Oct. 5, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
As Miami officials tended to wounded defensive linemen Ufomba Kamalu late Saturday night, Paul Johnson offered 11 votes of confidence and told the Yellow Jackets to just go do what they do.
They did, and Georgia Tech won the play, the game and by virtue of Deon Hill’s 8-yard scoring sweep, Johnson won an argument.
Should the Jackets have gone for it on fourth-and-2 from the Miami 8 in the fourth quarter while holding a 21-17 lead when a field goal would have left the Hurricanes needing a touchdown to tie and failure would’ve left the visitors in position to drive for the lead?
More than 11 minutes remained, after all, in Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The argument was rendered largely moot by the result of the play.
When Tech’s offense gathered around Johnson during a timeout for the injured Kamalu, the head coach did not waver. Tech was going for it, and the Jackets were going to give it a whirl with their bread-and-butter play: the triple option.
Guess what he said in that huddle?
“I thought we were moving the ball pretty well, and that is what we do,” Johnson explained. “I told our team, ‘We are going to run the triple, and it’s what we do. ‘It’s 2 yards; let’s go get it.’ And we did.”
Before the snap, the ‘Canes squeezed their defensive linemen a little closer together than usual, and Tech quarterback Justin Thomas saw that.
Upon taking the snap, he faked a handoff behind right guard to fullback Zack Laskey, and optioned right. Miami defenders were ready for him – as they were much of the night – and so he pitched wide to Hill.
The senior A-back had an easy scoot into the end zone, and the Jackets would soon lead by two scores, a 28-17 margin what would stand.
It was the third touchdown scored by a Tech A-back, as the Hurricanes were determined all night to slow Thomas.
Last season, it might have been debatable whether Johnson would’ve opted to go for it in that situation or not. More debatable still would have been the play call.
The Jackets did not run Johnson’s beloved option very well last year, as the coach frequently pointed out. This year, with Thomas at the helm, Tech is running the option quite smartly. Upon deciding to go for it, the play call was nearly a no-brainer.
“It was just our basic play. In practice the last two weeks, we’ve been executing the option to perfection,” said Laskey, who rushed a career-high 29 times for 133 yards but was largely taken out of that play as the ‘Canes bunched the middle.
“Coach said, ‘I have all the confidence in you guys. Just go out and execute our basic play. Just go and do it.’ “ Thomas did nothing spectacular; he just did his job.
“Coach got in the huddle and said, ‘We’ve been doing this since Day one,’ “ Thomas said. “We kind of knew what they were going to do. We executed, got nice blocks on the edge from receivers . . . I had to pull it, it was all read and it worked to perfection.
“They were pretty much in their base defense, they brought their splits down a little tighter. It was a basic read, and I got the read correct. They took Zack and I was able to get it pitched and Deon got in the end zone.”
Pick your spots
Thomas attempted just seven passes (the Jackets rushed 65 times), and completed four for 53 yards.
The biggest hookup – numerically and with regard to importance – came six plays earlier, on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Most surprisingly, Miami surely knew Tech was going to pass and yet the ‘Canes looked like they had nary a clue.
On third-and-16 from the Tech 42, Thomas rolled left, pulled up behind a blocker or two, and let fly down the left side. Somehow, A-back Tony Zenon was wide open between a shallow cornerback in zone, and a deep safety. The 30-yard gain kept alive the drive.
“I thought maybe we could catch the Wheel [route],” Johnson said. “We caught [Zenon] on the linebacker . . . we got what we were looking for.”
The passing game wasn’t much – wide receiver DeAndre Smelter went without a catch for the second time this season, “but he blocked his tail off,” Johnson said – yet the Jackets made much of their throws.
Both of Zenon’s receptions converted third downs into firsts.
Speaking of A-backs Tech’s wingbacks were rarely heard from at Virginia Tech, where they combined for four carries for 8 yards, and one reception.
Against Miami, the A-backs rushed 17 times for 123 yards and three touchdowns (Zenon, B.J. Bostic and Hill). Zenon also had half of the Jackets’ receptions (wide receiver Michael Summers caught the other two, for a combined 14 yards).
Tech’s formula for success was not mysterious.
Nobody is going to lose many games when holding the ball for 40:45 to an opponent’s 19:15 and not turning the ball over.
That 40:45 ranks seventh best in Tech history (as far as records on that have been kept), trailing the school mark of 43:45 against Boston College in 2012.
Four of the top seven have happened with Johnson as head coach. That was Tech’s third turnover-free game in 2014. The Jackets have lost three fumbles and thrown one interception this season.
Although Tech failed to convert either of its two takeaways into points (for the first time this season after scoring 45 points off the first seven takeaways), interceptions by Johnson (at the Tech 10-yard-line in the second quarter) and Golden (in the end zone with 1:11 left in the game) were significant.
Johnson’s pick, where he tipped a pass to himself, thwarted a Miami drive that had already covered nine plays and 74 yards and had the look of a scoring thrust that would’ve broken a 14-all tie right before halftime. Golden’s pick clinched it.
The Jacket have banked eight interceptions by eight different players this season. Golden has the only recovered fumble on the season, and it was huge.
After Georgia Southern scored touchdowns on four consecutive second-half possessions to take the lead at Tech on Sept. 13, the Jackets drove for the game-winning score.
Johnson missed all of last season after knee surgery, and Golden went down in the third game with a shoulder injury that required surgery.
They finished second and third in total tackles Saturday behind linebacker Paul Davis (nine, including a sack). Johnson had five, and Golden had four.
Johnson said that GSU game offered a wake-up call.
“Really, it came in the second half of the Georgia Southern game. Saying that is kind of bad, but that’s when we knew after that game that we had to do better,” he said. “So far, it’s showing itself.”
“That interception came directly from film study,” he said of his late pick. “We saw that almost every time in the red zone . . . when they got in stacked [formation], they pretty much were running a smash route or what we call a sting. I knew he was going to do it.
“We didn’t do anything. We just had to play better. We just executed better.” Johnson summarized thusly: “They both had huge interceptions and they both tackled better.”
Tightening down Miami ran just 21 plays in the first half, yet gained 193 yards while forging a 14-all tie (average of 9.2 yards per play).
The ‘Canes ran 23 plays for 159 yards in the second half (6.9). Miami converted just one of five third downs in the game, and its only fourth-down try. Tech entered the game ranked No. 112 in third down defense, allowing a conversion rate of 47.9 percent.
The Jackets, who entered the game No. 5 in the nation with a 56.3 percent third down conversion rate, and improved that Saturday by converting 9-of-14. Tech also converted both first down tries, including a 10-yard run by punter Ryan Rodwell in the second quarter that helped the Jackets keep the ball away from the ‘Canes.
“We didn’t do well on third downs so we didn’t possess the ball,” said Miami head coach Al Golden. “We’ve got to give [Tech] credit. We were just on the field too long [defensively] . . . we pushed them into third or fourth down 16 times, and they converted 11.”
Tech (5-0) in consecutive games has ended a four-game losing streak to Coastal foes Virginia Tech and a five-game skid to Miami. No player on this team had ever beaten either opponent. Is it any wonder that senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy broke out a grin shortly before midnight?
“They’ve have our number for a long time,” he said. “I know the seniors are feeling great tonight, and they’re going to enjoy their night tonight with a smile on their faces.”
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