Flats Lines: Reviewing Georgia Tech's loss to Pittsburgh

Reviewing Georgia Tech’s 37-34 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday at Heinz Field. The Yellow Jackets (3-3, 1-3, ACC) have lost three consecutive games.

Recapping the loss to Pittsburgh

It seems that Georgia Tech may have used almost all of its positive karma in winning the Orange Bowl in 2014 because not many breaks have gone their way since (see more below) and that continued in Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh. First came the interception-safety in the loss to Clemson. Then came the back-to-back fumbles returned for touchdowns in the loss to Miami. And then on Saturday, just after Georgia Tech claimed a late 34-27 lead against Pittsburgh, came the deflected pass that turned into a 74-yard game-tying touchdown for the Panthers. The defeat was practically sealed when Tech went for it and failed on fourth-and-1 at its 34-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. Pittsburgh kicked the game-winning field goal after taking over.

Four things that worked well

The toss play. After having great difficulty getting anything on the outside in its previous two games, Tech used the wide toss play to great effect against Pittsburgh. Analyst David Archer, who provided great analysis of ACC quarterbacks last week, said Tech runs that play better than anyone in FBS. Clinton Lynch’s 45-yard touchdown run came on a version of the play. Lynch led the team in rushing with 64 yards on four carries.

The special teams. J.J. Green’s 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was Tech’s first since 2012 . He made a few moves and got some good blocks downfield. He finished with four returns for 151 yards. Harrison Butker added four touchbacks on seven kickoffs, keeping Quadree Henderson mostly bottled up.

The wide receivers for part of the game. Ricky Jeune’s touchdown catch and Brad Stewart’s catch in the fourth quarter were things of beauty .

Pittsburgh’s trick plays. The 24-yard touchdown run by offensive tackle Brian O’Neill, who caught a lateral, was a thing of beauty. “We had it in the playbook for a little while. We have been looking for the right team to run it against,” Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said. “(Offensive coordinator) Coach Matt Canada called that. He said it was going to be a call in the red zone. It was designed for Brian O’Neill’s old tight end abilities. He can go.”

Six things that didn’t work well

The defense on the opening drive. For the fifth consecutive game, Georgia Tech’s defense gave up a touchdown on its opponent’s opening drive. The Panthers travelled the 75 yards in just six plays. The drive was capped by O’Neill run.

The defense the rest of the game. Johnson said that Pittsburgh’s offense may have been playing beter than Clemson’s or Miami’s before Saturday. Well, the Panthers didn’t disappoint. They punted just once in rushing for 215 yards on 5.1 yards-per-carry (both were season-highs against Tech this season ) and passing for 192. They averaged 6.6 yards per play. Tech got just one sack, which is becoming more common than not going back through the 2014 season. The defense did have five tackles for loss, but … That inability to stop Pitt had to be a part of Johnson’s thinking when he decided to go for it on fourth down.

The offensive line on the pivotal play. It’s not fun to continue to include the offensive line in this category every week, but failing to get a push on that pivotal fourth-and-1 is one of the reasons why. Tech has particular trouble at left guard, which is where Dedrick Mills tried to run on the key play .

Trick plays. Tech tried one to Stewart. It failed badly. “It was a reverse pass,” Johnson said. “We thought it was going to be open. It’s a great call if works, it’s a strange call if it doesn’t work, just like their throwback to the tackle. It was a strange call, but it worked. It’s one of those plays we practiced. We had it in the game plan. I thought it was a good time to run it.”

The wide receivers in the rest of the game. There were drops. There was Stewart failing to get to the first-down marker. There was Jeune getting called for pass interference. Johnson has said Tech has to out-execute teams to win, and that’s just not happening and hasn’t for a while.

Playing on the road. Tech has lost six consecutive true road games. Three of those losses have come by eight points or less.

Rating the position groups

Borrowing from something that is done with soccer, I’ll rate the different position groups game by game using a 1-to-10 system. Ten represents exceptional and one represents a total meltdown. This is just for fun and mostly for conversation, so please don’t take it too seriously. Feel free to post your own ratings in the comments section.

Quarterbacks 7. Justin Thomas was aggressive running the ball, finishing with 11 carries for 55 yards. He completed 7-of-10 passes for 130 yards with a touchdown to Jeune, which was the first to a wide receiver this season.

B-backs 5. The B-backs had a difficult time finding room against the Panthers’ very active front seven. They finished with 73 yards on 19 carries with a long run of 12 yards. Not being able to pick up that first down on fourth-and-1 hurt.

A-backs 6. Lynch led all rushers with 64 yards, which exemplifies the difficult Tech had establishing any consistency outside of the toss play.

Wide receivers 5. As outlined above, some really good plays and some really bad plays. Mikell Lands-Davis drop on fourth down was huge.

Offensive line 4. For the second consecutive season the line can’t establish any consistency. It may be a sign of the inexperience of some of the players, the quality of the competition, bad luck, or a little bit from all those columns. Left guard was particularly problematic on Saturday.

Defensive line 6. After a rough first half in which the group couldn’t locate either James Conner or Henderson, the line did a much better job attacking the gaps and holding Henderson in check on the jet sweeps. The Panthers rushed for slightly more than 80 yards in the second half.  The group had all five of the team’s tackles for loss.

Linebackers 5. I might as well put this on save-get: Another relatively quiet game for the group with no tackles for loss.

Cornerbacks 6. Until the bizarre catch by Orndoff, no Pitt receivers had more than 35 yards and there were no receptions longer than 20 yards. Lance Austin led Tech with 10 tackles.

Safeties 5. It’s hard to ding Griffin for the tipped pass, although I suppose it could be said he should knocked it down. But, come on…

Special teams 8. As noted above, the specialists did a solid job.

What did next week’s opponent do?

Georgia Southern was beaten by Arkansas State 27-26 last Wednesday in Jonesboro, Ark.  The Red Wolves, who hadn’t won a game, scored the game-winner on an 8-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left. Arkansas State won despite five turnovers. The Eagles (3-2) have lost two consecutive games.

What does that mean for Tech?

This could be a really weird game because Tech has yet to play its best game, and the Eagles aren’t what they once were, though still good. So the way things are going for Tech this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Georgia Southern put as much of a scare into the Yellow Jackets as they did two years ago.

Having said that, the Eagles defense gave up 525 yards to Arkansas State. The Eagles were able to rush for just 162 yards, which isn’t normal for them.

The Eagles are averaging 31.6 points and 286.6 rushing yards per game.

“We’re halfway through, we’re 3-3,” Johnson said. “It can go either way. We’ve got a good Georgia Southern team coming in; we’ve got half the season left. It can still be a good year, a good season. I think you can see, every team in our division, I think it is probably really close. Just like North Carolina beat them on the last play, they beat us on the last play. I think that the teams are pretty close. Every game’s a dogfight.”

Reviewing karma

I started this column by talking about Tech and karma.

Looking back at 2014, there were several odd things that happened that helped Georgia Tech. Now, these kind of things happen every so often every year, but when these types of plays keep happening it can make for an extraordinary season, which is what Tech experienced.

Quickly recapping some of the things that went Tech's way in 2014:

Georgia Southern’s fumble in the fourth quarter when leading Tech 38-35 and driving. Tech would recover and score the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing possession;

Tech intercepts Virginia Tech’s Michael Brewer three times to rally from 16-0 down and Harrison Butker kicks a game-winning field goal;

Tech converts a 30-yard third-down pass to Tony Zenon that sets up an 8-yard touchdown run by Deon Hill in edging Miami.

Tech recovers five fumbles in the first quarter against Pittsburgh.

Clemson’s Deshaun Watson gets hurt early at Tech, totally changing the narrative of the game.

And, of course, the Georgia game.

Since then (with one notable and obvious) exception:

Pitt’s game-winning field goal bounced off the upright and through last week;

The tipped pass for a touchdown on Pitt’s ensuing drive;

Two fumbles within three plays against Miami. Both were returned for a touchdowns;

Not that it made much difference, but the interception that turned into a safety against Clemson;

Looking to last season, Tech needed help from an unsportsmanlike penalty to score against Georgia and avoided being shut out for the first time in 237 games;

In a 23-21 loss to Virginia Tech, the Yellow Jackets gave up a 14-0 lead and had two turnovers in the fourth quarter;

After recovering an onside kick against Virginia, Tech fails to convert a fourth-and-four because of an incomplete pass and loses 27-21;

Whatever little bit of karma Georgia Tech may have had was used up in the win against Florida State;

Tech can’t convert a third- and fourth-and-short in 34-20 loss to Duke, when the result of the game was still in doubt.

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About the Author

Doug Roberson
Doug Roberson
Doug Roberson covers the Atlanta United and Major League Soccer.