After consecutive losses, how Tech can make up ground

The rankings of defensive yards-per-play leaders reveal what Georgia Tech players and coaches perhaps know empirically. They have played three stout defenses in their first five games.

Boston College leads FBS at 3.53 yards per play, although the Eagles’ schedule has been a bit flimsy. Miami, whose schedule strength to this point is also somewhat dubious, is second at 3.58. Clemson is fifth at 4.06. No other team in the country besides Tech can claim to have played three of the top five, not that any team would want to.

It leaves the Yellow Jackets a small consolation as they begin preparing for their first ACC road game of the season (not including the neutral-site game against Boston College), Saturday at Pittsburgh. Tech probably won’t face another team as strong as its past two opponents, No. 3 Clemson and No. 10 Miami.

That’s not to suggest that the remaining seven games will be a parade of cushiony defenses and bumbling coaching staffs. But it would suggest that if a malfunction of historic proportions (the two fumbles returned for touchdowns, a first in school history) was all that prevented the Jackets from playing Miami even up, then perhaps there’s more hope for October and November than might be perceived by the glummer pockets of the Tech fan base.

It will likely require continued improvement on both offense and defense, however.

Pass blocking, which had been better through the first three games than in 2015, lapsed in the face of Clemson and Miami’s pressure. It’s one reason why Tech has had only one pass play of 20 yards or more, a vital element of the offense, in the past two games.

Coach Paul Johnson said that the offense had “two probably gimme touchdowns on play action if we protect the thing right. There’s no excuse for what we did.”

Following the Miami game, Johnson also had complaints about route running, perimeter blocking and drops.

“We made way too many mistakes again,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job preparing ’em.”

While not collecting any sacks, Tech’s pass rush was better than it has been in disrupting Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya. It says something about both Kaaya and Tech’s defense that, despite the Jackets’ improvement, Kaaya recorded the second highest passing efficiency rating of his career against a power-conference opponent. At the back end, Jackets defensive backs gave Miami wide receivers space to operate, perhaps not unwisely.

“They’re fast guys,” said cornerback Lamont Simmons, who made his first career start in place of Step Durham, out with an ankle injury.

Despite improvements in run defense, Tech will need to continue to find solutions against the pass. The Jackets may have already played their two toughest ACC opponents, but the letup is not expansive in some cases. Further, the three toughest challenges – Pittsburgh, No. 17 North Carolina and No. 25 Virginia Tech – are on the road. And, for good measure, Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman is ranked No. 39 in passing efficiency, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky is sixth and Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans is fourth.

Tech could have made a statement by using home-field advantage to pick off either the Tigers or Hurricanes, but flawed performances cost the Jackets the chance. Against a somewhat lesser schedule, they now have a test of their resilience.

“It’s over now,” defensive tackle Patrick Gamble said in the wake of Saturday’s loss. “Move onto the next game. We’ve got a lot more games to play. We’ve just got to keep playing and get better every week.”

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.