A week ago, Georgia Tech B-back Marcus Marshall was in Atlanta while the Yellow Jackets were in Chapel Hill, N.C. Tech was playing near his hometown of Raleigh, and he wasn’t able to make the trip because of an upper-body injury.
“It wasn’t great, but I kind of had no choice,” he said.
It was the first time that Marshall, a sophomore who has only missed one game in his career, had to stay home for a road trip.
“It was tough to watch,” he said. “I couldn’t be out there with my teammates, but I just watched.”
This hasn’t been the ideal season for Marshall, who led the Jackets in rushing as a first-year freshman and figured to be the starter this season but was beaten out in the preseason by Dedrick Mills. Marshall said he has focused on making plays when he has gotten the chance. He is averaging 5.8 yards per carry, down from his 7.6 yards-per-carry rate in 2015. However, if you toss out FCS games, Marshall’s 2015 average is 6.2 yards per carry and his 2016 average is 5.9. He has flashed his speed, busting four plays of 20 yards or more, including the 81-yard touchdown reception to open the Vanderbilt game.
“That’s been helpful, just getting me out there and trying to utilize my speed a little bit,” he said.
For better or worse, Marshall has an opportunity with Mills facing a two-game suspension for violating team rules. Marcus Allen figures to get some snaps, but Marshall should get the bulk of the playing time at B-back Saturday against Virginia Tech and next week against Virginia.
With his speed, Marshall is probably better than Mills on the perimeter, and undoubtedly coach Paul Johnson will try to get him the ball in space Saturday against the swift-footed Hokies. But Georgia Tech will also need him to gain tough yards up the middle, the kind that Mills has picked up. He’ll need to do better than he did last year against Virginia Tech, when he gained four yards on four carries. Tech coaches also hope he can perform as a pass blocker, another area where Mills has demonstrated proficiency.
Being asked to carry the load against perhaps the best defense that the Jackets will face this year is at once both a tough assignment and a giant opportunity for Marshall. Predicting what the depth chart will look like in a year’s time is anybody’s guess – who would have figured in Nov. 2015 that Marshall would be supplanted – but the sophomore from Raleigh may not get a better chance to prove himself than he has over the next two weeks.
What happens when Tech is a double-digit underdog?
Georgia Tech is a 14-point underdog to Virginia Tech. Tech has been a bigger underdog in just two games in coach Paul Johnson’s tenure. It bears mention that spreads don’t necessarily reflect what oddsmakers believe will be the eventual margin of victory. Oddsmakers’ primary objective in setting a spread is to split up betting 50/50 to ensure that the sports books will profit.
Regardless, Tech’s history with Johnson as a double-digit underdog is, perhaps not surprisingly, fraught with success. The Jackets have won just once in the nine times that their opponent has been favored by 10 points or more. Chances are you remember the game.
Can embarrassed defense respond?
After playing one of the worst defensive games in school history, Tech defensive players responded as you might expect, expressing their embarrassment. Is it possible that such humiliation can be fuel for a better effort?
Defensive end KeShun Freeman: “We know we can do much better. That was embarrassing. That happened. We can’t go back and change it. The film is already made. Now we have to go ahead and go forward and make new film, make sure that we’re doing well in this next game coming up.”
Safety Shaun Kagawa: “There’s definitely a feeling of disgust. We were embarrassed. It was an embarrassing game. We could have played better, but it’s all about moving forward. Coach Johnson said we take what we were given and learn from it and move on. That’s what we’re ready to do.”
Defensive tackle Patrick Gamble: “We’ve got to play better. In order to win football games at this level, you’ve got to play good defense. We haven’t been doing that of late. Ain’t too much to say. Everybody in the locker room on defense knows that. We’ve just got to keep pushing, have urgency to get better.”
For what it's worth, after losing 69-14 to Notre Dame in 1977 (the only game in which Tech has given up more yards), the Jackets lost 20-16 to Navy. And, in 2013, the game after Tech gave up an ACC record 10.4 yards-per-play against Miami - the only game in which a Tech opponent did better than North Carolina's 9.1 - the Jackets lost 38-20 to BYU. History is not exactly forecasting glory.
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster on quarterback Justin Thomas: “The quarterback is not just a dynamic player, he’s a great player. He’s one of the elite athletes in the league. He’s made some runs and some throws that are just – he makes them go. I think where they’re improved – obviously, he’s been the guy – but I think they’re better up front and I think their fullbacks – what they call their B-backs – are a little more explosive than what they maybe had the last two years. When you get the quarterback and that guy along with your offensive line, which is improved, that’s a group that can be tough to handle.”
On the other hand...
There’s plenty of reason to not give the Jackets much hope for leaving Lane Stadium with an upset win. Here’s one why it might be closer than you think – it’s the Coastal.
Despite its record, Duke has proven itself a capable team. The Blue Devils nearly upset No. 6 Louisville and lost by a field goal to No. 14 Virginia Tech. The Blue Devils scored their biggest win of the season on Thursday, a 28-27 win over No. 17 North Carolina, the team that, of course, thrashed the Jackets last Saturday.
The team that has scored the most points against Duke this season? Georgia Tech.
Pittsburgh lost by a field goal to Virginia Tech and lost on the last play of the game to North Carolina. For good measure, the Panthers beat Penn State, now No. 10. What team likely would have beaten Pitt had it been able to make one more play – the Jackets.
It would be hard to make the case that Georgia Tech is a better team than Virginia Tech. But perhaps they’re closer than appearances might suggest.
Then again, Virginia Tech is 5-0 against common opponents (Boston College, Miami, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Duke) and plus-125 in scoring margin. Georgia Tech is 2-3 and minus-39 in scoring margin.
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