Looking Back May Help Jackets In Road Ahead

Sept. 28, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Monday night, unable to sleep and stuck as if by glue to a neurotic notion that I’ve misplaced my writer’s voice, I went into the archives of Sting Extra, the precursor of this very publication.

Maybe, if I’ve lost something, I can find it where I feel confident it once was . . . under some electronic dust.

Time will tell, or maybe not. Perhaps I don’t have a distinct writer’s voice. Or maybe I do and it hasn’t gone anywhere, and I’m simply nuts. (Is it possible to be “simply” nuts? Seems a mighty tangled mess to land in simply.)

At any rate, the first – and so far only – one I clicked upon was exactly a year old. September 27, 2009, was the day after perhaps Georgia Tech’s most complete win of the season – a 24-7 mutilation of North Carolina. It was the game that followed Tech’s worst game of the regular season, a 33-17 loss at Miami 10 days earlier on ESPN.

That score did not completely depict what happened.

The Yellow Jackets suffered a thorough thrashing on ESPN Saturday, falling 45-28 to N.C. State.

That score did not completely depict what happened.

Saturday’s game and the long night in Miami shared several sad similarities. Beyond minutia and moving straight to a summary judgment, both times Tech seemed at a loss to explain itself. Then and now, it seems as if the Jackets lost their way. Definition is again lacking.

In many quarters, there are theories about what may be ailing the Jackets.

Clearly, they miss the five players who have moved on from the ACC championship team to the NFL, chiefly Derrick Morgan and then wide receiver Demaryius Thomas above all others (Is it possible for a Paul Johnson team to miss a wide receiver more than all others?).

In that story, four of the five NFL rookies commented; only Thomas is absent.

The parallels between Tech’s predicaments then and now – and the theme of trying to find something elusive – strike me as eerie. I didn’t mean to write tonight, but reading of the UNC game moved my needle.

The Jackets have less top-shelf, NFL-caliber talent now, and my theory of the preseason that they have more depth and meat in the second tier or middle of the roster is being threatened.

Passing seems a foreign concept for Tech not because the Jackets don’t try it much (that’s standard), but in the odious way they’re deploying the air game.

Joshua Nesbitt does not appear to me to be playing with the authority of Josh, neither of arm nor mind.

Coach Paul Johnson referenced dozens of blown assignments in Tech’s 81 torturous plays spent on defense while allowing 527 yards.

Special teams are not special.

Most importantly, I think the Jackets are missing collective heart. Leadership has not emerged. Tech is adrift. That team found focus. This team is reaching for eyeglasses.

Seems like a year and a week ago.

Bip, bip, bip . . . the needle’s tapping the right side. So I write. Go back, read along and see if you understand why:

ATLANTA — Georgia Tech did more than win an ACC game Saturday. In wiping out North Carolina 24-7, the Yellow Jackets flipped an idiom on its head.

The old saying, “You can’t see a forest for its trees,” is used to describe situations where the big picture is less obvious because someone over focuses on details within.

In Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Jackets blew out the details scoreboard.

They out-gained the Tar Heels 406 yards to 154, had 24 first downs to UNC’s eight, and rushed for 317 yards against a unit that had been allowing a mere 52.3 per game on the ground. Tech jammed Butch Davis’ squad to the tune of 17 rushing yards on 18 carries, didn’t turn the ball over and took it away from the Heels three times.

That’s blowout, blowout, blowout, blowout, and blowout if you’re not keeping score, or if you’re confused because a couple missed field goals and red zone foibles made it less obvious on the scoreboard.

Yet the big picture was most beautiful Saturday because Tech all but went back to basics defensively, and the Jackets also did a fabulous job of caring – and then executing.

Sure, a great pre-game speech from chaplain Derrick Moore resonated (it was about accountability, by the way), and the staff of coach Paul Johnson was dead on it heading into this game against the No. 22 Tar Heels.

But the Jackets (3-1, 2-1 ACC) were jacked up, uncommonly motivated, and that they owe almost entirely to themselves. Getting embarrassed 10 days earlier at Miami, not to mention last year at North Carolina, mattered more than any X or any O.

That’s a theme that might carry over.

“Overall, most of it is intrinsic motivation, certainly for myself,” said offensive lineman Cord Howard. “It definitely started when we got off the plane from Miami. We had a sour taste in our mouths. We just wanted to go out and erase that, and we did.”

Safety Morgan Burnett, who had two interceptions and a team-high six tackles, said, “The coaches can only push you so far. They’re not going to be on the field with you, and we have to take accountability for ourselves and believe.”

The Jackets looked like they found their passion Saturday, like they believed from the go.

External forces had a role, as defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said of his watered-down defense, “In that game plan right there, I’d say . . . it was a quarter of what we took into the Miami game.”

And just as important: “I think the kids were charged up. North Carolina embarrassed us in a critical game last year, and the kids wanted this game,” Wommack said. “I thought the kids played emotionally, and tried to play physically the whole game.”There was just more mental and physical toughness. I didn’t see that at Miami. It was almost like we were punch-drunk.”

What did that add up to?

“Guys’ heads weren’t spinning,” said defensive end Derrick Morgan, who had three tackles, half a sack and a fumble recovery.

These are smart fellas at Tech. But too much thinking slows everybody down. Johnson said, “it looked like we were running in sand,” at Miami.

Not Saturday.

Johnson and his staff made big-picture adjustments, including offensive tweaks such as popping Jonathan Dwyer outside more frequently instead of sending him up the middle most of the time. All he did was rush 19 times for 158 yards, and re-discover some mojo.

Dwyer took himself out of the game after his first and third carries. Johnson said he was a little too geeked up. The junior running back didn’t deny it.

“I just wanted to go out there and prove myself,” he said. “I feed off what everybody else does. Everybody else was fired up so I gave every inch. It’s something I’ve got to get used to.”

Here’s hoping Dwyer does have to get used to that, that the Jackets can stay on task week in and week out, that coaches can simplify when it’s right, and mix it up when duty calls.

Eight more games may prove that a couple behind-the-scenes themes will have more bearing on Tech’s regular season – which is to say the Jackets’ season in sum — than will statistically blowing out UNC.

We’re talking mindset and approach here, mental and physical management.

Wommack simplified because he had to, and, well, Johnson did everything but issue an edict (actually, he might have, but he wasn’t copping to it, saying, “We” made a decision).

Said the defensive coordinator: “Paul’s the head coach, and he can do whatever he wants. Paul’s got a great way of managing the football team. So I listen to Paul, and whatever Paul says he wants to do, I’m going to do. But we all knew, coaches knew, players, head coaches, everything, that we ran too much defense 10 days ago.”

In sum, it was a finely choreographed and emoted game. You need a mix; Tech got it.

Emphatically, the Jackets jumped up on their collective soapbox to suggest that their 33-17 loss at Miami 10 days earlier was not reflective.

Said Dwyer, who ran more and more authoritatively as the game wore on, “Hopefully, everybody is back on our side now and they won’t run away from us.”

What do you think about this? About the Jackets? Please send theories to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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