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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Development of this program is taking a long time, and some of it may be related to ongoing development within this coaching staff.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 North Carolina at Georgia Tech Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In hilariously predictable fashion, just days after I (and several other members of the staff here at FTRS) told you that Georgia Tech and Geoff Collins had shown Proof of Concept in a huge blowout win over a ranked North Carolina team, they got blown out on their own field by a Pittsburgh team that who was two weeks removed from losing to a MAC team on their own field.

The win over North Carolina was a great moment, but the bigger thing about the win that represented Proof of Concept to me was the fact that Georgia Tech had played a good, complete game for the third time in a row. That consistency was the thing that was strikingly different about this team that we hadn’t seen over several games in a row in the previous two years under Geoff Collins. It wasn’t always perfect or pretty in those three games, and they scored single-digit points and lost in one of them, but context and the eye test would tell you that they played well on both sides of the ball in each game.

I mentioned on the Basketball Conference Week 5 Preview show that, as a well-versed Georgia Tech and Atlanta sports fan, I found myself unsure of what to expect from the Yellow Jackets against Pittsburgh, largely in that I felt like I was just constantly left waiting on the other shoe to drop.

I’m not sure what kind of shoe it was that dropped on Saturday, but I do suspect that shoes had something to do with it given all of the slipping that players on both sides were doing all over Grant Field, yet again. (That was mostly a joke, but not entirely. Let’s put a pin in that particular conversation and come back to it sometime in the future.)

As with so many of the other losses to date since 2019, this one fell on Georgia Tech’s coaching staff. Pittsburgh is a dangerous but flawed team, and there is a clear way to attack them:

  • On offense, trying to run the ball against their defensive front is a fool’s errand — the last time they allowed even 5 yards per carry against anyone was in September of 2019 against a Penn State team that finished 11-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. (In the two previous matchups, Georgia Tech averaged a paltry 2.97 and 3.38 yards per carry.) On the other hand, their secondary is decidedly vulnerable to giving up big plays, just as they did plenty of times in a close win over Tennessee and a loss to Western Michigan in recent weeks.
  • On defense, you’re preparing to face a Pittsburgh offense that has shown an astounding level of ineptitude at running the ball since hiring OC Mark Whipple before the 2019 season. In his 28 games as Pitt’s OC coming into Saturday, the Panthers had run for even 5 yards per carry only 4 times. (In 2018, the year before his hiring, the Panthers did this 6 times.) Conversely, their offense has succeeded most under Whipple by using what I’ll term a “volume passing attack”. It relies largely on a series of shorter passes to move the ball and has shown limited passing explosiveness, historically.

So, the strategy here should have been to limit the reliance on the run game and focus on attacking the perimeter on offense, and to focus on trying to contain Pitt’s passing attack until they made mistakes while handling their run game with the defensive front needing minimal support. Simple enough! What did they do?

  • In a game where they spent a majority of the time trailing by multiple scores, the Yellow Jackets still ran the ball 29 times for only 95 yards, as compared to passing 35 times for an impressive 337 yards. (Stats are sack-adjusted.) There were three possessions where Georgia Tech had a first down at Pitt’s 30-yard line or closer and came away with no points, and there were three turnovers on downs — two of which ended with a fourth-and-short handoff up the middle that got stuffed. Perhaps the most damning number was the stat line of Georgia Tech’s most dynamic player, Jahmyr Gibbs, who finished with 10 carries for -10 yards. Regardless of anything else, when a player like Gibbs is handed the ball 10 times and comes up with negative yardage, something is broken in the game plan or scheme.
  • Defensively, they continued use of the 3-3-5 alignment that had worked well the previous two weeks against Clemson and UNC. Not the worst idea, but the 3-man front had considerable issues with creating pressure and holding down the Panthers’ run game. More concerning than the game plan here was the total lack of adjustment — there was no visible change during halftime or at any point in the game to more effectively slow down Pittsburgh’s attack. We know that the defense has practiced a 4-man front — it’s what they played against Northern Illinois and Kennesaw State. Why not try that to try and eliminate the run threat and help the secondary to just focus on the passing attack? Adding another player to the defensive line could have also helped to pressure Kenny Pickett and prevented receivers from ending up wide open several seconds after the snap.

The game plan was questionable at best, and no visible adjustments were made. Maybe there are excuses to be made surrounding health of the team, but the bottom line is that the team lost because the coaches didn’t put them in position to win. Jeff Sims had arguably the best passing performance we’ve seen from a Georgia Tech QB in 15 years, and the team got blown out anyways because of everything else that happened.

My Basketball Conference co-host Mike McDaniel reminded me in our Week 5 recap that this isn’t the first time there’s been an obvious game plan for Georgia Tech to follow, they strayed from it, and got blown out. (Again — running tempo against Clemson last year wasn’t the best idea.) It’s at the point where I sometimes begin to wonder if there’s some sort of hubris among this coaching staff that leads them to believe that the team is talented and well-coached enough that they can ignore their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, focusing only on what their own team normally does well. That’s not a smart way to approach coaching a team at any level, much less for a team that isn’t playing with an overwhelming talent advantage most weeks as their rivals in Athens do.

The Yellow Jackets travel to Durham this weekend for a matchup with a Duke team fresh off a blowout by their rivals from UNC. The Blue Devils will most likely focus on running the ball with Mataeo Durant on offense, and (similar to Pittsburgh) are much better at defending the run than the pass. Georgia Tech’s coaches would be wise to plan on trying to continue building Jeff Sims’ momentum in the passing game, and to focus on stopping the run defensively. Keep an eye out to see how they approach things in the first quarter, and if it’s not working, pay attention to see if there are in-game adjustments made to fix what’s ailing them.

Collins has now seen the Yellow Jackets through 27 games across 2.5 years, and (as Chris Paschal pointed out) through that whole time, they haven’t yet won back-to-back games once. Success has always been followed up with failure. That’s a tough pattern that this program is going to need to break. We need to see evidence that they can break that pattern before this season is over. It starts with effective game planning.

Get more of my thoughts on Georgia Tech’s loss to Pittsburgh, their upcoming matchup with Duke, and all of the other action across the ACC by subscribing to Basketball Conference: The ACC Football Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or anywhere else you normally find podcasts.