One day, someone is going to ask me to explain Georgia Tech's 2015 season to them. I'll think for a second on how to do that, and then I'll have a brilliant idea.
I'll just show them the game from Thursday night.
I thought Justin Thomas actually played one of his better games of the year, though there were some bad moments mixed in. He was a mere 4-for-13 through the air for 97 yards and only managed 52 yards on the ground, but he made good decisions for the most part and did a nice job in the running game when he kept the ball. (He actually gained 74 yards on the ground, but lost 22 on a pair of sacks.) He distributed the ball well and forced the issue for Virginia Tech's defense. He seemed to take some shots throughout the game and was limping by the end of the game. (On some level, it's surprising that Matthew Jordan never made it into the game, and still hasn't since the Clemson game.)
Along the way, Thomas took a couple of sacks, both coming at especially inopportune times. It's been a reoccurring theme throughout the season, in no way mitigated by the poor offensive line play in front of him, but he's got to do a better job of knowing the game situation and getting rid of the football somehow.
This was one of Thomas's better performances in an overall disappointing season for him, so...take that as you will.
One of the things that I find so amazing about sports is how player can play an overall solid game, and then have one or two bad moments completely undo it. Such is the case for Marcus Allen.
Allen was the primary B-Back for this game, seemingly out of the blue (his 16 carries in the game matched his season total to-date), and did a really nice job overall. He managed 75 yards on those carries (over 4.6 yards per carry) and seemed to repeatedly pick up big gains off of the dive, especially early in the game. It was reminiscent of his spring game performance, which had many fans very intrigued at his potential.
It was all going really well for Allen, and then...after the defense forced a big three-and-out, Allen was handed the ball on first down...and fumbled. Virginia Tech only needed 5 plays to cover a short field for a go-ahead touchdown. It got worse. On the ensuing drive, with Georgia Tech trailing 23-21 and facing 3rd and 10, Thomas hit Allen in the chest with a pass over the middle that would have gotten a first down and more.
Allen dropped it.
It was one of the biggest "penthouse to outhouse" moments of the season, and it happened in the fourth quarter of a close game that Georgia Tech so desperately needed to win.
The word "fitting" comes to mind.
This group...wasn't great. Isaiah Willis had a pretty strong performance with 6 touches (4 carries, 2 receptions) for a total of 50 yards, and Clinton Lynch recorded his fourth touchdown in his last two games, but otherwise there wasn't much to like from this group. Perimeter blocking was weak, and there wasn't much production from them across the board. What's worse was Broderick Snoddy losing a pair of fumbles while Georgia Tech tried to protect or extend a 21-17 lead, one of which coming when a good pitch from Thomas was straight-up mishandled. They were a pair of incidents that further illustrated the comment that Coach Johnson has made throughout the season that the team doesn't do the things they need to do to win games.
Ricky Jeune gained 58 yards on a catch-and-run on the second play of the game. That's where the statistical contributions of this group ended. As with the A-Backs, perimeter blocking was a major struggle throughout the game. This group also continues to really struggle to execute the scramble drill when Thomas inevitably gets out of the pocket on passing plays, and it results in a lot more sacks and throwaways than it should. That's mind-blowing, only in the sense that this has been a consistent problem all year that has yet to improve. That's a coaching issue.
The group was depleted by the recent departure of redshirt junior Micheal Summers, but it's not like the problems they had were much different when he was on the roster either.
I honestly can't explain what happened to this group over the course of the game. The first two drives, the unit was clicking on a level that we've hardly seen since mid-September. They were enabling the offense to consistently gash the Hokies' defense on the way to 143 yards on the team's first three drives, where the team built up a 14-0 lead.
Then, all of a sudden, it somehow seemed to just stop. The offense managed only 66 yards on the following 4 drives, where they only were able to run 17 plays before punting three times and losing a fumble. Put another way: Georgia Tech had 143 yards on its first three drives (nearly 50 yards per drive), and only 115 yards on 8 drives after that (less than 15 yards per drive). A lot of that falls on the offensive line's continued inability to protect a passer, and its rapid degradation throughout the game in run blocking.
And then there was Errin Joe's penalty that knocked Georgia Tech out of field goal range at the end of the game.
I'll make one thing clear: I typically won't fault a player for protecting his teammate, as Joe was doing at the time. It might cost them a penalty, and I can accept that if it sends a message to the other team that the players will stand up for each other. That said, the final 75 seconds of a game when a team has nearly positioned itself for a game-winning field goal and needs every yard it can get for its kicker is not the time to be sending that message. It was a bad mistake made by a fifth-year senior who knows better, and, again, it illustrates a team not doing the things it needs to do to win.
Even through all of the offensive struggles throughout most of the game, they were still in position to have a chance to win -- and that opportunity, as with so many others this season, was squandered.
As I said, it's extremely concerning that Game #10 is seeing the same lack of execution from wide receivers in the scramble drill as we saw in Game #3. Yes, they lost an experienced member of the group last week, but that still doesn't explain the lack of execution from the other starter, or from the primary backup who made his third start of the season in this game. That has to get better, and that's on the coaches.
Play-calling seemed fine for the most part. There were a few called dives that I would've liked to see changed into option plays, but any offensive shortcomings weren't an issue of play-calling.
That this group is having a lot of the same issues that it was having two months ago is probably the thing that bothers me the most about this season. The offense has struggled all year, and there's very little about it as a unit that seems to have improved. (There's no question that individuals have improved -- but as a unit, they're still producing on the same low level as before.) As much as I hope they improve over these last two games of the season, I have a feeling that they'll be the primary discussion point over the course of the offseason and into 2016.
I have to say, given what this group had to work with and who it was missing, I was pretty impressed with what they managed to accomplish. Yes, the Hokies managed 165 yards on the ground (including 135 for Travon McMillian), but the defensive line itself held up decently in the run game while producing some pressure in the passing game. True freshman DE Anree Saint-Amour managed a sack and added a second tackle for loss off the bench, and true freshman DT Kyle Cerge-Henderson showed some outstanding athleticism in leading the group with 5 total tackles. Patrick Gamble turned in another strong performance as well, which we're getting used to by now.
This unit surely could have been better, but all things considered, I was reasonably happy with what they were able to produce.
The linebackers were a pretty mixed bag in this game. The stars of the unit were the unlikely duo of fifth-year senior reserve Domonique Noble (5 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss) and true freshman Brant Mitchell (4 solo tackles, 32-yard interception return for TD), while fifth-year senior Tyler Marcordes seemed to get washed out of most plays and only managed 3 tackles and P.J. Davis was limited throughout the game by an injury.
As much as the defensive line could have done more to keep Virginia Tech's rushing attack in check, the linebackers are really the primary culprit at play. Obviously that's a task that gets tougher when the team's leading tackler (P.J. Davis) leaves the game with an injury, but the missed tackles and general lack of involvement from this group as a whole was a big factor in Virginia Tech's success in rushing the ball.
Brant Mitchell looks to be a real star in the making in this group, making another huge play by seizing an opportunity that presented itself. He needs to continue growing as a player, but the future of this group is extremely bright. For now though, the group has been sub-par as a whole.
I thought the secondary played an outstanding game on Thursday night, plain and simple. Demond Smith led the team with 9 tackles, including one massive hit for a loss as a part of his great run support all night. D.J. White and Chris Milton broke up a combined 5 passes and gave some really talented players on Virginia Tech's offense fits. Jamal Golden had an excellent "Johnny-on-the-Spot" moment to recover a fumble, the likes of which we've seen from him so many times in his career.
This unit was all over the field and did a really nice job containing some highly talented opposition. They held a capable quarterback, Michael Brewer, to a mere 15-for-29 mark passing with only 178 yards and 1 touchdown. That's a fantastic performance by this group.
You saw a little bit more aggression in the play calling this week, to mixed results. Expect to see that continue, both through the rest of this season and possibly the rest of Ted Roof's tenure at Georgia Tech. Even going back to last season, the defense has more success when they play a more aggressive style -- even if not creating sacks, they're making quarterbacks uncomfortable and forcing quicker decisions. They'll get burned on occasion as a result (especially by some of the best units), but it seems to be more palatable style-wise for most fans.
I thought the defense gave a pretty admirable effort in this game for the most part, limiting Virginia Tech's ability to throw the ball or run to the outside. They spent a full 30 minutes on the field, and yet gave up less than 350 yards to an offense that may not be particularly potent, but is certainly talented and capable. (For context, 345 yards of offense was Virginia Tech's fourth-lowest total of the season, better only than games against Ohio State, Pittsburgh, and Boston College -- each of which have outstanding defenses.)
Giving up under 350 yards and under 25 points should very much be enough for this team to win games, especially when the defense creates 7 points of its own. Sadly, that's not the case. It doesn't mean the defense has to take the blame though.
The special teams unit started out very strong, with Chris Milton downing a 39-yard Ryan Rodwell punt at Virginia Tech's 1-yard line. That was good!
The rest? Not so much. Ryan Rodwell really seemed to struggle to gain much in the way of field position with the rest of his punts, although only one was truly bad (a 23-yard effort late in the third quarter). To add to that, Jamal Golden dropped a punt that could've ended in disaster were it not for Special Teams Ballhawk Lance Austin picking up the ball.
It certainly wasn't the worst performance on special teams this season, but it certainly wasn't a pristine game either, and nearly involved one or more meltdowns.
On the morning of Thursday, September 3, I flew from Houston to Atlanta for Labor Day weekend, which I would start by watching my Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets open their season. If the person sitting next to me on the plane that morning had looked me in the eye and told me that I was about to watch the beginning of the season that would end Georgia Tech's bowl streak, I would've told them unequivocally and without hesitation that they had no idea what they were talking about. (Maybe using somewhat stronger words -- but you get the idea.)
And yet here we find ourselves -- still more than 10 days prior to Thanksgiving, freely planning our winter celebrations without having to even consider planning around a possible bowl trip.
On Thursday, you saw Georgia Tech continue to do what it's done all season -- where they typically found ways to win games last year, they've found ways to lose them this time around. The offense produced touchdowns in two of their first three drives, and gave the team a 14-0 lead at home. By halftime, that lead had evaporated. As the game got deep into the fourth quarter, the offense (still looking for its first points since having that 14-0 lead, mind you) managed to work its way right on to the edge of Harrison Butker's field goal range -- giving the team a chance to seize the moment and at least keep its season on life support.
Instead, they followed up three second-half fumbles, a crucial dropped pass, and countless other miscues with one more to trump them all -- and that was it.
That was it for the game, that was it for the season, and that was it for Georgia Tech's 18-year bowl streak.
Thank God for the arrival of basketball season.