Georgia Tech has played four games this season.
Two of them were against inferior competition, and the Yellow Jackets won in dominating fashion.
One of them was last week, against a superior team, and the Yellow Jackets lost in a game where they were completely outclassed.
The fourth was this week, against an adequate opponent, and looked just as disorganized and discombobulated as they did against a far superior unit.
You learn a lot about a team in its first few games against legitimate competition. Georgia Tech's first couple of games against legitimate competition have taught us things that Yellow Jacket fans never wanted to learn.
Here's what we learned this week.
Once again, the game wore on and Georgia Tech was trailing, and Justin Thomas started pressing and trying to do too much. That was never more visible than on one of the Yellow Jackets' final plays from scrimmage, when this happened:
That said, if Thomas feeling pressure of the game situation and trying to take things into his own hands is the biggest indictment we have of his performance, it's hard to really criticize him.
Throughout the game, Justin Thomas was a victim of poor pass protection and sub-par play calling. Were there moments that he could have been better? Yes. Was he the reason the offense only managed 20 points in this game? Absolutely not.
Thomas finished 6-of-21 with 143 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT passing, but had several incomplete passes that were thrown away due to excessive pressure. He also finished with 24 carries for 58 yards, leading the team in carries and trailing only Patrick Skov in yardage.
Again, Thomas has been better, but he's the least of Georgia Tech's problems on offense right now.
Patrick Skov finished as the team leader in rushing yards with 75, but it took him 19 carries to get there, good for a YPC average of 3.94. Only six of his carries went for 5 yards or more. He didn't create any issues in run blocking or pass protection. It was fine.
Marcus Marshall wasn't good in the action he saw, finishing with 5 carries for 14 yards (2.8 YPC) and having a rough time in pass protection on multiple plays. Marshall had a "block and release" role on a couple of occasions where he would be relied on to pick up someone that the offensive line missed or otherwise release, and ended up misdiagnosing the rush before subsequently releasing. That's something that will just take time to learn for a true freshman.
Marcus Allen did well when given the ball, but saw limited action after being banged up later in the game. He finished with 2 carries for 15 yards.
This group certainly could've been better, but wasn't the biggest problem.
Without Qua Searcy and not yet involving true freshmen Mikell Lands-Davis or Quaide Weimerskirch, this group was pretty much a disaster. Broderick Snoddy had one nice run but was an absolute liability in cases where he was asked to block, showing a complete disinterest in experiencing any real contact. Isaiah Willis and Clinton Lynch finished with a combined 5 carries for 7 yards and were entirely ineffective (by little fault of their own, to be fair), but missed blocking assignments on multiple occasions.
TaQuon Marshall may have been the biggest bright spot of this group, managing a combined 28 yards on only one carry and one reception. With Searcy out, he's likely the biggest threat in this group when it comes to the passing game. He has a very bright future.
Perimeter blocking was a huge problem on Saturday, and there just wasn't a lot of good to speak of from this group.
This group should be addressed in two segments, honestly.
First, Ricky Jeune in the passing game was extremely encouraging. He finished with 4 receptions for a total of 91 yards. With Micheal Summers out, Jeune was the go-to guy for Justin Thomas in the passing game and delivered for the most part. The connection between those two is critical to the offense moving forward, and can be a major difference-maker in this season.
Second, the entire rest of what this group did was a catastrophe. When it came to anyone not named Jeune getting open, it was effectively nonexistent. If Justin Thomas was in trouble and needed someone to come back to the ball, it was a lost cause. If the group needed to contribute with perimeter blocking, that didn't happen at all, leading to multiple plays being blown up. Case in point:
When Brad Stewart's number was called on a reverse, it ended with a 10-yard loss. (In fairness, he was put in a bad position by play calling. He may be a wide receiver, but he shouldn't be the go-to guy on a reverse.)
The connection between Thomas and Jeune is something to continue building on (and something that will be especially nice when both Jeune and Summers are on the field again), but that's the only semi-decent thing this group had going.
As an engineer, it's pretty absurd to think that I can take out 20% of a machine, replace it with parts that are at least somewhat comparable, and then get an output not even close to what I had before.
On a related note, Shaq Mason's departure from the 2014 offensive line was apparently a much, much bigger deal than any of us wanted to give it credit for.
This group was a complete disaster, and there's no two ways about it. If you're an X's and O's sadist (like myself, apparently), re-watch the game, and check out all of the plays where the offense was blown up. (I referenced several of these in the postgame thread.) Check out the passing plays where Justin Thomas had no protection. Look at the simple fullback dives, look at the counter options, look at the speed options. This group was a nightmare, for a second week in a row.
It's mind-blowing. Starters were removed from the game occasionally, and their replacements looked like they were learning the offense on the fly. Defenders were flying through Georgia Tech's backfield untouched, making life miserable for Justin Thomas and his B-Backs in particular. At the same time, defenders were being unnecessarily double-teamed and blocks were being whiffed on badly.
It's bizarre to think that this group, which was one of the best in the country at what it did last year, returned 4 of 5 starters, and is all of a sudden a liability. That's our reality now.
Justin Thomas needs to buckle his chinstrap and prepare to use his feet to extend plays if he'll be able to give this offense any chance of success -- it's going to continue this way until the offensive line can get on the same page. This group gets a hard 'F', and one of the few grades that I'm not interested in listening to anyone's arguments against.
On last week's BuzzTalk Radio podcast, I was asked to provide my biggest takeaway from the Notre Dame game. I told them that I learned Justin Thomas wasn't invincible, in two senses. First off, Thomas isn't invincible in the sense that he gets frustrated like any other human. He has emotions, sometimes those emotions get to him, and it affects his play. Perfectly understandable and expected.
The other point that I made is that he's not invincible in the sense that he needs help from those around him.
Boy, does he ever.
Today was a much better example of that -- Thomas didn't play a bad game by any means, but the offense was still ineffective. Why? The A-Backs didn't block. The wide receivers didn't block. The offensive line didn't block. The wide receivers didn't get open or come back when Thomas was in trouble.
Georgia Tech's offense did basically nothing that it needs to do in order to put the team in position to win games. They failed to manage 200 rushing yards for the first time since the 2013 Music City Bowl against Ole Miss, and for only the 8th time since the beginning of the 2010 season (a stretch of 71 games). They gave the quarterback zero time to set up and pass. They failed to block defenders who weren't shy about their pre-snap intentions to shoot through gaps.
There were moments of promise, but they were few and far between. This group isn't getting it done right now (as unthinkable as that would have seemed a month ago), and is the unit holding the team back.
This group really struggled on Duke's early touchdown drives, getting manhandled by the Blue Devils' offensive line. However, after those first three Duke possessions, they played extremely well. They were disruptive, clogging up holes in the running game and harassing Thomas Sirk in the passing game. They gave a strong effort.
Jabari Hunt and Antonio Simmons each recorded a TFL, with Simmons playing particularly well in place of injured SDE starters Pat Gamble and Roderick Rook-Chungong. Adam Gotsis and KeShun Freeman combined for 11 tackles (9 solo) and a fumble recovery by Freeman. There weren't many guys who entered the game here, and the ones who did played extremely well after a bit of a tough start.
That's two weeks in a row that the defensive line has played well for a majority of the game. I like where this group is at looking forward.
Again, a little bit of a rough start, but this group was generally outstanding down the stretch of this game. The first few Duke drives saw the linebackers sitting back and getting blown up by the Blue Devils' offensive line. There was a change, though, after the second touchdown drive, that resulted in a major improvement for the entire defense. P.J. Davis and Tyler Marcordes spent a lot of time in this game supporting the defensive line in creating havoc in Duke's backfield, and the whole defense benefited from it. Davis led the team with 13 tackles (more than double that of runners-up Gotsis and Demond Smith), had a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, and got the Yellow Jackets' only sack on Sirk. Marcordes added 5 tackles of his own.
Honestly, I'm a little surprised it wasn't the strategy from the start. Even with the linebackers supporting the run for a majority of the game, Sirk finished with under 5 yards per attempt, under 7 yards per completion, and a pair of interceptions. We'll talk about this in the next section, but the linebackers' scheme changed after the first few drives, and it made all of the difference in the defense's output.
As I was saying, the linebackers weren't needed that much in the way of pass coverage. The secondary did an impressive job of locking up Duke's passing game, where their second-longest play went for 11 yards. They created two turnovers along the way, in the form of Lawrence Austin and AJ Gray interceptions, both on plays where they played receivers and the quarterback to perfection. (It was Austin's second career interception and Gray's first, not counting one he made on an extra point against Alcorn State.)
Duke's passing game was hardly ever a concern, except for a few big plays early in the game. The secondary still did a nice job in supporting the run, particularly Demond Smith, who tied Adam Gotsis for second on the team with 6 tackles. Gray in particular looked excellent between the interception and a couple of crucial tackles -- he should be a huge asset to the team moving forward.
It was a rough day for the team as a whole, but the secondary performed very admirably.
There can be no doubt about it that this unit started off very slowly. Duke scored on two of its first three drives, only because a turnover was forced to end the Blue Devils' first drive early. (The fourth drive isn't the fault of the defense -- a one-yard touchdown drive falls on the special teams.) After going down 19-3 (including the special teams-inflicted touchdown), the defense had 9 straight drives that saw them force 7 punts and 2 turnovers. The Blue Devils' final touchdown came on a single bad play when Georgia Tech's defense was desperate to shut down a 4th Down attempt late in the game.
Obviously there's room for improvement from this unit, but realize that the 34 points scored by Duke weren't entirely the fault of the defense. In general, this group played well enough to win a lot of games. Unfortunately, that can't be said about the other two units on the team.
There wasn't a lot to like about this unit. Once again, special teams were extremely costly for Georgia Tech in this game. Last week, Harrison Butker missed a pair of field goals that were well within his range and which would have potentially changed the entire landscape of the game. This week, Butker was thankfully excellent in his opportunities (2-for-2 on field goal opportunities from 52 and 48 yards, 3 touchbacks on 5 kickoffs) and Ryan Rodwell was good in general (averaging 41+ yards per punt on 5 attempts), but kick and punt coverage was the difference in the game. Late in the first quarter, Duke returned a punt 69 yards all the way to the Georgia Tech 1-yard line, failing to score thanks only to something of a joint tackle by Step Durham and Tyler Marcordes. One play later, the Blue Devils were in the end zone. In the third quarter, Georgia Tech's third drive after halftime ended with a field goal (closing the gap to 19-13), only for the ensuing kickoff to be run back 100 yards after some particularly bad coverage.
This is the second straight week where Georgia Tech was arguably cost a game by poor special teams play. It's unacceptable that this unit continue to be a sore spot of the team week in and week out. The issues here have to be resolved before the team can reach its potential.
Last week, I took the position that the season isn't over, everything was OK, and issues would be resolved in short order. The performance was entirely uncharacteristic of the Georgia Tech teams and offenses that I've grown to know and love.
This week, I have no such encouragements for you.
That this team is still having constant issues with things such as "blocking the right person" and "blocking anybody at all" is highly worrisome. In fact, it's so worrisome that it's completely drained my confidence in this team winning any particular game moving forward.
Now, by that, do I mean that I expect this team to win no games at all and finish 2-10? No, not at all.
Does it mean that I can't find any particular game on the schedule that this team will almost certainly win?
Yes. That's exactly what I mean.
There are some fundamental parts of this offense that absolutely have to happen before it can be successful, regardless of how much talent is on the field. They're not happening. Also, as someone who is well-versed in statistics, I'm much less bothered by them not happening in a single instance (Notre Dame) than I am about them not happening consistently over a larger sample size (Notre Dame and Duke).
At this point, Georgia Tech has played two opponents that were legitimate competition, and has looked awful on offense and special teams against 100% of that legitimate competition. This defense is good enough to shepherd the team into territory it hasn't been to in a long time, but that's irrelevant right now because, for once, the other two phases of the game aren't good enough to beat anyone of merit.
This team needs to figure things out, and fast, or it's going to be an awfully long season.