After four games, Georgia Tech safety Corey Griffin has gained a valuable insight into his team.
“We have a lot more heart than I expected,” he said.
Griffin saw it in the way the Yellow Jackets responded from the season-opening loss to Tennessee, a double-overtime defeat that could have been crushing. According to Griffin, players were “pretty high up on ourselves” after the four-game winning streak to end last season and a strong offseason. But the defeat has not kept the Jackets from their appointed tasks since that point.
“Nobody really put their head down,” Griffin said. “Just, ‘We lost, let’s move on. Let’s use that as encouragement. Let’s use that as motivation to go forward.’ That’s what we’ve been doing. You see a lot more of the team come together. We’re more together than ever since I’ve been here in my five years, in my personal opinion.”
It is no surprise for any player, particularly a senior, to declare that team chemistry is at its best at present. But the results lend Griffin credence. Starting slowly after a short-rest week, the defense sparked the team to a win over Jacksonville State, now ranked No. 3 in FCS. The Jackets then left no doubt in wins over Pittsburgh and North Carolina. There seems to be a bond connecting the offense and defense.
Tech’s test Saturday against No. 11 Miami will be the strongest challenge of the season by far, and there are three more Top 25 teams remaining in the final seven games of the season.
There are trouble spots that need attention. The Jackets need more from their special teams. The red-zone offense has been less efficient than usual. But the Jackets don’t seem out of line to think theirs is a team that could be capable of achieving something special.
“I definitely think we can go far with this team,” linebacker Brant Mitchell said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing and keep our mind one week at a time.”
A primary reason is the play of Mitchell’s defense, which, at least through four games, has performed well above the level of defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s first four units. Tech is tied for 17th nationally in defensive yards per play at 4.64 and fourth nationally in third-down defense (23.9 percent).
The unavoidable and valid “Yeah, but” is that Tech’s first four opponents have not tested the Jackets defense the way that the final seven games should. However, the Jackets held Pitt and North Carolina, in back-to-back games, under 4.4 yards per play. In Roof’s first four seasons since returning to Tech, in 42 attempts against power-conference teams, the Jackets had four such games.
Tech has received pass-rush pressure from defensive ends Antonio Simmons and Anree Saint-Amour. An experienced secondary has contributed sure tackling and game-changing interceptions. A lamented weakness in years past, third-down defense, has been a strength.
“Those guys are playing their hearts out,” A-back Qua Searcy said. “We can’t do anything but respect them. I just feel like they’re just going to build on that and just become better as the year goes on.”
The offense, powered by quarterback TaQuon Marshall, B-back KirVonte Benson and what might be Johnson’s best guard-center-guard combination with left guard Parker Braun, center Kenny Cooper and the right-guard tandem of Shamire Devine and Will Bryan, has been prolific.
Leaning even more heavily on the run than normal – Tech has an 89/11 run/pass ratio, where 80/20 is more typical – the Jackets have consistently churned out yardage. While avoiding negative plays is a pillar of Johnson’s offense, the Jackets rank in the top 10 nationally in tackles for loss allowed (3.75 per game), a status they’ve never enjoyed in a season-ending ranking in coach Paul Johnson’s first nine seasons.
“We definitely have a special team,” Searcy said. “We’re coming along very well. I just feel like we practice, we get better and each week come out like it’s a playoff game.”
What would constitute special is nebulous, but likely entails an ACC Championship game berth and multiple wins over rivals. Griffin has dared make public the aspiration to start and finish the season in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, meaning a national championship game berth.
Whatever it is, it won’t be easy, even if the ingredients are there. In coach Mark Richt’s second year, Miami is the odds-on favorite to win the Coastal Division. Two weeks later, Tech goes on the road to play No. 2 Clemson, the defending national champion. No. 15 Virginia Tech will come to Bobby Dodd Stadium on Nov. 11 with its typically malicious defense and payback on its mind. The regular season ends with No. 4 Georgia. The other three opponents – Wake Forest, Virginia and Duke – are a combined 12-5.
Given that Tech has played only four games – many FBS teams have played six – and the level of competition, Johnson called his team “an enigma” at his Tuesday news conference.
If Tech, at 3-1 now, were to finish the regular season at 8-3 – the 12th game against Central Florida was canceled – it would be no small feat. However the journey ends, it picks up again after an open date this Saturday against Miami, a team that has won nine games in a row, two consecutive against Tech and four consecutive against the Jackets at home.
“We’ll know a lot more on Saturday night,” Johnson said. “But then again, you’re not going to put all your evaluation on one game, either. It’s a process, but certainly Saturday will tell us a lot more about it.”