To get our collective minds off what summed up to be a debacle in Miami Gardens, the Hokies will venture south once more this weekend to square off against Paul Johnson's infamous triple-option attack. While that's not a sentence I ever envisioned writing, there's some comfort in knowing that road teams have enjoyed booming success of late in this annual Coastal division clash.
To get a first-hand look at what's stunted Georgia Tech's once-promising season thus far, I spoke to Ken Sugiura, longtime beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
JC: The Jackets have stumbled through the last month, dropping 3 of their last four to move to 4-4 on the year. Can that simply be attributed to a tougher October schedule, or has the miserably poor weather truly wreaked havoc on Georgia Tech's triple-option offense?
KS: The loss to Miami was a one-point decision that could have turned on one play. The loss to Clemson was a decisive 14-point defeat in what has become a bad matchup for the Jackets. The loss to Virginia was less explicable, a bad performance against a team that shouldn't have beaten the Jackets, even at home. As such, I don't know if it's one particular thing, whether it's level of competition or the weather (Tech has been rained on heavily in each of those losses, as have their opponents, obviously). I think what has also contributed is Tech not playing great right now, making a lot of mistakes, showing vulnerability at the offensive tackle spots, not being effective in the passing game and not playing as well defensively against better offenses.
JC: Given the 9-4 campaign in 2016, I'd imagine Paul Johnson's feeling fairly comfortable in Atlanta right now. But with an early-season matchup against UCF cancelled due to Hurricane Irma, Georgia Tech must win 2 of their last 3 to go bowling this year (assuming only 6-win bowl teams). Is this just another year on the college football roller-coaster for Johnson?
KS: I'd say so, although there haven't been that many dips in his tenure. I imagine he must be really frustrated with the way the season has gone, as are, obviously players and fans. I know a lot of teams can make "woulda/coulda" arguments, but Tech was one play away from beating Tennessee in the opener and the same against Miami. If those games had gone different, even with the Virginia loss, the Jackets would be 6-2 without the team being materially different than what they are. Tech's teams rarely win big, so, for them to have seasons like last year's, a lot of things have to go their way. While no one ever seems to play the "woulda/coulda" game the opposite way, Tech could easily have been 5-7 last year instead of 8-4 in the regular season with a bowl win to top if off. But, yes, he's safe. He has the support of athletic director Todd Stansbury.
JC: TaQuon Marshall's taken the reigns of Johnson's offense this year and impressively leads the Jackets in both total passing and total rushing. What's the book on Marshall? Are there weaknesses you see Bud Foster hoping to exploit?
KS: Tough runner with an explosive gear, is improving at running the option, great leader, needs development in the passing game. He's had some tough games throwing the ball – he was 6-for-22 against UVA and 3-for-13 against Clemson. It sort of stands to reason, but the more the Hokies can put the Jackets in third and long, the better, because Georgia Tech is vulnerable there. Typically, Georgia Tech is about 80/20 run/pass, but the Jackets have been significantly higher than that this season, in part because the pass game isn't as reliable. One reason Marshall threw 22 times was that Virginia was giving the Jackets opportunities there, but they couldn't make the Cavaliers pay.
JC: Last year, we touched on the inconsistency of Ted Roof's defense popping up at inopportune times for an otherwise strong Georgia Tech team. How much better has Roof's unit been this year? Is it primarily a story of "Jimmy's and Joe's", or has Roof refined his "X's and O's"?
KS: I think the defense is better, but is showing some leaks. The tackling is overall better and the veteran secondary (five returning starters) has largely been dependable. I think the scheme has been a little more aggressive in terms of blitzes and tighter coverage, which has often paid off. Tech is eighth nationally in third-down efficiency after ranking 126th last year, so credit is due for being able to get off the field. But it's been an inconsistent group and it's also benefited from playing offenses that weren't terribly effective. The unit also hasn't been great at the end of halves, a source of frustration for Johnson.
JC: Georgia Tech dispatched the Hokies in Lane Stadium last year with relative ease, a 30-20 victory that never felt quite that close. What's the key for the Yellow Jackets to make it two in a row on Saturday afternoon?
KS: That was a crazy game. Georgia Tech was without its starting quarterback, center, B-back (fullback) and one of its offensive tackles and beat the eventual Coastal champions in one of the two loudest stadiums in the league. In terms of point spread, it was the most unlikely win of coach Paul Johnson's tenure. For the second win in a row, I imagine the Jackets would need some more of the same fortune that befell them in Blacksburg last year, when they recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff to take an early lead and then gained three more takeaways after that. On paper, the conditions don't seems to favor a repeat. Georgia Tech has accrued 10 takeaways this season in eight games, while the Hokies have lost only the same number.
JC: Prediction time: who wins Saturday, and why?
KS: I'm going to have to beg off this one. I'm actually not covering the team this week, as I'm with the Jackets basketball team in China, so I don't have much of a feel on this one. I do know that the Hokies have won a lot of close games in the series since Johnson's hire, and it certainly looks like Virginia Tech is well equipped to play Georgia Tech tough again. I do know that the Jackets are struggling to play consistently, which isn't what you want in mid-November. Georgia Tech will probably have to summon its best game of the season in all three phases, and just looking at it logically, chances are against all three hitting top form in the same game. But, as we all have learned again this season, college football games don't necessarily function in logical fashion.