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Monday Morning Quarterback: Georgia Tech Escapes Boston College Defense

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It wasn’t pretty, but the Jackets return stateside 1-0

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Boston College Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

The Monday Morning Quarterback makes its return this season under new management. I’ll be working with Nishant to put out an in-depth, position-by-position report card to grade the Yellow Jackets’ performance in the preceding game. This week, with Nishant cheering the Jackets on in person, I’ll be handing out grades solo. With apologies to Peter King and without further ado, here is the first Monday Morning Quarterback of the 2016 season.

Take a deep breath. Is everyone still with us?

The game went down to the wire and was not always fun to watch, but the Yellow Jackets have returned from Ireland with a conference win and a nice crystal trophy to show for the trip. There’s a lot to learn after a game against a team with a defense like Boston College and the coaches will be able to make good use of practice this week to shore up weaknesses. For now, Georgia Tech sits alone in first place in the ACC and, after last season, that feels pretty good.

Quarterback

Prior to Georgia Tech’s last drive, the Boston College defense had done a good job of limiting the options available to Justin Thomas and the Yellow Jacket offense. Thomas wasn’t given a lot of daylight to showcase his trademark elusiveness and speed carrying the ball and it seemed that whatever choice he made handing off, there were maroon jerseys waiting to make a tackle. On the game-winning drive, Thomas took over the game and looked every bit the senior quarterback Tech fans were hoping to see this season. Looking beyond 4th and 19 and 3rd and 10, the first play of that drive was a perfect example of Thomas’s athleticism and decision-making ability. On that play, Thomas dropped back to pass and found Eagle defenders in his face. Facing a 16 yard loss, Thomas spun out of a lineman’s grasp and threw the ball out of bounds, saving yards and time in the process. That play felt like one where Thomas would have tried to do too much in years past, likely resulting in a large loss. Sometimes the best play is just throwing it away.

Big picture, Thomas looked as comfortable passing as he has in a long time. He had time and looked confident in his throws, hitting his receivers right where he needed to. Many times during the game, the announcers said that Thomas was the best quarterback to run Paul Johnson’s system. That may be a little bit of disrespect to Joshua Nesbitt, but if Thomas can throw all season like he did Saturday, he’ll certainly make his case.

Backup QB Matthew Jordan played one snap, scoring on a 3 yard run. The result was good, but it looked like a broken play as Jordan and BB Dedrick Mills stumbled at the mesh. Jordan decided to tuck and run himself, beating the Eagle defense to the endzone.

Grade: A

B-Backs

True freshman BB Dedrick Mills got the start, becoming the first true freshman to start the season opener for Tech since WR Tyler Melton in Paul Johnson’s first season on campus. Mills had his ups and downs, but there was more to like than dislike. He got off to a bit of a slow start but, then again, the whole offense struggled. Mills was starting to find more running room in the second half before he fumbled on the end of an 11 yard run. To me, it looked like the ball started coming lose as Mills tried to put a second hand on the ball to protect it. Even if that was the case, Mills will have to work on ball security if he continues to be the lead back. Mills didn’t let the fumble get him down and he had his best quarter in the 4th. In that period, Mills looked strong, breaking off a 21 yard run and scoring the game winning touchdown.

Sophomore Marcus Marshall also saw time at BB and was solid overall. Marshall looked like he hit the hole quicker and with more confidence than Mills, but was tripped up too many times in the mess around the line of scrimmage. Marshall had a good run in the third quarter where he got to show off his speed, but was otherwise limited. Even if he doesn’t get the starting job back from Mills, Marshall looks to get plenty of playing time as the lightning to Mills’s thunder.

Grade: B

A-Backs

Between the wet weather, long grass, and speedy Boston College defense, the A-Backs were not a factor in the run game. The A-Backs corps combined for all of 3 yards on 5 carries. Their two best runs on the day, a 7 yard run by Isiah Willis on Tech’s first offensive play and an 11 yard run by Clinton Lynch later in the first quarter, were both negated by penalties (offsides on BC and holding on GT, respectively). The A-Backs were never able to get up to speed on the slick turf, and Boston College’s quick linebackers were able to beat them to the edge, cutting off running lanes.

Despite not doing much on the ground, the A-Backs did a good job when asked to stay home and help block for Thomas or a B-Back. Notably, Qua Searcy absolutely blew up an Eagle defender on Marcus Marshall’s 18 yard third quarter run. Searcy was also one of the game’s heroes in the passing game. His 36 yard first quarter reception set up the first score and his 22 yard reception on 4th and 19 kept the Jackets alive. Both catches were made with defenders draped on him, displaying Searcy’s great hands.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers

AB Qua Searcy was the biggest threat in the passing game Saturday, but the receivers still had good performances. Starters Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart each had crucial catches to prolong drives, including a 26 yard reception by Jeune on 3rd and 10 on the game winning drive. Both starters showed good hands and were right where Thomas needed them to be in key situations. There weren’t a ton of outside runs, but the blocking seemed to be fine from the receivers. That said, backup Mikell Lands-Davis did cost Clinton Lynch an 11 yard run with a holding penalty. ‘

All in all, it was a good game from the two receivers we will count on most this season. Hopefully we’ll get to see a bit further down the depth chart this weekend.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

It was by no means a perfect performance, but after a disastrous 2015 season, our first look at the 2016 offensive line showed some reasons for optimism. The line did a good job giving Justin Thomas time when he dropped back to pass, keeping the Eagles’ defense at bay long enough for him to make a strong, confident throw. The interior of the line seemed particularly strong. Andrew Marshall, who alternated drives at LT with starter Eason Fromayan most of the day, was especially impressive and had several brutal blocks down the stretch. Postgame, Thomas praised the line and said that when he felt pressured it tended to be because Boston College brought an extra man or was playing well in coverage.

The run game was a different matter all together. Tech averaged 2.8 yards per carry, the 5th worst mark in Paul Johnson’s tenure. Johnson said that numerous mistakes by both the backs and line contributed to that number. The line seemed confused by the multiple fronts Boston College threw at them. There’s still a lot to work on, but considering the opponent, this was a good start to the season for the line.

Grade: C+

Offense

Boston College may end up being the best defense Georgia Tech plays all season, so while this performance was a little lackluster, it could bode well for what this offense will be in 2016. For now, the passing game looks a better and the game-winning drive didn’t feel like a drive they would have made last season.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The defensive line is one of the hardest units for me to grade out after this first game. Watching the game, it felt like Boston College RB Jon Hilliman was able to get 4-plus yards at will. However, if we discount his 73 yard touchdown run (which was absolutely a negative on the line and the defense as a whole and shouldn’t be discounted, but bear with me), the Eagles’ feature back was held under 2 yards per carry. The d-line was also able to get some pressure on QB Patrick Towles but couldn’t keep contain, opening up the middle of the field for Towles to scramble and pick up yards.

I’ll be interested to see how the rotations at tackle and end work themselves out, because it seemed like both were mostly three-player rotations. Francis Kallon and Patrick Gamble started the game and Kyle Cerge-Henderson looked impressive off the bench. On the ends, KeShun Freeman and Rod Rook-Chungong started with Antonio Simmons getting a lot of playing time, and looking like the best player on the line. Simmons was all over the field, putting a lot of pressure on Towles, including a strip sack late in the second quarter, killing a drive in Yellow Jacket territory.

There’s still a lot of work to do to turn pressure into sacks, but I think there was a good bit of promise here.

Grade: C

Linebackers

This unit didn’t really stand out to me, good or bad. After a lot was made of Chase Alford being named the starter at inside linebacker early in the week, Brant Mitchell ended up being the one on the field for the first play, though both saw a good deal of action. P.J. Davis led the team in tackles, including one for a loss. The interception in the first quarter was caused in part by a P.J. Davis blitz and Brant Mitchell’s coverage.

The linebackers played well overall and probably deserve some of the credit I gave the line for largely holding the Boston College running game in check. They also deserve a share of the blame for Hilliman’s long touchdown run and Towles’s scrambles, though the latter was likely a coaching decision not to have a LB shadow him.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The defensive backfield is one of the least experienced units on the team, and that showed at times Saturday. S Corey Griffin was a little bit of a roller coaster and the first drive was a perfect microcosm of his night. He was flagged for a drive extending pass interference but came up with an interception a few plays later. Opposite him, AJ Gray had a pretty good game, if unspectacular. The corners played well enough, though Lance Austin struggled at times in coverage.

Boston College’s passing game wasn’t supposed to be much of a threat, and the secondary performed adequately, not giving up many big plays. They likely won’t really be tested until Clemson comes to town.

Grade: C

Defense

It’s difficult to say how the defense performed in week one because we really don’t know what Boston College is going to be on offense. Last season, they were inept. No one is expecting them to suddenly be Oregon, but they should be better this year. Outside of the one Hilliman run, they largely held the Eagles in check. With Mercer and Vanderbilt next on the schedule, we may not really know what this year’s defense will be for some time yet.

Grade: C+

Special Teams

Harrison Butker was one of the players of the game. He put all four kickoffs into the endzone for touchbacks and nailed his only field goal attempt on the day. That’s exactly what you want to see out of a senior kicker. The senior punter was not as consistent. Ryan Rodwell had a 59 yard punt, but also had punts of 24 and 26 yards. The Yellow Jackets didn’t get the benefit of the 59 yard punt either, as the cover team gave up a 22 yard return on the play. Tech’s own return game was solid. Brad Stewart had a nice punt return in the first quarter and J.J. Green had two good kickoff returns, including a 34 yarder that matched last year’s season high.

Grade: B+

Overall

This was not an easy game to open the season with. Playing a conference game on another continent against one of the best defenses in college football is no small task. Though it was not pretty for the majority of the game, the Yellow Jackets came through when it mattered the most and brought home the win. There is a lot to work on in all aspects of the game but, as Coach Johnson said after the game, “the bottom line is we’re 1-0, and that’s about as good as you can be right now.”

Overall: B