#TGW: Third is the Word

Sept. 4, 2015

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

Paul Johnson wanted his 2015 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to be better on third down.

That message came across loud and clear in Thursday night’s season opener, a 69-6 drubbing of Alcorn State by the No. 16 Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

While that message was directed primarily at the defense, it came across loud and clear on both sides of the ball. Georgia Tech’s defense didn’t allow a third down conversion the entire first half and only surrendered two for the game, while the offense seemed intent on avoiding third down entirely, not running one on any of its first five drives — all of which still resulted in touchdowns — and only running six all night.

“I thought our defense did a good job. They were 0-fer for a long time,” said Johnson, who raised his record to 7-1 in openers and 7-0 home openers. “They converted a few in the second half and offensively once we put everybody in they killed the third-down conversion rate on offense by going out there and laying down a couple of series. But all in all it was pretty good.”

Georgia Tech, which led the FBS in third-down efficiency, at 57.9 percent, tied for the highest mark since 2005 when the NCAA started keeping third-down efficiency finished the game at 50 percent (3-for-6), going 2-for-2 in the first half, while building a 48-0 lead.

For most of the first half, the Jackets’ third-down offense was non-existent, as it wasn’t necessary. They converted their only two tries, not even getting to run a third-down play until back-up QB Tim Byerly ran 14 yards on third-and-three with just over 7:00 left in the second quarter. B-Back Patrick Skov capped that scoring drive with a 21-yard jaunt three plays later. Byerly converted another third-and-three on the next drive, running seven yards. He’d conclude that drive, on an eight-yard run, diving the final two yards.

This was hardly the same Alcorn State defense that finished second in the SWAC in opponents’ third-down conversions in 2014, holding foes to 33.2 percent success (65-for-196). They returned five starters from that defense, four of them in the secondary.

Defensively, Tech, which was looking to improve on its 12th-place finish in the 14-team ACC in opponents’ third down conversions, at 46.1 (77-for-167), blanked Alcorn in the first half, with the Braves going 0-for-8. They harassed quarterback John Gibbs, Jr., the returning SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, who was 2-for-8 in the first half on third downs. Even those two completions amounted to little, as the first, on a third-and-10 on the first drive of the second quarter, resulted in a strip from behind by DE KeShun Freeman, which was recovered by freshman A.J. Gray (Braves RB Darryan Ragsdale would have been short of the first down even if he’d held onto the ball), while the second gained only three yards on third and 11 deep in Tech territory at the end of the half, making sure they stayed in position for a field goal. That end was accomplished but the FGA was pushed wide right.

Gibbs converted the Braves’ first third down on the first drive of the second half, scrambling for 30 yards on third-and-11. It would be his lone third-down conversion. Back-up Lenorris Footman ran for eight yards on a third-and-four on the game’s final drive. Fittingly, that drive, and the game, ended on a third-down sack by Jackets DL Tyler Stargel as the Braves finished the game 2-for-16 on third down.

Tech’s defense set the tone right away on third down. Their first series resulted in an interception by redshirt senior cornerback Chris Milton, who jumped Alcorn’s route and picked off Gibbs (8-for-22), who’d thrown seven all of 2014.

“We were in a three-deep. The quarterback was kind of eyeing them down so I tried to break on the ball and make a play for the team,” said Milton of his fourth career pick. “It was really big because it was our first series of the game and we were trying to go out there make a statement for ourselves. That was very big for us.”

Six plays later Skov powered in from three yards out for a 14-0 lead and the game was over for all intents and purposes, save for the final score. That TD continued a Jackets’ trend from last season regarding cashing in turnovers. Tech, which scored six defensive touchdowns last season and converted 21 of their 29 forced turnovers into points — 19 of those touchdowns — hit paydirt on all three of its forced turnovers Thursday.

“It certainly helps. Any time you get short field and the offense had some short fields tonight,” said Johnson. “So it helps. If I’m watching that game, after the third series I was pretty sure who was going to win.”

Next up for Tech is another home tilt next Saturday, against Tulane, of whom the Jackets disposed, 38-21, last season. The Green Wave should provide a stiffer test than Alcorn State despite their getting hammered, 37-7, by Duke on Thursday night in its home-opener.

Tech has eight days to prepare, and will get right to work, not nearly satisfied with what transpired against Alcorn.

“We have a lot of things to fix. A lot of things that we can look at and fix,” said Johnson. “On offense and defense we busted a lot of stuff, we had a ton of missed assignments. Hopefully you make the most improvement from Game One to Game Two, especially the young guys.”

“There’s always things we can work on,” agreed Milton. “Sometimes we kind of put ourselves in bad situations, let them have third-and-short a couple of times. There are just a lot of things we can work on. We have to watch the film and see exactly what it is.”

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