One of my favorite Coach Johnson-isms is his go-to saying, "It's never as good or as bad as it seems." It's something that always manages to hold true, in football or otherwise.
Recently, specifically regarding football, it's seemed...pretty bad. And it has been. And it might continue to be, because it actually might be as bad as it seems.
...but what if it's not? What if the saying holds true, and it's not quite as bad as it seems?
The jury's still out on that, and we won't have a definitive answer on that until the season's end. For now, though, I feel comfortable illustrating to you how it might not be as bad as we think it is.
For instance, is it patently absurd to suggest that we could change 5 plays from the first half of this season, and leave Georgia Tech with a winning record? Possibly. Let's find out.
(Obviously, this is all hypothetical, and "all-else-equal" scenarios don't hold much water. It's just meant to be food for thought.)
Week 4: Georgia Tech @ Duke
Duke's 69-Yard Punt Return Sets up 1-Yard Touchdown Drive
See the video here: link.
This was Georgia Tech's first special teams breakdown of the Duke game. Ryan Rodwell punts the ball to the Blue Devils' 30-yard line, where it's fielded by Duke WR Ryan Smith. From there, he evades or breaks about half a dozen tackles before being brought down by Step Durham at the 1-yard line. On the ensuing play, Duke scored a touchdown.
So, if this play were to change, what's to say anything would have been different? This is probably the one I feel the best about, honestly. After the 1-yard touchdown drive, Duke had 9 straight drives where they ran 6 plays or less, accumulating 78 yards, 4 three-and-outs and 2 turnovers. The only points scored by the Blue Devils during that stretch? Well, we'll get there in a second. But, imagine if the first attempted tackle is made on this punt return, and Duke was pinned on their own end of the field, needing at least 35 yards to even be in field goal range? We'll never know now, but I'd venture to say their bad stretch might have started a few plays earlier.
Duke Returns a Kickoff 100 Yards for a Touchdown
See the video here: link.
As mentioned, this was the only instance during their stretch of bone-dry offense where Duke was able to manufacture any points. Harrison Butker follows up a field goal with a kickoff that comes down on Duke's goal line. Blue Devil S DeVon Edwards fields the kickoff and splits the first wave of defenders before cutting across the field towards daylight. He outruns Georgia Tech's coverage team and takes it to the house for the Jackets' second major special teams breakdown of the day.
Again, this falls squarely in the middle of the part of this game where Georgia Tech's defense was in firm control. Imagine if this ball is kicked a few yards deeper, and Edwards takes a knee. Imagine if the first wave of defenders were able to bring down Edwards, and create a normal starting field position for the Blue Devils. Think there's much chance that the offense would have been able to make anything happen? Because I don't.
Combine these two theoretical efforts, and Georgia Tech ends up tied with Duke at 20, all else equal. By game flow, though, it leaves Georgia Tech leading 20-13 with 8:02 left in the game. We could speculate from there, but suffice it to say that two changed plays could entirely overturn the outcome of the game.
Week 5: Georgia Tech vs North Carolina
Adam Gotsis Penalized for Targeting, Ejected
See the video here: link.
This was a major turning point in the game. Up until this point, and even through the end of the drive, the Tar Heels' offense hadn't seen a whole lot of success. With Gotsis gone, the pass rush was less effective and UNC QB Marquise Williams suddenly had a lot more room to run (where Gotsis had been previously). On UNC's first two drives -- when Gotsis was in the game -- they managed 56 yards on 11 plays, a little over 5 yards per play. On their third drive, they managed 75 yards on only 9 plays -- good for 8.3 yards per play. Including that drive, the rest of the game saw the Tar Heels rack up 362 yards on 48 plays -- a rate of 7.54 yards per play, a difference of nearly 2.5 yards per play from their first two drives. Point being, the Gotsis ejection changed the game in favor of UNC.
D.J. White Drops a Likely Pick-Six
See the video (sorta) here: link.
A UNC field goal and Georgia Tech touchdown directly followed halftime, giving the Jackets a 28-17 lead midway through the third quarter. On their second drive after the break, the Tar Heels went 74 yards in 9 plays and found themselves with first and goal from the Yellow Jackets' 1-yard line. Instead of handing off to star running back Elijah Hood, the Tar Heels elected to throw a quick WR screen pass to the right side of the formation. Georgia Tech's best CB, D.J. White, sniffed this out and jumped the pass. The ball hit him in the hands, but fell to the ground before White was able to secure it. The pass was incomplete, and on the next play, the Tar Heels gave the ball to Hood for a touchdown.
Had the interception been completed, White had a 10-yard head start (with momentum) headed towards the opposite end zone. He almost unquestionably would've scored a touchdown for his team. That would've accomplished two things: adding points to his team's score, and getting points off of the board for North Carolina. Instead of a 4-point game, it would've become an 18-point game.
Justin Thomas fumbles, UNC recovers & scores on the next play
See the video here: link.
Just so we're clear, this is purely concerning the fumble. The setup here is as follows: on the ensuing drive from White's non-pick-six, Georgia Tech had its own 12-play series for 74 yards that left it with third and goal from the one-yard line. The first two snaps in the fourth quarter saw Georgia Tech unsuccessfully try Justin Thomas on QB sneaks, resulting in a turnover on downs with the Tar Heels taking over at their own 1-yard line. They get 9 yards on their first two plays, and then Williams loses two yards on third and 1. The Yellow Jackets' defense has made a big, emotional stop and has the crowd squarely into the game. The Tar Heels are forced to re-punt after a penalty negates a good effort, and the second punt only makes it to UNC's 36-yard line. The Jackets have the ball with a short field ahead, not even needing a first down to be in field goal range.
On the first play of the drive, Thomas's pitch to Mikell Lands-Davis is interrupted by a UNC defender, resulting in a fumble. The Tar Heels recover and return it into Georgia Tech territory. On the following snap, they go for the jugular, and connect -- a razzle-dazzle WR pass to Marquise Williams goes for a 37-yard touchdown, giving UNC a 31-28 lead.
Imagine, if you will, that the fumble doesn't happen. Imagine it's handed off to the B-Back. Imagine Thomas just swallows it and gets taken down for a loss of 2-3 yards. Imagine if Thomas takes the snap and just takes a knee, or spikes the ball, or does anything else. Imagine if UNC never has the opportunity to score. Remember, Georgia Tech's offense has a short field ahead of them with plenty of offensive momentum after gaining 117 yards on their last 18 plays.
Instead, the Jackets gained 103 yards on their final 21 plays, managing only a field goal to go with a turnover on downs and an interception on the final play of the game. The Tar Heels scored another touchdown the next time they got the ball, and had a chance to kick another field goal late.
The fumble changed the course of the rest of the game. Even after the mishaps and missed opportunities, Georgia Tech still was in good position to back the Tar Heels into a corner. Instead, Tech got backed into a corner of their own, and ended up folding.
If all three of those plays go as I've laid them out here, Georgia Tech wins the game, and it's probably not very close -- a two-touchdown win at the very least, I'd think. If even one of them goes right, the Jackets still might be able to salvage a close win. But, as fate would have it, none of them did, and Georgia Tech ended up losing to UNC at home for the first time since the late-1990's.
So, what's the point in all of this?
My goal was to point out the small moments in each game that can add up to change the overall course of a season. In 2014, Georgia Tech made plays when opportunities presented themselves. Think of D.J. White's chase-and-strip of James Conner, the pick-six plays against Clemson, Justin Thomas's scramble to set up "The Kick", White's interception against georgia, and Synjyn Days' long touchdown against Mississippi State. Those were all moments where opportunity presented itself in one way or another, and Georgia Tech's players rose to the challenge to seize that opportunity.
So far in 2015, it's hard to point out any moments where that's happened.
As we go through the rest of this season, remember that the margin for error truly can be, in the words of Coach Johnson, "razor thin". It can be as much as a missed tackle, a defender slightly out of position, an ill-timed pitch, or a single dropped pass. Just a few plays changing could mean the difference between going 11-3, winning the Coastal Division, and winning the Orange Bowl, versus a season where the team fails to make a Bowl game and fails to meet anyone's expectations.
Here's to hoping the team starts coming out on the right side of some of those "razor thin" margins for error.