3 (belated) takeaways from Georgia Tech-Clemson

September 22, 2016 Atlanta - Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas (5) tosses a football to Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets running back Isiah Willis (right) in the second half at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday, September 22, 2016. Clemson Tigers won 26 - 7 over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia Tech’s A-backs, including Isiah Willis, ran seven times for a combined 25 yards. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A remarkable first half

I don’t know that I’ve seen a first half like that one. The Jackets had 21 plays for 22 yards, and 14 of them were gained on the last play of the half when Tech was just running out the clock. The Jackets had three first downs and quarterback Justin Thomas was 1-for-3 for -3 yards. They held the ball for 11:06. Clemson ran 56 plays and picked up 347 yards and was 9-for-12 on third downs.

One thing stuck out – how Tech’s linemen and backs were consistently unable to get bodies on Clemson’s linemen and linebackers. The triple-option is a consistent yardage producer when it gets blocked up right, but when the play-side A-back doesn’t get the cornerback out of the play, it typically doesn’t go far because it goes from being a 2-on-1 play to 2-on-2.

That was usually the case Thursday. A screen cap of a second-quarter play fairly demonstrates it.

ESPN

ESPN

Tech had finally gotten a first down not via penalty, early in the second quarter. On first-and-10 from the Clemson 40-yard line, coach Paul Johnson called a triple-option play. If run as designed, and if the read was for Thomas to keep (which it was), Thomas would have had been in space with A-back Qua Searcy against linebacker Dorian O’Daniel (the player bearing down on Searcy), the 2-on-1 situation that makes the option work.

However, the first misfire was that right tackle Trey Klock (on the ground on the 35-yard line) couldn’t get linebacker Kendall Joseph to the ground, giving him a free run at Thomas and forcing him to pitch to Searcy. The play might still have worked with Searcy in space against Joseph. However, lead A-back Isiah Wills wasn’t able to block cornerback Ryan Carter to the ground, either, leaving Searcy in a 1-on-3 trap. Carter made the tackle for a four-yard loss and three plays later Tech punted.

It’s moot, but consider the space beyond the 40-yard line. Had Klock and Willis been able to successfully execute their blocks, it appears Searcy or Thomas could have picked up a first down and possibly much more.

This isn’t to pin the loss on Klock and Willis, but it’s typical of what happened throughout the game. It’s hard to determine where to draw the line separating blame to Tech/credit to Clemson for the Tigers staying on their feet more often than the Jackets needed for their run game to work. But Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables and his players get some of the credit. Tech gained 71 rushing yards last year against the Tigers. Being stocked with NFL-grade players helps a lot, but that’s not all of it. Clemson’s preparation has likely had a large hand in two of the poorest offensive performances in Johnson’s tenure.

“I was cut a lot more last year,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware told ESPN. “I think I got cut once tonight and I was just being lazy. The whole game (Clemson’s defensive line) just contained everything. Really, just whupped the offensive line. I don’t mean to disrespect them or anything.”

The very strange safety
The game didn’t hinge on cornerback Lance Austin’s interception/safety later in the quarter. Clearly, it was a big play at a point in the game when the outcome was still in doubt. Also, it wasn’t a smart play, although that isn’t necessarily what caused the safety, which was the freak 1-in-1,000 circumstance when safety Corey Griffin bumped Austin and forced the fumble that resulted in Austin having to fall on the ball in his own end zone.

I don’t know if it’s much more than that or endemic of anything. Austin isn’t the first player to make an ill-advised decision, and it probably doesn’t make this season’s top 10 of most ill-advised college football plays this season.

It was a strange play, though. A rather odd capper is that Austin was the principal figure in a singular play in last year’s white-out against Florida State, a play made in part because Austin was smart enough to know he was supposed to pick up a blocked field goal on the last play of regulation and run it.

Also, in a strange coincidence, Thursday was the four-year anniversary (to the day) of, without question, the strangest safety I have ever seen. Orwin Smith caught a kickoff in the end zone against Miami (the same end zone where Austin’s safety occurred) and took steps toward the goal line before deciding against it and taking a knee. However, his momentum carried him forward and he put his hand down on the field of play to keep from falling at the 1-yard line (which, ultimately, would have been a better result). But, because he put his hand down, Tech incurred a safety when he took a knee in the end zone, a key play in the Jackets’ 42-36 overtime loss to the Hurricanes.

(Tangent alert) That, by the way, was just one part of a supremely bizarre reason. Two overtime losses in the first four games, Al Groh getting whacked after six games, the Jackets setting the Johnson-era record for highest time of possession (43:45 against Boston College) and lowest time of possession (21:01 against BYU) in back-to-back games, the supersonic 68-50 win over North Carolina, Tech making the ACC title game only after Miami backed out, then nearly beating FSU in the title game, then needing a waiver to play in a bowl game at 6-7, going to the Sun Bowl for the second year in a row and then ending the seven-game bowl losing streak against USC, the preseason No. 1.

That doesn’t even include Dan Radakovich leaving for Clemson in the middle of the season and two fans falling from a stairwell and the stands at Bobby Dodd Stadium in successive weeks. There was a lot of weird stuff going on.

Among other things (and this isn’t entirely relevant to the tangent, but kind of funny) , I remember talking to Quayshawn Nealy after the Maryland game (speaking of bizarre – that was the game where Maryland played its fifth-string quarterback, a true freshman linebacker). He was telling me about a motivational message that interim coordinator Charles Kelly had given the defense comparing a late-season three-game stretch to Amen Corner at Augusta National (the diabolical three-hole segment of the course that often factors heavily in the outcome of the Masters). I think Nealy (and likely others) got the gist of the message, but had no idea what Amen Corner was.

I bet that season would make for a good book.

The defense holds its own

Clemson seems off its game offensively, but the defense’s play was nonetheless actually pretty good. The Jackets gave up 442 yards of offense, but, as Johnson likes to note, tempo-free statistics are more meaningful. Clemson averaged 5.4 yards per play and 2.2 points per possession (2.0 if you toss out the safety and not including the final game-ending drive). Last year, Clemson averaged 6.4 yards per play, and, at least according to this site, 2.8 points per game. Notably, the Jackets gave up 7.3 yards per play last season to Clemson.

Only two defenses last year did better against Clemson than 5.4 and only three defenses did better than the 4.05 yards per rush that the Jackets gave up. In particular, the performance against Vanderbilt (holding preseason All-SEC pick Ralph Webb to 69 yards on 18 carries) followed by the effort against Clemson (particularly given how much the Jackets were on the field in the first half) gives increasing indication of the improvement of Tech’s run defense.

Two more numbers that I wouldn’t have expected for a defense that lost its best run stopper (Adam Gotsis) to graduation and the draft. After four games and 180 rushing attempts, Tech has given up one run of 20 yards or more (that being the 73-yard touchdown run against Boston College). Last year, the Jackets gave up one rush of 20 or more yards for every 26 carries.

The second number: As noted above, Tech gave up 5.4 yards per play and 2.2 points per possession. Against Alabama in the national championship game, Clemson averaged 6.5 yards per play and 2.7 points per possession.

Reader Comments 0

25 comments
Frank Binger
Frank Binger

The game would have been much closer if Tech had just run the ball every play. (see uga game 2008). Only bad things happen when Tech passes the ball without getting the running game established first: sacks, incompletions, interceptions. CPJ's biggest problem is giving up to quick on his triple option running game against superior talent. The running game openned up in the second half. On the lone Tech scoring drive, CPJ ran the ball every play.

Daniel Reed
Daniel Reed

So Tech. Let's fire CPJ and hire les miles? Just saying.

Jordan Cason
Jordan Cason

CPJ is a good coach but the triple option is played out. Need more of a spread option offense.

Jordan Cason
Jordan Cason

This is why the spread option would work. Open up the passing game.

Partin Moore
Partin Moore

Triple options works, you don't work colonel sanders...

Jordan Cason
Jordan Cason

When you play the same teams every year they learn how to defend it.

Partin Moore
Partin Moore

Jordan Cason when you play the same teams every year and have no passing game every year. It's really easy to defend.

Jordan Cason
Jordan Cason

How many games has tech come back after being down by at least td's? Hardly ever and when they do get behind they just throw up some wounded duck ball. Spread option is better all the way around.

Partin Moore
Partin Moore

Wounded duck ball is the problem, I miss trade chat

SupersizeThatOrder-mutt
SupersizeThatOrder-mutt

Why can I read and post a comment on the MyAJC version of this page, but not on the free version?

Getthetruth
Getthetruth

@SupersizeThatOrder-mutt 

I had that same question and went back and forth with AJC regarding that issue - their policy, and I think it is based on keeping the "free version" comments off of the pay site - but it wouldn't have to be applied both ways - pay version could go to free version.  Point being - they manage them as two separate sites, and I don't think they get the fact that pay version folks would like to see both.

 

Jeff Hunter
Jeff Hunter

Win or Lose still a fan. But dayum get rid of option and Paul Johnson

Bill Moorer
Bill Moorer

We are not a good football team. Plain and simple.

Lin Butler
Lin Butler

Well until pj gets a differant offence instead of 1980s tech cant compete. I think hes a good coach but needs to get real.

Richard Alford
Richard Alford

TECH will be lucky to go 5-7 this season. Johnson has not recruited talent to compete with the top 25 teams. Need a new coach ASAP

Rik Roberts
Rik Roberts

Yeah, because we had 5 stars coming to GT before CPJ got there.

Kyle Timmons
Kyle Timmons

Rik we had great athletes with chan gailey, we just couldn't get a good qb. Could you imagine if we had Andrew luck playing with megatron or bay bay? We would have won championships.

Rik Roberts
Rik Roberts

That 9 point swing before halftime was the killer.

E.M. Fez
E.M. Fez

Pretty Sure Dabo had the Clemson guys chill in the second half. Cause it looked like they could've won 70-0 if they wanted to.

Trysten Rogers
Trysten Rogers

He really didnt. I was at the game. Our D just played really well. Dabo still had them throwing the ball on the last drive of the game. defense just shut them down thd sevonf half and if you yake away the weird pic play, this gsme is only a 17-7 loss.

GTDano
GTDano

GT's defense is incredibly young, too. I'm sure last year's terrible season, combined with injuries, gave many of them a decent amount of experience. It's showing this year.

Matt Tyler
Matt Tyler

D played well. Offense was abysmal. Dabo has elevated Clemson into a different tier of CFB and I imagine they will be playoff bound again this year.

Barry Smith
Barry Smith

Nothing positive from this lack of performance