Georgia Tech’s offensive effort against Clemson on Thursday night was quite arguably its worst in the 110-game tenure of coach Paul Johnson. Tech set Johnson-era lows for yards per play (2.38) and rushing yards (71).
However, the company it joins might be an indication that perhaps the sky is not falling earthward. The game it might most resemble is the 2010 Orange Bowl, when Iowa held the Jackets to 3.1 yards per play, which until Thursday was the all-time low for Tech with Johnson.
That team won the ACC championship with a future all-pro at wide receiver (Demaryius Thomas), the 2008 ACC player of the year at B-back (Jonathan Dwyer), a two-time All-ACC center (Sean Bedford) and a future draft pick at A-back (Anthony Allen), not to mention Joshua Nesbitt at quarterback, and yet was controlled almost as completely as Tech was on Thursday night. The point being – getting stonewalled by Clemson isn't necessarily an indication that the offense is incapable and all is lost, given that one of Johnson's very best teams was beaten in similar fashion.
Further, another of the worst games in Johnson’s tenure occurred earlier in the same season, the 33-17 loss to Miami in which the Jackets averaged 4.22 yards per play. For whatever it’s worth, that game was also at the end of an unusual scheduling sequence at the start of the season, just as Tech’s loss Thursday was. (In 2009, Tech started the season on a Saturday, then played two Thursdays in a row, the first – against Clemson in white-out game, coincidentally – on short rest.)
I was going to also make the case that it seems like Tech’s offense has more variance than most – more capable of virtually unstoppable offense but also more susceptible to getting stopped cold – but that actually didn’t prove the case, at least when viewed through the yards-per-play prism. Quite the opposite, it would appear to be more resistant to being dominated than most.
Since 2008, Tech has had nine league games in which it has averaged 8.0 yards per play or more. To put that into context, as powerful as Clemson’s offense was last year, its best single-game average was 7.8.
The nine-game total is tied with FSU for the most in the ACC. In fact, only seven teams have any games at 8.0 or better.
8.0 yards-per-play against ACC opponents games since 2008
On the other hand, Tech has had three ACC games when held to 4.0 yards or less – Clemson and Boston College this season, Duke last year and Miami in 2011. It’s tied with Miami for second fewest in the ACC, behind FSU with two. (I didn’t include Maryland, Louisville, Syracuse or Pittsburgh.)
4.0 yards per play or less against ACC opponents
This would suggest that all teams are capable of playing terribly against league opponents, but Tech has been far less likely to do so than most of the league.
On the other hand...
If you would like to believe the sky is indeed falling, however, there’s evidence for that, also. Of Tech’s 12 lowest yards-per-game average in the Johnson tenure, five have occurred in the past 13 games.
Lowest yards-per-play games in Johnson era
The trend might suggest that something is amiss with the offense. Last year, the lack of experience and the pile of injuries across the offense made the lack of success readily understandable. This year, Tech has mixed in a superior game against Vanderbilt with two highly ineffective ones against Boston College and Clemson. (Vanderbilt followed up giving up 511 yards to Tech by surrendering 496 to Western Kentucky.)
I think at least some of it has to do with the two defenses. Boston College returned eight starters from perhaps the best defense in the country in 2015, had geared up since the spring to be ready for the offense and had an excellent middle linebacker in Connor Strachan. Clemson has elite talent and has now gridlocked the Jackets for two years in a row.
It’s worth noting that Clemson is No. 2 in defensive yards per play and Boston College is No. 4. (Although the Eagles have played two inferior teams, Massachusetts and Wagner, and gave up 6.2 yards per play to Virginia Tech.)
But I don't think that's all of it. Boston College and Clemson were formidable, but Tech has been exceedingly incapable of moving the ball in half of its games in part because of its own shortcomings. I think the blocking needs improvement, both on the line and on the perimeter. J.J. Green looks like he has the makings of an excellent cut blocker, but as a group, the A-backs lack consistency.
Are the two games against Boston College and Clemson outliers or part of a greater trend? The next two weeks, at the least, should help clarify.