9 takeaways from Tech win over Clemson

Georgia Tech cornerback Chris Milton was one of the stars of Tech's 28-6 win over Clemson. His 62-yard interception return for a touchdown was one of two defensive scores for the Yellow Jackets. (HYOSUB SHIN/AJC)

Georgia Tech cornerback Chris Milton was one of the stars of Tech’s 28-6 win over Clemson. His 62-yard interception return for a touchdown was one of two defensive scores for the Yellow Jackets. (HYOSUB SHIN/AJC)

(Sorry for the delay. I actually had it up Sunday, but some technical issues were afoot.)

1. Almost seven years ago, Dan Radakovich, then Georgia Tech’s athletic director, hired Paul Johnson from Navy in part due to this notion – Johnson had challenged and beaten power conference teams with an unorthodox offense and lesser talent. Given Tech’s continual recruiting challenges to recruit at the same tier as its competition, Johnson appeared a logical fit.

While Johnson’s offense was hardly at its peak Saturday, I had to wonder at how Radakovich processed the day’s events, as the Tigers (eight four- and five-star recruits in 2014, according to Rivals, $25 million in football spending in ’13-’14, according to the U.S. Department of Education) fell to the Yellow Jackets (one such signee, $19 million in spending) 28-6. The differential was almost as many points as Clemson beat Tech by last fall (55-31).Tech’s offense did what it has often done – limit the game’s possessions, exploit mistakes for big plays and convert third downs – even against a defense ranked No. 2 in the country in total defense and No. 1 in tackles for loss and third-down conversion rate.

If I had to guess, he didn’t like his team losing, but I think he still has a spot somewhere in his heart for Tech and always will. Radakovich and Johnson were close, and I imagine still are. I imagine he is glad to see Tech winning, Saturday besides.

The other thought I had about Radakovich is that he’ll presumably be able to provide a firsthand account of Tech to the College Football Playoff selection committee this week. Per committee policy, Radakovich recuses himself when Clemson is discussed, but not Tech, which is ranked No. 22 and will likely rise when the new rankings come out Tuesday.


Cornerback D.J. White’s interception of Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt was a virtually identical play to the one he made on Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer. White retreated in zone coverage as Clemson ran a “smash route” – a combination in which the outside receiver and inside receiver run a combination of a short and long route, one a hitch and the other a corner route. White showed he was defending the short route.

“Just tried to read the quarterback’s eyes, bait him a little bit and as soon as I saw him cock his arm back, just sank on the throw and went up and got it,” White said.

He did the same thing against Brewer. You can see the clips here and here.

“Same exact coverage, same exact route combination, pretty much same technique,” he said. “Everything was pretty much the same except it was on the opponent’s sideline this time. Shoot, man, just thankful to get it.”

White can be forgiven for not having the details quite right. Virginia Tech’s inside receiver ran a deep corner and the outside receiver ran a short hitch. Clemson’s receivers both ran routes to the sideline. Otherwise, it was largely the same.

Both were extremely significant. White’s interception Saturday was the first play from scrimmage after the Jackets had driven 75 yards on the opening possession of the second half to take a 16-3 lead. Tech cashed in the interception for a field goal and a 19-3 lead. Against Virginia Tech, White intercepted Brewer after Georgia Tech had tied the game with 2:03 left in the game. That was also on the first play of the next possession, and gave the Jackets the ball with enough time to hit the game-winning field goal as time expired.

White’s other interception was against N.C. State last week, returned 38 yards for a  touchdown. Further, White made perhaps one of the (other) plays of the season, chasing down Pittsburgh’s James Conner to strip him of the ball just shy of the goal line. That’s a pretty remarkable collection of plays.

3. I would have liked to have seen what Tech’s defense would have done with Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson in the game healthy, but, satisfying my requests for what I want out of a football game usually isn’t high on anyone’s list. Watson and Clemson’s offense appeared to be finding his stride when he suffered his knee injury on the third drive of the third quarter. Watson was getting loose for gains on keepers and was also completing passes.

Clemson’s offense completely hit a wall when Watson left as Tech packed the box and made running a virtual impossibility for the Tigers. Clemson ran 12 times for 57 yards before Watson’s injury. The Tigers ran 20 more times after that for 68 yards (3.4 yards per carry). The overall numbers were 125 rushing yards on 32 carries for 3.9 yards per carry.

They were “definitely trying to stop the run and make them throw the ball,” linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said.

It’s impressive and an incredible improvement upon Tech’s numbers against Pitt, for instance (31 rushes for 198 yards). Tackling was better. Pass rush was more effective. There did not seem to be many blown assignments.

But, the reality is that, with Cole Stoudt at quarterback, the Tigers haven’t been very effective running the ball. They averaged 2.2 rushing yards against Louisville (the game Watson left with his injury), 3.2 yards per carry against Boston College and 3.5 against Syracuse. Even against Wake Forest, the performance was hardly robust (3.9 yards per carry).

Tech is playing better defensively, but of its past three opponents, Virginia, N.C. State and Clemson are hardly offensive powerhouses. Virginia entered the weekend tied for 93rd in yards per rush (5.17). N.C. State was 54th (5.79). Clemson was 79th (5.39).

As Clemson’s defense was the best that Tech’s offense had faced all season, the Georgia offense might be the best offense that the Jackets will have seen, although the status of running back Todd Gurley may change things.

4. That said, the Tech defense shouldn’t have to apologize for who it has played. I’m not quite sure what to make of the way the defense has played the past four weeks – four takeaways in the first six snaps against Pittsburgh, 22 rushing yards allowed against Virginia, two defensive touchdowns and 12 second-half defensive plays against N.C. State and two more defensive scores and 190 yards of total defense against Clemson. But it’s been quite a run.

“I was very confident in our defense and the scheme that Coach (Ted) Roof had for us coming in,” White said. “I felt like, if we executed, I felt like we could be very effective today. Now, six points, that’s probably something I didn’t see coming. At the same time, our defense, they really stepped it up.”

Players and coaches deserve credit for the serial playmaking. In Tech’s modern era, the Jackets had eight games prior to this season in which they had scored two defensive touchdowns in a game. They’ve now had two in the past two games. After the North Carolina debacle, I posited in this space that the defense, due to inexperience and deficiencies on the front, was what it was going to be, and I quite clearly was wrong. I don’t know how things would have turned out with Watson in the lineup, but, even without him, it was still an impressive performance.

Stoudt was clearly not at his best, but he’s still an ACC quarterback who had led the Tigers to wins in Clemson’s past four games and was completing 63.4 percent of his passes. Holding any offense under 200 yards is an accomplishment. It’s only been done seven times in ACC play this season (four times to Wake Forest – yikes). No one had done it to Clemson since 2011.

“We played pretty good in the last game (against N.C. State) in the second half, but it was really hard to gauge, because we only played 12 plays in the second half, but we carried it forward today,” Johnson said, “and today was the best we’ve played, definitely, bar none.”

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5. Tech obviously managed without nose tackle Shawn Green, who was held out with a knee injury. The Jackets started Patrick Gamble in his place and used a rotation of Roderick Rook-Chungong, Antonio Simmons and I believe Tyler Stargel at end opposite KeShun Freeman. Rook-Chungong had two tackles and Simmons four.

Green now has two weeks to rest before the Georgia game.

6. Having covered both Tech’s men’s basketball win over Georgia Friday night and Saturday’s football win over Clemson caused me to wonder – when was the last time both teams won such significant victories on back-to-back nights?

It’s a fairly small pool because a) basketball teams typically don’t play noteworthy games this early in the year; b) Tech’s football team hasn’t won a lot of significant games in late November (ahem); c) you’d think there would be a Tech bowl win coupled with an early-season ACC basketball win, but I couldn’t find one.

Last year, actually, Tech’s football team played Clemson and the basketball team played Georgia on successive nights. The football team lost to Clemson on a Thursday night, 55-31, Nov. 14, and then the basketball team beat Georgia 80-71 in Athens the following night.

In 2012, the basketball team opened McCamish Pavilion with a win over Tulane Nov. 9 and then the football team beat North Carolina in the 68-50 game the next day. I’d say that’s in the ballpark, but not quite the same thing.

On Nov. 28, 1998, the football team beat Georgia 21-19 in Athens and, on the same day, the basketball team beat a West Virginia team that had gone to the NCAA tournament the previous season in a tournament in Hawaii, but lost the next day to a ranked Washington team.

It wasn’t successive days, but perhaps the best combination I could find before I decided I should probably move on was the football team beating Georgia on Dec. 2, 1989, the year before the national championship season (Tech went 7-4 that year and didn’t go to a bowl, back in a day when there weren’t 39 bowl games). Two days later, the basketball team, ranked No. 21, beat No. 18 Pittsburgh, in a season that would end at the Final Four.

So, a pretty rare weekend for Tech.

7. Attendance was 49,378, which was, curiously, the third-highest total for the season, following Georgia Southern (53,173) and Miami (52,221). I’d say ticket pricing had a lot to do with it. The $75 pricing for the least expensive seats in the house missed the mark. Interestingly, the discounted seats in the upper north end zone (they were dropped to $50 in the middle of this past week) appeared to have been purchased mostly by Clemson fans.

It’s the lowest attendance for a Tech-Clemson game since the stadium was expanded before the 2003 season. If you remember, the Clemson game had been on the odd-year schedule with the Georgia and Virginia Tech games. Tech had long had an interest in moving the Clemson game to an even-year schedule, a request I believe was rescinded after Dan Radakovich left Tech for Clemson, but which became a reality anyway when the conference expanded to 14 teams and a few teams had to play road games in 2012 and 2013 against the same opponents to balance out the schedule.

But, anyway, a possibility is that perhaps the Clemson game was kind of along for the ride with the Georgia game on the odd-year season ticket, and was not as much of a sales driver, as thought.

8. Tech’s jump up the College Football Playoff rankings could be considerable. I’ve noted previously that teams haven’t necessarily been penalized for losing, but No. 16 Nebraska lost 59-24 to No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 17 LSU lost to an Arkansas team that hadn’t won in the SEC, No. 18 Notre Dame lost at home to a so-so Northwestern team and Tech trounced No. 19 Clemson. Plus, No. 21 Duke lost, too.

No. 9 Auburn, a decisive 34-7 loser to Auburn, perhaps could fall past Tech. Tech may be No. 17 or 18 when the rankings come out Tuesday.

Regarding the “Florida State moves up to the College Football Playoff” scenario, this puts Tech in great shape for the Orange Bowl, if the Jackets do become the second highest-ranked ACC team after Florida State. If FSU gets picked, the Orange Bowl will take the second highest-ranked conference team.

Tech dodged a bullet when Miami wasn’t able to knock off Florida State Saturday night. It would have presumably put Miami in the top 25 and possibly even ahead of Tech. Such a possibility seems remote now. But, as things stand now, Tech is probably in the driver’s seat. If it can beat No. 15 Georgia, or even stay close, the Jackets would figure to stay the No. 2 team behind ACC, no matter what Duke does in its final two games. (Unless, of course, it wins both and beats Florida State in the ACC title game, in which case it would get the automatic berth.)

Of course, Tech’s preferred scenario would be for Duke to lose one of its next two games, go to the ACC title game and beat Florida State to make the Orange Bowl. I think that would be a very interesting game. I imagine the Seminoles would much rather face Duke than the Jackets. Duke and North Carolina play Thursday night, by the way.

9. Some numbers: Tech has won four consecutive ACC games by 20 or more points. That’s the second longest such streak in the conference in the past 10 years, according to ESPN.

By total defense, Tech has played the Nos. 2 (Clemson), 11 (Miami), 20 (Pittsburgh), 30 (Virginia Tech) and 32 (Virginia) defenses in the country. The Jackets have averaged 424 yards against those team.

Johnson is 7-2 at home against ranked opponents. Interestingly, the Jackets had lost their previous eight games against ranked teams before Saturday, but six of those losses were either on the road or at neutral sites.

Clemson had not been held without a touchdown since losing 13-3 to Tech in Sept. 2007.

Tech was penalized twice for 10 yards, and one of them was a deliberate delay-of-game penalty. It’s the season low for number of penalties and yardage.

Tech has now won five in a row over Clemson in Atlanta.
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