Counter-Punched

Sept. 25, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

It is doubtful that many people in Bobby Dodd Stadium Saturday pre-figured Georgia Tech facing a critical third-and-3 on their own 27-yard-line even though it was only the middle of the second quarter.

But that’s where the Yellow Jackets were, trailing 10-0 and lucky to be that close — unless you have a different definition for going three-and-out three times and losing fumbles on two other possessions while N.C. State’s lead-pipe cinch kicker missed two modest field goal tries.

The Jackets to that point in the season had been schizophrenic.

The good news was that Joshua Nesbitt ran for 6 yards and later converted a fourth-and-1 as the Jackets put together a 10-play, 80-yard drive with Orwin Smith’s 10-yard touchdown run. Score: 10-7 with 2:30 left in the half. Tech would receive the second-half kickoff so one stop would be golden.

The bad news was not just that N.C. State counter-punched to take a 17-7 halftime lead with 22 seconds left in the half, several more critical situations would arise, and schizophrenia remains in play.

We don’t know yet what the Jackets are and they may not know, either. But there are ominous signs.

Four games of evidence support the notion that Tech is no passing team, but that was known. The defense has not been successful often enough against quality opposition, save the last quarter-plus at North Carolina. That’s not entirely unexpected, although the volume of opponents’ success against that D has been greater than could have been rightly predicted.

Beyond all this, the Jackets play as if in doubt at times.

They mix defenses with sporadic success. On offense, they try to run plays much as they have the past two seasons, but from time to time mis-execute pitch and handoff plays as if they’re new to the offense.

To my eye, Nesbitt doesn’t seem as confident in the pitch game as he did last season. I can’t say for sure, but I’m not certain his decision-making is as finely tuned as it was last fall. Add up the fumbled or dropped pitches and botched handoffs, and I bet through four games they may equal six or seven games worth last season.

In Tech’s first five possessions, the Jackets went three-and-out twice, had a punt blocked and pounced upon for a touchdown, and lost two fumbles. One came when B-back Anthony Allen couldn’t handle a pitch from Joshua Nesbitt, and the other came when Nesbitt tried to fake a handoff to Allen and the ball came loose as he tried to pull the ball from his back’s gut.

“We came out flat on offense,” Allen said. “We weren’t blocking the right guys, and we were putting the ball on the ground, including myself. [On the second fumble], Josh was trying to pull-pitch the ball, and I think when he pulled back the ball, it was so wet from us perspiring all over it . . . it messed up in his hands.”

Prevailing theory before the season suggested that the arrival of defensive coordinator Al Groh and his 3-4 alignment would right much of what ailed Tech on that side of the ball, and the Jackets would do what they do on offense.

There seemed enough pieces in place to presume, which may have been a mistake.

Sure, Tech lost five players to the NFL, but with more seniors than in several years and experience returning at many positions the Jackets were supposed to know what they’re trying to do.

That’s not the look, though, of these Jackets. Indecision rears its head.

Sean Poole replaced Chandler Anderson at punter for this game in part because Poole gets rid of the ball quicker. At that point, with the Jackets backed up to their 21-yard-line, assistant coach Charles Kelly sent out Anderson. Poole’s first punt had gone for 35 yards.

“We needed to create some field position. Chandler hit some bombs in practice this week,” Kelly said. “I made the decision to try to try to get a boomer out of there. They came with a good scheme, and we didn’t block it very well.”

N.C. State’s first score came when the Wolfpack blocked that punt and scored on a 1-yard return, the first time Tech’s given up blocked-punt-touchdown since 1996. Several `Packers could have blocked it.

From head coach Paul Johnson’s vantage point, “It looked to me like it was a jailbreak, and it looked to me like it took [Anderson] forever to kick the ball.” Trailing 17-7 at halftime after N.C. State went 69 yards in nine plays and 1:59 after Tech’s first score to take a 10-point lead with 22 seconds left in the half, Nesbitt went 61 yards, a career long, on the first play of the second half. That moved the ball to the N.C. State 3.

But on first and goal, he and his backs were on different pages, missed a handoff, and Nesbitt went down for a 1-yard loss.

Then, Roddy Jones scored on the next play to pull Tech to within 17-14. N.C. State – which had 265 yards of offense in the first half, 219 off the arm of uber-talented quarterback Russell Wilson – countered hard. On the `Pack’s two possessions following Tech’s second score, Wilson completed 11 of 13 passes for 150 yards and before long Tech was in arrears 31-14.

N.C. State kept beating Tech to the punch, and counter-punched every time the Jackets landed a blow.

When the Jackets pulled to within 31-28 on a long pass play and a Jerrard Tarrant interception return, N.C. State came back with two more touchdowns.

The greater share of problems was on defense. The `Pack either scored or attempted field goals on six of their first eight possessions, punting once and losing a fumble the other time.

The Wolfpack would finish the day with nine plays good for 20 or more yards, 18 good for 11 or more.

“The thing that stands out the most is we played 81 plays on defense and out of those 81 plays I recall us making three plays of significance; the two sacks by Brad Jefferson, and the interception by Jerrard Tarrant,” Groh said. “Outside of that, we really didn’t do anything to dictate the terms of the game.”

Wilson may well end up the ACC Player of the year, and N.C. State did as good a job defending this offense in the first half as I can remember other than Iowa and LSU in bowl games.

Working with third-string center Ray Beno after starter Sean Bedford went down early and Jay Finch didn’t play because of a hamstring injury didn’t help. Zach Krish, the fourth-string center, played the final seven possessions.

The Jackets were over-matched there, as N.C. State senior middle linebacker Nate Irvin ran up 16 tackles and assists, two sacks, and 4.5 tackles for lost yardage.

But Bedford’s presence would not have been enough to save a team that is .500 in the ACC, .500 on the road, .500 at home, and .500 overall.

On the plus side, sort of, this was not a division loss, and the Jackets rallied from a bad loss early last season at Miami.

This Tech team, though, seems to be playing beneath itself.

If you have interesting theories, send them to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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