Georgia Tech is averaging 3.8 points in the third quarter of its first nine games, an unusually low number for a team whose coach has excelled at making halftime adjustments.
In coach Paul Johnson’s first seven seasons, the third-quarter scoring average ranged from 5.9 to 9.3, with the average at 7.8 points or higher five times. It dipped to 4.8 points third quarter last season.
It is a little puzzling, as the Jackets have developed into one of the most efficient offenses in FBS, just evidently not in the third quarter. Tech is averaging 8.1 points in the first quarter, 8.0 in the second and 7.3 in the fourth.
This season, Tech has scored a field goal or less in the third quarter of games six times. The Jackets are 3-3 in those games. It’s noteworthy because getting the ball to start the third quarter has been Johnson’s default play when Tech has won the coin toss.
“Historically, if you go back and look – and it hasn’t happened the last year and a half or so – we really scored at a high rate on the first possession of the second half because we could go in and make adjustments and come out,” he said Oct. 25. “I just kind of felt like that’s where I wanted to be to set the tone for the second half as opposed to the start of the game.”
Perhaps in no game was the deficiency more prominent than the Pitt game. Down 21-20 at halftime, Tech took the opening possession of the second half and drove to the Pitt 36, but failed to convert a 4th-and-4. After the Panthers kicked a field goal for a 24-20 lead, Tech went three-and-out on its next possession, squandering another chance to take the lead. (I would submit that, particularly given Johnson's long track record, this isn't necessarily a pattern that the Jackets are unable to escape. That said, we're three quarters into the season.)
Johnson said another reason for deferring is that, with an effective kicker in Harrison Butker, if the Jackets can kick off to start the game, get a touchback and then get a stop, they would have good field position for their first possession.
Obviously, the way the defense has played this season (last in FBS in third-down conversion rate) has made that strategy, if not flawed, then debatable. Tech has given up first-possession touchdowns in six of nine games. Three of those instances were on the game’s opening possession, putting Tech in an immediate hole (Clemson, Pittsburgh and North Carolina).
Worth noting: In Johnson’s tenure, the Jackets are 48-15 (.762) when scoring first. They are 18-33 (.353) when the opponent has scored first.
Wednesday, Johnson was asked if the problems that the defense was having in games were evident during the week. He said they were not.
“I think that what happens, too, is sometimes when you get in a game and things don’t go well early, then it kind of compounds itself, guys are trying to make plays and stressing and reaching and then it just gets worse,” he said.
It might stand to reason, then, that perhaps the choice to take the ball to start the game is the more advantageous strategy, to have the opportunity to score first and help settle the defense.
Johnson did try that ploy against Miami, electing to receive the opening kickoff after winning the loss, but the plan did not work. The Jackets punted, Miami drove for a touchdown and the Hurricanes ended up winning 35-21. In the two games since when Tech has won the toss, the Jackets have deferred.
Johnson was asked if his observation about the defense "stressing and reaching" when the game doesn't start well might cause him to consider changing his coin-toss strategy.
“It might,” he said.
The third-quarter scoring issues make it all the more worth considering.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.