With a fourth consecutive defeat riding on Georgia Tech’s back, the problems are so widespread it’s hard to know what to fix first.
It could be the rushing defense, which has allowed a 100-yard rusher for the third time in the past four games. It might be the pass defense, which has allowed its last four opponents to complete 67 percent of their passes, higher than Tech's 2014 rate against power-conference teams.
Another possibility is the vaunted Tech rushing attack, which failed at keeping Clemson out of the backfield, had a long run of 14 yards and scraped together 71 yards, the lowest total in coach Paul Johnson’s tenure. The Yellow Jackets’ passing game bore touchdown passes of 46 and 50 yards, but couldn’t do enough to take the heat off of the run game.
The focus on special teams lapses has been long snapper Sean Tobin, pulled from the game after a third errant snap in as many games, but in the past four games, the Jackets have returned 17 kickoffs that weren’t touchbacks, onside kick tries or pooched kicks. seven of the 17 have not gotten past the 20 and only three have reached the 30, and one of the three was fielded at the Tech 24-yard line.
“We really don’t have anywhere we can rely on,” Johnson said. “You can’t count on the offense, for sure. You can’t count on the defense, special teams either. So it’s really frustrating.”
The defense, counted on to progress with the accumulated experience of eight returning starters, was at its hot-and-cold best. Of 14 Clemson possessions, the Jackets got off the field in four plays or less six times. Clemson scored on seven of the other eight, the eighth being the Tigers’ fairly meaningless final possession, advancing the ball chunks of yardage at a time.
On 39 run plays, Tech held Clemson to 100 yards. On the other two, running backs Wayne Gallman and Zac Brooks ran untouched for touchdowns measuring 66 and 35 yards. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson completed 10 pass attempts in a row at one point and carved up the Jackets with five pass plays of 20 yards or more.
Undoubtedly, the Tigers deserve credit, but they also racked more yards Saturday (537) than they had all season. It was their highest total and highest yards-per-play average (7.3) against an ACC opponent since 2013. The opponent?
The same Jackets, who were incinerated in that game by Tajh Boyd on a Thursday night blowout.
Further, while part of the problem in the four-game losing streak is the quality of the opponent, three of those teams (Notre Dame, Duke and Clemson) enjoyed their highest yards-per-play average of the season against a power-conference team at the Jackets' expense.
Defensive tackle Adam Gotsis, who stood out amongst the wreckage with eight tackles and his first career touchdown, pinpointed the same problem that has plagued the Jackets through the four-game slide – players not following assignments.
“That’s everything,” he said. “Guys need to do their assignment. Handle your job and make a play when it’s there.”
Offensively, the problem remained the same – missed assignments, missed reads, ineffective blocking and a lack of playmakers. A unit loaded with freshmen often played like it. Center Freddie Burden described confusion on the offensive line with Clemson's blitzes and pre-snap shifts.
“It kind of messes up everybody,” he said. “That’s kind of what’s going on.”
An offense that espoused a goal of leading the nation in rushing for a second year in a row has averaged 179 yards in its four-game losing streak, a total that has more typically been a pretty good half.
It is a group that sorely misses guard Shaquille Mason and wide receiver DeAndre Smelter, both now drawing NFL paychecks, and the likes of A-backs Charles Perkins and Deon Hill and B-backs Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my coaching career, being as inept as we are on offense,” said Johnson, measuring a career that began in 1979.
And, again, the quality of opposition plays a factor. The Jackets' 24 points were the most that Clemson has allowed this season. They've also scored the most points that Duke (20) and North Carolina (31) have given up this season. And it is unquestionably a young group.
There were positives to take home. The two home-run pass plays. Three takeaways (two of them appeared to be unforced errors on Clemson's part). The drives where Tech's defense was effective. No fumbles on offense, arresting a troubling trend of 11 in the previous three games. The team didn't quit.
The problem does not seem to be on the practice field. Johnson said this past week that, with the exception of the week of the Notre Dame game, practices “haven’t been bad” – which for Johnson normally qualifies as praise. Starting poorly on the road would seem to be part of it. The Jackets have been outscored 45-6 in the first quarter of the three road defeats.
“I mean, this was just like the Duke game,” Johnson said. “We get behind 19-3 and we self-destruct right out of the box.”
Combined, Notre Dame, Duke and Clemson barely held an edge over the last three quarters 62-60. For a team that is reeling, perhaps the search for answers starts there.