Georgia Tech’s Saturday ACC opener against Pittsburgh at sun-splashed Bobby Dodd Stadium was, in a way, unlike any that coach Paul Johnson had seen in his 122-game tenure.
An opponent punt return for a touchdown, four lost fumbles and a 1-for-13 effort on third down by the Tech defense might have been a trifecta that even Alae Risse Leitch, the 104-year-old Yellow Jackets fan who blessed Saturday’s proceedings with her presence, may have never previously witnessed. (She turns 105 on October 1.)
Those three outcomes and others melded into a 35-17 win for Tech. And, while reading too deeply into any single game is a fool’s errand, they were among indicators that point in a promising direction for Ms. Leitch’s beloved Jackets.
Aside from the brutal preponderance of fumbles, Tech’s run-game offense was astonishingly productive against an opponent that knew the Jackets’ spread-option offense well. Often having to clean up for the offense’s turnovers, the defense met the moment with a performance that probably ranks in the top five in defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s second term as the Tech signal caller, now in its fifth year.
“The defense played great,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. “If it weren’t for the defense, I don’t think we would have won the game, honestly.”
If the defense can replicate anything close to that sort of play while the offense tightens up its fumble-prone ways – 11 balls on the ground in three games – there’s reason to believe this team can inflict some damage in the ACC Coastal Division.
“I’m really proud of what we put on film (Saturday),” defensive end KeShun Freeman said, speaking of his unit. “And I’m just ready to see how we play from this point.”
Let’s get this out of the way: Pitt doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere this season. While its two losses before Saturday could be discounted by the fact that they were at the hands of top-10 competition (Penn State and Oklahoma State), it also ought to be noted that the Panthers lost those two games by a combined 92-35 and that they also needed overtime to extricate itself at home from FCS Youngtown State. The Panthers’ offensive line is weak and their defense is young and inexperienced. Tech’s victory was no surprise.
That said, Pitt didn’t flail offensively against either Penn State or Oklahoma State quite the way it did against the Jackets, gaining 37 rushing yards on 20 tries and converting third downs the aforementioned once out of 13 attempts.
Due to UCF’s canceling its game with Tech, the Jackets had extra time to rest and prepare for Pitt’s misdirection chicanery, and the extra practice was fruitful. Tech’s defense penetrated, fought off blocks, flew up in run support and tackled in space.
“We couldn’t run the ball,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Give them credit.”
Saturday’s performance was not the usual. For instance, the seven tackles for loss they collected against Pitt tied for their most against a power-conference opponent going back to the start of the 2015 season. Coming weeks will reveal whether or not the Jackets can maintain this form.
But one-on-one tackling in space, which in some cases trapped the Panthers behind the line of scrimmage and other times prevented them from advancing to the first-down marker, would seem a skill that can be carried forward. And the seven tackles for loss followed Tech’s eight against FCS Jacksonville State.
“Coach Roof really wanted us to work on, when you get there, really wrap up,” Freeman said. “It’s not always about making the big hit, but you get the person on the ground when you get there.”
The run-game performance, though, has earned the benefit of the doubt. The interior line play of center Kenny Cooper, left guard Parker Braun and the right-guard rotation of Shamire Devine and Will Bryan was as formidable as it had been against Tennessee. The combination of B-back KirVonte Benson’s forceful running up the middle and the line’s surge at the snap resulted in Benson gaining 196 yards on 29 carries, the highest yardage total for a B-back in Johnson’s tenure.
“We were getting pretty good push out of the center and the guards,” said Johnson, estimable praise for a coach whose typical postgame evaluation of line play is along the lines of “It’s hard to tell until you look at the film.”
Benson’s 47-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was masterful execution. Tech overloaded the left side of its line and drove the Pitt line right. In so doing, the Tech linemen barricaded Panther defenders, forming a clean alley for Benson. All they needed of Benson to reach the end zone was to slip past a defensive lineman who had overrun the play, stay upright through a tackle attempt at his feet and then take advantage of a downfield block from wide receiver Brad Stewart.
“It’s good to have a B-back back there running hard and getting the extra yards we need to win the game,” Cooper said.
While Tech’s rushing-yard total is typically north of 300 yards, Tech’s 436 on Saturdays needs a moment for consideration. Since Johnson’s hire, the Jackets have exceeded that total against power-conference opponents just nine times. Just two of the nine were against a defensive coordinator who had faced Tech and Johnson previously, as Pitt’s Josh Conklin had. And, as Johnson didn’t mind noting, “it should have been at least 150 more.”
Something potent may be brewing. In Johnson’s tenure, three teams have run for 400 yards three times in a season – the 2008, 2009 and 2014 teams, the three that have finished the season ranked. This season, Tech has already eclipsed 400 twice in three games.
“There was no use to throw,” said Johnson, whose team passed just once after halftime. “As long as we ran the ball three times, we were going to get a first down most of the time.”
There’s room to improve. Johnson was understandably fuming about the four lost fumbles, all by B-backs Benson, Jerry Howard and Quaide Weimerskirch. While snide, Johnson’s comment that “we’ve got to clean that up because against a good team, we won’t be able to survive,” was on the mark.
But, with the B-backs’ inexperience – going into the season, Benson, Howard and Weimerskirch had a combined one career carry – improved ball security isn’t an unreasonable assumption.
Again, a grain of salt: It’s only three games. Pitt may be terrible, as might Tennessee, which inched by winless Massachusetts 17-13 on Saturday. Skepticism about Tech’s defensive play Saturday being the start of a trend is reasonable.
However, if better ball security can be combined with the continued excellent line play, Marshall’s developing facility with the option and defensive play that approaches the heights scaled Saturday, it’s not unreasonable to think that the 2017 team have the potential to measure up with the 2008, 2009 and 2014 Jackets, winners of nine, 11 and 11 games, respectively.
Just a month ago, Tech followers were wondering about quarterback play and panicking over the dismissal of B-back Dedrick Mills. Three games in, the picture looks markedly brighter.