Aug. 31, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
For all the talk of Georgia Tech’s offense returning to head coach Paul Johnson’s old brute roots, Saturday’s season-opening-breathe-deep-and-relax win played out instead as a turn toward neo-football.
So much for the Yellow Jackets’ over-land assault.
Tech beat Wofford 38-19 on its passing game.
For just the seventh time in its Johnson’s 80-game tenure on The Flats passed for more yardage (282) than it ran (228). Johnson’s Jackets are 5-2 when this happens (and 43-30 when it doesn’t).
If you were to single out the four most important offensive plays in the game, it would be difficult to suggest anything other than three of them were passes (details contained within, but you have to keep reading).
Quarterback Justin Thomas may not have looked like the second coming of former BYU QB Ty Detmer, but in banking this line — 11-for-15, 282 yards, and two touchdowns – he looked less like a runner of the option and more like a young man with options.
“They were kind of committed to stop the run so we needed to throw the ball,” Johnson said of the Terriers. “I was happy to see Justin, after the first half I think he settled down and made some big plays in the passing game.”
In his first collegiate start, Thomas started looking like he was making his first collegiate start. On Tech’s penultimate possession of the first half, he threw three consecutive incomplete passes that came out somewhat as if he’d thrown them with his off (left) arm.
Misfires or overthrows on consecutive plays to Charles Perkins, DeAndre Smelter (career-high five catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns) and Tony Zenon (career-high three receptions for 70 yards) led to a punt.
Soon, the Jackets and their fans were sweating inside and out as the Terriers looked certain to move into halftime with the lead.
All it took was a certain third-year sophomore from Prattville, Ala. — who spurned a scholarship offer to play defensive back at Alabama in order to get a shot at quarterback at Tech — to calm down.
Every Thomas pass from that point found its target.
As he started 4-for-8, Tech trailed 9-7. As he closed 7-for-7, the Jackets outscored the Terriers 31-10.
“First half, I missed a few routes that could have been the difference; overthrew them a little bit,” said Thomas, who led the Jackets with 71 rushing yards. “In the second half, I calmed down a little bit and made the throws I was supposed to.
“I wouldn’t say I was antsy [early]. I was just over-throwing it. I was saying to myself, ‘Calm down, and get your throws down.’ When I started getting the throws down, we started being more productive.”
The Not-So-Great Parting
Here’s why the locals were sweating so much as the first half wound down: As the Terriers tried to run out as much of the clock as possible at the end of the first half and take a respectable 7-3 deficit to the locker room, developments went far, far better than coach Mike Ayers could’ve dreamed.
Johnson called timeouts quickly after the Jackets stuffed Wofford on first and second downs, leaving third-and-8 at the Terriers’ 8-yard line.
Tech wanted the ball back with a minute or so left in the second quarter with the chance to expand that lead.
Then, Ray Smith went untouched up the middle for 92 yards – the longest run ever against Georgia Tech1 — to give the visitors a 9-7 lead with 51 seconds left. Chris Milton or Shawn Green2 blocked the PAT, but Bobby Dodd Stadium’s contents were not celebrating, other than a few hundred Wofford fans going berzerk in the southeast corner.
Everybody else was perspiring after the middle of the Tech defense appeared to part as if at the hand of some greater power splitting the Red Sea.
Linebackers Quayshawn Nealy and Paul Davis failed to get off blocks (and possible holds) near the point of attack, and strong safety Isaiah Johnson came forward hard in anticipation of a run only to run past the play and then chase it fruitlessly.
“Everybody in the stadium knew they were going to run the ball, except for us, I guess,” Johnson said. “I think what happened truly was the safety got up in there so tight he got lost . . . and the guy hit the seam.”
Nealy and Davis were coming forward, too, and perhaps too hard as they followed the play call.
“We just a missed fit,” Nealy said after tying defensive back Demond Smith with a game-high six combined tackles and assists. “Coach Roof said that he’ll take the blame for that.”
The longest return of Jamal Golden’s productive day fielding kickoffs came at a wonderful time. He went 40 yards moments later to put the Jackets at midfield with 41 seconds left, and Thomas broke out of the pocket for 14 yards to push Tech to the edge of field goal range.
The Jackets looked to be better off still after Thomas scrambled and found Smelter for a 29-yard gain, but the play was wiped out.
Right guard Shaq Mason was called for holding, and beyond that Smelter stepped out of bounds prior to catching the pass and therefore was an ineligible receiver.
After the 10-yard penalty was walked off, Thomas found Tony Zenon for 33 yards down the left side, perhaps the most important pass completion of the day.
The clock stopped with five seconds as the chains were moved.
Actually, Johnson was grumpy – twice.
“You’d like for Tony to get out of bounds [as the Jackets were out of timeouts]. That’s the second time he’s done that. He did that last year.3 I think if we’d thrown the ball to [wide receiver] Michael Summers, it was probably a touchdown. That’s kind of the way the first half went.”
Following a very quick spike of the ball at the Wofford 13, Harrison Butker’s 30-yard field goal as time expired to give the Jackets a 10-9 halftime lead.
That helped soften the sore of Butker’s 31-year miss earlier. Still, a 10-9 halftime lead over the third smallest FCS school (Wofford has about 1,600 students, Virginia Military Institute has 1,559 and Presbyterian about 1,200) was not what Johnson or the Jackets had in mind.
So, Johnson summoned testosterone almost immediately in the second half and went for it on two fourth downs on the very first drive after intermission.
Quickly facing fourth-and-1 and their own 37, the Jackets played high-risk ball. Thomas converted, barely, with a sneak up the middle.
“I wanted to jump-start our guys; it was like they were sleep-walking,” the head coach said. “On third down [and 2], we didn’t run the play. He took the ball and kind of sneaked it for some reason. I’m not sure he didn’t do the same thing on fourth down; he bobbled the snap. I wanted to wake them up a little bit.”
So that paid off, after Thomas indeed fumbled the snap, secured it and lunged into the line to convert by less than a yard.
Ah, The Passing Game (Again)
Six plays later, the Jackets were up against it again.
It was fourth-and-5 at the Wofford 41, a long go-for-it in the third quarter of a game when holding a lead (10-9).
Thomas found Zenon straight down the right seam for 22 yards. The Jackets caught the Terriers in a tricky defense.
“We were kind of in no-man’s land,” Johnson said. “It’s too far for a field goal, and I thought the way they were playing – they were geared up to stop the run – we had a two-on-one, and [the defensive back] was either going to take the out [route] or the seam.”
He took the out. Zenon was quite wide open, and moved the ball to the 19.
It was a good thing the Jackets were going to the air with discrimination because the oft-beloved up-the-middle run game was stalling. To that point, B-back Zack Laskey had nine carries for 30 yards.
“We were a little out of whack [in the first half] . . . It seemed like the middle was a little congested,” the senior from Starrs Mill High said. “We were able to hit some big plays on the outside so I think they were trying to make us go outside.” On the very next play, Thomas drilled Smelter for a score, a well executed post pattern that gave the Jackets a 17-9 lead and touchdowns on consecutive drives.
Three Vs. Seven = a Tech Win
Wofford came back with a field goal to pull within 17-12, but here’s where the Jackets began to separate.
Again, the passing game was huge.
On the very first play, after the kickoff (and a 29-yard return by Golden), Thomas threw down the right sideline to Smelter.
It was underthrown, actually, perhaps on purpose.4
Smelter looked back before Wofford cornerback Bernard Williams, of course, and put on the brakes.
After hauling the ball in at the Wofford 40, he shook Williams and crossed hard, hard to the left side of the field to finish of his career-long 71-yard touchdown play.
“It was pretty much a streak route. I knew Justin would give me a good ball. I wanted to make a play,” said Smelter who was held out of the game late with cramps. “If everybody does their job, we have a good chance to be productive.”
Tech led 24-12 Tech with 4:02 left in the third quarter, and that was pretty much that.
The Terriers started the game in fine fashion as sophomore Lorenzo Long fielded Harrison Butker’s opening kickoff at his goal line, met substantial contact at the 20, and somehow bulled, twisted and plowed for 14 more yards.
Butker missed that 31-yard field goal, Jamal Golden fumbled a punt out of bounds (the Jackets maintained possession), five of Butker’s six kickoffs went for touchbacks, Ryan Rodwell averaged 42.5 yards on his two punts (one was returned for 3 yards), but that lone kickoff return went for 34 yards.
Add the blocked PAT, and Johnson deemed the special teams play of first year coach Ray Rychleski, “about dead average.” Of Long, Johnson said, “he ran through about six guys.”
The Stat Flipper
Tech would not have passed for more yards than it ran but for one play, but it was a doozy.
Thomas optioned right, and at the very last instant opted to pitch to A-back Broderick Snoddy.
The trick? Snoddy, who’s known to be, like, really fast, was too fast. He was out front, and ahead of Thomas.
So, it went down as a forward pass since Thomas was still behind the line of scrimmage when he let go of the ball.
Snoddy, who has set multiple Tech track sprint records, took off as if shot out of a gun down the right sideline for a career-long 65-yard gain in the fourth quarter. On the next play, Laskey scored his second touchdown, an 11-yard run, for a 31-19 Tech lead with 8:34 left in the game.
A lot of Tech fans have been waiting a long time to see the junior back do that, Snoddy included.
“Charles [Perkins] had a good block, and I got out and saw the edge,” said Snoddy, whose previous career-long play was an 11-yard reception. “It was nice to see the sideline, a little daylight.”
Tech started even better than the Terriers. The Jackets forced Wofford to punt without gaining a first down on the Terriers’ first possession, and on Tech’s first play from scrimmage, Thomas threw a “Smoke” route to Smelter straight toward the right sideline.
The senior wide receiver pulled in the pass, and juked Williams nearly out of his cleats before taking off for a 21-yard gain. Williams kind of had a tough day. Tech scored seven plays later, when Laskey rumbled over the left side on a 4-yard push.
The Terriers listed 17 players from the state of Georgia on their roster, including quarterbacks Jacks (Johns Creek, Northview High), Brandon Goodson (Dacula) and Brad Butler (Rome, Darlington School).
Twin defensive backs Lawrence and Lance Austin made their true freshman defensive debuts on Wofford’s third possession. Lawrence deployed at cornerback, and Lance at nickel back. The Austins, from Lamar County High, also played on special teams.
1- Somewhere, Joel Arrington is said because he’s no longer in the record books. The former Dukester ran 83 yards against the Jackets on Oct. 31, 1959. Oh well, if he’s still alive he was a traitor anyway. He played his high school ball for the Thomasville (Ga.) Bulldogs.
2- There is some question as to who blocked that PAT. It sure looked like Demond Smith got it coming off the edge, but both he and Green reported to coaches that they got a piece of it. Zapruder film study is pending.
3- No idea what coach is talking about here. Anybody?
4- In the NFL, and even in some college circles, this would have been called – if an intentional underthrow – a “back shoulder” throw. There, the quarterback tries to take advantage of the fact that his receiver is looking back when the defender is not as coverage is tight. We forgot to ask Thomas if he did that on purpose.