Oct. 27, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Georgia Tech is locked in for the second half of the 2016 season and is ready to get back on the field this Saturday afternoon when they host Coastal Division rival Duke. Kickoff is at noon.
Head Coach Paul Johnson agrees but in his weekly press conference was more looking forward to seeing his guys get off the field — specifically his defense on third down.
It’s an issue that won’t go away. The Yellow Jackets begin play Saturday last in the ACC in third down defense at 49.5 percent. Opposing offenses have converted 50 times in 101 attempts — that’s one more stop by the defense than conversion by the opponent. In conference play it’s slightly better, 46.0 percent (27 stops in 50 tries).
“We’ve got to be better on third downs and try to get off the field; we beat that horse to death,” said Johnson. “We’ve talked about it but that’s the bottom line. I think if we can be better on third down then everything will fall into place. It will make everything better if you can get off the field.”
Getting off via the turnover would make Johnson happy, as the Jackets have forced only six all season (three interceptions, three fumble recoveries) and they’re minus-2 on the season (five interceptions, three fumbles lost). They’re tied for 11th in the ACC in turnover margin and are even in conference play (five each).
Duke might present the perfect opponent to pump up those forced turnover numbers.
The Blue Devils have been bedeviled by miscues, coming in at minus-4, with an ACC-high 18 turnovers (10 fumbles lost, eight interceptions) versus 14 created (seven of each). They’re also at the bottom in ACC play, at minus-5 (nine vs. four).
This is a crucial matchup for the teams that are looking to make a challenge for the wide open Coastal. GT and Duke, who only two years ago finished first and second in the division, kickoff Saturday a combined 1-6, ranking sixth and seventh.
While the Blue Devils are behind the Jackets and struggling on both sides of the ball — they’re near the bottom of the ACC in most offensive categories and toward the bottom half in most defensive categories — Johnson still has tremendous respect for them, as Duke’s defense is tied with Tech’s for the fifth-fewest points allowed (21.9 ppg). That’s even with the graduation of current Carolina Panther and former three-time All-America safety — he was selected unanimously as a senior — Jeremy Cash, who tormented Tech in three games, going for 33 stops, 17 solo, 4.5 TFLs for negative 14 yards, a sack, an INT, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and four QB hits.
“They’re really pretty good on defense,” Johnson said. “They’re well coached; the two inside linebackers are both really good players. The defensive line plays a lot of different people. (DT) A.J. Wolf has been playing for a long time and he really stands out. (Strong Safety) Corbin McCarthy, who kind of took Jeremy Cash’s place, has made a lot of plays – he’s in that same position, and they’ve got a couple of veterans back in the secondary – (Safety) Deondre Singleton, from here in Atlanta, from Archer in Gwinnett, has been probably a three-year starter for them and played a lot and Breon Borders at corner has been a player that has played a lot. They’re fairly experienced, they’re well coached, they’ve played very well against option teams the last two or three years from Navy to Army to us, so they’ve got a good scheme and execute it well.”
Execution is another horse that Johnson maybe hasn’t beaten to death but certainly has ridden for a while. It’s something he said the Jackets haven’t shown well enough the last two times they’ve played Duke, both losses, including the first of only two regular season losses in 2014, the last time the teams met at Grant Field. Execution and consistency will be paramount to ending the two-game series skid.
“Our last two games against them have been different,” he said. “Last year we did not play well up there, offensively. The year before we turned the ball over. We had some yards and moved the ball; we had too many turnovers to win.”
Execution offensively begins up front with an offensive line that may have found an answer in a pair of freshmen, left guard Parker Braun, who will start his third straight game, and left tackle Jahaziel Lee, who will make his second straight start.
“I think that we’ve made progress. We’re not where we’d like to be but we’re a lot better than when we started,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the two freshmen playing on the left side, they’re true freshmen, which is less than ideal, but I think they’re going to get better and better. Jahaziel will start again this week. I think he’s earned it. Parker’s probably been one of our better players up there. So I think the more they play the better they’re going to get. Hopefully we’ll get Andrew Marshall back, who was probably playing better at tackle than anybody else when he got hurt. We’re planning on him starting at the other tackle and then we’ll see at guard. Right now it’s kind of up in the air who will be the right guard.”
Another player to watch will be running behind them, sophomore B-back Marcus Marshall.
“Marcus has had some issues in areas, mainly ball security. I think he’s started to get better that way,” Johnson said. “He’s always been explosive. He’s very talented, he has good feet, and he has good speed. He’s taken advantage of his limited reps so far this year and created a lot of plays. You have to believe what you see and we need to give Marcus a little more playing time and let him play a little more.”
Ideally he’ll get on the field more following a defensive stop. While that’s led to finger-pointing at third down, Johnson feels better plays leading up to third would help take some pressure off.
“The best way to be good at third-down defense is not being third-and-two all the time,” he said. “You’ve got to create some negative plays. We did that against Georgia Southern; I thought we created a lot of negative plays, we had some sacks but then on second down we weren’t very good. We haven’t been real good on third-and-long either. We’ve had several opportunities when it was third-and-eight-plus to get the guys off the field and we haven’t been great at that either.
“We’ve got to look at ourselves and look at what we’re doing,” he added. “If you’re sending five-man pressure and you’re not having any success, then it needs to be six, and if you’re not have any success [with six], it needs to be seven. You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and hope it’s going to change. Sometimes you’ve just got to go and make plays.”