9 takeaways from Tech-N.C. State

Georgia Tech B-back Synjyn Days' 153 rushing yards, a career best, helped lead the Yellow Jackets to their third win in a row and eighth of the season. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Georgia Tech B-back Synjyn Days’ 153 rushing yards, a career best, helped lead the Yellow Jackets to their third win in a row and eighth of the season. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)


 

1. An update on Georgia Tech nose tackle Shawn Green likely won’t be available until Monday at the earliest. But, obviously, missing him for the Clemson game or longer would be a critical hit for the defense. Green’s play has been improving, taking on double teams and holding the point.

Coaches didn’t need to say anything about Green and defensive tackle Adam Gotsis’s value as interior linemen; the fact that Patrick Gamble and Francis Kallon weren’t playing much behind them explained it pretty well. If Green can’t play, the options likely would be to play Gamble alongside Gotsis at the tackle spots with KeShun Freeman and possibly Roderick Rook-Chungong at ends, or keep Gamble at end and put Kallon in the starting lineup, or possibly shift to a three-man line full-time and perhaps play Gotsis in the middle with KeShun Freeman and Gamble at the ends.

Whatever the scenario, this isn’t the ideal time to be playing an offense that averages 80 snaps per game.

It’s funny, I remember a group interview that defensive coordinator Ted Roof did right at the beginning of camp in August, or possibly even late July. He was already saying that the numbers on the line were “as low as I’ve ever been” and that as a coach, “you’ve got to have enough flexibility in your package” to be able to respond if the bottom were to fall out.

And, actually, unless I’m forgetting something, the numbers have stayed the same throughout the year. But losing Green might be akin to the bottom falling out.

As much as anything else, though, it would be disappointing for Green, who has fought injuries his entire Tech career and has finally played through a season without injury. Like any competitor, I imagine he would like very much to be ready for the Clemson game.

2. I know I’ve hit this Orange Bowl possibility thing a few times, but it’s striking to me that it seems to be within reach and not a total pipe dream for Tech. To re-cap, the ACC champion is bound to go to the Orange Bowl unless it’s picked for the College Football Playoff, which it looks like Florida State would do if it finishes the season undefeated and beats the Coastal representative in the ACC title game. If that’s the case, then the Orange Bowl would take the next highest-ranked team in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings.

Right now, Clemson is No. 21, Duke is No. 22 and Tech is No. 24. Tech will likely move up one notch closer to Duke after West Virginia (No. 23) got whacked by Texas, and I’d think the Jackets would leapfrog both teams with a win next Saturday. I’d further think it would be possible for Tech to stay there, so long as it played Georgia close (a win would obviously help the cause far more) and Duke did nothing outrageous against Virginia Tech, North Carolina or Wake Forest. (Clemson finishes with Georgia State and South Carolina.)

It would be Tech’s first Orange Bowl since 2009 and second major bowl since coach Bobby Dodd ended his career following the 1967 Orange Bowl. And that would be a remarkable achievement, particularly given the preseason expectations for this team (fifth in the Coastal, no preseason votes in either poll).

However, Miami could shake up the order considerably by beating Florida State next Saturday night, though. I suspect this will be a fantastic game.

To pump the brakes on the hype train a little, Tech’s eighth win probably did ensure itself a spot in a tier-one bowl – the TaxSlayer (formerly the Gator), Sun, Music City, Pinstripe and Belk bowls. Boston College will need to at least beat Syracuse to get a seventh win (the Eagles also play Florida State), or I’d think the possibility of Tech going to the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium increases.

It would be a different bowl trip and Tech’s first time playing in the city of New York, as best I can tell, since playing Penn State at the old Yankee Stadium in 1925, but my suspicion is that players and others would prefer playing an SEC opponent at either the Belk or TaxSlayer bowls.

3. Best 10-game records since 1956:

1966: 9-1 (final record: 9-2)

1990: 9-0-1 (final record: 11-0-1)

1998: 8-2 (final record: 10-2)

2000: 8-2 (final record: 9-3)

2006: 8-2 (final record: 9-5)

2009: 9-1 (final record: 11-3)

2014: 8-2

4. Linebacker Tyler Marcordes might have played the best game of his career. He finished with four tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one of which was one of the most critical defensive plays of the game, the sack/fumble of N.C State quarterback Jacoby Brissett that led to linebacker Quayshawn Nealy’s 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

Blitzing often, Marcordes also had other quarterback pressures and, if my notes are correct, drew a holding penalty that wiped out a long run by Brissett in the second quarter that would have converted a third down and flipped the field. No less an authority than former Tech guard Will Jackson tweeted during the game that Marcordes “is looking like Clay Matthews today.”

“Tyler’s been getting better,” Johnson said.

Marcordes was pegged as a breakout player for the season, but an injury in camp slowed his development, and he has been trying to catch up since.

“I’m starting to feel a lot better, moving a lot better,” he said. “I know I was a little rough, and I’m starting to get a little more playing time now and hopefully I can capitalize on my play today.”


5. I’m not sure what to make of the defense. The Jackets turned two turnovers into scores and a third was returned for 69 yards and, while resulting in a turnover back to N.C. State, at least took the Wolfpack well outside of the red zone. Tech also had four three-and-outs in 11 possessions.

Pressure was effective, passes were broken up by tighter coverage, tackling was mostly pretty good. And yet N.C. State averaged 5.8 yards per play (matching its season average) and converted six of 12 third downs. The Wolfpack was 5-for-9 at halftime, so it wasn’t a function of playing against backups, either.

I guess that might just be what Tech’s defense is. Coach Paul Johnson used the word “opportunistic.” Another word might be resilient.

“We get some turnovers, find a way to get ’em stopped,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t look good all the time, but the results have been pretty good.”

Tech has forced 11 turnovers in the past three games (six against Pittsburgh) after forcing 10 in the first seven. I don’t know if that’s a sustainable model. But, it would appear, it’s the best shot Tech has right now.

“We’re trying to take advantage of every opportunity we have,” Marcordes said. “I know there’s some plays we don’t make that we should, but we’re taught just to keep fighting, play the next play, play the next down and do the best we can.”

It should be pointed that 5.8 yards per play and four three-and-outs is an improvement, and that, as has been noted before, the defense’s limitations were recognized before the season even began.

6. N.C. State gave Tech some help with a number of dropped passes or overthrown balls. It started on the second play, when the Wolfpack ran a flea-flicker to take advantage of the Jackets’ aggressiveness to the ball. Brissett overthrew an open Bryan Underwood. The offense was short-circuited over and over by drops on catchable passes. The most significant was Underwood’s inability to catch a pass thrown slightly behind him in the red zone, a pass that, after being kicked into the air by cornerback Chris Milton, turned into Nealy’s interception.

I imagine that’s partly how a team loses five out of six games. I remember Johnson saying more than once about Duke that the Blue Devils were a veteran team that wasn’t going to beat itself. I don’t remember him saying that about N.C. State this week.

I’m not saying N.C. State would have won without the drops, but it could have made Tech labor more for the win than it did.

7. B-back Synjyn Days continued his remarkable late-season run, gaining his third consecutive 100-yard rushing game. He had 157 yards on 19 carries Saturday, part of Tech’s staggering 479 rushing yards. It’s Tech’s most ever in an ACC game and the fourth most in a conference game in ACC history.

(Between the Virginia Tech and Miami games, when Tech was averaging a quite decent 292 rushing yards per game, Johnson said that “we need to be getting another 50 yards a game, 60 yards a game.” I thought it was a bit of a stretch, given that Tech’s best season average under Johnson was 323.3 yards, in 2010. After the 479-yard game Saturday, Tech’s average is 335.6. Its average since he made his proclamation is 364.7.)

The offensive line’s play is no small factor in the production. Right guard Shaquille Mason is playing at an All-ACC level, and I’d think center Freddie Burden would merit consideration, also. I mentioned this in the story for the paper and myajc, but on Days’ 53-yard touchdown run, Burden double-teamed a linebacker with Mason and then left him to pick up another linebacker, all before Days came charging through the hole. It was a remarkable effort.

“When you rush for whatever it was, 470, there’s somebody getting in the way,” Johnson said.

One of the most ticklish challenges Johnson may face is how he brings Zach Laskey back into the lineup when he is cleared to play. Clearly, Days is thriving with the additional carries he’s getting and is benefiting the team with his productivity. That said, Laskey was hardly flailing about when he was the starter. The standard protocol is that a player doesn’t lose his job because of an injury, but it would seem that Days has, at the very least, demonstrated that he needs more snaps. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude Days is a better option than Laskey.

But, again, if Laskey is available to play against Clemson, or Georgia, for that matter, how does Johnson divvy up snaps, particularly when every single possession could decide the game?

8. Cornerback D.J. White and Johnson shared their sides of a conversation (perhaps one-sided) that the two had early in the game. Defending the backside of a zone coverage, White played a safe coverage and “bailed out” when the N.C. State wide receiver ran an out route to the sideline. When he came to the sideline, Johnson said he told White, “’When there’s one receiver over there, you got him.’ And he took him.”

When N.C. State ran a similar play later, Marquez Valdes-Scantling ran an out route and White recognized the play. He read Brissett’s eyes and jumped the route, stepping in front of Valdes-Scantling for the interception and going 38 yards for the touchdown.

“I just saw guys competing on every throw, guys getting good breaks on the ball, competitive when the ball’s in the air, and that’s really what you want,” White said.

White’s big-play collection is growing – his late-game interception against Virginia Tech, his strip of James Conner against Pittsburgh and Saturday’s interception return for a touchdown, the first of his career.

9. A comment that Johnson made after the game – “It makes you sick the way we played the two we lost, but that’s football” – recalled a comment made by left guard Trey Braun after the loss to Duke. He said his father, a high school football coach, used to tell him “You never really understand what you lose when you lose.

Should Duke go on to win the Coastal at 7-1 or 6-2, I imagine the aggravation of both losses, to Duke and North Carolina, will be gnawing. I think most would agree both games were eminently winnable, particularly the North Carolina game, given that Tech actually led in the final minute and had any number of instances to make game-changing plays but didn’t.

But the Duke game, as well, had its moments. Had the Jackets been able to pull that game out, even with a loss to North Carolina, they would be in control of their divisional fate.

 


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