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Tuesday Thoughts 10/19: Halfway to Somewhere

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In which we reflect and posit

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

As mentioned last week, instead of our regularly scheduled Tuesday programming I’ll be doing a recap of the first half of the season today. If you’d like a preview of Saturday’s game against UVA please see last week’s TTs! Let’s get to it.

Record: 3-3 (2-2 ACC)

ACC Coastal Standing: 4th

Wins: Kennesaw State, UNC, Duke

Losses: NIU, Clemson, Pittsburgh

SP+: 51st (58th O, 44th D, 97th ST)

Overall I think 3-3 is fine: it’s pretty much what most people predicted at this point. My problem is that it could easily be 5-1, a very different season. We can all agree that we should never have lost to NIU (reminder that we were 18-point favorites) so right off the bat we really should be 4-2 at a minimum. On top of that I think it’s pretty clear at this point that we absolutely could’ve beat Clemson. Our performance against UNC may have indeed been a fluke but even playing at 80% of that level would probably have been enough to beat the Tigers (and enough to have kept it close against Pitt).

In the last two seasons I’ve been concerned mostly with the execution of things on the field; this year that’s slightly changed to be execution vs potential. We clearly can be a strong team but seem to struggle with playing to our potential. We had a massive talent advantage over NIU and Duke and yet we played down to their levels for 60 minutes and very nearly went 0-2 against them. Pittsburgh is definitely a better team than us but there’s no reason for us to lose any conference game by more than 14 points at this point in the program. If we played our best in every game this season then we could pretty comfortably earn an 8 win season. Instead we threw away a gimme against NIU and were nearly outlasted by Duke. This Jekyll and Hyde nature doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Before the season started I would’ve been completely happy with 3 wins after these 6 games, but it’s that feeling that we could’ve been so much better that’s eating away at me right now. At a minimum we should be 4-2 with close losses to Clemson and Pitt right now. Instead we’re coming off a too-close-for-comfort win against the worst team in the ACC and that’s a hard pill to swallow. We really need to find some kind of consistent identity.

Offense

Points per game: 28.5 (64th of 130) (2020: 23.9)

Yards per game: 402.7 (63rd of 130) (2020: 389.9)

Passing YPG: 233.7 (65th of 130) (2020: 199.1)

Rushing YPG: 169.0 (61th of 130) (2020: 190.8)

Turnovers per game: 1.0 (37th of 130) (2020: 2.5)

First Downs per game: 20.3 (80th of 130) (2020: 19.9)

Top Passer: Jeff Sims - 62.5%, 791 yards, 6 TD, 4 INT

Top Rusher: Jahmyr Gibbs - 77 attempts, 279 yards, 1 TD

Some good and some bad here. As a whole the offense has made slight improvements over 2020 which is great to see. In particular scoring almost 5 more points per game and breaking 400 yards/game are great signs that the offense is getting better and finding its groove. Turnovers are also WAY down, a huge relief to anyone who watched us in 2020. That’s all awesome. What’s not awesome is a visible regression in the run game given how talented our RBs are. We’re averaging half a yard less per carry than we did in 2020, a sizable deficit for a team trying to find its offensive footing. Gibbs especially is well below where we thought he’d be stat-wise; he should have easily been over 500 yards and a few TDs by now. To me there are two related things holding the offense back right now: OL play and play-calling.

The OL has not been good this year, plain and simple. DLs and LBs are consistently in our backfield and either stopping RBs before they reach the line of scrimmage or pressuring Sims before he has time to do anything. I think this is a big reason for our disgusting 3rd down conversion rate of 34.2%. We just can’t sustain drives when we’re gaining 0-2 yards on a 2nd and long run and then giving up a huge pass rush on 3rd and long. A lot of our yardage is coming from explosive plays. That’s cool and all, but we’re desperately missing the ability to just gain 5 yards when we need to.

I’ve talked about this before, but our playcalling just isn’t playing to our strengths and weaknesses well. We know we don’t have a strong OL so why do we keep sending Gibbs straight into the line? Why do we run short yardage plays out of shotgun? Why do we run slow-developing rush plays? We’re not giving our guys the chances they deserve to make plays.

In the passing game things are...fine. Sims seems more comfortable throwing the ball downfield than he did in 2020 but he still struggles with tipped balls and interceptions. He’s thrown two picks in each of the last two games and that’s just not going to cut it when we’re trying to make a bowl game (still though, the OL can certainly take the blame for a couple of those). Overall I’m okay with where he’s at though; I probably expected a bit more development over last season but given that he’s missed a couple games this year I think there’s still time for him to settle into a groove.

I really honestly can’t think of a better word than “fine” to describe my overall thoughts on the offense. We’ve moved the ball pretty well in every game (understandably except for Clemson) and have been noticeably better in the red-zone than in previous years. The OL still leaves a lot to be desired, but the good news is that even a slight bump in production could be huge for our talented RBs. Speaking of, my offensive MVP for the season so far is Dontae Smith. He was sneaky awesome in 2020 and that trend has continued into 2021; he’s averaging a whopping 6.9 yards per carry with 3 TDs so far. For some reason though he still has only gotten a few carries per game. Give. Dontae. The. Ball.

Defense

Points per game allowed: 25.7 (72nd of 130) (2020: 36.8)

Yards per game allowed: 382.5 (73rd of 130) (2020: 459.3)

Passing YPG allowed: 228.3 (72nd of 130) (2020: 270.1)

Rushing YPG allowed: 154.2 (78th of 130) (2020: 189.2)

Turnovers forced per game: 1.5 (47th of 130) (2020: 1.8)

Third Down % allowed: 42.2% (96th of 130) (2020: 46.7%)

First Downs per game allowed: 19.8 (68th of 130) (2020: 24.1)

On the surface it looks like the defense has massively improved over 2020, but I honestly think that’s misleading given how awful the 2020 defense was. Looking at our numbers in the context of the current season we’re still bad and that’s incredibly disconcerting given how long the staff has been here. I’ve never hidden my disappointment in the defense; I think we should expect a LOT more from this unit given the talent on the field and supposedly defensive-minded coaching staff.

It’s honestly baffling. You can’t seriously be called the MINISTER OF MAYHEM when you’re giving up nearly 400 yards per game. In our last two games we’ve given up 580 yards to Pitt and 489 to DUKE (the same Duke that just lost 48-0 to UVA by the way). It is absolutely inexcusable that this is what we’re doing in the third year of such a highly-regarded defensive staff. QBs have all day to throw, we give up career days to RBs, WRs are left wide open, and tackling is a challenge. The fundamentals are completely lacking and I am absolutely begging for something to change on the defensive side of the ball.

On a brighter note, my defensive MVP so far is Charlie Thomas. He’s been balling out all year with 47 tackles, 8 TFLs, 2.5 sacks and 2 INTs; he’s done a little bit of all of it all over the field.

Special Teams

FGs: 7/10 - 70% (2020: 3/8 - 37.5%)

XPs: 20/20 - 100% (2020: 26/27 - 96.3%)

Average punting yardage: 43.4 (2020: 47.6)

Special Teams have actually been okay so far, another welcome change from 2020. We’re attempting and making field goals, a welcome improvement over the past two years. We’ve also already doubled our touchback count from 2020 - that’s been awesome to see. Overall I’m very pleased with what both Brent Cimaglia and David Shanahan have done so far in their first year on the team. Both sides of kick/punt returning haven’t been amazing, but they haven’t really burned us either so I’m calling that a win.

Looking Ahead

There’s a lot I want to see in the second half of this season but let’s distill it down to a few main things:

Better OL play - we absolutely need this in order to both get the run game going and give Sims time in the pocket to feel comfortable. I think this is the biggest thing holding us back on offense right now by far.

Better third down defense - We need to start getting off the field defensively. We’re doing a decent job of getting opponents to third down but then we allow too many easy conversions. Start locking it down or stop calling it MONEY DOWN.

Better coaching and intangibles - I’m putting a lot of stuff under this umbrella: clock management, focus, in-game decision making, playcalling, etc. A talented team not playing to their potential is all on the coaching staff; it’s up to them to prepare and manage the team better. I’ve referenced this a lot recently, but it’s insane that we have yet to win two straight games under Collins. That needs to change this season. Lock it in and lock it down.

If we can get these three things under control then I think we have a really solid chance at making a bowl game. Our next three games are UVA, Virginia Tech, and Miami. UVA might honestly be the toughest test on that list but I still think playing at 90% of our potential against them gets us a win. There’s no reason we can’t be on a 4-game win streak heading into BC. The Eagles haven’t looked great without Jurkovec so I’m also putting that one in the “we absolutely have the power to win” category. Notre Dame is honestly kind of similar - they might be good but they’ve really struggled against pretty bad teams like FSU, Toledo, Purdue, and VT. UGA is absolutely out of the question but I really want to see us at least compete for a quarter or so.

I think the absolutely minimum expectation should be going 2-4 down the stretch and finishing 5-7. I’m calling this season a failure with less than 5 wins and we really should be getting 6 and a bowl appearance. Success is within our grasp, we just need to reach out and take it.