The one main takeaway from Georgia Tech’s loss to North Carolina is obvious – the Yellow Jackets are not a good football team after five games.
There is nothing that they can identify as a consistent strength, not their typically powerful running game, not their dynamic quarterback, not the mistake-prone special teams and not the defense with eight returning starters.
“We need contributions from everybody,” coach Paul Johnson said following the Yellow Jackets’ 38-31 loss to North Carolina Saturday. “There’s no one group that’s good enough to carry the other side.”
Each facet had moments or stretches where it met the challenge. Springing the no-huddle look on the Tar Heels, the offense chugged down the field on its first three possessions, amassing yards, converting two fourth downs and hanging a 21-0 lead on North Carolina. Besides forcing punts on the first two possessions, the defense earned a critical stop in the fourth quarter after the Tech offense had been denied on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
After that exchange of possession, defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s unit changed the momentum again with a three-and-out, punctuated by linebackers Tyler Marcordes and Brant Mitchell bringing down running back Elijah Hood in the backfield on third-and-1.
Kicker Harrison Butker had four touchbacks on five kickoffs and made his only field-goal try of the day, a clutch make from 37 yards late in the fourth quarter to keep the Jackets’ hopes flickering.
But the Jackets had too much to overcome. Tech fumbled the ball four times, losing it once. The offense was up and down after its third possession and was stopped on a critical fourth-and-1 situation for the second week in a row.
A risk-reward decision late in the second quarter backfired and, after a fumbled punt snap, enabled North Carolina to get the ball back with a short field and enough time close to within 21-14 with seconds remaining in the half. B-back Patrick Skov failed to produce a gain longer than nine yards, and the team’s longest run was 20 yards, indicating again trouble with blocking past the line of scrimmage.
The Jackets could not keep North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams hemmed in, enabling him to run for 148 yards and two touchdowns. The pass defense, with not much pressure on Williams, especially so after tackle Adam Gotsis' targeting disqualification, gave up three pass plays of 25 yards or longer. One of them was the 37-yard gadget pass to Williams himself, which was not a result of poor pass rush, but perhaps either a shortcoming in preparation or a failure to stick with an assignment. The defense failed to procure a takeaway for the first time since the ACC championship game last year.
Injuries have taken a toll on depth. The offensive is laden with freshman skill players. The losing streak has expanded to three games, matching the longest under Johnson.
“It’s not a good feeling,” quarterback Justin Thomas said. “We’ve got to put it behind us and get ready for next week.”
Williams haunts Jackets again
Tech has proven spectacularly unable to slow down Williams. A year ago, he stacked up 38 pass completions and gouged the Jackets for 463 yards of total offense, second most ever for a Tech opponent.
Saturday, Williams gained more rushing yards against Tech than any quarterback since Clemson’s Woodrow Dantzler gashed the Jackets for 164 in 2001. His 37-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter from wide receiver Quinshad Davis gave North Carolina its first lead of the game.
“(Guard Landon Turner) and them were getting guys on the ground,” Williams told North Carolina’s website. “My thing is, I’m matched up with a safety and I always say, ‘One guy won’t bring me down.’ I just had to find ways to make the safety miss and I can keep going.”
On his game-breaking 27-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-5 with five minutes to play and UNC up 31-28, even that wasn’t necessary. North Carolina caught Tech bringing seven – all four linemen, linebackers Tyler Marcordes and P.J. Davis and safety Jamal Golden – who were all walled off and negated by Turner and right tackle Jon Heck.
Lined up on the left side, defensive end KeShun Freeman stayed wide with running back Elijah Hood to defend the pitch and Williams accelerated through the gap and didn’t slow down until he reached the end zone.
I wrote last week that Duke safety Jeremy Cash had taken his place among notable Tech killers. He’ll have to make room for Williams, who has wrecked the Jackets two years running. (He’s a senior.)
Could have been
The third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal plays that Thomas was unable to get into the end zone on in the fourth quarter might have been an ideal spot for Tim Byerly, who proved himself quite effective at powering his way through the line in such situations.
Byerly, of course, is out for the season with a knee injury. A touchdown would have raised Tech’s lead to 35-24 early in the fourth quarter. The “what if” injury game, though, is a little specious.
Most effective blocker
It should be noted that Chris Milton recorded his seventh career kick block when he deflected a North Carolina punt early in the second quarter. He is the leading kick blocker among active players and it would appear he can be considered Tech’s all-time leader.
The NCAA’s list of career leaders extends down to players with seven blocks, and the list doesn’t contain any Tech players. (Tech’s media guide doesn’t list a record holder for career blocked kicks.) Regardless, it’s a considerable achievement and shouldn’t be overlooked.
A game-changing 1:29
On the drive that began with 1:29 remaining in the first half after North Carolina had cut the lead to 21-7, Johnson said he was trying to make a first down. (North Carolina had all three timeouts remaining.)
Thomas threw incomplete on a play-action pass to A-back Clinton Lynch on first down. Lynch was open, but Thomas overthrew him, stopping the clock at 1:22. On second down, Tech had a quarterback draw, but the play was not run as drawn up; Thomas bounced to the outside and was taken down for a loss of four yards. North Carolina called timeout with 1:11. The Jackets now faced third-and-14. A run play would force the Tar Heels to burn a second timeout, but likely wouldn't gain a first down. Thomas threw incomplete to Ricky Jeune for a pass that, had it been completed, would not have converted the third down. Tech punted with 1:04 remaining, having taken off 25 seconds.
After that, you likely remember, punter Ryan Rodwell failed to cleanly catch a low snap but rather remarkably got off a punt to the Tech 44. The Tar Heels had 56 seconds and only needed 52 to get in the end zone to cut the score to 21-14.
Said Johnson, “Hindsight’s 20/20.”
Tech won the Coastal last year with losses to Duke and North Carolina, but it doesn’t feel like it’s in the cards again, not with Clemson and Florida State, as well as four other division opponents remaining.
I don’t think it’s quite time to cancel the rest of the season, although the Jackets’ road home is not quite rising to meet them.
Clemson: Jackets have lost past three at Death Valley and will almost certainly be heavy underdogs.
Pittsburgh: In a 17-13 win over Virginia Tech, limited the Hokies to 9 rushing yards.
Florida State: Winning a little sloppy, but undefeated and running back Dalvin Cook averages 143 yards per game.
Virginia: Not a very good team, but neither is Tech right now, and it’ll be a road game for the Jackets.
Virginia Tech: Also look shaky, but Hokies have won four of five against the Jackets.
Miami: A hard-to-read team, or perhaps just not a good team, but Hurricanes have also been problematic for Tech, especially at Miami.
Georgia: You think the Bulldogs might be motivated for this game?
Given the inconsistency that the team has shown through five games, it’s hard to picture them having outsized success throughout this lineup. On the other hand, I think it’ll go better than the more glum elements of the Tech fan base may be projecting at this moment.
All that said, the bowl streak, tied with Georgia for third longest active streak at 18 games, is in a little jeopardy. Tech also has a lesser-known streak of consecutive seasons with a .500 record or better in conference play (20), which is the longest active streak in the country. At 0-2 in the league with the two estimable crossover games remaining, there’s a bit of meat left on that bone, as well.
The Jackets are in the unpleasant spot of having to re-gather themselves again and try to continue to improve when the collective will is, at the least, being tested.
“The first thing we have to do is make an adjustment of goals, and that’s always very disappointing, but it’s definitely not something that we can let put this team in the ground,” guard Trey Braun said. “There’s a lot of season left and I know all of my peers on the football team, all my brothers there, I know we don’t have any give-up in us.”