1. Two years ago, Georgia Tech crashed and burned against Miami, letting a 17-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate and then coming up short on a busted play in overtime on fourth-and-1 on the 2-yard line. The result was a 42-36 overtime defeat, Tech’s second overtime loss in its first four games.
I noted Friday that, a couple days after that devastating loss, coach Paul Johnson observed that the team was just a couple plays away from being 4-0 and at the same time far away because “we haven’t done the little things to make it happen.”
Saturday night: Tech faced a fourth-and-2 from the Miami 8-yard line with just under 12 minutes to play. Tech led 21-17. In the huddle during a timeout, Johnson called the team’s most staple play, the triple option.
“Coach got in the huddle, he was like, We’ve been doing this since day one,” quarterback Justin Thomas said. “It was nothing new.”
Saturday, on the same end of the field where Tech busted on fourth-and-1 two years earlier, in a play going the same direction (right), Thomas made the correct read, pulling the ball out of his mesh with B-back Zach Laskey and pitching it to A-back Deon Hill, who dashed into the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown that started to put the wraps on Tech’s cathartic 28-17 win over the Hurricanes.
With it, Miami’s five-game winning streak against the Jackets – a degree of uninterrupted success against a Johnson-coached team matched only by Georgia in its present run – ended Saturday. It was Tech’s first win in the series since it beat the Hurricanes in 2008 under similar circumstances to Saturday's– at Bobby Dodd Stadium before a white-out crowd with an extra week’s rest in a prime-time matchup.
Tech wakes up Sunday morning one of just nine 5-0 teams in the country, only the third time since 1966 that it has won its first five. In the past two games, the Jackets have evened scores against two of their biggest tormentors during Johnson’s tenure, Virginia Tech and Miami. They’ve won two games on their final possession.
The playmaking ability of quarterback Justin Thomas and the margin for error that he creates are undeniable, but Tech’s 5-0 standing also has its foundation in those little things being done right, the sorts of details that have escaped attention frequently enough in recent years to have led to unsatisfying seasons.
Saturday, it was center Freddie Burden and others reaching Miami linebacker Denzel Perryman often enough to prevent him from dominating the game. Tech not turning the ball over or fumbling in 72 offensive snaps. The kick return unit having its best game. Film study from an extra week of preparation unlocking clues to the Miami passing game. Thomas making the right reads on the triple option. Nine conversions of 14 third downs.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Johnson said. “That was a huge win.”
Said Miami coach Al Golden, “I thought they played a (heck) of a ballgame.”
2. A strong performance by Laskey – a career-high 29 carries for 133 yards, tying his career high. Laskey ran tough up the middle on a steady diet of triple-option gives to keep down-and-distance manageable. This kind of defines Laskey’s night – he only had one run longer than nine yards, a 17-yarder, but he had no run for less than two yards.
“Laskey was gaining too many yards inside, falling forward too many times,” Golden said.
Said Johnson, “They were hitting big plays and we were six-and-eight-yarding them to death.”
It’s the best rushing total for a B-back since Preston Lyons ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the 2011 Sun Bowl loss to Utah.
3. Another solid game for punter Ryan Rodwell. He had three kicks that netted 37.0 yards. He angled his last punt that sailed out of bounds probably a little sooner than he thought, but still put Miami on its 16-yard line for its final possession of the game. He also had the fake punt run for a first down, a 10-yard run in which he actually broke two tackles to convert the fourth down.
“You know, Rodwell looked like a tailback when he took off with that thing,” Johnson said.
Good work by special-teams coordinator Ray Rychleski to set the play up. The drive didn’t result in a score – Rodwell punted later – but it helped burn off more time and flip field position. Rather than having time to end the half with a go-ahead score, Miami got the ball back with 29 seconds left at its 13-yard line and ran Duke Johnson once to end the half. Tech got the ball to open the second half, drove for a touchdown to break the 14-all tie and never trailed again.
4. Special teams as a whole took a step forward, particularly the kickoff return game. Tech had two kickoffs that it ran back, both by Jamal Golden, which reached the Tech 38- and 31-yard lines. Through the first four games, of the 15 kickoffs that were returned by Tech, only three had made it to the 30-yard line, which is the team goal for each return. Johnson called the return team “horrendous,” and Rychleski spent extra time during the open week improving the unit.
“Coach Ray really pushed on that going into the off week and worked kick return really hard, and you could tell that we’d been working on it because the seams opened up a little more, and I feel we’ll continue to get better,” Golden said.
Kicker Harrison Butker had two touchbacks on five kickoffs. The other three were brought back to the Miami 41-, 19- and 25-yard lines. Anthony Harrell made a nice play on the second of those three returns.
5. Tech had a no-turnover, no-fumble, no-interception game, its third game this season without a turnover. In the past four games against Miami, the Jackets had two (2010), three (2011), zero (2012) and three (2013) turnovers.
Tech also has five fumbles in five games, which is no small development.
From 2008 to 2013, Johnson’s first five seasons, Tech fumbled the ball 200 times over those 80 games, the most balls put on the ground by any team in FBS. It stands to reason to a degree, as Tech’s offense is run-heavy and requires a lot of ball-handling. Players like Thomas and backup quarterback Tim Byerly, center Freddie Burden and B-back Zach Laskey worked extensively over the summer to improve snaps and meshes. It would appear that the work is paying off.
6. Miami’s first three possessions – touchdown, punt, touchdown. In that span, the Hurricanes averaged an even 12 yards a play, including Duke Johnson’s 24-yard touchdown run to end the first quarter in which he outran the left side of the Jackets defense to the pylon. It was a bit of what defensive coordinator Ted Roof was concerned about. Miami had come into the game having scored 50 of its 148 points in the first quarter as teams tried to adjust to the Hurricanes’ speed.
Tech figured something out. The final five possessions – interception, halftime, field goal, punt, interception. The Hurricanes’ yards-per-play rate for those drives was 6.5.
Overall, tackling was better, particularly after the first three drives. Quarterback Brad Kaaya hurt the Jackets with 245 passing yards in just 25 attempts, but was intercepted twice. Tech came up with two big turnovers, the interceptions by safeties Isaiah Johnson and Golden, both well inside Tech territory. Both Johnson and Golden said they knew where Kaaya was going with the ball from film study.
“We tweak some things week to week, but it’s just a matter of overlapping each other with great effort,” Golden said. “(If) one person busts and you’ve got 10 other guys running to the ball, you kind of don’t notice the bust. It’s not that we’re doing anything different, we’re just playing better.”
To that end, Golden and Johnson, who had been shaking off rust in their first four games after injuries curtailed their 2013 seasons, played markedly better Saturday.
7. The Jackets also proved resilient on the two instances when replay overturned plays that were ruled turnovers on the field – Quayshawn Nealy’s forced fumble that appeared to give Tech the ball inside its red zone in the third quarter that was changed to an incomplete pass and Patrick Gamble’s forced fumble of Duke Johnson in the fourth quarter that was ruled to be no fumble since Johnson’s knee had touched the ground before the ball came loose.
Both situations could have been deflating, particularly Nealy’s non-fumble, which returned the ball to Miami on Tech’s 12-yard line. However, on the ensuing third-and-7, nickel back Demond Smith led the charge to wrap up Stacey Coley short of the first-down marker to force a field-goal try.
After the Duke Johnson non-fumble, when Miami was trying to rally down 28-17, Kaaya threw incomplete on second down and was sacked on a blitz by Paul Davis on third down, forcing a punt.
Said Laskey, “This team knows how to respond to adversity. Every time we need a big stop on defense, the defense comes up with it.”
8. The time of possession – 40:45. It’s the seventh highest possession time in Tech’s record books. More to the point, the game was basically seven possessions. Both teams had eight, but Miami killed the end of the first half with one and Tech ended the game with the last of its eight. With its time-consuming possessions, Miami only had four possessions over the final three quarters.
By way of comparison, N.C. State and Clemson both had 13 possessions Saturday. Texas A&M had 16 in its loss to Mississippi State. Mississippi State had 13 legitimate possessions (the difference is due to a fumbled punt, a recovered onside kick and a game-ending kneel-down).
“How do you neutralize (Miami’s team speed)?” Johnson asked. “You hold the ball for 40 minutes, 45 seconds and they don’t get it and they’re not out there. That’s the best way to play a team like that, is to keep them off the field.”
This is kind of interesting, and I’ll preface it by saying that I’m not making the argument that Tech is the superior of Mississippi State. In upsetting Texas A&M, the Bulldogs racked up 48 points, 559 yards of offense and 7.3 yards per play. But, in perhaps the truest measure of offensive efficiency, Mississippi State averaged 3.7 points per possession. Tech’s offensive numbers, 28 points, 371 yards of offense, 5.2 yards per play. But, 4.0 points per possession.
9. Time to pump the brakes. After the game, Miami coach Al Golden had no shortage of legitimate reasons why the Hurricanes lost. Miami let Tech convert a third-and-16 and the fourth-and-2 on the 8-yard line on the same drive. Two interceptions well inside Tech territory, one in the red zone. Kicking a field goal on another red-zone possession. Miami was 1-for-5 on third downs. I’ve heard Johnson rue lost opportunities in a similar way after Tech losses.
In the same way that Tech has come up a couple plays short against Miami in recent years, so the same could be said for the Hurricanes on Saturday.
And how impressive is a win over Miami, the emotional value aside? That answer won’t be known until the end of the year. Right now, the Hurricanes are 50th after Saturday in the Sagarin ratings. (Tech is No. 44, between Cal and Penn State. Virginia Tech is No. 34.)
After the game, as my colleague Matt Winkeljohn and Mike DeGeorge, an assistant director in the communications office, hashed out the evening in the press box, Matt offered this insight, that the win meant far more internally than it does externally, which makes some sense to me. I don’t think Tech will make either top 25 on Sunday, because the Jackets, while 5-0, don’t have a win that will really sway voters, nor have either of their conference wins been decisive. Further, nobody cringes in fear over the ACC Coastal Division.
Rankings should matter little, though. The Jackets have won all the games they’ve played, and they continue to get better. If you remember the 6-0 start in 2011, it was not quite the reverse, but was not quite like this. The team’s most impressive win in the streak was the 66-24 torching of Kansas in game 3, but the team showed signs of lessened focus in the fifth and sixth wins of the streak, wins over N.C. State and Maryland.
Remember that Tech isn’t blowing opponents off the field. It had to play its best game of the year to beat Miami, and that was with extra rest and preparation, at home before a frenzied crowd and no shortage of motivation.
Said Johnson, “We played about the way we needed to play to win the game.”
Duke could be another test, and the Jackets likely don’t want to find out what can happen if they’re sloppy with the ball or lack focus, or if Duke quarterback Anthony Boone is more precise than Kaaya or Virginia Tech’s Michael Brewer.
They’ll have to find a way. After five games, that, at least, is something they’ve shown they can do.