By Gabriel Stovall
ATLANTA, Ga. — So the Georgia Tech national comeuppance campaign de-escalated rather quickly, didn’t it?
Wasn’t it just two weeks ago when this sportswriter joined the fray of local and national football, ahem, “experts” who were touting the Yellow Jackets as the college football darling of 2015?
Wasn’t it just that short of a time ago when we were anointing Paul Johnson’s crew as world beaters, starting with Notre Dame in front of Touchdown Jesus?
Yeah, it was. And, seemingly on cue, Tech laid a big fat egg on the grand stage and national television with everybody watching.
Okay. We could handle that, right? A 30-22 loss against one of college football’s marquee names in arguably the sports most famed and historic venue? That was manageable.
We fully expected Tech to bounce back against a not-as-good-as-in-recent-years Duke squad to open up ACC play.
Except they didn’t. The 34-20 loss to the Blue Devils hurt worse than the Notre Dame debacle, because it conjured up all those old ghosts with those old talking points about why Paul Johnson and his offense and his program will never battle consistently with the big boys of college football.
At least if Tech followed up the Notre Dame game with a win — no matter how ugly — on the road to open up conference play, we might not be able to talk playoffs, but we would still be relatively safe in thinking of conference title aspirations.
Alas, it was not to be. Duke made quarterback Justin Thomas look almost as bad in the passing game as Notre Dame did. In the two losses, Thomas as completed just 30 percent of his passes (14 of 46) for 264 yards.
Now nobody is expecting Thomas to be Fran Tarkenton out there, but — as oxymoronic as it may sound — the true heft in Tech’s offense is having a quarterback who is able to be big-play efficient when he does get called on to throw the ball.
The Jackets came into the Duke game averaging over seven rushing yards per carry. They could only manage just over two against Duke. Throw in a combined 8-of-34 on third downs over the last two games, and you get very punchless offense — one that is the exact antithesis to the mighty machine that plowed through Alcorn State and Tulane.
And maybe that last statement unearthed the problem. Perhaps Alcorn State and Tulane gave us all an exaggerated sense of confidence in the heft and strength of this offense. Maybe those two cream puff appetizers combined with the impressive way Tech finished the 2014 season set us up for the okie doke.
Whatever the case, re-hashing the junk of the past two games means nothing now. It’s time to look ahead. Here are five ways Georgia Tech can reclaim its strength, starting Saturday against North Carolina.
RECLAIM IT’s OFFENSIVE PUNCH UP FRONT: Georgia Tech still has plenty of offensive weapons to redeem its most recent pair of putrid performances. B-Backs Patrick Skov and Marcus Marshall are still potent. A-Backs Broderick Snoddy, Marcus Allen and Isiah Willis still know how to find open space and create big plays. And Qua Searcy is still a big play threat waiting to happen. But more consistent offensive line play is a most. All of the backfield speed and talent in the world means nothing if the line is not creating push at the line of scrimmage and making running lanes for Tech’s backfield speed to run through.
EXECUTE 3rd DOWN: Because it is highly unlikely that quarterback Justin Thomas is going to torch anyone’s secondary for 300-plus yard passing games, 3rd-and-long situations must be limited. Of the 19 third downs Tech faced last week against Duke, 13 of them were 3rd and 5 or longer. That’s a no-no for an option offense. But Tech even struggled last week to convert 3rd and short opportunities. Winning first and second downs this week will be critical for an offense looking to find its way again. And when third downs do come, Thomas and company have to find a way to be consistent in conquering them.
FIND CONSISTENT PLAYMAKERS: I just rattled off the list of potentially big time playmakers for this Tech offense. But here’s the problem: Perhaps with the exception of Skov and Snoddy, the potential has only been seen in flashes. The result of that is a quarterback who too often feels pressed to force the issue which leads to big and costly turnovers.
EARLY SUCCESS IN THE PASSING GAME: And by “early,” I’m not just talking about early in the game, but early in each offensive series. In the first half, Tech only dialed up passing plays on early and/or short downs twice. And here are the results: A 30-yard completion to Ricky Jenue on a 1st and 10, and a 35-yarder to Clinton Lynch on a 2nd and 2 play. Then, inexplicably, Tech didn’t return to early-down passing until it was down by two scores and airing it out became obvious. Just because you’re an option running team doesn’t mean that you shelve the passing game until long or late down and distance situations or when you’re trying to mount a furious comeback. Early passing success sets up continuous run game success.
LIMIT TURNOVERS: No brainer, right? Last week Tech actually out-yarded Duke to the tune of 316 to 279 total yards, and it also won the turnover battle 2-to-3. But it’s not always about the amount of turnovers, but when and where they happen that can prove detrimental. And then it’s those near-miss turnovers that, though Tech keeps possession by recovering its own fumble or wayward pitch, such miscues stunt drives before they get a chance to get going. By nature, the option is a very risk-reward based offense. And some foibles are to be expected. But being able to hold on to the ball in key situations that keep scoring drives alive, or, if nothing else, gives your defense a chance to breathe, are crucial for the Jackets’ offensive success.