1. You could make the case that Georgia Tech’s defensive performance was worse than it was in the Yellow Jackets’ loss to Clemson in 2012, the final game coached by then-coordinator Al Groh’s before his dismissal two days later.
(The abbreviations are yards per play, points per possession, third and fourth down conversions, plays of 20 yards or more, points per red zone trip.)
A pretty significant difference is who was on the field. The 2012 defense had proven veterans like Jeremiah Attaochu, Jemea Thomas, Izaan Cross and Brandon Watts. In fact, eight starters on that defense against Clemson at the least made an NFL camp and the other three are still at Tech.
This isn’t to say that eight or more players on Saturday’s starting defense can’t make NFL camps, but I think there’s a considerable range in experience and readiness to contribute on this defense that’s hard to compensate for. I’d argue that the difference in “explosion plays” – 20 yards or more – suggests that there weren’t the breakdowns Saturday that seemed so common in the 2012 season, although Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins did a lot to create those breakdowns.
A major problem Saturday was an inability to make a difference-making play. In the 2012 game, Boyd was sacked three times and intercepted twice, for instance. Saturday, UNC quarterback Marquise Williams was intercepted once and was sacked once, and that required Tech rushing six.
In 2012, Clemson had 26 yards for loss. North Carolina had six.The Tar Heels had fumbled 12 times in their first six games, but Tech didn’t force a single fumble.
Cornerback D.J. White provides another contrast. It was White who made one of the plays of the season against Virginia Tech with his fourth-quarter interception to put the Jackets in position to win the game in the final seconds. Saturday, he was unable to make a play on Williams’ 36-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mack Hollins on fourth-and-6 in the fourth quarter. White was not helped that Tech’s seven-man pass rush couldn’t get to Williams in time to hurry him or move him out of the pocket.
“I can’t just blame it on one person or the secondary,” linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said. “We’ve got to all cover better and we’ve got to get pressure on the quarterback. Just got to get better as a whole defense.”
2. I don’t think this is exceedingly surprising. Last year, with the six starters on the verge of either getting drafted or at least getting an NFL camp invite, the Jackets had a defense that specialized in stopping the run (3.57 yards per carry, 11th in the country) and stopping opponents on third down (36.50 percent, 32nd).
There were questions about how this defense would fare with so many unproven players at key spots, particularly along the defensive line. Those questions have apparently proven to be founded. As was witnessed again Saturday, Tech is neither stopping the run (5.26, tied for 114th) nor stopping offenses on third down (50, 122nd).
Sacks are not necessarily the best measure of a pass rush, but Tech has eight of them in seven games (tied for 115th in the country) and is letting opposing quarterbacks complete 65.2 percent (tied for 114th) of their passes. The team is averaging 25.9 passes per sack.
“We never really got any pressure on the guy,” coach Paul Johnson said of Williams, “and never kept him from running, either.”
The average team – that is, the teams tied for 71st in sacks – has 14 sacks. Think about this: If Tech had gotten two sacks against North Carolina instead of one – it’s quite possible the Jackets would have won the game.
Part of the problem is that the defense is short a lot of defensive linemen who were expected to be on the team this year. Part of it is not having brought in or developed better linemen. Part of it is not having better blitzes or coverages called. Part of it is facing two pretty good quarterbacks the past two games.
But, again, it’s kind of what was in the cards when the team began practicing in July. The weaknesses are catching up.
I think defensive end KeShun Freeman is playing for a first-year freshman and will continue to get better. Everyone on the line except for Kyle Travis and Shawn Green will be back next season, and should be improved. The defense figures to bring back eight starters next year. But that’s where they’re headed, not where they are.
3. Williams was phenomenal for North Carolina. His line gave him time to throw and he didn’t miss, completing 38 of 47 passes for 390 yards, adding 73 yards on the ground. His 416 yards of total offense was eighth best by a Tech opponent. His 38 completions were fifth most.
He put Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof in a bind. Roof could blitz, but then Williams could find a checkdown or swing the ball to the flats. He could rush four and play zone coverage, but Tech couldn’t get to Williams with four. The coverage seemed softer than you’d want, though. Tech was trying to keep him in the pocket, also, which was partly why the rush wasn’t more aggressive, defensive tackle Adam Gotsis said.
“It was less like getting up the field and more like trying to squeeze down the pocket a bit,” he said. “I thought we did a pretty good job of that, but then that also puts a strain on our secondary. We let him pat the ball back there, he’s going to make throws, and he did.”
4. It should perhaps be pointed out that the Tech defense wasn’t playing against a bunch of clowns. A week ago, the Tar Heels averaged 6.1 yards per play and 2.6 points per possession against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Saturday night, the same Notre Dame defense held the defending national champion, in its home stadium, to 5.7 yards per play and 2.8 points per possession.
It could be argued that Notre Dame wasn’t as invested against North Carolina as it was against Florida State – the Irish faced UNC between Stanford and the Seminoles – but I don’t think the Irish played last Saturday’s game wearing blindfolds, either. With Williams playing the way he has the past two games, the Tar Heels are a pretty potent bunch.
5. After going 0-for-2 on two-point tries Saturday, Tech is now 0-for-4 on the season, after missing two attempts last Saturday against Duke. Opponents are 2-for-4 against the Jackets this season.
6. What probably shouldn’t be ignored is how well the offense actually played. The Jackets ran 69 plays and put the ball on the ground once, the lost fumble on the first possession. They averaged 8.9 yards per play, which is pretty staggering. According to the very useful school game finder tool on sports-reference.com, prior to this weekend, only one power conference team had averaged more than that against another power-conference team all season (UCLA against Arizona State, 10.0).
In fact, it was the seventh best single-game yards-per-play average in the Tech record books, including two games against FCS schools. The offense ran 69 plays and only got to third down eight times, and converted five of those. (If you’re wondering, until Saturday, third-down plays had been about 18 percent of the team’s total number of plays. Saturday, they made up 12 percent.)
The offense averaged 3.9 points per possession (discarding the time-killing possession at the end of the first half), a very good number, particularly considering the average starting position was the Tech 24-yard line.
After the lost fumble on the opening drive, the Jackets scored six touchdowns and a field goal the next eight times it had the ball (not counting the possession at the end of the first half).
Granted, North Carolina is obviously not a very good defensive team, but the Jackets played as well or better than anyone has this season.
7. A comparison of Tech’s offense with the 2009 offense, both after seven games, by yards per play, points per play and plays per turnover. (Granted, I think anybody would say the schedule of strength for the 2009 team’s first seven games was much tougher than the 2014 team’s, but it probably isn’t ideal to compare the 2009 team’s numbers after a full ACC schedule and a bowl game, either.)
8. Wide receiver DeAndre Smelter’s game – three touches (two catches and a run), 133 yards, two touchdowns.
9. The Tech team that started 5-0 and the bunch that has now lost two in a row – same team. The one that won its first five played lesser competition, got a couple breaks and was getting turnovers at a rate that was evidently unsustainable, masking considerable deficiencies.
The team that has lost its last two has played better competition, hasn’t gotten breaks – or caused the breaks to go against themselves – and has seen its takeaway rate slow considerably. Tech could be 7-0 with the difference of a couple plays in both of the past two games, and it could also be maybe 3-4 with a couple plays the other way.
“It’s disappointing,” Johnson said. “You’re still 5-2, so you can still have a good season. We’re going to have to play better. It’s like I told our guys: We can win the rest of the games, we can lose the rest of our games.”
Saturday’s result doesn’t mean the team is doomed, I don’t think. But the Jackets need to figure out a way to get better play out of its defense and not let a two-game losing streak affect its psyche and willingness to keep working. It’s one thing to get mad after losing one game. It’s another to summon the same fury after such a gut punch of a loss.
“We just can’t let it get to us,” safety Demond Smith said. “It’s a long season. We’ve got plenty more games. We’ve just got to keep playing. You never know what happens in a football game.”