It was around lunch time on Saturday that I received some intel from Blacksburg that it didn’t look like senior C Freddie Burden or senior QB Justin Thomas would be starting, and in their places would be true freshman C Kenny Cooper and sophomore backup QB Matthew Jordan. Combine that with the knowledge from earlier in the week that star freshman B-Back Dedrick Mills was suspended for the game, and I immediately moved to look up the phone number for my local bank. I wanted to take out a second mortgage to bet Virginia Tech to cover the 14-point spread in this game.
I had spent over a month telling people that, of all the games remaining on Georgia Tech’s schedule, including the game in Athens in a couple of weeks, this was the game that they just couldn’t win. The Hokies looked like a complete team with a potent offense and a very stout defense, while Georgia Tech had been somewhat inconsistent on offense and a total trainwreck on defense. It was a bad match-up from the start. How would they score? How would they contain the Hokies’ offense? Add in that it was being played in Blacksburg, and then combine with it the absence of any senior presence on offense (save former walk-on AB Isaiah Willis), and all logic would tell us that Georgia Tech had no shot at winning this game.
Then, because college football makes sense, Georgia Tech won this game. Convincingly.
An Outstanding Defensive Performance, Out of Nowhere
First and foremost, the defense put forth an effort that we haven’t seen all year. Virginia Tech had 437 yards of offense, but 182 of those came late in the fourth quarter, when Georgia Tech had a 23-point lead. (S&P+ would actually define the first of those two Virginia Tech drives as “garbage time”, given that Georgia Tech had more than a 17-point lead.) They forced FOUR turnovers, after forcing 9 turnovers in as many games to start the year. They racked up FIVE sacks, after accumulating only 3 total sacks in the team’s previous 5 games. They came in allowing a third-down conversion rate of nearly 52%, worst in the entire country, before holding a talented, explosive Hokies offense to only 6-of-14 (under 43%). Lawrence Austin in particular had a phenomenal game, only managing 4 tackles but forcing a fumble and recording a pair of interceptions — the first Jacket with two interceptions in a game since Jemea Thomas against Clemson in 2011.
They sent pressure, they covered well, and they took advantage of opportunities where they presented themselves. When talking about his defense after the game, Paul Johnson said, “I think our defensive players were probably tired of hearing how bad they were. I think that we played our best defense, especially early in the game. The kids played fast and got lined up. They just kind of played.” Whatever it was, it worked. It was the type of drastic change that was necessary if Ted Roof was going to save his job looking towards next year.
The Most Unlikely Offensive Display in Years
Then, there was the offense -- the more perplexing piece of the win, to me. Through the years, we’ve seen lesser Bud Foster defenses give some really good Georgia Tech offenses major issues. The Hokies always seem well-equipped to stop the Yellow Jackets’ offense, even in games where they end up losing. Two years ago, what would end up a vaunted Georgia Tech offense went to Blacksburg and only managed 250 yards on the ground against a Virginia Tech defense that would finish 40th nationally in yards per carry allowed. This year, an offense being run by a true freshman at center, a backup QB, and a backup B-Back went for 309 yards rushing on 58 carries against a defense that came into the game allowing under 3.5 yards per carry, good for around 20th nationally.
What’s more confounding is not only considering what they did or who did it, but how they did it. This was as vanilla of an offensive gameplan as I can remember at Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson. The offense had 58 carries in this game — or 56, if you don’t include a fumbled center-QB exchange that was lost or the end-of-game kneel down -- and 51 of them were by either Matthew Jordan or Marcus Marshall. Jordan in particular had 32 carries (and presumably an ice bath after the game) for 142 yards, including a huge 53-yard touchdown run in the first half. It was the most carries in a game by a Georgia Tech QB since Tevin Washington had 32 carries of his own against Maryland in 2011, and tied the Johnson-era record originally set by Joshua Nesbitt in 2009 against North Carolina.
Jordan only threw the ball 7 times in the game, completing 2 — one to Brad Stewart on the first drive of the game, and one early in the 4th quarter to Ricky Jeune that extended a drive where the lead was extended to 23-7. Prowess through the air, though, wasn’t necessary for Jordan’s offense on Saturday.
Marcus Marshall had 19 carries in the game, and was remarkably steady on the ground. He averaged right around 5 yards per carry the entire game before breaking a 56-yard touchdown run up the middle to put the game out-of-reach with around 9 minutes left.
Now, consider this:
- A week ago, basically at full strength, Georgia Tech’s offense only managed 20 points (including 3 in the second half) against a mediocre-to-bad North Carolina defense.
- This week, missing its senior quarterback, a senior offensive lineman, and its leading rusher on offense, they put up 30 points on a very good Virginia Tech defense.
College football is pretty crazy sometimes.
Complex Gameplans Aren’t Always Necessary
I sit here on Sunday morning, replaying so many pieces of the game in my head, and I still can’t make sense of it all. Georgia Tech caught the breaks they’ve struggled to catch since the beginning of 2015, minimized the mistakes that they made, and made a really good team look bad in one of the most hostile road environments in college football. Yet, I think of the major theme of the game for both sides of the ball, and it was simplicity.
#GaTech gameplan today:— Joey Weaver (@FTRSJoey) November 12, 2016
--Don't throw the ball.
--Don't screw up on offense.
--Try to force turnovers.
Somehow, it's worked to perfection.
Of 65 offensive snaps, 52 of them (80%) were runs by either Jordan or Marshall. They held onto the ball for nearly 36 minutes and were constantly draining clock when they had the chance to. The defense obviously made it a point to try to punch or pull the ball out when possible (as we saw on the opening kickoff, and again as the Austin twins gang tackled future NFL tight end Bucky Hodges). Lawrence Austin saw a pair of opportunities to make interceptions, and came down with both. They committed to blitzing heavily (7+ at a time) or playing coverage heavily, and nobody seemed confused on their assignments. They only really made one major mistake in the game, and took advantage every time Virginia Tech made one.
Some people would say that Paul Johnson likes to act like he’s playing chess, while the rest of the teams out there are playing checkers. On Saturday, it looked a lot like both sides were playing checkers, and Johnson’s team came out victorious anyways.
Opportunity Seized Creates More Opportunities
As I looked at the schedule before the year, I saw 6 games that I felt very comfortable in thinking Georgia Tech would win. (So far, they’re 5-0 in those games.) Their Vegas win total before the year seemed low to me at 6.5, figuring they only needed to steal one from the other six games to finish the year with at least 7 wins. They stole one on Saturday, and they still have a chance to steal another one.
Georgia Tech now heads into the final games of its regular season already bowl-eligible at 6-4. Over the past couple of weeks, their remaining games looked far more winnable than the Virginia Tech game did. Now that they’ve won this game, it’s a realistic possibility that Georgia Tech finishes the regular season with 8 wins, which would give them the chance to finish the season at 9-4 with a bowl win.
Amazing how a single win can change our perception of the team’s outlook, even after we’ve gotten so many data points already this season.
It’s unclear whether Justin Thomas or Freddie Burden will be able to play down the stretch against UVA and georgia, and Dedrick Mills will miss the UVA game anyways, but Paul Johnson’s team just proved something in winning one of its toughest games of the year without some of its very best players.
Right as all of us were losing faith in the team and its coaching staff, they turned in one of the best performances of the year and pulled off a major upset of a division rival.
I don’t know how we didn’t see this coming.