Why Georgia Tech Is A Stumblin' Wreck

Four weeks ago, I wrote my first article defending Georgia Tech and predicting success for them this season. After this week's debacle against UNC, I am forced to eat my words and declare that Georgia Tech is nearly dead. I have been a student at Tech for 4 years, and I have never seen a game where a team was so close yet so incapable of winning. 

Statistically, Tech dominated UNC. But when it mattered most they choked, and choked hard. A week ago they were still favorites to win the ACC Coastal division, but now they look a team that will struggle to make a bowl game. This wasn’t how this season was supposed to go. The most frustrating part is that Tech is still very good. They’ve shown that they have the talent and the ability. But they’ve also shown that they apparently don’t have the nerve. Let’s break down the statistics and big moments in this game.

Total Yards
Possession Time
Plays Run
First Downs

(all according to ESPN)

Like I said before, Tech destroyed UNC statistically. No team that has twice the possession time of the other should ever lose the game, period. Adding to that point, Tech ran 21 more plays than UNC and gained 6 more first downs. If someone just read those stats, they could assume Tech won by at least two scores. Here’s a more detailed look at these numbers:

Time/Touchdown Drive

Tech’s seconds-per-play was a little high this week because Paul Johnson decided to change the play-calling system. Normally, the rotated-in A-back or B-back carries the play to the huddle. Starting Saturday, Justin Thomas received initial hand signals from an assistant coach and the team would line up. After lining up, Thomas would look back to the coaches for further information before finally snapping the ball. This looked odd at first, but it appeared to give Coach Johnson time to look at the defense and make appropriate corrections to the play.

To me, the statistics show that Tech was methodically better, UNC was just scoring more quickly. Three of UNC’s touchdown drives were under 7 plays (1, 5, and 6). Tech’s first three touchdown drives were 10, 14, and 13 plays. That speaks volumes to the pace of the game. Tech spent most of the game methodically marching down the field, but when UNC got favorable field position they struck quickly. This is best shown by Tech's 20 plays-per-touchdown vs UNC's 11.8.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The time-per-drive vs time-per-touchdown drive is one of the more intriguing comparisons in my opinion. Tech spent almost exactly twice as much time on touchdown drives as they did on drives that didn’t result in touchdowns. In stark opposition are UNC’s drive times. They are nearly identical, no matter if it was a touchdown drive or not. No UNC drive went over 4 minutes, and less than half of their drives went over 2 minutes. Tech is still one of the better teams in the country at eating clock on long touchdown drives, but they fail to do much on other drives. No non-touchdown drive for Tech went over 8 plays (and that one included an extra 4th down attempt). It seems that if Tech gets a drive going early, they can score easily. If a drive starts off poorly, it doesn’t have much of a chance of going anywhere. Unsurprisingly, the shorter non-touchdown drives contained the majority of the passing plays for Tech.

In tennis, one player can actually win more points than the other, but still lose the match by losing the key points that matter the most. That is precisely what happened to Tech on Saturday. This game was a classic example of how a team can do everything right, but manage to lose because of a few key breakdowns. 

Offensive Breakdowns

For much of the game, UNC struggled to fully defend the option offense. Tech’s A-backs were gaining huge yards every play, and they were eating up the clock. There were only 3 cases where Tech’s offense broke down, and they weren’t necessarily the option’s fault:

1. With 1:30 left in the first half, Tech ran three straight passing plays in an effort to gain a quick score, but instead wound up going 3-and-out in just 33 seconds, giving UNC the opportunity to march down the field and make the halftime score 21-14 instead of 21-7. Tech got greedy instead of just running out the clock going into halftime. 

2. Up 28-24 in the second half, Tech went for it on 4th and 1 on the goal line, but chose to run the exact same play they ran on 3rd and 1, and were sufficiently stuffed. Instead of taking an easy 3 points to go up 7, they made a questionable play call and turned the ball over. 

3. On their very next drive, Tech had the ball on the UNC 37 and Justin Thomas fumbled on the first play of the drive. This was just about Thomas’s only mistake all game, but it was very costly as Tech was in a great position to score. 

These three situations, comprising about 1 total minute of game play, represent either a 13 point swing (assuming no UNC touchdown on #1, scoring a field goal on #2, and a field goal on #3) or a 17 point swing (same but touchdown on #3). That 1 minute of play immensely changed the tone of the game.

Defensive Breakdowns

Much like the offense, Tech’s defense played very well for most of the game. They did a decent job of stopping the run for players not named Marquise Williams, and did a superb job stopping the passing game. The only major issues occurred on plays where Williams scrambled for 30 yards at a time. Of course, it didn't help that star defensive lineman Adam Gotsis was ejected in the first half for a questionable targeting call. Again, I’ll highlight a couple examples of where the defense broke down:

1. With Tech up 21-0 and roughly 4:30 left in the half, the defense allowed two quick touchdown drives by UNC. The first one took 3 minutes, and the second one took just 52 seconds. To this point in the game, UNC had only gained 57 yards, but all of a sudden, the defense started leaving gaping holes for Marquise Williams to exploit. Even by just getting a stop on one of those drives, Tech could have drastically changed the game. 

2. In the fourth quarter with UNC leading 31-28, Tech need a big stop to regain the lead, but instead gave up a touchdown on the first play of the drive. The play? a double wide receiver reverse where Quinshad Davis threw a 37 yard pass to a wide open Marquise Wil liams. Yes, the quarterback Marquise Williams. At the biggest defensive point in the game, Tech gave up a trick play touchdown.

Special Teams Breakdowns

For what feels like the 100000th week in a row, Tech’s special teams hugely let them down. Fortunately, Harrison Butker made his only field goal attempt, but that was the only bright spot. These are the two biggest blunders: 

1. On a positive note, Ryan Rodwell only had to punt on one occasion. Unfortunately, that punt was a fumbled snap that he barely got off in time for 23 yards. Even worse, this punt occurred on Tech’s quick 3-and-out at the end of the first half, and the 23 yard boot gave UNC a short field to score a quick touchdown. If the punt had even just gone Rodwell’s season average of 40.7 yards, UNC would have had a much more difficult time scoring that touchdown. 

2. After the Butker field goal made it 31-38, Tech attempted an onside kick with 2:40 to go and miraculously recovered it (If you recall, they also did this against Notre Dame two weeks ago late in the game). Problem is, the ball barely grazed a Tech player 9.5 yards downfield. Now I am of course not at all blaming this on any Tech player, this is just an example of terrible luck and timing. If the ball had gone an inch to the right, Tech would’ve legally recovered with a great chance to tie up the game. 

Jason Getz-USA TODAY SportsI’d like to take a moment to single out how well Justin Thomas played in this game. He went 12-21 for 168 yards and 1 score, and added 56 yards and 2 scores rushing (I am ignoring his 1 interception on the final hail mary play because it was a desperation heave). It's rare that a Tech option quarterback has such a great game both rushing and passing. Aside from his one costly fumble he looked sharp the entire game, making great reads and pitches. This game proves that he can’t carry the team on his own, other players need to step up around him. He played just about as well as Tech could have asked him to but it still wasn’t enough. 

What’s to Blame

A lot of people will start calling for Paul Johnson’s head, but I think thats the wrong way of looking at it. When specifically looking at the UNC game, this point still holds. UNC struggled the entire game to stop the option. They started protecting the B-back run in the second half, but outside pitches still gashed the defense for 5-7 yards at a time. Justin Thomas also added a few great runs himself on QB keepers. The offensive problem with this game was absolutely not the option. In fact, the problem was not running the option enough. This has become a recurring problem for Tech in the past 3 games. They get down a few points, panic, and start throwing the ball too much, and going for too much. Thomas has attempted 20+ passes in each of the last 3 games. To put that into perspective, the most passes he attempted during a game in the 2014 season was just 11. Paul Johnson just honestly doesn’t look like himself. They don’t need to get rid of the option, they need to run it even more. Tech needs get rid of the short drives that go nowhere and commit to purposefully running the option and running down the clock.

Season Outlook

I don’t want to sound fatalistic, but Tech has almost completely resigned itself from the ACC Coastal race. Now two games (and the head-to-head tiebreaker) behind Duke, it's a tough road ahead. Obviously Tech absolutely needs to win out if they want a chance, but they also need a lot of help from other teams. Currently, Duke is projected to lose two ACC games at Virginia Tech (39.6% chance to win) and at North Carolina (25.8% chance to win). They are also about a 50-50 shot at Miami (54% chance to win). Speaking of Miami, they are only favored to win 2 ACC games, and projected to lose their remaining 6. In an almost ironic twist of fate, UNC is now Georgia Tech’s biggest problem. UNC is projected to win all their remaining ACC games except for at NC State (49.7% chance to win). Tech needs UNC to lose at least two and that currently looks like a tall order, but it's not impossible. Here is the most likely scenario where Tech could rise back to the top of the Coastal:

1. Tech wins out

2. Duke loses to VT, UNC, and Miami

3. UNC loses to NC State and VT

4. Miami loses at least one more game other than Tech

This would cover Tech’s current deficit to Duke and UNC, and a win over Miami would keep them ahead of the Hurricanes. Its definitely a long-shot, but the Coastal historically a marathon rather than a sprint. Next week’s trip to Death Valley to face Clemson is absolutely the point of no return for the Yellow Jackets. With a loss against the Tigers, Tech is just about mathematically eliminated. Hopefully they can turn their season around and make a statement win against a Clemson team that didn’t look great against a less-than perfect Notre Dame on Saturday. 

As far as everything outside of ACC play, Tech doesn’t have much left but the rivalry game against UGA in late November. Luckily for Tech, UGA looks like an absolute debacle of a team after the Alabama game, and ESPN currently gives GT a 44.6% chance to win. I know plenty of students that would be willing for us to go 3-9 this season as long as it meant we got the win agains the bulldogs. 

Let’s pretend for a moment that Tech does manage to win out, what would that mean on a national scale? Well, it would mean a GT team that went 9-3 with wins against a top-10 Clemson, top-20 Florida State, and top-something UGA. Not to mention that they would then likely (maybe) be playing for the ACC Championship against either Clemson or Florida State, and with a hypothetical win against both of those teams already under their belt, Tech would surely be confident in that game. At the time of the ACC Championship game, Tech would surely be ranked, probably in the top 20. Does losing to Duke and UNC early and then making the top 20 and the ACC Championship sound familiar? It does, because thats exactly what happened last year to Tech. I’m not saying this is at all a likely scenario (ESPN gives Tech a 2.3% chance of winning out), but it is at least a possible one. 

All these hypothetical points sum up to one thing: Tech is down, but they aren’t out. Three losses is by no means the end to a season, and there’s a lot of football left to play. It looks bleak, but the Jackets certainly have the ability to turn this season around. Through 5 games every position has shown they can have good games, they just need to put it all together at once. They are certainly in dangerous territory, with little room for error, but its nothing this team hasn’t faced before. 

Upcoming Games