Nov. 22, 2016
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Casting aside the preferred formula, though not by choice, Georgia Tech won the final home game of the season by turning Senior Day into Big Play Day. It wasn’t exactly the plan.
The Yellow Jackets beat Virginia, 31-17, on Saturday in Bobby Dodd Stadium and standard go-to metrics did not tell the story. They moved to 7-4 not by grinding the clock, nor hammering the Cavaliers with run after run.
Defensively, three interceptions — including a pick-six by Lance Austin with 4:03 left — helped mightily. Two missed field goals by Virginia factored, too.
Offensively, if not for a 67-yard run by Marcus Marshall, a 54-yard pass from Justin Thomas to Clinton Lynch and a 60-yard zig-zag by Qua Searcy, the Jackets would’ve been left scratching their heads.
Actually, head coach Paul Johnson was left dazed. After averaging 341.3 rushing yards in the three previous games, the Jackets managed 199 and, aside from the big runs by Marshall and Searcy, another 29 rushes netted just 72 yards.
This did not go the way it was drawn up.
“We really never got anything going running-wise. It was big plays,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if we’ve played as bad all year up front . . . I’m just disappointed in the way we played. I thought we’d turned the corner.”
Marshall turned the corner in the second quarter.
After taking a toss from Thomas on the right flank, he went untouched down the sideline on the longest run of his career to help Tech tie the game at 7-7 with 10:20 remaining in the opening half. Wide receiver Ricky Jeune’s long, driving block of Virginia freshman cornerback Bryce Hall cleared the last Cav.
“There were some times we lost focus. It took us a little minute to get going,” Marshall said after rushing 16 times for 127 yards. “It definitely feels good to get some things going. When you get some positive plays, it helps you with your confidence; it helps you play better.”
Or maybe not.
That scoring run came on third-and-3 and was the Jackets’ second third-down conversion of the game. It was also their last on a 2-for-10 day.
Georgia Tech trailed 10-7 at halftime, went 0-for-5 on third downs in the second half and was stopped on both of its fourth-down tries after intermission.
The second half started as the first half went.
The Jackets’ first two possessions netted 34 yards on four plays, the first ending with a punt and the second on a failed fourth-down try at Virginia’s 29 yard line.
“We didn’t really execute well the whole first half in the running game,” Thomas said. “Really, we didn’t do it in the second half, either.”
Georgia Tech’s 41 offensive plays were the fewest run in Johnson’s nine seasons. The previous low was 47 when the Jackets played BYU in 2012. Bronco Mendenhall coached the Cougars then. Now he coaches the Cavaliers.
“One of my passions is defending the option and the kids did a really nice job,” Mendenhall said. “There were few assignment mistakes but they did a nice job giving us a chance to have the ball longer.”
Virginia mucked up the middle and it seemed like end Andrew Brown was in the way most of the time. Johnson said Tech didn’t block well on the perimeter, at least not often.
“We were going to let [Cooper] play some,” Johnson said. “He played pretty good last week.”
Virginia ran a whopping 88 plays but scored on just three. After the defense held and the Cavs missed their second field goal, the Jackets dialed up another big play for the lead.
You’ve seen this one before.
Not long after Thomas connected with Lynch for 22 yards, he found the redshirt sophomore A-back again over the middle for six.
Lynch was several yards clear of all Cavs and that was nothing new. Six of his seven touchdowns this season have gone for at least 45 yards and he’s averaging 17.5 yards every time he touches the ball (15 receptions for 474 yards, 31 rushes for 333).
“I don’t know how Clinton gets that wide open every time but it’s definitely a momentum-swinger and a game-changer,” said safety Corey Griffin, who had an interception, like Austin and linebacker Brant Mitchell.
Thomas said, “We expect him to make a play. He’s usually one-on-one and he wins those one-on-one matchups. That’s all credit to him. He finds a way to do it and get open. I’m not complaining. It’s helping me out.”
True. With a 14-10 lead, the Jackets surged. Following a quick Virginia punt, the Jackets covered 84 yards in just three plays. Jeune pulled in an 18-yard reception, and Marshall ran for six yards.
The redshirt sophomore A-back started right, cut through considerable traffic to the left and, next thing you know, he had Jeune and Thomas as downfield escorts. Thomas passed him, waved him forward and then blocked — or at least got in the way of — Virginia safety Quin Blanding as Searcy drew a bead on the goal line.
His 60-yard touchdown run was the longest of his career.
“The only thing I saw was all white [jerseys],” he said. “I saw Ricky and Justin right in front of me so I knew to follow them . . . It took us a minute to get going, but once we got going, we started rolling.”
That roll ended quickly.
Tech’s final four possessions netted two yards, although Harrison Butker finished one of them with a 41-yard field goal soon after Griffin’s interception.
There’s one chance left to re-discover the formula: Saturday, at Georgia.
“Like I told our team in the locker room, you need to be happy when you win,” Johnson said. “Clearly, as coaches we need to a better job getting ready to play . . . We can play a lot better than that. We’ll have to if we’re going to have a chance [this] week.”