Georgia Tech’s run blocking vastly improved Saturday against Pittsburgh, as the Yellow Jackets produced 376 rushing yards and averaged a season-high 9.4 yards per carry. It was the second-highest yards-per-carry rate for a game in coach Paul Johnson's tenure, surpassed only by the 2011 demolition of Kansas. Most remarkably, it followed the poorest rushing performance in Johnson's tenure - 42 rushes for 71 yards against Clemson.
It might be easy to dismiss or not notice, given that a) Tech has pumped out seemingly endless streams of rushing yards; b) the Jackets lost. But 9.4, which was held up by B-back Marcus Marshall's twin 58-yard runs and quarterback Justin Thomas' 51- and 45-yard sprints, is rock solid. Even if you take those four runs away, Tech still averaged 4.6 yards per carry, which was still better than Tech's per-carry averages in any of the four previous losses.
The Jackets did it, moreover, against a defense that had come into the game No. 6 in rushing defense.
“It looked like our offense,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I said after the Clemson game, I didn’t recognize what I’d seen. Last week, I could recognize it. I mean, it looked like us.”
Since 2000, 64 teams have averaged 9.4 yards per carry or better in a game with 30 or more carries. Those teams are 59-5. Tech was actually one of the five outliers, in the 2009 ACC championship win over Clemson.
The view from Pittsburgh
Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi:
“You throw that tape out. Matter of fact, I told [defensive coordinator] Coach (Josh) Conklin he can watch this game five times in the offseason—and we sat as a staff and watched the tape and critiqued it structurally—but it’s all structural stuff. It’s all structural stuff, and that’s what they do. [Georgia Tech] did a good job. They did a better job than we did in the first half. But when you look at points, we had more points on the board than they did at the end and they scored seven in the second half. As you saw, we took the dive away from them early and they were getting pitches out there quick. We started trying to take care of that and then they pop a dive on you in the second half, and that set up their only touchdown of the second half. That game, you throw that game out. That has nothing to do with run defense. It does for them, but that’s a whole different animal. It’s a totally different animal and it’s foreign to our kids. It’s not foreign to them [Georgia Tech]. Again, I knew there was going to be an acclimation period as far as us just getting used to the speed and what they’re doing. And again, they have a different game plan, too. They didn’t just line up and do everything they [usually] did on tape. They saw what we do and what our base was and they adjusted, too. They have guys on scholarship, too, and they have coaches that get paid. It’s an amazing thing.
Pass blocking troubles
The challenge for the line now, beyond trying to replicate Saturday's run blocking, is addressing pass protection. Following the game Saturday, Johnson called the pass blocking an “enigma,” saying that linemen had not executed what he considered a basic pass-blocking scheme.
“There’s some personal accountability that goes in that,” he said. “I’m ultimately responsible, but there are some cats that are accountable, too.”
Monday, he described the pass protection as “awful.” Offensive line coach Mike Sewak said that players demonstrated proficiency during the week, but didn’t on Saturday.
“On Wednesday and Tuesday, they have no issues,” he said. “On Thursday, they have no issues. But on Saturday with 5:14 on the clock in the fourth quarter, all of a sudden, now not all the oxygen’s going to the brain.”
There were times when protection performed as designed, but others when linemen didn’t pass off defenders running stunts or were just beaten.
“(Pittsburgh) did a good job,” Sewak said. “They did a good job with their blitzes and coming and they got it spaced out and ran around until they found an area.”
Beyond the possibility of players’ inability to rise up to the moment, or trying too hard, Sewak seemed at a loss to explain what had happened.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “They can look at it themselves (on video) and their heads’ll sink. They look at it and they’re like, ‘God dang, Coach.’”
Three of the five starters Saturday played on last year’s line. (Right tackle Errin Joe was out with an undisclosed injury and was replaced by freshman Will Bryan.)
“The pass protection was really good last year,” Sewak said. “There’s a lot to be said there, too.”
It clearly was better than what has been on display thus far this season. Sacks are not a perfect measurement of pass protection, but last year, Tech allowed 11 sacks in 203 pass attempts, one sack per 18.5 pass attempts. This year, the rate is one per 13.9. Other factors enter in – whether receivers and backs are getting open, quality of competition, Thomas’ determination to keep plays alive, frequency of obvious passing situations.
Schedule of strength factoid
From the Tech communications office: Including Florida State (Tech's opponent this week), the combined record of Tech's most recent 10 power-five opponents is 59-9 (.867). Nine of the 10 were either ranked in the top 10 of last year's final AP poll or are in the current AP poll. Tech is 3-6 in those games, with the margin of defeat was greater than one possession in just one of the losses.
Interestingly, two other Tech varsity teams played Pittsburgh this past weekend. The volleyball team lost in five sets at Pittsburgh Friday before defeating Virginia Tech Sunday in a four-set victory. The Jackets are 13-7 overall and 4-4 in the ACC, tied for eighth. If you’re wondering, they’re ranked No. 81 in RPI, ninth among ACC teams. Last year, Tech finished at No. 133.
On Saturday, Tech’s men’s swimming team defeated Pitt 160-135, while the women’s team fell 191-109.
Three swimmers won twice, Moises Loschi (1000-yard freestyle and 200 breaststroke), Iris Wang (100 and 200 freestyles) and Laura Branton (100 and 200 butterfly).