Oct. 12, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word –
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
At his weekly press conference on Tuesday morning, Paul Johnson went pretty much straight to the bottom line and touched on several other lines in advance of Saturday’s match-up with Georgia Southern.
In fact, recalling his days in Statesboro, his first head coaching job, gave him unique insight into what’s up for his Yellow Jackets.
“I know it’s going to be a tough, hard-fought game because, having been there, I know how excited they will be to have the opportunity to come play,” said Johnson, who chalked up a 62-10 record with five Southern Conference championships, back-to-back Division I-AA national championships and another runner-up finish during his five seasons at the helm of the Eagles from 1997 through 2001. “They’re going to be fired up to come in here and have a chance to play.”
Johnson knows that his squad had best be on its game so as to avoid a repeat of the 42-38 scare they received two years ago at Bobby Dodd, when the Jackets raced out to a 35-10 halftime lead but let it slip away, falling behind 38-35 before forcing a late turnover and punching in the game-winning touchdown to escape.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind” as on Saturday, Johnson has but one goal.
“I still have a ton of friends there and a lot of support. I’ve got really fond memories of the place,” he said. “We won a lot of games but that’s all history. Now we’re trying to get ready to play. We’ve got to be able to match their intensity and be ready to play. We’ve got to be ready to play one of our better games.”
Both teams will be looking to stop skids that have taken the gloss off 3-0 starts. Tech has lost three straight, including the heartbreaker at Pittsburgh on the game’s final play, while Southern has dropped a pair, including a 27-26 gutwrencher of its own last Wednesday at Arkansas State, in which they were handed five turnovers (three fumbles, two interceptions) and led 23-10 with 2:30 left in the third quarter but surrendered the game-winning touchdown pass with nine seconds remaining.
All that stuff is superfluous to Johnson.
“Our goal is to try to win the fourth game this week and get back on the winning streak as opposed to the other way,” he said. “You’ve got to go one game at a time. There are still six games left. I was saying [to the team] yesterday, `You’ve still got a chance to win nine games.’ If you did that, that would be the eighth or ninth time in 49 years that it’s happened, so that would be considered a pretty good year, I think. I would consider nine wins a really good year. Now that won’t achieve our goals that we set to start with — to try to win the division and get in the [ACC] championship game. As crazy as our division is, who knows? You just keep playing and see what happens.”
A key to getting win No. 4 on Saturday will be to successfully induce the Eagles into turnovers. That’s something where GSU has had several near-misses – the Eagles’ offense is plus-3 despite losing five fumbles but has put the ball on the ground 12 times. Georgia Tech, which is minus-2 in turnovers, has fumbled nine times. Both teams have thrown three interceptions.
The Jackets’ defense has been good at recovering loose balls, as only one time has an opponent gotten one back. The problem has been knocking it loose, as they’ve only forced four fumbles. Johnson believes it’s time for the tide to turn.
“I always say you make your own luck but we haven’t had very much of it in a while, so we’re due,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I don’t like talking about that stuff. As soon as you start talking about it, it’ll come right back to you.”
Johnson addressed a similar bad-luck streak on the offensive line, where the once-rich Jackets were reduced to relying on walk-ons to get through practice early in the week.
“Through attrition we’ve lost four or five guys that you didn’t know we were going to lose,” he said, referring to Michael Preddy, who transferred, Gary Brown, who left school to answer an artistic calling, and Jake Whitley and Chris Griffin, lost for medical reasons. “All those guys, with the exception of Chris, were in the same class, which left a void. Then, you couple that this year with some injuries and that’s how you get to where you are. It just kind of snowballs. You can’t afford to lose five or six guys or have that many that aren’t playing.
“Normally, we try to have 16 offensive linemen on scholarship at any given time,” he added. “Counting walk-ons, we probably have 14 or 15 guys who will practice. But that’s counting walk-ons. With our walk-ons there’s enough guys to practice. That’s not an issue. I’m expecting to have a lot play but we’ll see. We’re coming off a pretty physical game.”
The latest casualty is starting right guard Shamire Divine, who’s been slowed but is still expected to start vs. GSU.
All of the attrition has also led to an opportunity for freshman Parker Braun, who has risen to the challenge.
“The more he plays the better he gets, just like any freshman,” said Johnson of Braun, whose older brother, Trey, started his final 34 games over three years and graduated last year. “I’m excited. I think he has a bright future. He’s going to be a really good player.”
Having enough linemen wasn’t Georgia Tech’s problem on the fateful fourth-and-one play at the end of last week’s game at Heinz Field. Having them in the proper place was. While Johnson refused to pin the loss on just that one play, he didn’t let the o-line — or anyone else — off the hook.
“I told our team, the last play just magnified the game,” he said. “As much as it is physical execution, sometimes it’s just not being smart. We weren’t very smart on that last play either. We could have made it about 100 times easier on ourselves if we had lined up where we were supposed to, if we had stepped where we were supposed to. There were 15 plays [like that] in that game. It didn’t have to come down to that. Both on offense and defense [there were plays] that could have changed that game. We’ve just got to make more plays and be dialed in and go.
“What bothers me is us not executing what we needed to do,” he continued. “From that aspect, we all need to take it personally. I do. I would hope that the offensive-line coaches do, the offensive line, the running backs. Everybody should take it personally. It’s the only way I know to play the game.”
He knows how the Jackets have to play the game to win on Saturday, in the only game that should matter at the moment.
“It’s pretty simple this week — you need to be able to run the ball and stop the run,” he said. “You’d like to win the turnover battle, which would be huge. We need to be able to hit a couple of big plays in the passing game, off play action or whatever. If we do those things, then we’ll have a really good chance to win. The one thing I know I can count on, I think, [is] Harrison Butker is going to kick the ball pretty well. He has all year. I think for the most part, Justin Thomas is going to get us in the right plays and the right situations. I think you can pretty much count on that. I’d like to think that we’re going to play hard.”