Sunday Afternoon Quarterback

Nov. 16, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

It took a while for Georgia Tech’s rushing offense to crank up Saturday and even when the Yellow Jackets found more success in the second half it was not quite what they’ve come to expect. That wasn’t the Jackets’ fault; it was on the Tigers.

There are different ways to look at Tech’s 251 rushing yards on 50 tries in the Jackets’ 28-6 win.

While Tech entered the game ranked No. 2 nationally in rushing offense with an average of 335.6 yards per game, Clemson brought the No. 4 rush defense (90.9).

The Tigers won that battle in the first half, when Tech rushed 24 times for but 73 yards. The numbers are altered to 21-for-89 when backing out two sacks of Justin Thomas, and his kneel down on the final play of the second quarter.

Then again, other than Broderick Snoddy’s career-long 46-yard run around the right side in the second quarter, the Jackets’ other 20 rushes went for 43 yards. That’s not Jacket-like.

Clemson was populating the point of attack between the tackles, and chasing the Jackets down when they tried going wide.

So, Tech began cutting back, and in the second half 26 carries fetched 178 yards – numbers close to matching a standard half of Jacket rushing. Thomas’ career-long 65-yarder helped.

“We had a hard time blocking them inside,” explained Tech head coach Paul Johnson. “We had to go almost the whole game just to turn it back on them because we couldn’t cut them off.”

Tech surrendered just seven sacks in its first 10 games before three Saturday. The Jackets don’t often get thrown for lost yardage, but nine times the Tigers stopped Tech carriers in the backfield.

Vaunted graduate student/defensive end Vic Beasley (No. 3) was limited to two tackles, but they were both of the lost-yardage variety – although one was on the last play of the game. Beasley was, nonetheless, in the way a lot. Senior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (No. 50) was a load; he was in on seven tackles and assists.

“I think they were physical, and they had speed also,” Thomas said. “We knew coming in that there might be negative plays, but we just had to keep going and keep taking the chances when they gave them to us.”

This was just one matchup, and not nearly the decisive one (that was Tech’s defense vs. Clemson’s offense). It seems right to say the Tigers won the first half of this side battle with brawn, and the Jackets won the second with brains.

B-back Synjyn Days rushed 11 times for 60 yards in the second half – when A-back Dennis Andrews ripped off a season-long 30-yarder – after rushing nine times for 29 yards in the first half. Days had a 22-yard run in the second half.

“It was pretty tough; number 50 and of course Beasley,” he said. “The front four, in general, was probably the best that we’ve seen all year. They were making it hard on us on offense.”

Solemn for Snoddy

Not long after that 46-yard run by Snoddy, which ended as he sort of stumbled while trying to make a cut, he suffered a lower leg injury on a 5-yard run.

Just about everybody in the stadium hushed as he was tended to, and taken from the field. The Jackets were bummed.

“It’s always tough to see a brother go down,” said defensive back Chris Milton. He fights every day with us. Any time somebody gets hurt, we take it seriously. We all just picked each other up, and we knew we had to do it for him.”

Snoddy, a junior from Carrollton, was taken to Grady Hospital, where coach Johnson said the goal was to repair the damage Saturday night.

Wide receiver DeAndre Smelter felt deeply: “It was tough because he’s one of the guys who has been working hard all year, and he’s probably made the most strides out of anybody all year, especially down the stretch: getting a lot more playing time and carries.”

All for one, and one for all
Milton’s use of the word, “brother,” is a segue to this team’s greatest strength: its bond, or chemistry.

Who can describe exactly what that means in athletics? Maybe nobody.

Most folks have a grasp, though, of the concept of there being value in sharing sacrifice and spreading claim and blame. Who wants to, or can, do it all alone?

Tech’s 28-6 win over No. 19 Clemson was the epitome of a team concept settling in so hard as to imbed itself in everybody’s DNA. Ditto the Jackets’ 80-73 win Friday night over the Bulldogs in the basketball season opener.

Thomas explained: “I feel like this team is more of a team, more of a brotherhood. We became closer in the offseason and as the season has gone along, we’ve all stuck behind each other no matter what the circumstances, win or lose. As a brotherhood, we’ve shown what we’re capable of.”

There were signs quite a while ago.

Coach Johnson referenced the Jackets’ closeness before the season, although he said one knows ahead of time if that will lift a team to greater heights. Athletic director Mike Bobinski even noted back in the summer that these Jackets are a special unit that weaves offense, defense and special teams into a family.

Johnson said it again after the game.

“We just keep playing . . . and nothing much bothers them, whoever it is,” he explained. “Fumble the ball? They just keep playing. I’m as proud of that as I am of them playing football.”

Here’s more from Smelter: “I think it comes from way before the start of the season. I think it starts in the offseason. In the offseason, you could just tell there was a different type of energy – a lot of guys playing for one common goal and I feel like we show that.”

From Days: “It goes back to the workouts we had in the offseason. You could tell by the workouts and stuff that [players] orchestrated [without coaches] the dedication that the team has this year.”

Pretty numbers
Tech last beat a ranked opponent Oct. 29, 2011, when the Jackets topped No. 6 Clemson 31-17 in Bobby Dodd Stadium. After snapping the Tigers’ six-game winning streak Saturday, the Jackets moved to 7-2 under Johnson vs. ranked teams in Bobby Dodd. Here’s a look:

2008 – vs. 16/16 Florida State, W 31-28
2008 – vs. 23/rv Miami, W 41-23
2009 – vs. 22/18 North Carolina, W 24-7
2009 – vs. 4/4 Virginia Tech, W 28-23
2011 – vs. rv/25 North Carolina, W 35-28
2011 – vs. 6/6 Clemson, W 31-17
2011 – vs. 10/9 Virginia Tech, L 26-37
2011 – vs. 13/14 Georgia, L 17-31
2014 – vs. 18/17 Clemson, W 28-6
Ranks reflected are AP/Coaches

Jackets first at thirds
Another big matchup entering the game: Tech brought the nation’s most successful third-down offense with a 59.3 percent conversion rate, and Clemson brought the nation’s most effective third-down defense (23.2 percent).

The Jackets converted 7-of-14. Win: Tech.

That included Smelter’s 5-yard touchdown catch early in the third quarter, when he leapt and snatched the ball from Clemson safety Jayron Kearse.

“From the film last year and this year we saw they like to play a lot of man and be physical on the perimeter, and we decided to take advantage of that today,” the senior wide receiver said after catching five passes for 77 yards.

Other notable third-down conversions:
# Smelter’s 19-yard reception along Tech’s sideline on the Jackets’ first possession.
# Darren Waller’s 15-yard reception in the third quarter.
# Smelter drew a holding call against Clemson cornerback Garry Peters on third-and-5 as the Jackets were grinding the final 6:32 off the clock with a 10-play, 55-yard march.
# Three plays later, Thomas hooked up with Smelter again for 16 yards on third-and-9 from the Clemson 44.

Passing progress
Thomas threw just 11 passes, and the deep ball was absent as his completions averaged 12.8 yards following a mark of 19.3 entering the game.

But six of his eight completions went for first downs.

On the other side, the Jackets limited Clemson freshman phenom Artavis Scott – who entered the game with 53 receptions for 624 yards and five touchdowns – to three catches for 19 yards.

Fabulous fourth
The Jackets scored just three points in the final period, but they dominated down the stretch against a team that has been very good in that period.

Clemson in its previous five games allowed fourth quarter totals of 157 rushing yards (31.4 per game), 172 passing yards (34.4), 17 first downs (3.4) and nine points (1.4).

With its two fourth-quarter possessions, Tech rushed for 61, passed for 34 and gained six first downs.

Most importantly, the Jackets held the ball for a combined 10:56 in the period.

Another way to look at the O’
The Jackets may not have put up their usual numbers while amassing 353 yards of total offense and scoring but one offensive touchdown, but Harrison Butker kicked three field goals and there is this:

Clemson entered the game ranked third in the nation while forcing 6.56 three-and-outs per contest, yet the Jackets had only one three-and-out.

Ryan Rodwell punted just once, at the end of the Jackets’ second possession (the first ended with Tony Zenon’s fumbled pitch from Thomas).

About championship prospects…
As players were waiting in the wings to meet media obligations, several found a television in the Edge to watch the end of the Virginia Tech-Duke game.

Senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy gave the ink stains and digital wretches an update of sorts, in fact, and then director of media relations Chris Yandle interrupted him to inform the masses that Duke had just been stopped on downs on its final possession in a 17-16 home loss to the Hokies.

With that, Nealy said, “All right; let’s go!”

Miami (6-4, 3-3 ACC) later lost 30-24 to Florida State to leave Tech (9-2, 6-2) and Duke (8-2, 4-2) atop the ACC’s Coastal division.

Problem is, the Blue Devils hold a tiebreaker edge by virtue of their 31-25 win at Tech on Oct. 11, and the Jackets are finished with conference play and heading into an off week.

Florida State (10-0, 7-0) has punched its return ticket to the ACC Championship Game as winner of the Atlantic, and Duke or Tech will represent the Coastal.

It’s this simple: if Duke beats North Carolina (5-5, 3-3) and Wake Forest (2-8, 0-6), the Blue Devils will have a rematch with the Seminoles. If they lose either game, Tech will get another shot after falling 21-15 to the `Noles in the 2012 title game.

Nealy was quite mirthful.

“It was huge,” he said of the afternoon. “It was Senior Day . . . a lot of emotions going through my head, just thinking about when I first came on campus. I will always remember this. Huge. Definitely huge.”

After playing games for seven straight weeks, the Jackets don’t seem to mind that they’ll be off next Saturday before a Nov. 29 game at Georgia.

“Each game gets bigger, but right now we’re going to celebrate this win,” he said. “Just looking at all the critics picking us to lose and whatnot . . . it definitely feels good.

“I definitely like the week off. Get our bodies back, and get our conditioning, give us time to get an upper hand on Georgia and see what they’re doing.”

The Bulldogs (8-2, 6-2 SEC) wrapped up SEC regular-season play Saturday night with a thorough domination of Auburn, and next Saturday will play host to Charleston Southern (8-3).

You don’t say!
Turnovers were, again, a big part of the story Saturday as the Jackets not only won that battle 3-2 against the Tigers, but benefitted gloriously as Jamal Golden and Chris Milton returned interceptions 85 and 62 yards, respectively, for Tech’s fifth and sixth defensive touchdowns of the season.

“The biggest thing for us is it caught up with us,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “We lost the turnover margin three weeks in a row now. It’s a recipe for disaster, and that’s exactly what it was: an absolute disaster.”

Tech is dangling in the margins while awaiting Duke’s doings for sake of turnovers. The Blue Devils won in Atlanta on the distinct strength of a 3-0 edge in takeaways that day.

The Jackets, though, still have life for largely the same reason.

Duke entered Saturday’s home game against Virginia Tech having turned the ball over just six times in its first nine games. Against the Hokies, they turned it over three times on the way to a 3-1 edge for Va. Tech. The Hokies converted those three turnovers into all of their points in the 17-16 win.

If you end up in a debate, and you are tasked with defending the notion that turnover margin is the most important barometer of success, put this on one of your index cards:

Georgia Tech is 8-0 this season when committing fewer turnovers than its opponents, and 32-5 overall under Johnson with this metric. Tech is 1-1 when turnovers are even (14-10 under Johnson), and 0-1 at a deficit (10-19).

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