Clemson drags Jackets to Johnson era low

Georgia Tech’s offense was stymied in a way that it has rarely been in coach Paul Johnson’s tenure.

Unable to clear lanes on runs up the middle, failing to make perimeter blocks and consigning itself to virtually unmakeable 3rd-and-long situations, the Yellow Jackets were absolutely controlled by Clemson Thursday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“We were outmanned up there a little bit,” coach Paul Johnson said. “Offensive line vs. defensive line wasn’t a fair fight.”

Tech ran 21 plays in the first half and gained an unthinkable 22 yards. Moreover, 14 of them were gained on the final run-out-the-clock play of the half on a run by B-back Dedrick Mills. Eleven of those plays gained no yardage or went for a loss, disastrous for an offense that is predicated on setting itself up with 3rd-and-short situations.

“Offensively, the first half was embarrassing,” Johnson said. “That’d ridiculous. They’ve got a good defensive football team, but it didn’t seem like we could get in their way.”

Tech was well aware that the level of competition would take a significant jump after playing with such efficiency against Vanderbilt a week ago. But it was little ready for what Clemson brought to bear on the Yellow Jackets.

From Tech’s first offensive snap, when Clemson defensive end Christian Wilkins penetrated the line with no interference to drop quarterback Justin Thomas for a 4-yard loss, the Yellow Jackets offense was an unrecognizable mess for much of the game.

Tech’s 124 yards of offense was the lowest total for a Johnson team at Tech, displacing the 2010 Orange Bowl against Iowa (155).

“I guess you can just say they outplayed us as a whole,” Thomas said. “We’ve just got to get better from this. We can’t let this happen again.”

The offensive line, which had provided solid pass protection for Thomas in the first three games and caved in defensive lines to give him and the A-backs space to explore the perimeter, was no match for the Tigers defense. Thomas was constantly fleeing from pass-rush pressure, an unpleasant reenactment of last year’s disastrous passing game.

A week ago against Vanderbilt, Thomas ran in space and showed the playmaking dynamism that made him an All-ACC selection in 2014, gaining 84 yards on 11 carries. Thursday night, he often was hit in the backfield and had linebackers boring in on him as he made runs to the perimeter. With three sacks included, Thomas was credited with 10 carries for -25 yards.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has now given the Jackets two of their worst offensive games in Johnson’s tenure. A year ago, the Tigers held Tech to 71 rushing yards, the lowest total by a Johnson-coached Tech team.

“I think you’ve got to give Clemson a lot of credit,” Johnson said. “They’ve done it two years in a row to us up front. They kicked our butt. But we’re not the only ones. They’re pretty good up front defensively.”