Let’s be honest. After what happened on Thursday night, it would be so easy to just give everyone an F and call it a day.
But that’s not really fair. Even in a blowout that bad, there were positive signs in the second half—particularly on the defensive side, where Tech held Clemson’s offense in check for almost the entire final 30 minutes. The offense also sustained a couple clock-eating drives in the third quarter, which was a nice turnaround for the unit. Those do come with large caveats, but they’re still positives in the end.
That said... the team is still accountable for what happened in the first half. And that was nothing short of ugly.
Give Justin Thomas credit for one very important thing: even though his blockers did him no favors all night, he protected the ball against a ferocious defense and never committed a turnover. The senior mostly made the correct reads—though Clemson blew up several plays to the point that there wasn’t much of a read to make--and all but a couple of his passes were on target.
But some of the problems do fall on Thomas’s shoulders. He did get several seconds in the pocket on a few pass attempts, and on those occasions, he waited too long for his receivers to get separation and the plays broke down. He’s seasoned enough to know that if the play drags on for too long, he needs to take off and get whatever yards he can, because the blocking will never last forever. Also, Thomas’s size limits his ability to run midline option plays frequently; while that can’t really be held against him, it would have been a useful weapon on a night when the only plays gaining any traction were runs up the middle or off tackle.
His line at the end of the day was simply brutal: 4-for-13 for 29 yards through the air, and 10 carries for -25 yards on the ground. No, he wasn’t as bad as that line suggests, but the simple fact remains that Thomas was responsible for four total yards of offense against a conference opponent.
Pretty much the only player who had anything resembling a good game was Dedrick Mills. The true freshman had 16 carries for 75 yards and one very tough touchdown run, on which he powered through three defenders to push the ball over the goal line. Marcus Marshall spelled Mills and added 20 yards on five carries, with three of them coming on Tech’s lone touchdown drive.
While Mills and Marshall were mostly productive with the ball, their subpar pass blocking skills were exposed. It might be unfair to expect the young B-backs, especially Mills, to be terrific pass blockers; at the same time, that issue has been going on for over a year and has directly contributed to Thomas’s troubles in the passing game.
Mills also had the first pass attempt of his young career, which was picked off. We’ll get to that in a bit...
A week ago, it seemed like Tech had found a viable group of A-backs for the primary rotation. The entire unit took about three giant steps back on Thursday. They combined for seven carries for 25 yards and one reception for -3 yards. The major concern, as is the case across the board for the offense, was blocking. The A-backs failed to execute block after block on each option play to the edge, either missing a defender or not doing enough to take him out of the play.
There’s not really much else to say here. The A-backs have a ton of talent as a unit, but if they don’t do a better job of providing lead blocks on option plays, it’s gonna be a long season.
The receivers were simply a nonfactor in this game. Aside from Brad Stewart on his 26-yard reception in the fourth quarter, they were unable to get any separation from Clemson’s defensive backs. Ricky Jeune, the top deep threat, had just one catch for six yards and dropped a deep pass after getting both hands on it. In terms of blocking, they were largely ineffective on the perimeter; this was in part because Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables deployed his cornerbacks aggressively against the run, but even otherwise, the Tech receivers had very little success taking anyone out of the play.
This is still a pretty young unit that may have been overwhelmed by the talent jump from Vanderbilt to Clemson. They’ll surely improve in the weeks ahead, particularly in blocking, but the inability to get separation from defensive backs could pose serious problems going forward.
There’s no way to put this nicely: this was one of the worst games that the Tech offensive line has played in years. The only thing they did well was clearing some room for Mills on dives and belly plays. On pass plays and anything run toward the perimeter, they simply had no answer for Clemson’s speed and strength. The Tigers had two or three players waiting at the edge on nearly every option play and were able to swarm Thomas quickly, regardless of whether a pulling guard was able to take out one of them.
The situation at the guard positions is troubling. Right guard Shamire Devine, the most experienced player at the position by far, went down late in the first half with an ankle injury. Left guard Will Bryan’s season-long struggles continued against Clemson, and the only other scholarship players there are freshmen. If Devine has to miss any extended time, the coaches may be forced to shuffle everyone along the line... assuming that’s even feasible, because there isn’t much depth at center or the tackle spots either.
An ESPN graphic that appeared near the end of the first half summed things up pretty well:
Again, it wasn’t all bad. The offense held the ball for 11 minutes and 42 seconds in the third quarter, which is a good sign under almost any circumstances. But they barely held the ball for 11 minutes in the entire first half. That forced the defense to stay on the field for far too long, which wore them out and allowed Clemson to put the game away quickly.
The playcalling left something to be desired. It wasn’t until the third quarter that Paul Johnson began to lean heavily on Mills in the ground game. Some of the success in that quarter was the result of adjusting the blocking schemes, but dive plays had been gaining decent yardage early on as well, so why Tech didn’t lean on the B-backs sooner is anyone’s guess.
As for the ill-fated trick play early in the fourth quarter... it’s easy to chalk up as one of those plays that would be a stroke of genius if it worked and a terrible decision if (or in this case, when) it didn’t work. But the timing was bizarre. Fresh off of a long, bruising touchdown drive and a defensive stand that forced a punt, Tech finally had the momentum in the game; hitting Clemson with another heavy dose of B-back runs seemed like the clear move from both a tactical and psychological standpoint. Maybe Johnson expected them to adjust based on the previous possession’s play selection and thought the safeties would overcommit to the run. Maybe Mills had been on target with that pass a dozen times in a row in practice. Whatever led to that decision, that interception was the end of Tech’s comeback hopes.
All details aside, the most basic numbers tell enough of the story: Tech managed only 124 total yards in a home game against a conference opponent. It doesn’t matter how good or bad the opponent is—an offensive display like that will never be good enough to win an ACC game.
While not great, the defensive line was not the complete disaster the offensive line was. They tended to hold their own against a much bigger Clemson offensive line, especially against the run. Clemson hasn’t been as effective on the ground this season as they were last season, but the Yellow Jackets largely contained DeShaun Watson and Wayne Gallman on the ground. The problem was the d-line wasn’t able to hold their ground in third and short situations. Giving up two yards on the ground is fine on first down but not on 3rd and 1. When Clemson chose to run in third and short situations, they were able to convert more often than not.
In the pass game, the defensive line still can’t generate an effective pass rush. There were times when the Jackets were able to start collapsing the pocket but Clemson’s bread and butter is the quick passing game and Watson was never rattled. Pat Gamble did manage to get Watson on the ground once, blowing by the Tigers’ backup center almost untouched for a sack.
Elsewhere on the line, Rod Rook-Chungong was solid, making a few good plays in the run game and setting the edge well. Antonio Simmons continues to look pretty good rushing the passer, but ultimately didn’t have a huge impact on the game. KeShun Freeman had a tackle for a loss but generally did not play well. Freeman dealt with an injury in fall camp and may still be feeling the effects. His presence as an outside pass rusher is sorely missed.
The bottom line for the defensive line is that they need to either be able to put pressure on the quarterback without help from blitzing linebackers or hold the line of scrimmage in third and short situations. If they’re not going to be able to do either, then the defense is going to continue to have a hard time getting off the field.
Tech spent practically all night in the nickel defensive package to combat Clemson’s armada of receivers, meaning one week after making his first career start, weakside linebacker David Curry saw very little playing time. Instead, P.J. Davis and Brant Mitchell started the game patrolling the middle. Davis was unusually quiet on the night, totaling only 4 tackles and not making many impact plays. Brant Mitchell was somewhat better, getting a pretty big tackle for loss on the play immediately following the BB pass interception. That play put Clemson behind the sticks and they ended up settling for a field goal instead of putting the game completely out of reach.
In addition to the starters, Chase Alford saw a good deal of playing time behind Mitchell, and also played fairly well. Victor Alexander also saw playing time and had a few good plays, including one where he got to DeShaun Watson behind the line on a QB dive play near the goal line. On the whole, the linebacking corps didn’t make any spectacular plays but they also didn’t completely blow plays. As has been the case all season, they’re solid but not much more.
Yet again, an opposing offense took full advantage of Georgia Tech’s soft zone coverage to pick apart the secondary with short passes and passes over the middle. The Yellow Jackets were willing to give Clemson anything they wanted underneath in hopes that they wouldn’t be burned deep. Framed that way, the plan sort of worked. Clemson tried several deep balls but between some accuracy issues from DeShaun Watson and some tight Georgia Tech coverage, the Tigers were not able to connect on any. Similar to the defensive line, the issue came when Clemson was given that same cushion on 3rd down. Playing bend-but-don’t-break is all well and good, but eventually the defense needs to get off the field.
Focusing more on the players in the secondary than the coaching of secondary, Thursday was a mixed bag. Step Durham started the game and was playing well but appeared to tweak his injury from last week and did not play in the second half. In his place, Lamont Simmons stepped up and was moderately effective. Simmons had possibly the best individual play of the night, playing near-perfect coverage and batting away a deep ball intended for Artavis Scott on 3rd and 8 early in the second quarter. On the other side, Lance Austin’s performance was a roller coaster. He was often out position in coverage yet made a good play to get an interception on an apparent miscommunication between DeShaun Watson and his receiver. Of course, we all know how that ended. The other Austin twin, Lawrence, played most of the game at nickel back and led the team with 12 tackles. He was all over the field early the game and played well in the run game.
The Corey Griffin experience continued again this week. The junior safety had some nice plays, particularly when he was brought up to help contain the run game, but also struggled at times in coverage and with routes. When Griffin gets a chance to line up a ball carrier, he is a missile and can blow up plays but his coverage skills need work. A.J. Gray had a fairly quiet 6 tackles. Gray has been solid all year but hasn’t made the big impact many were hoping for in the preseason.
All in all, the secondary wasn’t a disaster. They did a good job of keeping the play in front of them and, outside of a few receptions by the slippery Ray-Ray McCloud, were able to limit the Tigers’ yards after the catch. However, just like the defensive line, when it came time to lockdown and get the ball back to the offense, the secondary couldn’t come through with stops time and time again.
It’s hard to argue that the defense played well Thursday night, but calling the effort a complete failure doesn’t ring true either. The first Clemson drive was nothing short of a disaster, as the Tigers marched down the field and scored an easy touchdown, setting the town for the night. Once the defense settled in, they were able to limit Clemson’s offense to some extent. In the second half, Clemson’s drives went punt, punt, punt, field goal (following the Mills interception, the Tigers had -2 yards on this “drive”), punt, end of game. Though they were up big, Clemson’s play calling didn’t get that much more conservative in the second half. Watson was in until the final whistle and the Tigers started the last drive throwing the ball. The defense stepped up, but by that point they had given up too much and the offense wasn’t going to help them out.
Harrison Butker continued his impressive season, getting touchbacks on both of his traditional kickoffs and would have had a third if the safety kickoff wasn’t from the 20. Ryan Rodwell was solid, punting a whopping 8 times, twice pinning Clemson inside their own 10 yard line. In the return game, J.J. Green’s lone kickoff return did not go well. He took the ball out but was met by a mass of orange at Tech’s own 11 yard line. Brad Stewart continued to show some good moves and vision on punt returns, breaking off a 16 yard return. The coverage teams were also able to prevent Clemson’s Ray-Ray McCloud from breaking off a long return and forced a fumble on McCloud’s first return that Tech nearly recovered.
There are no two ways around it. Thursday night was bad. The offense had no answer to Clemson’s defense and the defense couldn’t get a big play to get the Tigers off the field in the first half. The second half looked better, but was by no stretch a successful half of football. The Yellow Jackets now have a week and a half to shake off this loss and get ready for a very dangerous Miami team. The Hurricanes aren’t Clemson, but they will provide a stiff test and a quick measure of how resilient Justin Thomas and company will be this season.