1. Georgia Tech is now 7-2 overall and 4-2 in the ACC. I’m wondering if it’s reasonable to declare this season a success, based on preseason expectations. If memory serves, I think I said I thought this team would win seven or eight games, although I left a little wiggle room and added that nine wins was a possibility.
On various message boards, and among posters on this blog, I saw predictions that were both more and less optimistic than mine. Clearly, the most dire forecasts have been surpassed. Tech will go to a bowl game. The streak of seasons with a .500 record or better in conference play will extend to 20, the longest active streak in the country. The Jackets have beaten two of their most troublesome rivals, Miami and Virginia Tech (while, of course, falling to teams they’ve fairly owned, Duke and North Carolina). It has done so with a team that, given clear question marks going into the season, was not expected to do that much.
The team was picked to finish fifth in the Coastal in the preseason media poll, although Tech has invariably outperformed that poll. A website that claimed it ran 50,000 simulations of the season projected the Jackets to win 6.1 games and put the over/under at 6.5, a number I saw on two other betting sites.
A win over N.C. State next Saturday, hardly an impossibility, would be the eighth win. For better or worse, that would be as many as Tech has had in a season since the 2009 ACC championship season, more than the Jackets attained than in all but one of Chan Gailey’s six seasons and a total exceeded twice in George O’Leary in seven seasons. (O’Leary’s teams only played one 12-game regular season, in 2001. The 12-game season was instituted in 2006.)
It can certainly be looked at in other ways – the defense has taken a step back (at least until Saturday), the Coastal Division is weak, three of the wins were against either FCS or non-power conference teams.
Further, expectations were re-evaluated after the 5-0 start, but, by the same token, I imagine a lot of those expectations were re-evaluated again after the losses to Duke and North Carolina. Regardless, I think it’s fair to say that this team has exceeded most preseason expectations. I suppose reasonable people could disagree on whether or not that constitutes a success.
2. It is difficult for me to grasp how much better Tech’s defense played Saturday compared to the rest of the season as a whole but the past two weeks in particular. Gaps were filled. Tackles were made. Blitzes got home. Receivers were covered more closely. Third downs were left unconverted. Blocks were defeated.
“We did a pretty good job all day of challenging their receivers,” coach Paul Johnson said. “They got behind us some, but they didn’t complete ’em. But at least we didn’t give them easy throws and even though we didn’t get many sacks, we got pretty good pressure when we did bring blitzes.”
A play that demonstrated this was free safety Jamal Golden’s third-quarter interception in the end zone. It was fourth-and-8 from the Tech 10-yard line. Tech sent two blitzers, linebackers P.J. Davis and Quayshawn Nealy, at quarterback Greyson Lambert. It left five Tech defensive backs defending four receivers.
The blitz wasn’t the greatest – Nealy was picked up by the center and Davis was cut blocked by running back Taquan Mizzell – but Davis penetrated enough to cause Lambert to throw off his back foot and not drive the ball. Lambert either threw poorly to slot receiver Canaan Severin, who was covered tightly by Golden, or Lambert and Severin misread each other. Severin appeared to be sealing Golden off to the sideline, but Lambert threw it to Severin’s sideline side, giving Golden the opportunity to win the ball away from him.
If Davis hadn’t gotten close enough to disrupt Lambert, or had he not blitzed at all, Lambert could have stood in the pocket and let the play develop. (Of course, had he not blitzed, then Davis would have helped in coverage.) As it was, with the disruption and Golden’s tight coverage, it was an interception, taking away Virginia’s chance to cut the lead to 28-17 with 6:15 to play in the third quarter.
3. Defensive end KeShun Freeman continues to impress. Freeman had five tackles, including a sack, a forced fumble, a pass breakup and a deflected punt. He said after the game he thought he was in for all 57 Virginia snaps. His pass breakup helped tilt the game Tech’s way in the third quarter, following Tech’s touchdown drive to open the second half and take a 28-10 lead. On first-and-10 from the Tech 39-yard line, Freeman flew past right tackle Eric Smith and pressured Lambert, deflecting Lambert’s pass in the air, where defensive tackle Adam Gotsis was able to make a diving interception to end the drive.
Tech didn’t score off the next drive. In fact, the Jackets went 13 yards backwards. But it enabled Tech to flip the field and helped keep the Cavaliers off the scoreboard for the entire second half.
Freeman, an early-enrollee true freshman, said the defensive improvement was “very important because tonight we showed ourselves that we have so much more left in our tank. Compared to some of our older games, we know we can do so much better.”
Freeman maintained his team lead in tackles for loss, now eight. Prior to the game, only four freshmen nationally had more tackles for loss than his seven, which was tops among ACC freshmen.
The most impressive play he made might have been in the second quarter. Virginia had just claimed 39 yards on two passes and after a one-yard run had a second-and-9 from the Tech 33. Tech executed a zone blitz, bringing five while Freeman covered tailback Taquan Mizzell out of the backfield, no small assignment that.
Still, Freeman stayed with Mizzell step for step, riding him out of bounds as Lambert faced pressure and made a panicked throw at Mizzell that D.J. White nearly intercepted. That forced third-and-9, which resulted in a false start, and the drive stalled with an incomplete pass (forced by blitz pressure from Quayshawn Nealy). Then Freeman deflected the punt.
Freeman merits consideration for ACC rookie of the week, I’d think.
4. Lineman Pat Gamble also gave strong play in his first career start moving from backup tackle to end. Gamble finished with two tackles and batted down a pass, one of three pass breakups by Tech linemen. He was carted off the field in the fourth quarter with a left-leg injury, but Johnson said an x-ray was negative.
5. I’m not sure what this means, but hopefully this demonstrates a little bit how odd the last three weeks have been for this defense. Using the handy game finder feature on sports-reference.com, I looked for ACC defenses that have, in different games in the same season against power-conference teams, allowed an opponent to complete 80 percent or more of its passes, forced six or more turnovers and given up 22 rushing yards or fewer.
Mind you, Tech has done this in successive weeks. Since 2000 (which is as far back as the site’s data goes, there has only been one other ACC team to do that, North Carolina in 2009. So that’s two teams out of 170 defenses (the number of team seasons there have been starting in 2000) that have managed those sorts of seemingly irreconcilable results.
Granted, it’s cherry picking numbers a little bit, but I’d say all three of those numbers were distinctive factors in each of those games.
If you’re wondering about the 2009 Tar Heels, they finished 8-5 (though all their wins were vacated by the NCAA) and 4-4 in the ACC (including a loss to Tech). They allowed Florida State to complete 82.5 percent of its passes in a loss Sept. 22, held Duke to 12 rushing yards in a win Nov. 7 and then forced six turnovers from Boston College in a win Nov. 21.
The Tar Heels had a pretty strong defense that year, giving up 17.1 points per game, 13th best in the country.
5. Wide receiver DeAndre Smelter turned in another highlight, completely turning around cornerback Maurice Canady on his 65-yard reception from Justin Thomas in the first quarter. On a first-and-10 from the Tech 29-yard line, Smelter caught the ball going across the middle off a play-action fake at the Virginia 40, kept running diagonally to the left to the 30, where he began to cut back to the right. At that point, Canady, who had been tracking with Smelter, turned his back on the play to get a better angle on him, but then Smelter quickly cut back to the left, giving him enough space to keep running down to the six-yard line.
“The way they were running their defense, we just felt like it was going to be wide open,” Thomas said. “We just hit ’em with a play action, the same thing we always do, and it opened it wide up.”
Smelter finished with four catches for 107 yards, the fourth 100-yard game of his career. With a 20.3 yards-per-reception average for his career, he is now a hair behind Dez White’s school-record average. White has 45 career catches and needs 50 to qualify.
It was a pretty rough day for Canady. He was on single coverage against Smelter when he scored the second touchdown of the day. When wide receiver Darren Waller caught an 11-yard fade pass for the third touchdown of the day, it was also over Canady.
Smelter said that “we just saw some things that we could do with their cornerbacks,” but denied they were attacking Canady.
“It doesn’t really depend on the corner,” he said. “We go out there every time thinking that, no matter who’s across the ball from us, we can make a play.”
Virginia coach Mike London acknowledged the height difference the 6-foot-5 Waller has over the 6-2 Canady and that “they were utilizing the matchup where they thought he could go up and get the ball. It worked out for them. Maurice is our best corner. They got the best of him today.”
6. A year ago, as Smelter and A-back Robbie Godhigh bailed out Tech’s offense again and again, there was cause to wonder what the season might have been if not for Smelter’s ailing pitching shoulder leading him to give up baseball for football and Godhigh’s decision to walk on at Tech.
Synjyn Days’ dutiful play at B-back may not reach the same heights, but he has very much been the right man at the right spot. Days, you likely know, came to Tech as a quarterback, where he never got farther than Tevin Washington’s backup in 2011. He was moved to A-back in 2012 and was a productive player there the past two years. He moved to B-back in the preseason and, with Zach Laskey’s shoulder injury, has proven a most capable starter in his absence. He has back-to-back 100-yard games, and his 147-yard effort Saturday is the highest for a Tech running back since Anthony Allen gained 166 against Georgia in 2010. (Washington ran for 176 yards against Clemson in 2011, a record for a Tech quarterback.)
A most frequent path for quarterbacks who realize they’re not going to get the top spot is to transfer. Days, though, chose to stay and transition through two position changes. It could well be argued that B-back might be his best fit, and Saturday, he looked better than he had last Saturday against Pittsburgh. He gained tough yards and he bounced runs for 31 and 33 yards, the longest by a B-back this season.
“They were hitting him sometimes at the line of scrimmage but he was still finding his way to get five, six yards,” Thomas said. “I think he just felt more comfortable today. He hasn’t had too many game snaps playing B-back. I saw he felt more comfortable with his vision and the way he was running.”
It’s entirely conceivable backup B-back Matt Connors might have done just as good a job as Days in Laskey’s stead. Johnson said after the game that he meant to get Connors in the game Saturday after his strong showing against Pittsburgh but chose to ride Days’ hot hand. That said, Days' play at B-back has been a considerable development in the second half of the season, in the final games of his career.
7. This isn’t a takeaway from the Tech game, but I figured you’d want an answer about Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst’s play call at the end of regulation that set up a 26-yard field-goal attempt from the right hashmark for the final play of regulation and the scored tied at 38. Kicker Chris Blewitt missed, Pitt lost in double overtime and the Jackets lost a golden chance for Duke to take a second conference loss.
Said Chryst, according to the Twitter account of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Sam Werner, “With that personnel group in, clock was going, it gave us a run that we had numbers on, we felt, and also a chance to run into the short side and get the ball out of bounds. We weren’t able to do that, but that was the thought process. We had a lighter personnel group in. We still had to keep moving and yet, also at the time, you were in range. Wanted to protect the right to attempt it.”
Pitt had a first-and-10 at the Duke 11 when quarterback Chad Voytik ran three yards to the right, staying inbounds, and forcing Pitt to take a timeout with two seconds remaining.
At the 11, kicker Chris Blewitt would have had a 28-yard field-goal try, a distance any Division I kicker should be able to make a kick from, particularly one from the middle of the field. Getting out of bounds would have saved a timeout, I suppose, if enough time was left on the clock to call a timeout if a field-goal try was botched, as in Tech’s win over Georgia in 1999.
But I don’t think that outweighs the added difficulty of putting Blewitt on the right hashmark. I’m not a kicker, but I’d think the angle from the hash becomes much more difficult the closer the ball is to the goal line. Further, given how treacherous that end of Heinz Field is, I'd think the last thing you'd want to do is make the kicker any more difficult than it needs to be.
The further gall of the loss for Tech, as I noted last week, is that one way for Tech to get into the ACC title game in a scenario where Duke finishes 6-2 would require Tech and Pitt to also finish 6-2. That one went out the window as Pitt took its third loss Saturday. If I understand it correctly, in fact, Tech (barring the possibility of going to Charlotte at 5-3, which I imagine is somehow possible) now does need to run the table to get to 6-2 and have Duke take two more losses.
There are now only three Coastal teams with one or two losses – Tech (4-2), Duke (3-1) and Miami (3-2). Duke obviously would win at 7-1, but Miami would win a three-way tie at 6-2 with the best division record (5-1) and Duke would obviously win a two-way tie with Tech due to the Blue Devils' head-to-head win.
8. Days on the weather: “On the sideline, DeAndre and Shaq (Mason) were saying, ‘Let’s all stay close together,’ like, joking, but I was like, Serious, we really need to do that to stay warm.”
9. Virginia had five four- or five-star players in its starting lineup, and played eight total. Tech started one (Thomas) and played three total (A-back B.J. Bostic and cornerback Step Durham). You could read that as a reason why time may be running out on Virginia coach Mike London or a reason why recruiting rankings need to be read with a grain of salt. Or both.