1. Maybe it’s always this way when a team gets on a roll the way Georgia Southern did in the second half. Or at least it’s sometimes this way. But, broken into single plays, it wasn’t as though the Eagles were dominating Georgia Tech 11 players at a time for the whole second half. Often, it was one missed assignment or a bad angle that kept the ball rolling for Georgia Southern.
For instance, early in the fourth quarter, Georgia Southern started with the ball on its six-yard line. On the first play, running back Devin Scott took a pitch and was about to be wrapped up by linebacker Quayshawn Nealy at the 6, but spun away for a 20-yard gain. Second-and-10 on the 6 turned into first-and-10 on the 26.
Later on in the same series, Georgia Southern had a third-and-5 on its 31. Quarterback Kevin Ellison dropped back and stepped up. Nealy appeared to be mirroring him, but took a bad angle when Ellison tucked and ran the ball, missing the tackle. The error was compounded when two more Jackets failed to bring him down, resulting in a 25-yard run and a first down. A better angle by Nealy, and Georgia Southern would have had to punt.
“They do have elusive backs, and we didn’t have a good base and (that) caused us to reach to make tackles and we missed ’em,” Nealy said.
On the same drive, Ellison threw a wheel route to running back Matt Breida for another 28 yards as middle linebacker Paul Davis wasn’t able to track him well coming out of the backfield. On first-and-10 from the 11, linebacker Tyler Marcordes was overpowered at the point of attack by a right guard he gave up 75 pounds to, leading to an easy 11-yard touchdown run for running back L.A. Ramsby.
That was the score that gave Georgia Southern its first lead with 10:46 to play in the game.
On the ensuing drive, B-back Zach Laskey was limited to three yards on a second-down dive when center Freddie Burden couldn’t get enough of nose tackle Jay Ellison. On the third-down play, left guard Shamire Devine appeared to not handle a blitz pickup properly and right tackle Chris Griffin and Laskey were beaten by end Quaun Daniels, flushing Thomas out of the pocket and forcing an incompletion and another punt.
“The second half, we laid a dud,” Laskey said. “I kind of felt like we didn’t come out with the same type of intensity and Southern did. They wanted the game and we came out there and we just weren’t as intense as they were. They just came out and they kicked our butts.”
Intermixed with these busted plays were plays like a three-yard tackle for loss by safety Jamal Golden and an 11-yard run by Thomas. The first play of the fourth quarter was a conversion of a second-and-20 when Thomas threaded a pass to Laskey for a 24-yard gain. At some point in the game - the final box does not indicate where and my memory fails - Nealy perfectly timed his jump to knock down a pass at the line of scrimmage.
Not every play was a disaster. There were moments it appeared the tide was being stemmed and other moments it easily could have been. But, on the whole, it was like watching a snowball roll down the hill. The Eagles averaged 6.2 yards per play in the first half, 3.1 if the 69-yard touchdown run by Breida were taken out. In the second half, Georgia Southern piled up 398 yards in the second half, averaging 10.2 yards per play.
Offensively, Tech stomped on Georgia Southern in the first half, cranking out 385 yards on 47 plays, 8.2 yards per play. The Jackets were six for eight on third downs. After halftime and up until the game-winning drive, Tech gained 79 yards on 19 plays, 4.2 yards per play. The Jackets were 0-for-4 on third downs in the second half until the final drive.
“Take nothing away from them,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I think they’ve got a good team. But we helped them a lot in the second half.”
2. It was almost the exact opposite in the first half. On the game’s first play, Burden walled off Ellison on A-back Charles Perkins’ counter run that went for 63 yards (the same play that Orwin Smith ran for 95 yards on the first play against Kansas in 2011). Laskey and guard Shaquille Mason cleared a wide path for Thomas on the game’s opening score, an eight-yard run.
Golden made a solid open-field tackle on Georgia Southern’s opening drive to force a no-gain on 3rd-and-1. Nose tackle Shawn Green’s penetration on a second-and-5 in the second quarter killed a run play that Nealy cleaned up. On the next play, Gotsis blew up his block on third-and-3 for a three-yard tackle for loss, forcing a three-and-out.
Also in the second, Griffin provided enough protection for Thomas against end Lennie Richardson for Thomas to drive a 22-yard pass to DeAndre Smelter on a 3rd-and-22 in the second quarter, a play that led to the Jackets’ fourth touchdown of the game.
“I think I would probably say the intensity probably went down a little bit,” Thomas said. “We get up like that, we’ve got to keep it going because we don’t want to give them a chance or opportunity to come back and regain the momentum.”
3. Regardless of intensity issues, the defense was trampled, and the big plays are a growing cause for concern. Tech gave up a 92-yard touchdown run in the first game, a 61-yard touchdown pass in the second game and then a 69-yard touchdown run and a 68-yard touchdown pass Saturday. Tech gave up two plays of 60 yards or more all last season. And it’s not like Tech just got through the meat of its schedule.
They can be explained away – the 69-yard touchdown was the result of two players (KeShun Freeman and Marcordes) both taking the quarterback and neither taking Breida and safety Isaiah Johnson underestimating Breida’s speed and taking a bad angle. On the 68-yard touchdown pass, Ellison threw a strike to B.J. Johnson, a pass he scarcely could have handed to him any better. With another half step and a better-timed jump, cornerback D.J. White could have broken up the play.
But it would probably be inaccurate to call these plays the product of dumb luck.
4. That said, this is a young defense. The pass rush is not great. As ironic as it may sound, Tech is not a very strong option defense and may be better off against conventional offenses. Further, it’s not like many people were projecting this group to be superior. The loss of talent from last year’s team was immense. Perhaps it’s just a group that by the end of the season could be decent, and right now is taking the scenic route to getting there.
And, it bears mention, it’s the same defense that shut out Tulane over the final 39 minutes and handled Georgia Southern for the first half. The truth about this defense, and team, for that matter, is still out there to be determined, I’d think. (Spoiler: The truth may be better than you think, but it also might be exactly what you think.)
5. Thomas, it perhaps goes without saying, could be a special player. With his speed and quickness, he made plays for himself, not the least of which was his game-winning 13-yard touchdown pass to Deon Hill. His 33-yard run in the first half – it was a run around the right end – was not blocked particularly well, but he used his speed to turn it into a big gain.
When he’s in rhythm and comfortable, he can be an accurate passer. He completed seven of his first eight passes – seven in a row, in fact – for 131 yards and three touchdowns. He went dry after that – 3 for his next 15 – before finding Hill on the game-winner.
Mike DeGeorge in the communications office (it used to be sports information) provided this nugget, whose multiple implications you can ponder – it was Tech’s first fourth-quarter comeback in a win since the Wake Forest game in 2010. And the circumstances – Tech seemingly dead in the water offensively and about to be counted out against a supposedly inferior opponent – raised the stakes even more for Thomas and the offense.
Said Johnson, “I think he’s just going to get better.”
6. As badly as Tech fans may feel about this team after three games – or, if not badly, then at least uncertain – consider this: Who is there to fear in the Coastal Division?
Virginia Tech did beat Ohio State last week, but it also lost to East Carolina Saturday. Miami has already lost to Louisville, which lost Saturday to supposedly awful Virginia, and the Hurricanes have to play Florida State. North Carolina is 2-0, but barely snuck past San Diego State and will face Tech after a run of East Carolina-Clemson-Virginia Tech-Notre Dame. Duke is 3-0 and rolled Kansas Saturday, but is thin. The best team in the division might be Pittsburgh, also 3-0 after falling behind 16-0 to FIU Saturday and then winning 42-25. The division would appear as wide open as predicted before the season.
7. I’m not sure what a poll of Tech fans would say after Saturday, but Tech-Georgia Southern II may be in the works. Officials from both schools have been talking about scheduling a second game between the two teams for 2016. Georgia, Vanderbilt and Mercer are already on the schedule for that season. It would be another guarantee game.