourth quarter; redshirt freshmen Dorian Walker and Meiko Dotson got their first sustained action at cornerback, and Walker recorded his first career interception and nearly ran it back for a score.
Through three games, the secondary has displayed some strengths, Durham’s coverage skills foremost among them, and some weaknesses, led by the frequent missed tackles. But overall, the secondary has not really been tested by an opponent with a top-notch passing game... which is about to change in a big way. Clemson will be the first huge test for free safety A.J. Gray, who has had a quiet start to the season against two run-first teams and an FCS opponent, and nickel corner Lawrence Austin, who has not seen much action to date with Tech relying mainly on a 4-3 front.
There was certainly room for improvement at every level of the defense, but in the end, the unit held a Power 5 opponent to seven points and fewer than 300 total yards. They forced a three-and-out four times—hitting what Paul Johnson specifically pointed out as something he wanted to see from the defense—and only allowed Vanderbilt to put together two drives with seven or more plays. The only knock was that Tech only forced one turnover, a late interception; if Tech wants to pull off the upset against Clemson, the linebackers and secondary need to be ready to capitalize on every mistake the Tigers make.
On one hand, only recording touchbacks on four of seven kickoffs is a somewhat disappointing ratio for kicker Harrison Butker. On the other hand, two of the kickoffs that Vanderbilt returned were caught at the goal line and the return fell short of the 25-yard line, so in the end they were even more effective than touchbacks. Regardless, Butker remains in top form. He also drilled a 41-yard field goal in the second quarter, making him 2-for-2 on field goal attempts this season.
The actual area of concern was the punting game, and at least for a week, those concerns were eased. Ryan Rodwell resumed punting duties and averaged 42.5 yards on four punts; his shortest punt of the day (35 yards) was downed at the one-yard line by Dorian Walker, and another was nearly downed but just barely bounced into the end zone.
Vanderbilt might be a clear step down from Clemson in terms of talent, but they’re also a clear step up from Mercer, and Tech dispatched the Commodores cleanly and effectively. Tech needed a big win to gain some momentum before diving into the heart of the ACC slate, and with a short week looming, they needed to build a big enough lead early so that the starters could rest up. It’s fair to say they accomplished both.
There were things Tech could have done better, but the offense and defense were both terrific overall. They’ll face a much bigger test in just three days, but they should feel much more confident than they would have been a week ago.