Nov. 11, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
Scatter-shooting in the wake of Georgia Tech’s 37-26 loss to Virginia Thursday night as many thoughts keep bubbling about a game in which two plays continue to be talked about far more than others and with good reason:
# The second came when head coach Paul Johnson opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Yellow Jackets’ 31-yard-line when the Jackets trailed 27-26 about a minute into the fourth quarter.
Johnson explained after the game he made the call for two straight-forward reasons: “I felt like we needed to score,” he said, and, “I thought we could make a yard.”
With a coach whose reputation is to go for it more often than most, the decision wasn’t as shocking as it might be in many college precincts although it was surprising still. There are several pieces of background information to consider.
It would be difficult to argue Johnson’s hunch that points were going to prove essential because there was growing evidence that the Jackets’ chances of stopping the Hokies were slim whether after a punt or a loss of downs, and the Jackets have had significant problems punting the ball as well.
After forcing Virginia Tech to punt to end the Hokies’ first two possessions, Georgia Tech never really stopped the visitors again save a David Wilson fumble that was both poked loose by linebacker Julian Burnett and by Wilson banging into a teammate at the same time.
Here is Virginia Tech’s drive chart: punt, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, fumble (even on this possession Virginia Tech drove 72 yards on seven plays), touchdown (soon after this came the fourth-and-1 decision by Johnson), touchdown, field goal, take a knee.
Georgia Tech’s defense has been better this season than last, and played well enough to win for several consecutive weeks – even at Virginia and Miami. Thursday, the Jackets lost track of the Hokies after VPI’s first two possessions.
So, Tevin Washington’s sneak came up short. “Maybe we could have had a better play call,” Johnson said. “We didn’t execute the one that was called.”
About that, Washington said, “I should have followed the block. I tried to sneak.”
I take that to mean the play called for Washington to fake a handoff to the B-back, the B-back to block, and Washington to follow him.
# The first play was linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu’s un-necessary roughness penalty in the third quarter. Rather than drop back to receive a Virginia Tech punt from what would have been the VPI 15-yard-line, the Jackets kept alive the visitor’s drive by penalty.
Virginia Tech scored soon enough to re-take the lead for good, 27-26.
There is a wide range of opinion available on Georgia Tech message boards about the play, Attaochu’s intent or lack thereof, and potential ramifications down the line.
I’m not getting into any of that here, but I’ll get into this:
At the point of the foul, Tech led 26-21 and had out-gained the Hokies 339 yards to 320. From that point, Virginia Tech out-scored the Jackets 16-0 and out-gained Georgia Tech 156 yards to 1. After that penalty, Georgia Tech had possessions go for 9 yards, -5 and -3.
Somehow, Attaochu’s infraction impacted both his defensive unit and the offense. How often do you see a non-scoring play swing a game so dramatically?
# Georgia Tech’s tackling was at a season-low ebb. The Jackets sure seemed to tackle high frequently, and that was a big problem against big VPI quarterback Logan Thomas (6-6, 254 pounds at least). He’s a load, as his coach said.
The Jackets weren’t a whole lot more successful bringing down David Wilson, who rushed for 175 net yards (192 gross).
# The cornerbacks had a rough, rough night. The Hokies completed just seven passes (out of 13), but averaged a sliver under 30 yards per completion. Georgia Tech’s CBs were usually on the wrong end of those plays. On several they appeared to be in position to make a play, but didn’t.
# All of the defensive news, when added to a modest pass rush, enabled Virginia Tech to win the game on third and fourth downs.
The Jackets entered the game No. 1 in the nation in third-down conversion rate with an all-universe 57.6 percent rate and a league-best 52.7 clip in ACC-only games.
Thursday, they converted a modest 5-of-13 (38.5 percent). Georgia Tech also failed to convert two fourth downs although two other fourth downs became first downs by way of Virginia Tech penalties.
Eight times the Jackets faced third-and-5 or longer, and they converted just one and kicked a field goal as time expired in the first half on another.
The Hokies converted 10 of 16 third downs, and that doesn’t tell the entire story.
Of those 16 third downs, the Hokies either converted on that down or fourth down 12 times (thanks to making both of their fourth-down attempts).
They also kicked a field goal on fourth down, and Attaochu’s mistake meant that a third down counted statistically as a failure was actually a success because the penalty brought an automatic first down.
So, to recap, Virginia Tech failed on its first two third downs of the game (and then punted on fourth), and after that the Hokies met with success of some sort on their final 14 third downs when including the fourth downs that followed on the four non-third-down conversions.
That is absolutely stunning.
Also, Virginia Tech faced third-and-6 or longer nine times in the game, and only ONCE did the Hokies fail in those situations if you add what happened on fourth downs thereafter.
They converted from third-and-13 yards to go (33-yard pass by Thomas), 1 (2-yard Thomas run), 7 (18-yard pass by Thomas), 6 (9-yard pass from Thomas for a touchdown), 12 (34-yard pass by Thomas), 11 (38-yard pass by Thomas), and 7 yards (14-yard pass by Thomas for a touchdown).
That’s seven conversions, and after a third-and-7 in the fourth quarter, Virginia Tech kicked a field goal for the game’s final points on fourth down.
Thomas, who threw for three touchdown passes and ran for two, ran for a first down on third down four times, passed for a first down on third down six times, and rushed for a first down on one fourth down and a touchdown on another.
He had a hand in all 12 third- and fourth-down conversions, and Virginia Tech scored three touchdowns on third down, and one on fourth.
That, too, is stunning.
Backtracking to Johnson’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Georgia Tech 31, a wise friend suggested that part of the reason the coach made that call probably had to do with Johnson’s confidence.
He was probably comfortable – for lack of another word — answering for it, or being accountable for it afterward where many coaches might shy away from that call in part for not wanting to have to answer to their constituencies in the event the play didn’t work.
It’s an interesting thought.
This much I know: Paul Johnson’s not shying away from anything.
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