If Tech can't make Johnson's offense work, there's real trouble here


Credit: Mark Bradley

Credit: Mark Bradley

This mightn’t have been the way to impress the new boss. Paul Johnson’s stylized offense mustered 124 yards – the lowest yield by a Georgia Tech team under Johnson – on a night when the nation’s No. 5 team came to town, didn’t play to its vast capacity but never trailed and never appeared stressed. Tech lost to Clemson 26-7.

In the not-quite-full house was Todd Stansbury, a Tech alum who played football here and was named athletic director earlier Thursday. If the new AD stayed until the end, he was among the few Techies who did. You couldn’t blame those who bailed, given that their Yellow Jackets offered such meager resistance.

It’s not often we can say a defense that yielded 442 yards was the relative star of the show, but Tech’s defense did and was. This didn’t sit well with Johnson, who has griped about his defense – now on its third defensive coordinator, with an interim DC tossed in – since arrival. When it was mentioned that his defenders held Clemson to 26 third-quarter yards, he grumbled that his offense had “helped a little by staying on the field.”

Tech’s third-quarter output – 55 yards, four first downs, zero points.

Earlier in the week, Johnson suggested this offense might be a match for the mighty platoon that powered Tech to 11-3 and an Orange Bowl title only two years ago. It does have the same quarterback, who was the Orange Bowl MVP. But here’s how many times Justin Thomas threw the ball in a game where Tech trailed after 3 ½ minutes and by double figures over the final 47 ½ minutes -- 13. He completed four passes. One was for no yards. Another was for minus-7.

With 10:58 remaining and the Jackets within 16 points – two touchdowns and two 2-point PATs and we’re in overtime! – Johnson ordered up one of those newfangled forward passes but didn’t entrust Thomas to deliver it. He deputized Dedrick Mills, a freshman B-back, to cast the ball downfield. The pass, such as it was, was intercepted. Clemson banked the clinching field goal. Johnson claimed Qua Searcy was open but drifted into coverage. Whatever.

Here was Tech’s final series of the night, which started with 4:12 to play: Incomplete pass (by Thomas), Mills rush for 5, Mills rush for 3, Mills rush for 1, turnover on downs. No wonder people left early.

Asked how a team trying to fashion a comeback throws only 14 passes, Johnson said: “Couldn’t protect.” (Indeed, Thomas was sacked three times.) But how many 55-yard runs was Tech apt to break? (Its longest rush netted 18 yards.)

We stipulate that Clemson is superb on defense. We concede that the Tigers’ defensive front overwhelmed Tech’s O-line. “We were outmanned up there,” Johnson allowed, and he told the truth. That said, the juxtaposition was stunning: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson threw 48 passes, an average of 12 per quarter; Tech hoisted 14 in the game.

“To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement,” Johnson said, but could he say he was surprised? (A year ago, Clemson held Tech to 71 yards rushing – also a nadir for Johnson’s time here.) He blamed missed assignments. He said, “It’s hard to explain something like that, but they come to the sideline and it’s, ‘I know.’ ”

Clemson should be the best team on Tech’s schedule: If there’s a flicker of light on this dreary night, that's it. But the defense cannot be the better of Tech's units if this team is to do anything of consequence. This is Johnson’s program, built on Johnson’s offense. "It comes back to me," he said. "I'll take credit for some of it"

Some? Lest we forget, Tech was held to 238 yards by Boston College in Ireland. Now this. If the offense doesn’t perk up, Stansbury might soon be asking his football coach: “Why exactly are you using this?”

Further reading from Thursday: