Sometimes, things work as they ought. On Georgia Tech’s second possession against BYU on Saturday, the Yellow Jackets quickly moved from their 30 to the Cougars’ 19-yard line.
From there, quarterback Vad Lee executed a cleanly blocked option play in which right tackle Bryan Chamberlain sealed off a BYU end and left guard Trey Braun pulled and cut blocked a linebacker off his feet, leading to an 11-yard gain by A-back Deon Hill. On the next play, right guard Shaquille Mason and Chamberlain swung upon the left side of the BYU line to give B-back Zach Laskey a lane to charge for a 6-yard gain.
On second-and-goal, Tech stacked both tackles, Chamberlain and Will Jackson, on the right side. As Laskey thwarted a linebacker in a gap, Lee followed Jackson, who was busy directing a linebacker to the ground, for an easy touchdown.
“It was like, bang, bang,” offensive line coach Mike Sewak said. “Hey, that was easy. Why don’t you guys do that all the time? But the game’s more than three plays.”
It is perhaps the chief mystery of Tech’s frustrating three-game losing streak. Expected to be a linchpin, the offensive line has gone on a spree of inattentive penalties and offered play unbefitting its veteran status. The line has had a considerable hand in the Jackets’ aggravating slide to .500.
“They can do better, no question, and we’ve got to do better coaching,” coach Paul Johnson said.
Before the season, Johnson proclaimed that the offensive line, with three fifth-year seniors with a combined 83 starts, was “hands down, not even close” the best he had had at Tech. However, the Jackets averaged 3.9 yards per carry in losses to Virginia Tech and BYU. The line has not been able to keep Lee upright in the pocket and has been hit with 10 false-start penalties and an unthinkable offside penalty in the past three games after only one in the first three games.
“There are times when you look at it and you say, ‘That’s as good as I’ve seen it,’ and there are times you look at it and you say, ‘Dang, we’ve just taken two steps back,’ and it just frustrates you,” Sewak said.
Simple answers are hard to come by. At times, the Jackets line simply has failed to execute. The five-as-one teamwork necessary to play on the line has not always been evident. Calls made at the line have been incorrect. Inexperienced players thrust into the game to replace injured starters have not responded well.
Injuries have been a part of the problem. Center Jay Finch missed spring practice and much of the preseason recovering from shoulder surgery. Right tackle Morgan Bailey, who started seven games last season, had sports hernia surgery before the preseason and has played in only three games. Left tackle Ray Beno, who saw his 22-game streak as a starter end Saturday because of a foot injury, may be out considerably longer.
Beno’s injury required Jackson to move from left guard to left tackle, where he hasn’t played since last season, and Trey Braun made his first career start at left guard. The lack of stability hampers communication along the line, Sewak said.
That doesn’t explain the false starts, though. The line was hit with five against BYU.
“I think physically, we’re about as good a group as we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Jackson said. “It’s just a matter of getting out there and not making the mental errors like the offsides and the procedure penalties.”
The pass protection, too, has not met the standard, playing a role in Lee’s 33.3 percent completion percentage in the past three games.
It isn’t all disastrous. The option game has improved since the Virginia Tech game. And the Jackets may not see a defense as good as the three they’ve just faced for the rest of the season.
Still, Syracuse, Tech’s opponent Saturday, runs an aggressive, blitzing scheme. Unless the Jackets’ line can raise its play and handle the Orange, there’s little reason to expect them to stray from course.