#TGW: Razor Thin Margin

Oct. 20, 2015

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

When Paul Johnson talks about the thin line that often differentiates winning and losing, Georgia Tech’s head football coach speaks from recent experience.

Just last season the Yellow Jackets time and again edged over the smoother side of the razor with a few nicks where several times this fall they’ve snagged the blade of an especially sharp schedule.

Tech has made just enough mistakes at the wrong times, and/or seen an opponent make just enough of the right plays at the right times, to slip to 2-5.

A year ago, multiple games went the other way, starting with back-to-back-to-back wins against Tulane where the Jackets overcame three deficits, Georgia Southern with 23 seconds left in the game and at Virginia Tech as time expired.

The moxie Tech gained from pulling those games out of the fire steeled the Jackets as they went 11-3 and won the Orange Bowl. Call it the effect of compounding.

That swag is missing this season. The Jackets have not re-tracked the collective belief that they’re able to do what’s necessary down the stretch. Instead, they hope.

“I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a confidence factor that comes into it, and when there’s guys going, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ as opposed to, ‘I’m going to go win this thing,’ “ Johnson said Monday.

“Or they’re pressing really hard, and then it becomes worse. I don’t think there’s any question that creeps in as opposed to having the confidence you’re going to find a way to win.”

Sure, Tech has had a time replacing two senior wide receivers who were drafted into the NFL, and the matriculation of the team’s top three B-backs and four B-backs plus the offseason dismissal of another have shown up.

Injuries to young players in some of those same positions have hurt as well.

Yet with the exception of a 43-24 loss at Clemson and probably a 30-22 loss at Notre Dame where the Jackets took too long to set their bearings in their first away game, Tech has been within range.

The Jackets aren’t terribly far from flipping the 2 and the 5, and whether choosing to call it a game of inches, of breaks, or even if suggesting that this season’s karma is balancing that of 2014, the differences are thinner than thick.

Last season, the Jackets scored the final 21 points to win 38-21 at Tulane, and then pulled the Georgia Southern game out of the abyss.

The Eagles were ahead and moving, when a weird play went Tech’s way.

As GSU optioned, safety Jamal Golden got his hand on a pitch – Or was it a pass? – and the ball hit the grass. Tech recovered, and drove to a game-winning score as Justin Thomas passed 13 yards to Deon Hill with 23 seconds left for a 42-38 win.

If that toss was a pass – and it was close enough to go to replay – it would’ve been ruled incomplete, and the Eagles would’ve maintained possession.

A week later in Blacksburg, Tech scored 10 points in the final 2:03 – including Harrison Butker’s 24-yard field goal as time expired – to win 27-24.

In that one, Hokies quarterback Michael Brewer threw three fourth-quarter interceptions. Tech linebacker Paul Davis returned one 41 yards for a touchdown.

Soon, the Jackets faced fourth-and-15 while trailing 24-17 (after Brewer had run 21 yards for the lead). Thomas connected with wide receiver DeAndre Smelter for 19, and then 31 to tie the game.

Moments later, Brewer threw a nearly inexplicable interception to D.J. White, and the Jackets drove for the win.

Four weeks later, the Jackets won 56-28 at Pitt despite giving up 526 yards of offense. How? Tech ran for 465, totaled 612, and cashed in on six fumbles lost by the Panthers, including an NCAA record-tying five in the first quarter alone.

In a 28-6 win over Clemson, Jamal Golden and Chris Milton had long interception returns for touchdowns, both coming off a backup quarterback after starter DeShaun Watson was injured.

There has been a shortage of timely and pivotal plays this season.

Tech had fourth quarter opportunities at Duke, where one ended as Thomas was stripped from behind when trying an option, and against North Carolina, where the Jackets were stalled at the goal line on three tries.

Newer and older players are pitching in with mistakes.

“Young guys not playing much, it can kind of happen,” Thomas said of his younger teammates. “You can’t really play the way you want to play because your mind is going through so much.”

The Jackets are +3 in turnover margin this season, yet they are not taking the ball away as often as last season, when they created a turnover on a FBS-leading 26 percent of all opponents’ possessions and led the ACC at +11.

Tech has scored 57 points off 13 takeaways (4.4 points per). Last season, the Jackets scored 137 points off 29 thefts (4.7), including an ACC-high six defensive touchdowns scored.

The Jackets have one defensive touchdown this season. That came when tackle Adam Gotsis covered a fumble in the end zone at Clemson.

That game was out of reach.

Game-changing moments are eluding Tech.

Twice last Saturday, Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd fumbled punts. Neither time were the Jackets able to recover.

Ultimately, the Panthers converted two fourth downs on their game-winning drive, the strangest 14-play, seven minute-nine second drive seen in years. Pitt covered just 31 yards in that time.

Gotsis had a chance to block the 56-yard field goal that won last the game for Pitt. He broke up the middle and got his arms up. But Chris Blewitt’s school-record kick somehow missed the big Australian and took off wide only to hook inside the right upright with 1:11 left.

Before Saturday night’s game against Florida State even kicks off, it bears similarity to the last five.

The Seminoles are 6-0 and ranked No. 9 on the heels of a Tech run against No. 11 Notre Dame (6-1), No. 23 Duke (5-1), North Carolina (5-1), No. 6 Clemson (6-0) and No. 25 Pitt (5-1).

Another stout opponent looms. The Jackets will look to make their own breaks in search of an upset.

“I think probably experience certainly factors in,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if there’s a huge difference between last year and this year. With the exception of the offense is not quite as good.

“We were getting turnovers. And offensively we were this much better and we could score more. And how many times at the end of a game did we make plays to win?”

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