5 takeaways from Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech

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1. The thing that perhaps strikes me most at this point is that Georgia Tech is now 4-0 without having played particularly well. Saturday, Tech could have capsized itself with quarterback Justin Thomas’ third-quarter turnover inside the Yellow Jackets’ red zone, with a botched fourth-and-2 pass play to Darren Waller that would have gone for a touchdown had it been blocked better, with ineffective defensive play in the first half, with a missed field goal in the third quarter, with eight penalties or with kickoff returns that again were substandard.

It followed, of course, Tech’s haywire second half against Georgia Southern last week (which ended in victory thanks to a last-minute touchdown drive).

But, Tech didn’t undo itself, in part because Virginia Tech threw three interceptions (two induced by the Jackets’ pass rush) and committed 12 penalties. But the Jackets also held the Hokies’ running game in check, rendered Thomas’ fumble moot with a field-goal block, later converted a fourth-and-15 with the game on the line, forced a three-and-out in the fourth quarter when they had to have one and didn’t give in after the Hokies scored their fluky run-fumble-run touchdown to go up 24-17 with 8:03 to play.

It could mean that more wins are to come as this young team improves and begins to play with more consistency, or maybe it means the Jackets will receive their comeuppance against teams that will take better advantage of their mistakes. Maybe some of both.

It’s easy to dismiss Tech’s win as a victory over the team that lost to East Carolina at home, but the Hokies are still also the team that upset Ohio State on the road, and East Carolina itself is a little harder to discount after the Pirates put up 71 points on North Carolina Saturday.

Whatever the answer is, Tech’s record after Saturday is the best it could possibly be.

“I don’t think anybody thought we’d be here, and still got a lot of work to do,” coach Paul Johnson said, “but looking forward to taking the next week off, getting everybody healthy and getting ready to play another division game two weeks from now.”

2. The slim margins by which so many of these games are decided – and perceptions created, and jobs kept or lost – are hard to comprehend sometimes.

Just as Tech won Saturday, it could have easily beaten Virginia Tech in 2011 (Jeremiah Attaochu’s momentum-changing punch of Logan Thomas) and 2012 (letting the Hokies convert a fourth-and-4 with 13 seconds left). For that matter, 2010 (David Wilson’s kickoff return or Joshua Nesbitt’s broken arm, take your pick) and 2008 (Cooper Taylor’s questionable late-hit call. But, Virginia Tech could have won in 2009 (giving up a late 39-yard touchdown run to Nesbitt on a third-and-7) and Saturday (fourth-and-15 conversion).

The Jackets could have been 2-2 after Saturday if two plays that went their way hadn’t, and the ceiling for this team, and undoubtedly its perception, would be considerably different. Of course, this is a construct that Tech fans have been making the other way quite often in recent memory. Last year, for instance, Tech could have been 8-5 or 9-4 with some assistance from the fates. Hand-wringing that the record could be worse is presumably a nice change.

3. Georgia Tech had one of its best rushing days against Virginia Tech, carrying 44 times for 250 yards, a 5.7 yards-per-carry average. The average was second best among the Jackets’ seven games against the Hokies since Johnson’s hire, behind their 6.8 yards-per-carry average (346 yards on 51 carries) in 2010.

Quarterback Justin Thomas was a particular difference maker, to say the least. His 165 rushing yards on 22 carries were the most ever gained by a Tech back against Virginia Tech, bettering the 125 gained by Anthony Allen in 2010. He had three rushes of 20 yards or more in the game, giving him six for the season. He was 11 shy of Tevin Washington’s record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a game (176, vs. Clemson 2011).

It perhaps goes without saying that his speed creates such an added dimension for this offense. It didn’t count because of the illegal block penalty called on A-back Deon Hill, but Thomas’ 80-yard scoring run in the third quarter was a spellbinding play. At about the Hokies 45-yard line, Hokies safety Detrick Bonner had an angle on Thomas, but Thomas gave a slight feint back to field and then ran straight by Bonner, who could barely get a hand on him.

You can watch here. It’s at the 2:10 mark.

4. B-back Zach Laskey, also, worked the middle, running 17 times for 80 yards, including a 26-yard carry. The two of them had 39 of Tech’s 44 carries Saturday. Laskey’s dives up the middle often didn’t go far, but achieved Tech’s objective to create manageable second- and third-down situations.

“Guys up front did a pretty good job helping me get to the second level,” Laskey said. “We had a good game plan. Coach knew the (middle linebacker) would be flying out there to get to the edge, and that was kind of able to open up some holes.”

Laskey also made a key block on Thomas’ game-tying 31-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Smelter, bringing down blitzing linebacker Deon Clarke with a cut block. (He had been the one to miss the block on the fourth-and-2 pass play to Waller.)

5. Defensively, the first half was no masterpiece. Virginia Tech picked the Jackets apart, converting seven of nine third downs. The distances were six, 12, five, nine, 11, 15 and three yards. Brewer was hot, completing 17 of 23 passes for 207 yards with one interception.

What Tech didn’t do, though, was give up a long scoring play, which it had done in the first three games. Wofford, Tulane and Georgia Southern combined for four scoring plays of 60-plus yards. While the Hokies accumulated yards, they had to settle for field goals, twice on drives that reached the red zone.

“We didn’t want to give up the big plays,” Johnson said.

It was a tradeoff, and quarterback Michael Brewer cooled in the second half, throwing two more interceptions, one returned by Paul Davis 41 yards for a touchdown and the other picked off by D.J. White to set up the game-winning touchdown.

The defense had some success rushing Brewer with a few well-timed blitzes – the first-half interception was created by linebacker Tyler Marcordes’ pressure – but I get the impression that defensive coordinator Ted Roof would just as soon rely on the front four, because of the jeopardy that blitzes put the secondary in. However, the four-man pass rush again was not highly effective, putting the defense  (and Roof) in a quandary.

It was a workable strategy Saturday.

“We bended a little, but we didn’t break,” Milton said.
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