In the final frustrating game of Georgia Tech’s season, even the one thing that was working for the Yellow Jackets didn’t work quite well enough.
With Georgia defenders flowing with the pre-snap motion of Tech’s A-backs and also committing extra help to stop the B-back dive, the Bulldogs were vulnerable to counter plays against the expected direction of the play. The Jackets ran a counter off a fake toss at least six times, often with considerable success.
On the play, one A-back began his standard tail motion looping behind the quarterback. At the snap, quarterback Justin Thomas faked a toss to the motioning A-back before spinning and handing off to the opposite A-back running the other way.
It was effective because it sent an A-back speeding with the ball in the opposite direction of the Georgia defense, which was also jumping a linebacker into the gap where the Bulldogs expected a B-back dive on a triple-option play, but it also meant he couldn't chase down the A-back with the ball. Linebackers and safeties were also cheating in the same direction as the motioning A-back, leaving the backside side of the field more open.
Tech’s first two offensive plays of the game were identical counters off the fake toss, one to the left and the next to the right, and A-backs Clinton Lynch and Isiah Willis picked up 19 and 11 yards, respectively.
Coach Paul Johnson was prepared for it after the Jackets’ success last year in Athens (399 rushing yards).
“The B-backs gashed ’em last year so bad, I knew they’d do something,” Johnson said. “They would pop in a linebacker so they were losing the linebacker popping. The guy was getting washed down.”
Given the inconsistency of the offense, the Jackets could have well used a 40- or 50-yard play, or particularly a long touchdown, from the counter to ease the pressure of having to repeatedly churn our first downs. But it didn’t happen.
The counter off the fake toss has the potential to be a home-run play – Orwin Smith’s 95-yard touchdown run against Kansas in 2011 and Charles Perkins’ 63-yard run against Georgia Southern last season were off that fake-toss counter, for example. Tech’s longest gain of the day on any play was a 28-yard run by Lynch, on a counter option.
“It was kind of a jailbreak out there (on the fake-toss counter),” Johnson said. “But our two guys pulling, I don’t know if they ever blocked anybody.”
Johnson said that on one counter, two blockers led an A-back on one Georgia defender, “and their kid made a play.”
It was emblematic of Tech’s offensive struggles against the Bulldogs.
“We can’t seem to finish plays on offense,” he said. “We get in the clear, one block away or one whatever. I think three times I counted we drove down to the 30-yard line and we had guys with missed assignments, forget to go in motion – tail motion to catch the pitch – (or) block the read key on the option. I wish I could explain it. I guess it’s being young.”
The same reasoning might explain Tech’s final fumble numbers. Last year, Tech averaged one fumble for every 53.3 offensive plays or returns (special teams or defense). This season, the number was a fumble for every 23.2 offensive plays or returns. That’s a pretty staggering backslide, one that players or coaches seemed unable to stop. The rate, while the poorest for one season in Johnson's tenure, is closer to Tech’s fumble rates in Johnson’s tenure than the 2014 average.
For the sake of comparison, the rate was 49.3 in Johnson’s last year at Navy. This season, Navy is at 59.4 and, not surprisingly, 9-2.
Fumbles were costly again Saturday. On the opening drive of the second half, the Jackets appeared to have picked up a third-and-13 with a catch by Ricky Jeune from Thomas. Further, the catch had moved Tech into field-goal range for kicker Harrison Butker. But Jeune was stripped and Tech lost the ball.
Tech had two other fumbles. One preceded Jeune’s fumble – on a handoff on another fake toss counter to Lynn Griffin that killed the play and put Tech in second-and-11 – and the other was on Tech’s touchdown drive. If memory serves, it was a botched center-quarterback exchange that resulted in a two-yard loss and put the Jackets in position to try to convert the third-and-7 that ended with the debatable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty call against Georgia.
Ball security isn’t merely holding onto the ball more tightly, although that’s not a small part of it. It includes exchanging the ball safely, backs being in the right spot to accept it, the line giving the quarterback and backs enough space to handle the ball without interference from the defense and the quarterback making good decisions on whom to give the ball to and when.
It’s not unreasonable to think that the maturation of players like Jeune and B-back Marcus Marshall will improve the Jackets’ fumbling issues. But a critical look at how the fumbles happened and how they can be avoided going forward has to be on the to-do list.
Had Tech managed to avoid both turnovers Saturday – hardly an outrageous proposition, as neither turnover was the result of a superior play by Georgia – the Jackets would have been in position for, at the least, two field-goal tries by Harrison Butker. In a 13-7 game, six points probably could have come in handy.
Penalty on Ganus
Had Tech somehow stolen the game from Georgia on its final possession, the visitors from Athens would have been quite reasonably perturbed at the impact of the unsportsmanlike penalty called on linebacker Jake Ganus in the final result.
With Tech down 13-0 and driving late in the game, Thomas threw incomplete to Jeune from the Georgia 47-yard line. Ganus waved his arms, signaling an incomplete pass and was hit with the penalty. Rather than face fourth-and-7, Tech was set up with a first-and-10 on the Georgia 32. The Jackets were in the end zone two plays later on Jeune’s acrobatic catch for a 15-yard touchdown reception.
Defensive players waving their arms after an incomplete pass is commonplace and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it draw a penalty. Rather questionable call.
As it was, it helped Tech avoid a shutout, which would have snapped the Jackets’ 236-game streak without a shutout. In his 19 seasons as a head coach, Johnson had only been shut out once before, in his first season at Navy, 38-0 to Connecticut. Perhaps most remarkably, Tech’s last shutout at Grant Field was in 1957 (in a 7-0 loss to Georgia).
Tech linebacker P.J. Davis made a costly mistake in the third quarter when he hit a Georgia player with his hand or elbow after they got tied up in the third quarter. It’s difficult to tease out the impact of Davis’ absence, but the Jackets obviously could have used their leading tackler in the final quarter and a half. Johnson said he had no problem with the call.
“I was watching dead on it,” he said. “He punched a guy. I think the guy was probably holding him. I’m sure it was going back and forth and he’s the guy that got caught, but it was a valid call.”
Defense gives up yards, but not points
I mentioned in my story for myajc and the Sunday paper that the 13 points that Tech allowed was the fewest that Georgia has scored against the Jackets going back to the 1977 game (won 16-7 by Tech).
It is undoubtedly a reflection on Georgia’s offense, which had been held to 10 or fewer points three times previously this season, but not awful work by the Tech defense, which forced five punts and stopped the Bulldogs on downs once on 10 possessions. Also, beneficial field position created by special teams sometimes helped Tech. The 13-point effort is particularly worth noting as the Jackets were again without defensive tackle Adam Gotsis.
Georgia averaged a massive 6.8 yards per carry (a yard more than in last year's game) on the strength of a number of explosive plays, including running back Sony Michel’s 34-yard touchdown run, a 34-yard pass from Greyson Lambert to wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell on an absolute strike, a 33-yard run by Michel and the 25-yard pass from Lambert to tight end Jed Blazevich that got the Bulldogs out of trouble on their final possession.
There were too many missed tackles; though some might be expected against a team with superior athletes. Tech held Michel to three or fewer yards on 13 of his 24 carries, but a player with his speed, balance and quickness can’t be held down forever.
It was a lot of what the defense has shown this season - playing effective sometimes, and even often, but then sometimes lapsing with big plays allowed. But, again, 13 points is commendable.
“Disappointing, but it’s all stuff I think we can fix, (that I can fix). And I’m hellbent to get it fixed, I can tell you that. I’m not going to go through this again.”
On Thomas’ season: “I don’t think I was disappointed, because he’s a really tough kid. I don’t think he played as well as he played a year ago, but I’m not sure that’s all his fault. I think a year ago, he was surrounded by experienced senior players and this year he was surrounded by a bunch of young players. At times, there was six freshmen on the field on offense a lot. When Marcus (Marshall) is out there at B-back and you’ve got Clinton (Lynch) and Mikell (Lands-Davis) and some of those guys at A-back and two offensive tackles that are freshmen and the receiver’s a freshman (Brad Stewart), there’s a lot of freshmen out there that haven’t played, and I think instead of getting a lot of the support and help he got (in 2014), he was trying to direct and trying to help out. And we didn’t protect him very well, to say the least.”
Also: “He was under pressure a little bit. You’re not going to hit a lot of (passes). You’ve got to protect him better, give him a chance to set his feet. That’s one thing I can promise we’re going to be better at.”
"It’s been real special. I grew up a Georgia Tech fan. I followed the team back since the Calvin Johnson days, as far as I can remember. So it was really special for me to come stay in-state, go to my favorite school growing up, get a chance, not just to play but make plays on a big stage. Things didn’t go the way we wanted to this season, but the memories that we created these last four years, they’ll last a lifetime, and the relationships.” - cornerback D.J. White
“It just kind of sucks that it’s a bad taste in your mouth that you can’t really do anything about now. But it’s going to help me in life. Life’s not over just because this season’s over. You have to move on." safety Jamal Golden
Congratulations are in order
The day wasn't a total loss for Golden. After the game, Golden proposed to his girlfriend, who accepted.