Pittsburgh linebacker Quintin Wirginis, center celebrates with linebackers Saleem Brightwell (9) and Elijah Zeise (25) after sacking Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall in the second quarter of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Photo: Keith Srakocic/AP
Photo: Keith Srakocic/AP

For this Tech team, running isn’t the option when crucial yards needed

After all, Tech allowed three points to Pitt after halftime Saturday. The Jackets lost 24-19 because Paul Johnson’s offense couldn’t deliver in crucial moments, early or late. Worse for the Jackets, Johnson doesn’t seem to have confidence that they can run the ball when they want. 

That’s a problem when Tech’s offensive identity is built around Johnson’s option. The Jackets have been known to run the ball effectively when its opponents load up to stop it. This Tech team doesn’t even try. 

It’s one thing for Tech to be outclassed by ACC-heavyweight Clemson, which comes to Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday. It’s another thing to lose to South Florida of the American Athletic Conference and to Pittsburgh, which was steamrolled by Penn State last weekend on this field. 

The Jackets trailed Pitt 21-0 before they showed any life. Is their morale low? 

“I don’t really know,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. “Everybody is going to be down the next couple days. It sucks. That’s another game we should have won, honestly.” 

But the Jackets never led, and their final points came with 37 seconds left. That was after they tried to pass the ball on two critical plays that went awry. 

The Jackets trailed 21-0 at halftime, but pulled within 24-12 early in the fourth. After a three-and-out by Pitt and a good punt return, Tech had a third-and-6 at Pitt’s 31-yard line. 

Johnson called for a pass, which Pitt intercepted at the 1-yard line when receiver Jalen Camp stopped short and Marshall threw long. 

“We weren’t on the same page,” Marshall said. “I think that kind of blew the game right there.” 

The Jackets passed when they could have taken two cracks at gaining six yards with the run. The way Johnson saw it, the Jackets couldn’t execute a simple pass play. 

“I could have hammered that thing in there against nine (in the box), and then you’d want to know why I didn’t throw it,” Johnson said. 

I doubt that. If the Jackets couldn’t gain six yards in two plays running the ball, then I’d give them credit for trying to do what they do best. I’ve seen the Jackets try to pass, and it’s usually not pretty. 

When the protection doesn’t break down (which happens often) then the passes are inaccurate, or the intended targets drop them. And yet the Jackets keep trying to pass when they could run. 

They also did it when trailing Pitt 14-0 in the second quarter. On fourth-and-5 at Pitt’s 23-yard line, Marshall’s pass for Camp sailed high. Pitt, aided by a 60-yard pass on a flea flicker on first down, scored another TD four plays later.

I get why Johnson went for it there on fourth down. Tech’s kicking game is suspect, and it was looking like another long day for the defense. But passing in that situation was another sign that Johnson has little confidence that his offense can do what it’s supposed to do best. 

To Johnson, it was another case of the Jackets failing to make a simple pass play. 

“I thought it was a ‘gimme’ and it was,” he said. “You’ve got to able to do that when there’s nine guys in the box and it’s one-on-one outside. You’ve got to be able to do that. It’s college football.” 

It’s not typical for Tech football, though. If Johnson wants to pass in those situations, then maybe the Jackets need to try different personnel. It’s either that, or figure out how to run the ball even when defenders are aligned to stop it. 

We saw the same lack of faith in the running game during Tech’s defeat at South Florida. When the Jackets needed a touchdown to go ahead late, Johnson had Marshall passing behind his leaky line (it did not go well). That was after USF couldn’t stop Marshall’s backup, Tobias Oliver, from running. 

Tech has a lot of issues, and Johnson doesn’t seem to have answers for them. When Tech’s defense doesn’t appear overmatched, its offense looks unsure of itself, and that includes the coach.

Maybe that’s why Johnson called a fake punt with Tech trailing Pitt 7-0 and facing fourth-and-7 at its 33-yard line. It wasn’t a shocking decision because Johnson is known to gamble on fourth down. The surprising part was the snap went to Antwan Owens, a defensive end who looked like one while trying to run with the ball. 

Pitt dropped Owens for a loss of two yards, then needed only three plays to go 26 yards for another touchdown. 

“I’ll eat that one,” Johnson said. “That one is on me.” 

If Johnson doesn’t trust the Jackets to run when they want, and they can’t pass when they must, and the defense can’t get off the field when Tech needs the ball ... well, that’s a formula for failure. Tech has lost two games as the favorite. Soon the betting markets will catch up with the reality that the Jackets just aren’t that good. 

My optimism about Tech in 2018 was based largely on the assumption that Johnson’s offense would improve because of more experience. There was little sign of that Saturday. 

“Right now, for us, it has to be almost perfect,” Johnson said.

Right now the Jackets are passing it when they could run it, and that might be the most troubling sign for them among many. 

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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