9 thoughts ahead of Georgia Tech-North Carolina

DURHAM, NC - SEPTEMBER 26: Jamal Golden #4 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets runs with the ball against the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Georgia Tech may look to its special teams, and returner Jamal Golden in particular, for a jump against North Carolina Saturday. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

It is obviously early, just a third of the way through the season, but the Georgia Tech defense has made a considerable leap in one key category – third-down conversion rate. Tech opponents are converting 31.03 percent of their third downs, which is 37th in the country. The Jackets were in the bottom 20 last season at 46.11 percent. The rate is influenced by games against Alcorn State and Tulane, obviously, but the same can be said of most teams. Further, Notre Dame and Duke were a combined 10-for-27 (37.04 percent), hardly shabby.

Against Duke, the Jackets were reasonably effective on third-and-short. Duke was 3-for-9 on third-and-4 or less and 3-for-7 on third-and-5 or longer.

It is the reversal of what has taken place with the offense. The Jackets tied the NCAA record for third-down efficiency last season (57.89, a number that is truly remarkable. Consider this, and I may have written this before – the second-best third-down team last year, Auburn, was closer to 16th than it was to first) but now are a scandalous 104th in the country at 34.69.

In coach Paul Johnson’s tenure at Tech, the Jackets have been above 50 percent four times and above 40 percent six times. The only sub-40 team was his first, which converted third downs at 36.65 percent.

In some ways, this team bears similarities with the 2008 team, which had a strong defense and also a lot of players (all of them, in the case of the 2008 team) who were learning to play in Johnson’s spread-option offense.

Regal fans

Susan Johnson, wife of coach Paul Johnson, will have two esteemed guests in her box Saturday – sisters Alae Risse Leitch and Jo Atchison, both of Atlanta. Mrs. Leitch turned 102 on Thursday. Her sister is 84.

The two have been Tech diehards for literally decades. They began attending games in the early 1920’s, coming from Toccoa by train to watch their uncle, All-American David “Red” Barron. They do not attend games as frequently anymore, and Mrs. Leitch now requires the use of a walker, but is otherwise well, as is Mrs. Atchison, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking on Friday.

Mrs. Atchison is hopeful for a Tech victory against North Carolina.

Game of contrasts

Saturday’s game will pit 2014’s fastest power-conference team against its slowest. Last year, according to cfbmatrix.com, the Tar Heels ran 3.28 plays per minute of possession, while Tech ran 2.18.

Interestingly, UNC was even faster than it was in 2013 (2.91), while Tech was even more deliberate (2.35 in 2013).

At least to a moderate degree, North Carolina won the pace matchup last year (as well as the game as a whole). The Tar Heels sped up (3.47 plays per minute) and so did the Jackets (2.48).

Two years ago, a 28-20 rain-soaked win for Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Jackets controlled the ball for 40:38, running 83 offensive plays to the Tar Heels’ 53. UNC increased its pace at 3.2 snaps per minute. Tech played slightly slower than its season average, 2.26 plays per minute.

The game ended in quintessential Tech fashion. Down 28-20 in the fourth quarter, North Carolina went three-and-out and punted the ball away to the Jackets with 6:27 to play. The Jackets drained the remaining time with a 13-play, 56-yard drive that included two third-down conversions.

In the 68-50 win over North Carolina in 2012, maybe the craziest game I’ve ever covered, Tech averaged 2.5 snaps per minute. The Tar Heels clipped along at 3.51 snaps per minute.

What does this mean? Not much. There’s sometimes talk when Tech plays an up-tempo team that the opponent’s coach is considering slowing down because it doesn’t want to fritter away possessions because of potential situations like the one that took place in 2013.

UNC coach Larry Fedora clearly didn’t make any concessions in any of the three games he’s coached in the series.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - OCTOBER 18: DeAndre Smelter #15 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets makes a catch against Brian Walker #28 of the North Carolina Tar Heels and runs it in for a touchdown during the third quarter of their game at Kenan Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 48-43. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Last year in Chapel Hill, N.C., former Tech wide receiver DeAndre Smelter caught two passes for 58 yards and ran a reverse 75 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Fast start important

The first quarter may matter Saturday more than most games. Given how the offense has played in the past two games, gaining an early edge and being able to settle down could be critical. Being at home, too, likely should give the Jackets comfort they’ve lacked the past two weeks.

The Jackets were behind Notre Dame 7-0 at the end of the first quarter and 19-3 to Duke at the end of the first quarter.

Said Johnson, “We’ve just got to relax and play.”

On the call

For the ESPNU broadcast, Clay Matvick will be on play by play. The analyst is John Congemi (a former Pittsburgh quarterback in the early 80’s) and the sideline reporter is John Kettering, who is also apparently a lacrosse producer for ESPN. That’s the second week in a row the sideline reporter has a lacrosse background. (File that under “News you can use.”) Maybe Jim Brown will handle the halftime interview next week.

I once again give a strong endorsement to the Tech radio team of Brandon Gaudin, Sean Bedford and Randy Waters.

Off the bench

I think coaches are eager to get B-back Marcus Marshall in the game, but need for his blocking to improve. As it’s been, coaches weren’t comfortable enough in his ability to block to send him in for plays where he would have to block. And if he’s only going in when he’s getting the ball, that makes the offense a bit predictable.

“His feet are as good as anybody in that (B-back) group, better than the other guys,” quarterbacks and B-backs coach Bryan Cook said. “Now he’s got to get better with some other parts of that job description, that’s all.”

On UNC

Offensive line coach Mike Sewak: “They’re pretty sound. They’re taking care of their business. They’re going through their assignments. You can watch them, they do a nice job with their eyes, especially the linebackers and the secondary. A lot of times, the secondary, with teams they play, they’re playing a lot of man. They’re going to watch (the ball), but you can see a linebacker, when a tight end’s blocking, you’ll see a linebacker fixated at him rather than on the ball, so you know that they’re studying their keys, so that’s the good thing. They’re playing blocks, not playing schemes, not trying to play plays.”

Linebacker coach Andy McCollum: “They’ve got the quarterback run game. They’ve got a great running back. They spread you out and run the football. If you load the box, they’re going to throw it and get it on the perimeter. You’ve got to beat blocks, got to make some one-on-one plays, make some tackles.”

Tickets

They’re still available, for as low as $30, mostly in the north upper deck end zone and upper east. More information here. For what it’s worth, the average sale price for a ticket as of Thursday on Stubhub was $56, down just $2 from last Friday, so there evidently hasn’t been a significant increase in supply or lowering of demand after the consecutive losses. (I knew my economics degree would someday pay off.) You could get tickets early Saturday for $15.47, though.

In closing

At his news conference Monday, Johnson made a self-correction that I found rather interesting. He was answering a question about how players sometimes get ahead of themselves in their thinking, and that they just need to commit to improving.

“It’s what this year’s team needs to do,” he said. “They’ve got to get better every week as we play. And if they’ll do that, the rest of the stuff will take care of itself. We could have easily last year lost a couple of those early games where we won. We found ways to win at the end. We’d have won that Duke game last year.”

What he meant, if it’s not clear, is that the loss to Duke last Saturday was the sort of game that the Jackets would have found a way to win last year. After he said that, though, Johnson paused before continuing.

“I shouldn’t say we would have won, because they were good on defense,” he said of the Blue Devils. “I don’t want to diminish what they did. Their kids played really good.”

It caught my attention because it was a rather gracious amendment to his answer. Not that Johnson isn’t capable of it, but it was interesting that he found it important to retract what he said, because I don’t think I didn’t think of his first comment as particularly egregious. Rather, I thought he made a rather valid observation about the 2014 team’s character.

This has little to do with the Tech-UNC game, but just thought it interesting.


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