11 things to know before Georgia Tech-Vanderbilt

New vantage point

Quarterback Justin Thomas had a different perspective than usual Saturday against Mercer in the second half – the sideline. After Thomas was slightly dinged in the first half, coach Paul Johnson – confident that the Jackets were in control of the game and sharing similar faith in backup Matthew Jordan – decided to tether Thomas to the bench. What he saw in the second half:

“You can see a lot that they can’t,” he said. “Like, Oh, you could have done this, but in the game-time situation, if you were in the same thing, you probably would see the same thing they would see. It’s a lot easier looking at it from afar than it is doing it.”

Searching for an identity

For the story for the Saturday paper that went up online earlier Friday, I asked a few coaches and players about where Tech stood after two games last year, and what the feeling is after two games now. The general consensus is that it’s hard to know, which is not surprising, but it feels like that uncertainty is more the case than usual this season. (And, as last year eminently proved, what we think we know after two games may be irrelevant anyway.)

But A-backs coach Lamar Owens, whom I quoted in the story, gave an insight that I couldn't fit in that I thought was worth sharing. He said that it’s hard to compare across years, and used A-back Clinton Lynch as an example. While Lynch was and is a key member of both teams, he was a redshirt freshman a year ago with little experience and now, in terms of snaps, he’s probably the most experienced A-back on the roster.

“It’ll probably be easier for us in January to probably answer that question,” he said. “Because we still really don’t know what type of team that we really have yet. We had some adversity (when) we were in Ireland, we won a home game, but it’s going to take a couple more games for us to really understand who are our playmakers, who are the guys we can really count on week to week and kind of see how that all shakes out.”

I'd say Qua Searcy has been identified as one, for certain. I think coaches are hoping one in the rest of the group will emerge, possibly J.J. Green or Lynch.

More from Owens

He said that he wanted to play freshman A-back Nate Cottrell more against Mercer. He didn’t get into the game until late in the fourth quarter.

“We just want to see how he continues to progress,” he said. “Right now, we’re traveling with seven guys, and he’s right in the bottom of those guys.”

How Owens sees the matchup of Tech’s offense and Vanderbilt’s defense: “I’m sure they’re going to make it a physical game, and we’re going to want to get out on the edge and we’re going to want to make it a speed game.”

He likes to keep

In his half of action against Mercer, quarterback Matthew Jordan ran the ball 10 times out of 22 plays he was in for, sometimes on keepers but often on option runs where he had a back to pitch to. Quarterbacks and B-backs coach Bryan Cook called it Jordan’s default to keep the ball on option plays when in doubt. It might have its roots in his most expansive playing time last year, when the Jackets fumbled nine times in a torrential downpour against Miami.

“Each quarterback differs a little bit,” Cook said. “He does not mind (keeping). He is 213 pounds or whatever and he does not mind running the football downhill, which I have no problem with.”

Cook said Jordan is “working in the right direction” in making correct option reads and just needs experience.

“Just being able to be under control, to make that decision in a split second that you have and with your eyes, being really efficient with what you’re seeing out of the defender and just doing it,” he said.

Explaining improvement

Johnson on the improved pass protection: “We just spent a lot of time working on it. We changed a couple things, but we spent a lot of time working on it. That’s all I can tell you. We’ve got guys that are a little better at it. A little better feet up there, a little better athletes and we haven’t played the guys with great pass rushers yet. They’re coming.”

Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell would be one.

Making a big deal of blocks

Hopefully you read Doug Roberson’s story this week about Tech’s effectiveness at blocking field goals . Tech has blocked two this season and now has 16 blocked kicks or punts going back to 2013, the most in FBS over than span. Something interesting I didn’t know until this week. After wins, coaches name players of the week and award them game balls (I knew that part). But Johnson said that any player who blocks a kick also gets a game ball.

“We make it a big deal in front of the whole team,” Johnson said. “They blocked a kick – we single them out, give ’em notoriety, the whole nine yards.”

Looking to Rook-Chungong

Defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong may have a big role in Saturday’s game plan because of his ability as a run stopper.

“I take pride in stopping the run, setting the edge and stuff, just helping my team win, being a team player. I expect to have a big game. I expect the d-line to have a big game because it starts up front.”

Rook-Chungong on the team’s conditioning: “Coach (John) Sisk and the strength and conditioning staff, they’ve done a great job getting us in shape. Coach Johnson has done a great job running us on Mondays and also working out, doing a little extra stuff with Coach Sisk on Sundays, so we’ve done an excellent job. The coaches, defense-wise, have done a good job rotating. We have depth this year, and we’re using it. That’s great help, especially at the d-line positions. Us big guys running around all the time when we get tired, and you can lose focus. So if you don’t have depth, it’s definitely hard.”

Tech used Antonio Simmons and Anree Saint-Amour fairly early on in the game subbing for KeShun Freeman and Rod Rook-Chungong. Kyle Cerge-Henderson played extensively again at tackle behind Patrick Gamble and Francis Kallon, and Brentavious Glanton was worked in more after not playing against Boston College.

Running on first

A big factor in the game: first-down rushing. Tech’s problems on third down (10-for-18) against Mercer stemmed from giving up too much on first down, as well as not creating many negative plays , which resulted in advantageous third-down distances for the Bears.

While he said that Tech doesn’t have a benchmark for first down, he mentioned that if the defense is giving up less than three yards on first down, “you’re probably in pretty good shape.”

In two games, Vanderbilt is averaging 5.49 yards on first-down rushing attempts, nearly identical to Tech, which is at 5.44. Both have run 43 times on first down, with Vanderbilt gaining 236 yards to the Jackets’ 234.

Vanderbilt has thrown on first down just 17 times (completing eight) while Tech has attempted just 11 first-down passes (completing two).

Tech is 107th in first-down rushing defense, at 5.21 yards per carry on 28 rushes for 146 yards. Exactly half of those yards, though, were given up on one play, Jon Hilliman’s 73-yard touchdown run in the opener. Without that, the average is 2.7, which is top-25 material. Vanderbilt, however, will be better at running the ball than Boston College or Mercer by several degrees.

Vanderbilt is 49th in first-down rushing defense at 3.39 yards per rush.

Stopping Webb

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof sees a big game out of his linebackers as a requirement to win against Vanderbilt and running back Ralph Webb.

“If we’re going to stop them, we’ve got to play well at the second level,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “We’ve got to fit. There’s no question about that. We’ve got to fit and we’ve got to tackle better than we have this year against a guy that’s the best back that we’ve played up to this point.”

Gamble on Webb: “He runs hard. He’s quick. He’s able to get in and out of cuts. And when he finds a hole, he hits it. So we’ve got to play gap integrity football and be able to bloody our nose a little bit and stay in there.”

Again, eye placement (reading keys instead of watching the ball) will be critical for the Jackets. Roof said it wasn’t good enough against Mercer. Further, he said it was a problem for all three position groups (line, linebackers, secondary).

“That was something that cost us at times this week, and at times it didn’t, and as we continue to play, and that gets exposed, it eventually costs you,” he said. “Kind of like playing with fire. That is a big, big, big point of emphasis this week.”

Almost to the end

Tech voice Andy Demetra wrote a feature for the Tech website that’s definitely worth a read. Demetra, with help from analyst and former Tech center Sean Bedford, learned about a cowbell that has served as the trophy for the Vanderbilt-Tech game but had been long forgotten by most. Demetra learned the story of the cowbell and also helped in the search of the Edge Building to find this lost relic.

The end

Johnson said that Will Bryan and Shamire Devine will remain the starters at left and right guard, with Parker Braun filling in. … While he grew up in North Carolina, Johnson was little interested in offering his opinion on HB2, the state law that has resulted in the NCAA and ACC pulling championship events out of the state. That includes the ACC championship game in Charlotte, N.C. Johnson is fine if the game ends up being on campus, as the Pac-12 does, instead of a neutral-site matchup. “I wouldn’t care where we play as long as we’re in it,” he said. … The standard Johnson bashing of preseason rankings: “Those polls don’t mean anything right now. It’s all a guess, that’s all it is, is a guess. … It’s a crapshoot. Maybe they’ll be right, maybe they won’t. It’s easy to put Alabama at the top; I can do that. After that, you’ve got to wait and see. Every team is different.”

One last thing: This serves as a reminder that Saturday's game is a gold-out. It's a little unusual that Tech designated a gold-out for a game against an opponent that also wears gold, but one purpose of the gold-out is to help raise awareness for childhood cancer, which uses the color gold. In conjunction with the game, the American Cancer Society has launched a project called A House United to Tackle Pediatric Cancer, a fundraiser whose proceeds will all be used on pediatric cancer research and programs. You can give here .

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About the Author

Ken Sugiura
Ken Sugiura
Ken Sugiura covers Georgia Tech sports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.