Georgia Tech’s offensive game was a strange brew of ineffective play mixed in with three long-distance scores and low possessions. As a result, the Yellow Jackets ran just 41 plays compared to 88 for Virginia.
It was tied for the second fewest in school history. As you might expect, it’s not often that teams win with that few snaps. In fact, in the past 10 seasons, prior to Saturday, in matchups of power-conference teams, it had happened just once, according to sports-reference.com. (Ohio State beat Wisconsin in 2009 with 40 offensive snaps.)
Tech gained 181 yards on its three scoring plays (67-yard touchdown run by B-back Marcus Marshall, 54-yard touchdown catch by A-back Clinton Lynch and 60-yard touchdown run by A-back Qua Search) and 140 on the remaining 38. That’s an average of 3.7 yards per play.
Coach Paul Johnson said that he didn’t know if there had been a game all year where the offensive line had played as badly as it did Saturday (I might nominate the Boston College game) and was likewise unhappy with the A-back blocking effort.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “I thought we’d turned a corner. We’d been playing better and we got all those guys back today. Maybe we need to play the other guys.”
The game-sealing play of the game was made by cornerback Lance Austin, with his extra-effort 24-yard interception return for a touchdown that made the score 31-17 with 4:03 to play that put the game out of reach.
A couple players made key plays that led to it. Tech punted on 4th-and-7 from its 38, and punter Ryan Rodwell drilled a punt with the wind that landed at about the Virginia 20, and then bounced to the goal line, where Meiko Dotson made a superior play to backhand the ball as he was running past it to keep it in the field of play and avoid a touchback. It was downed at the 2-yard line, putting Virginia in the position of having to go 98 yards to tie the game. Austin intercepted quarterback Matt Johns on the third play of the drive. (By the way, his twin brother Lawrence made a textbook cut block on a Virginia offensive lineman to clear Lance’s path to the end zone.)
That Tech was punting at all was the result of A-back Isiah Willis jumping on a fumbled snap on the previous play. Center Kenny Cooper goofed on 3rd-and-5, snapping on one when the count was two. Thomas wasn’t ready for the ball and it fell to the ground. The linemen to Cooper’s left and right remained in their stances as the ball rolled on the ground, but Willis, lined up right over right tackle, saw the ball and pounced on it to retain possession. A turnover would have given Virginia the ball on the Tech 38-yard line. Willis’ vigilance, along with Rodwell's punt and Dotson's hustle, saved Tech 60 yards.
Marshall’s scoring run was the longest run of his career, surpassing a 64-yard run against Alcorn State in the first game of his career. It was not as impressive as a 20-yard gain he had on the run after the touchdown in which he slipped three tackles before being brought down.
He was met in the hole by linebacker Zach Bradshaw, whom he warded off with a stiff arm. As he was getting away from Bradshaw, safety Kelvin Rainey dove at Marshall, but Marshall danced away from him, pushing back to the line of scrimmage as he widened out to the sideline.
He regained his balance two yards behind the line of scrimmage, and now had safety Quin Blanding squaring him up. With a block from Lynch, Marshall cut back inside to evade him and then ran upfield, where linebacker Micah Kiser tried unsuccessfully to wrap him up. Spinning out of the tackle and moving forward at the same time, Marshall finally lowered his shoulders on cornerback Bryce Hall and was brought down for a 20-yard gain.
It was an impressive mix of power, agility and determination. In the past two games, Marshall has run with ferocity unseen to this point in his career. It will be interesting to see who gets the start next Saturday, Marshall or Dedrick Mills, who has missed the past two games as discipline for a violation of team rules.
“I think the play hit outside of where it was supposed to,” he said. “I knew once I ran out there, I was basically on my own, so, I just tried to make as many people miss as possible.”
Both starting linebackers were productive. P.J. Davis, playing his final home game of his career, led with 13 tackles, while Brant Mitchell added 12. Mitchell also made the game-ending interception. Davis’ total was one shy of his career high, while Mitchell’s total was his career high. He set his previous high last week against Virginia Tech, with 10.
It's perhaps an indication of the improved play from the defensive line that Davis and Mitchell have been taking on more ball carriers, as opposed to safeties Corey Griffin and A.J. Gray, as well as their own play picking up.
Wide receiver Brad Stewart left the game with an ankle injury in the second half and did not return. He is an important piece of the offense for the Jackets, a player whom quarterback Justin Thomas has come to rely on for his ability to win balls in the air. Perhaps equally importantly, Stewart has been the sole punt returner.
The backups at wide receiver, Mikell Lands-Davis and Jalen Camp, have not played much in comparison to Stewart and Ricky Jeune.