Thoughts on Georgia Tech's 22-16 win over No. 9 Florida State Saturday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Fourth and 6
Wide receiver Brad Stewart had not had a catch since the North Carolina game, but was called upon to make one of the biggest plays of the season on the fourth-and-6 from the 41-yard line with a little more than three minutes to play. Stewart ran a wheel route, running from the slot to the sideline and then turning upfield on safety Derwin James.
Quarterback Justin Thomas rolled to Stewart’s side and threw on target to him for a 36-yard gain despite linebacker Reggie Northrup closing in on Thomas as he released.
James, likely expecting Stewart to cut his route short (he was just about at the first-down marker as he ran out to the sideline), couldn’t keep up when he turned upfield, where he made an easy catch on the sideline and got out at the FSU 23.
It was near-perfect execution with the game on the line. Were Tech to come up short – errant pass, bad protection, drop, pass deflection – FSU would gain possession on the Tech 41-yard line with three minutes to play and a 16-13 lead. Just a few yards would put the Seminoles in range for a field goal that would have put FSU up 19-13. Plus, Tech had only one timeout left. It was shades of Tech’s fourth-and-15 conversion against Virginia Tech to stay alive in that game.
“Justin put it in there and he made a nice catch,” Johnson said. “A big catch for a freshman to make.”
Stewart, you’ll recall, was the last player added to the Tech 2015 signing class. Pretty good pickup.
Pass from the end zone
Another big play, lost a little bit in the shuffle, perhaps – Thomas’ conversion of a second-and-13 from the Tech 3-yard line with a 33-yard pass to Ricky Jeune throwing from the end zone. Tech was down 13-3 with less than four minutes to play before halftime. If Tech couldn’t dig out of its own end, the Jackets might be giving FSU the ball just inside midfield with a chance to go up 20-3.
The play didn’t start out well. Thomas rolled left, protection broke down and he had to dodge defensive end Giorgio Newberry to avoid a sack.
“I was thinking our pass protection wasn’t very good by the A-back and the B-back,” Johnson said. “We were max protecting and we’re still not very good at it and it puts (Thomas) in a bind sometimes. But when he’s in a bind, he’s got to make better decisions.”
Thomas extended the play, a decision that worked out when he found Jeune streaking across the field for a 33-yard gain. Two plays later, Thomas was running 60 yards to the end zone off an option play to cut the lead to 13-10. That's a pretty big shift in win probability. (The 60-yard dash was the longest run of the season against FSU by 34 yards and just the third run of 20 yards or more.)
“I think I had to make one guy miss and there was another guy standing right there,” Thomas said. “I had to make a play. I threw it to my receiver and I tell ’em, it’s them or nobody, especially coming out of our own end zone. I didn’t want to take a sack. I felt Ricky had won the route and I gave him a shot at it.”
Another big catch for Jeune, who in the past five games has 12 catches for 279 yards, a 23.3 yards-per-catch average.
How good a team is FSU?
I suspected that Tech would have a chance to stay in the game into the fourth quarter, if only because three of the Seminoles’ first four ACC opponents had done the same. While Tech has played a legitimately difficult schedule in its five-game losing streak – Notre Dame, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson and Pitt are now 31-3 – you couldn’t say the same of the Seminoles. Their first four ACC opponents have a combined record of 13-17 (after Saturday). You could have made a case before Saturday’s game (and certainly after it) that Tech was the best team the Seminoles had faced thus far.
Running back Dalvin Cook had roughed up Wake Forest, Miami and Louisville but had also been held in check by a very good Boston College defense (15 carries for 54 yards). The offensive line is inexperienced and had trouble protecting Everett Golson Saturday.
The Seminoles were giving a “living on the edge” vibe that may have finally caught up to them against a team that was playing with its hair on fire and catching and making breaks.
This isn’t to diminish the win or its significance. A 28-game conference winning streak doesn’t happen by accident. It's a loaded team. But, at the least, I'd rate Clemson a notch or two above FSU. The Seminoles are just lucky they're not in the Coastal. (See what I did there?)
That said, holding FSU to 70 rushing yards on 24 carries is a major accomplishment. Cook, regardless of what he did against Boston College, is a big-play threat. Further, the Jackets had been entirely inconsistent in stopping the run (as well as the pass). The past three opponents (North Carolina, Clemson and Pittsburgh) had run for 200 yards or more.
“We made a couple tweaks this week on the way we were playing and it helped out,” Johnson said.
The line and linebackers filled gaps. Ends KeShun Freeman and Roderick Rook-Chungong set the edge on stretch plays, stringing Cook out and not permitting him to turn upfield. The playmaking ability that had coaches so concerned – 13 run plays of 20 yards or more before Saturday, which was tied for most in the country going into this weekend – was muted. His long run was 17 yards. After that, he had runs of 6, 9, 11 and 12 yards. The remaining 12 carries were five yards or fewer and nine of them were for three yards or fewer.
Freeman finished with seven tackles in perhaps his best game of the season.
“The game plan for us was just to execute, dominate,” he said. “Do your job. We always say that. Dalvin Cook is an outstanding running back. But Coach (Ted Roof), he always tells us to do what you have to do. If you have to set the edge, set the edge. If you have to fit in B gap, fit in B gap. I think that’s what everyone did today. They did their job.”
Defensive tackle Adam Gotsis, in Johnson’s words, “played like a champion. He gave us what he had. He was pressuring the quarterback and playing the run.”
The Jamal Golden interception reminded me of a couple plays from last season. One, his interception in the end zone against Miami, which he caught close to the spot in the south end zone as he did his pick Saturday. Two, Quayshawn Nealy’s interception at the goal line against N.C. State, which he caught after cornerback Chris Milton kicked it in the air (inadvertently) to Nealy.
Golden’s interception off of FSU quarterback Everett Golson was kept alive when intended receiver Travis Rudolph appeared to bat it in the air after nickel back Lawrence Austin broke it up.
It was the product of execution, being in the right place and a little bit of luck. Tech hasn’t had a surplus of any of the three thus far this season. Golden’s interception is a little more remarkable considering who was on the field with him, including No. 4 cornerback Lance Austin, in because D.J. White and Step Durham were both injured. Safeties Corey Griffin and Shaun Kagawa were in with Golden (in the 3-2-5) because Demond Smith and A.J. Gray had both been sidelined.
One of the linebackers was first-year freshman Brant Mitchell. It was not an experienced bunch. Right before the snap, in fact, Golden had to shift Kagawa from the right side to the left, literally guiding him into the right spot.
Special teams performs
Special teams also held up quite well. Butker made all three field goals, including a 53-yarder in the first quarter that tied his career long, and put all five of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, negating FSU’s dangerous return game.
Ryan Rodwell averaged 38.3 on three punts and the punt team netted 38 yards with two fair catches. The kick return game again needed some more help. Mikell Lands-Davis returned a pooched kickoff in the second quarter out to midfield, but an illegal block brought it back. And, of course, the Jackets blocked a field goal.
How about this – the last time FSU had a field goal blocked was 2006. Rather timely.
Whiteouts continue to work out well. Tech is now 5-2 in whiteout games and the games haven’t been creampuffs. (wins: Miami in 2008, Clemson in 2009, Clemson in 2011, Miami in 2014 and the win Saturday over Florida State; losses: N.C. State in 2010 and Virginia Tech in 2013. I don’t believe there was a whiteout in 2012.)
I have to say, it does create a special environment, particularly when the games have been at night (which has been every one but 2010).
“The thing about it is, it’s like I told our guys all week: This is a great opportunity,” Johnson said. You can play your whole college career and not have a top-10 team play you at home. And in front of homecoming, a whiteout and all the things going, what a great opportunity.”
Simply, a remarkable game capped by a play that won’t be forgotten anytime soon by anyone who was inside Bobby Dodd Stadium. For fans who have stuck with this team through a rough patch, I imagine it was a moment to richly savor.
“It’s a blessing,” Austin said. “I’m just glad I got to be a part of it.”
Beating Florida State kind of changes the perspective a little bit, not to mention Miami getting torched by Clemson. Each game could go either way, but I can imagine the energy picking up in practice after the win. Johnson’s job won’t be to put new objectives and motivation in front of a team going through a disappointing season, but to challenge players to build on the momentum.
To qualify for a bowl and extend the streak to 19, Tech needs to win three out of five against Virginia, Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia. To extend the streak of conference records of .500 or better to 20 (at 19, it’s the longest active run in FBS), the Jackets need to sweep the Cavaliers, Hokies and Hurricanes.
Injuries are definitely a concern, as is the possibility of a hangover loss in Charlottesville, Va. But, if the Jackets can get through the Cavaliers, they’ll get a much needed open date before the final three-game run.
“It was very important just to win a game, get back on track,” Thomas said. “Our main goal was to win three. We’ve got three. Now we’ve got to get to four. We’ve got to go out and continue to play hard, how we’ve been playing, how we’ve been practicing. You just take it one game at a time.”