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Rock, Chalk, Cakewalk

Sept. 17, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Paul Johnson was, as you might imagine (or know, really), kind of hacked off there at the end of the first half Saturday. No, he was smoking.

Georgia’s Tech’s offense had pretty much had its way against Kansas in racking up 337 total yards, 24 points and another slew of big plays yet the Yellow Jackets were up just a skinny score at the break.

Tech on Saturday set an NCAA record with a rushing average of 12.1 yards per play (50 rushes for 604 yards), but the fate of this team this season is almost certainly going to rise or fall upon the aptitude of the defense.

Why? because if there’s evidence that this offense is going to consistently bog down, nobody has seen it. Yet over much of the first two quarters Saturday you might easily argue that there was an “in” prefix affixed to that defense.

The Jayhawks converted seven of 10 third downs in the first half, held the ball for 19:34 of 30 minutes, totaled 246 yards and scored on all three red-zone possessions.

Tech led 24-17 after going up by 10 with 39 seconds left in the half only to have Kansas quickly scurry 65 yards in five plays.

A facemask penalty against the Jackets, and an absurd running-into-the-kicker call which really was a case of Kansas kicker Alex Mueller tripping over Tech’s fallen Daniel Drummond, helped KU. Mueller then made a 28-yarder, and Johnson stomped his way into the locker room.

Said the Tech head coach: “I was a little hot under the collar.”

The Jackets had to have this game, non-conference tilt or not, to exorcise ghosts.

Their 28-25 loss early last season at Kansas (a bad team in `10) exposed for the first time to many inside and outside the program some ugly symptoms, signs that never really improved as an addled Tech squad would finish 6-7.

As running back Embry Peeples said after the Jackets won 66-24 to push themselves nearly to point-a-minute territory (Tech has scored 178 points in three games, or 59.33 per game), “We wanted to prove that game last season was a fluke, that the fun [the Jayhawks] had was not to be had again.”

First, though, some tweaks had to be made because in the first two quarters some of the same symptoms were there; a soft defense, an indecisive approach…

So before the Jackets did the stomping, a couple templates were burned beneath Bobby Dodd Stadium during the halftime anti-celebration.

Gone was most of that soft zone stuff and the defenders’ collective sense of meandering purpose. Actually, one has a way of dovetailing into the other.

“I think we were just giving [KU receivers] too big a cushion and we weren’t getting any pressure,” Johnson said of a first half in which Jayhawks quarterback Jordan Webb completed 9-of-13 passes for 141 yards without being sacked or rarely even pressured.

“[In the second half] we tackled better and played some dime, and I just think the guys turned it up a notch.”

That was easy to see. In fact, as the Jackets mixed in some legitimate man-to-man coverage in the secondary — much of it with two extra defensive backs, one less lineman and one less linebacker — a more important change might have been visceral.

There were signs aplenty not only that the Jackets have a nerve wick, but in those final two quarters that it was lit as if by flame thrower. That wick burned quickly to powder, and best yet the sizzle was on both sides of the ball and the sideline, too.

I’m not sure why there weren’t a lot more of you in Bobby Dodd Saturday on an absolutely beautiful afternoon, but if you were there did you see chaplain Derrick Moore jumping around as if on fire after Justin Moore’s great kickoff?

And did you notice assistant coach Charles Kelly having to run toward a goal-line to retrieve freshman Jamal Golden to get ready to help cover a kickoff? Golden was so jacked up with adrenaline he decided to play cheerleader there for a bit, and he jumped the rails for a few moments.

It was impossible to miss the body language of defenders after their many big plays in the second half. They were chest-bumping, jumping, and, oh, stuffing the rip out of the Jayhawks.

This offense should be what puts more butts in the seats as soon as the ACC opener next Saturday against North Carolina. While that unit continues doing its thing by scoring on the first play of the second half after earlier scoring on the first play of the game for the third game in a row, the defense rocked.

Tech won the third quarter 28-0 for a 52-17 lead, and as the rout took form the Jackets allowed just seven passing yards in the period. Kansas mustered just two first downs in that time, and Tech stalled the Jayhawks on all four of their third-down tries in the period and a fourth-down try to boot.

“We want to challenge receivers on every play,” said sophomore cornerback Rod Sweeting. “If [defensive coordinator Al] Groh gives us the call to play man-to-man, me and Louis [Young] have the ability to play man. Be aggressive; that’s what we do.”

Yes, that’s what the Jackets did.

Perhaps it seems strange to spend so much time dwelling on defense after a game in which the Jackets set school records for total offense (768 yards), rushing offense (604 yards), average yards-per-offensive play (13.5).

Tech did, in case you haven’t read or heard elsewhere, put together one-play scoring drives of 95 (Orwin Smith’s game-opening gallop was the longest running play in school history), 63 and 67 yards.

Never mind the questions players and Johnson get about whether or not they’re annoyed when some compare the design of their attack to a high-school offense.

This offense, when it’s clicking as it has so far with downfield blocking that might remind fans what it was like when wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was throwing blocks downfield, should be classified against machines and technology.

“When we get our blocks, it’s like playing a video game,” Peeples said after Tech wideouts, particularly Stephen Hill and Tyler Melton, spent much of the afternoon not running under passes but running over defenders to clear downfield paths for their mates. “Score after score after score.”

This offense will not average 59-plus points over its remaining nine games, at least I don’t think. But it’s going to score more often than not unless turnovers become a problem (Tech did not lose the ball Saturday, and has lost a modest three in three games).

That leaves defense and special teams.

Neither unit was suspect Saturday, although the defense might’ve qualified as a collective suspect after that second half. That’s when 63 of KU’s 116 yards and both the Jayhawks’ third-down conversions came on their final possession against an aggregation of Jackets who were difficult to even find on the roster.

All of that is a good sign, especially if Tech can play this way from start to finish.

“I’m really proud of our guys. I thought they came out in the third quarter and asserted themselves the way they should’ve,” Johnson said. “It was fun, especially after last year.”

Question: why weren’t more of you at Saturday’s game? Almost stunning to see so many of you absent on a remarkable afternoon. Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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