12 takeaways from Tech-Duke

1. A week after Georgia Tech played about as well as it could play, the Yellow Jackets didn’t play the worst they could play in their 31-25 loss to duke. But they didn’t continue the upward trend they’d followed since the first game of the season.

For the first time this fall, Tech didn’t claim a game that could have legitimately gone either way, which is what happens sometimes. If you had to cook up a scenario for Tech to lose to Duke, you could do a lot worse than Saturday’s: Give Duke an extra week to prepare and all of the incentive of trying to break a 10-game losing streak. Give Tech an emotional win last Saturday over a rival that it hadn’t beaten since 2008. Put the Jackets in a home stadium that, while it got loud on occasion, didn’t have the same energy that it did the week prior.

To his credit, linebacker Quayshawn Nealy wasn’t buying.

“Not really, when one of our goals is to be undefeated at home,” said Nealy, who had a game-high 10 tackles. “It’s not that hard to get up for a game like this. They just came to play harder than us. That’s the bottom line.”

The result was hardly inevitable, but some of the intangibles that pointed Tech’s way last week went against the Jackets Saturday. As was recognized before the season, and throughout the 5-0 start, this isn’t a team that can win on talent alone. The mettle and opportunism that defined the Jackets in the first five games did not do so Saturday.

“Anytime you play, when you have turnovers like we did and penalties like we did, nine times out of 10, you won’t win the game,” A-back Tony Zenon said. “Give credit to Duke. They had a good defensive plan and stopped us and they won the game.”

Thanks to sports-reference.com, Zenon can be proven somewhat accurate. Including the 2013 season and this season up through last week, 33 teams turned the ball over three times and committed eight penalties, as did Tech Saturday. They were 8-25, including the same Duke team two weeks ago in its loss to Miami. Not quite nine times out of 10, but close.

Tech played a poor game in a game it well could have won, perhaps even easily, and it was costly. That happens sometimes.

“This game didn’t go a whole lot different than the other games we’ve played, except we had three turnovers and they had none,” coach Paul Johnson said. “And we weren’t scoring touchdowns whenever we got the ball.”

I’m not sure there’s a lot more meaning to ascribe. I don’t think it’s a devastating loss. For Tech, it’s a disappointing loss; the Jackets have lost in this fashion enough times in recent years. I suppose it’s harder to stomach after a 5-0 start gave the sense that perhaps this team wouldn’t succumb to such a game, particularly against a team it had beaten each of the past 10 years.

Said Johnson himself, “I was disappointed in the way we played. We’re not good enough to lose the turnover battle 3-0 to anybody and win the game.”

2. I’m not sure it’s as simple as this, but the defense again had trouble defending an option running game, as was the case against Wofford to some degree and Georgia Southern to a large degree. Duke running back Josh Snead slipped repeatedly through gaps in the Tech line, finishing with 102 yards on 14 carries. Duke finished with 250 rushing yards, more than what Virginia Tech and Miami gained against Tech combined.

“Guys were peeking in the wrong gaps, and they were finding open gaps,” Nealy said.

Said Johnson, “They were running the zone read and we were closing and taking the back with the (defensive) end and the linebacker was supposed to scrape. Sometimes, he didn’t scrape.”

“If everyone does their position, we play gap-sound defense, we should make the play,” defensive tackle Adam Gotsis said. “I give credit to Duke. They out-physicaled us and they ran the ball well today.”

If you’re wondering, North Carolina, Tech’s opponent next week, can run read-option with quarterback Marquise Williams.

The Georgia Tech defense didn't do quite enough of this Saturday. (HYOSUB SHIN/AJC)

The Georgia Tech defense didn’t do quite enough of this Saturday. (HYOSUB SHIN/AJC)

3. Duke defended Tech well, preventing big plays. The longest run was wide receiver DeAndre Smelter’s 21-yard run on a reverse. The longest pass was thrown by Tim Byerly, a 30-yarder. Quarterback Justin Thomas’ longest pass was 26 yards. There were opportunities for big plays off play action that were missed. That includes the downfield pass to Smelter in the third quarter, a second-and-7 pass from the 35 to Smelter inside the Duke 5-yard line. (I think it was incomplete after looking at this clip. It looked like he had control, but the ball touched the ground. Link here.) Still, a play that could have been made otherwise. Tech failed to convert the ensuing third down and Harrison Butker missed from 52 yards after that.

4. Tech hasn’t had an offensive play of 30 yards or more the past two games and none of 40 or more in the past three. Against Miami and Virginia Tech, it worked out because the offense was playing so efficiently and not giving the ball away. Saturday, that wasn’t the case in either regard. Duke made the Jackets work for their yards, and they eventually lost the ball or bogged down, scoring 12 points in the first four trips in the red zone.

Tech averaged 5.5 points per red zone trip through the first five games, and, if my math is right, 3.0 in the first four trips Saturday. Tech got into the end zone on its final two red-zone trips, when you could argue the game was out of hand.

It isn’t common for Tech to go without bigger explosion plays as it has the past three games. The Jackets had at least one play of 40 yards or more in 12 of their 13 games last season, and 19 total. They had 21 in 2012. They’re at five thus far through six games.

There were chances. Thomas just missed with Smelter on a pass play that would have gone for about 40 yards in the first quarter but was broken up.

It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if this trend bucks a little bit against North Carolina. The Tar Heels had given up nine plays of 40 yards or more going into Saturday’s game.

Georgia Tech's running game produced a reasonable 282 yards, but its longest run was 21 yards, by wide receiver DeAndre Smelter. B-back Zach Laskey ran 15 times for 72 yards and a touchdown. His longest run was 11 yards. (HYOSUB SHIN/AJC)

Georgia Tech’s running game produced a reasonable 282 yards, but its longest run was 21 yards, by wide receiver DeAndre Smelter. B-back Zach Laskey ran 15 times for 72 yards and a touchdown. His longest run was 11 yards. (HYOSUB SHIN/AJC)

5. There wasn’t word after the game on the health status of either Thomas or safety Jamal Golden, who appeared to take a pretty hard shot to the head at the end of his second kickoff return. Neither finished the game. Johnson said Thomas rolled his ankle in the first half.

Obviously, it would not be ideal for either to miss time. Both were well enough to tweet after the game. Golden wrote “Terrible feeling to lose that. But we will bounce back.” Thomas wrote something similar. So at least their thumbs are in good shape.

6. Tech missed a chance to take a big step towards securing the ACC Coastal. Duke is 1-1 with a tiebreaker over Tech, although Miami has a tiebreaker over Duke. The Blue Devils’ remaining schedule: home against Virginia Oct. 18, open date, at Pittsburgh Nov. 1, at Syracuse Nov. 8, home against Virginia Tech Nov. 15, home against North Carolina Nov. 20 (short week for both teams), home against Wake Forest Nov. 29.

In Wake Forest and Syracuse, Duke has arguably the most favorable pair of cross-division games of any Coastal team. Three of its toughest remaining games, Virginia, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, will be at home. And the possibly toughest road game will be preceded by an open date. Barring a tie of three or more teams, Tech will need Duke to lose one more league game than the Jackets.

With the loss, Tech gave its tiebreaker to defending Coastal Division champion Duke and coach David Cutcliffe. (HYOSUB SHIN/AJC)

With the loss, Tech gave its tiebreaker to defending Coastal Division champion Duke and coach David Cutcliffe. (HYOSUB SHIN/AJC)

7. Not a productive game for the A-backs. Collectively, they had eight carries for 39 yards, and 16 of those yards were gained one play. They contributed in the passing game, with four catches for 61 yards. Deon Hill had three catches for 48 yards, both career highs, as was his 29-yard reception in the game.

Said Zenon, who ran four times for six yards, “Most of the time, it seemed like they were trying to take the pitch away.”

It seemed as though the A-backs were having a tough time getting defenders to the ground, which contributed to the difficulties Tech had on perimeter run plays.

“They were double-run supporting some. That’s why we got behind ’em in play action a few times,” Johnson said. “But when you get behind ’em, you’ve got to make ’em pay. You’ve got to catch those balls and make ’em pay for it.”

8. The loss cost Tech one of its team goals – to go undefeated at home. The primary goal, to win the ACC, is still alive.

“Some of those things are still alive, so we’ve just got to continue to flush this game down the toilet and look forward to next week,” Zenon said.

9. There were a lot of plays that decided the game’s fate. One of the most critical was Thomas’ interception in the third quarter in the Duke red zone. On a second-and-9 from the Duke 10-yard line, Zenon ran a wheel route out of the backfield and was open along the right sideline and probably could have scored had Thomas thrown a deeper pass into the end zone. But, perhaps hobbled by his ankle, he didn’t set and drive off his back foot, instead short-arming the ball, as analyst Dave Archer put it on the ACC Network broadcast, and was intercepted.

A touchdown and extra point would have drawn Tech to 24-19 with two minutes left in the third quarter. Duke didn’t score on the next possession, but chewed off another six minutes of clock, reducing Tech’s chances for a comeback.

Or, consider this alternate game scenario. Tech takes the extra point after its first touchdown and trails 14-13 at halftime. The Jackets are then down 21-16 when Harrison Butker makes, instead of misses, his 52-yard attempt. The ensuing kickoff puts Duke at the 25, instead of the 35 after the miss, and, rather than drive for a field goal, Duke punts. Then Tech has the ball back down 21-16 with maybe six minutes left in the third quarter.

There are portably a lot of these.

10. I’m not sure this is a takeaway, but just a statistical oddity. Saturday was just the third time since 1951 that Tech scored exactly 25 points in a game. The other two times were in 1996, a 28-25 loss to Clemson, and 2010, a loss to Kansas by the same score. In 2010, Tech scored 25 with three touchdowns, two with an extra point and another with a two-point try, and a field goal.

Interestingly, in 1996, Tech was also ranked No. 22 when it lost with a 25-point game. Actually, Tech was also was ranked and fell out of the polls after the Kansas game in 2010.

11. I used this in the game story, and thought it was worth repeating. Coming into the game, Tech had turned the ball over five times in five games, a total of 335 offensive plays. It was no small reason why Tech was able to pull all five out, by making sure it maximized its opportunities to score. B-back Zach Laskey’s fumble broke a streak of 139 consecutive offensive plays without a fumble or turnover, not a small feat.. Then, however, starting with Laskey’s fumble, the Jackets turned the ball over three times in 18 plays.

“I felt him get his arm in and kind of rake it out,” Laskey said of defensive tackle Jamal Bruce. “I should have had two hands on the ball going through the first level.”

That said, Tech still only has six fumbles in six games. I’ve noted before that, 2008 through 2013, Tech had 200 fumbles in 80 games (2.5 per game), the most of any team in FBS over that span.

12. This sort of goes back to what I wrote in the first takeaway, but the team that just coughed up a loss to Duke is the same one that also beat Virginia Tech and Miami, and Miami is the team that whipped up on Duke. It’s also a team with a sophomore quarterback who was hobbled enough to be pulled and starting his sixth career game.

The team that lost Saturday by giving up a third-and-26 and turning the ball over three times also beat Virginia Tech by converting a fourth-and-15 against Virginia Tech and a third-and-15 against Miami and received a combined five interceptions in those two games.

It kind of reminds me of this friend of mine I played fantasy basketball with in college. Among other things, Andy pretty much refused to wear socks, and we went to school in Michigan. Interesting dude. Anyway, if he had a player who, for instance, averaged 15 points, Andy would be hacked off when he didn’t score 15 points or more every night. Remarkably, I believe Andy started out college as an engineer.

But anyway, the point being that you can’t always be the sharper team. Duke clearly wasn’t against Miami, while Tech clearly was, for instance.

That said, the loss makes every game even more critical the rest of the way. And the Miami-Tech-Duke round robin finishing 1-1 points out how even the division seems to be, as has been commonly thought, and thus, how critical is to be the sharper, more prepared, more urgent team as frequently as possible.

“We’re still great in the standings and in a good position right now,” Nealy said. “We just have to work on the small things so we can make the big things happen.”


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