North Carolina defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge (55) tackles Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall (16) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Jon Barash)
Photo: Jon Barash/AP
Photo: Jon Barash/AP

For Georgia Tech to upset Miami, ball security will be critical

At Georgia Tech practices, ball-security training is a priority that even extends to the team’s student managers.

While players are waiting to take part in drills, managers are invited to dislodge footballs from their grasp, A-back Qua Searcy said. Players who fumble are required to run or do “up-downs,” a dreaded calisthenics exercise.

“I don’t think anyone goes over the top,” Searcy said, speaking figuratively and not literally. However, “I feel like they should, because we’ve got to get better at not turning the ball over.”

The Jackets begin game week Monday for the most critical matchup of the season thus far, on the road Saturday vs. No. 11 Miami. Tech’s hopes of winning the ACC Coastal Division may not hinge completely on beating the Hurricanes, but an upset of Miami would keep the Jackets’ fate in their hands.

Next week in Miami, Georgia Tech wants to show improved defense

One way Tech can do it is by taking better care of the ball. Through four games, Tech’s 14 fumbles are tied for 126th out of 130 FBS teams. In coach Paul Johnson’s tenure, begun in 2008, Tech teams and players have been a picture of offensive consistency and contributed to arguably the most successful coaching era since Bobby Dodd’s retirement after the 1966 season. However, they’ve repeatedly fallen short when it comes to keeping hold of the ball.

In Johnson’s first nine seasons, Tech ranked 114th or lower in fumbles eight times, not an easy feat when there have been between 120 and 128 teams in FBS in that time. In those seasons, the Jackets averaged between 2.1 and 3.0 fumbles per game. The one season when Tech was significantly better at holding on to the ball (1.4 fumbles per game) and more able to take advantage of the efficiency of Johnson’s spread-option offense – 2014. The Jackets tied the NCAA high for third-down efficiency and won the Orange Bowl.

That season, Tech surrounded first-year starting quarterback Justin Thomas with a crew of veteran skill players such as B-backs Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days and A-backs Charles Perkins, Tony Zenon and Deon Hill. By contrast, along with first-year starting quarterback TaQuon Marshall, B-backs KirVonte Benson, Jerry Howard and Quaide Weimerskirch had a combined one carry prior to this season. Those four have been charged with 11 of the 14 fumbles. The A-back group, mostly returning starters, has one fumble in 49 offensive touches.

Given the amount of ball-handling that his offense requires – the mesh between the quarterback and B-back and the long tosses and option pitches to the A-backs – and its high percentage of run plays, Johnson accepts some fumbles and turnovers as an inevitable consequence.

How TaQuon Marshall spent his bye week

“It happens sometimes,” he said of turnovers. “You’ve got to coach it, you want to stay away from it, but it’s not the end-all, be-all. I mean, there’s a lot of things that are involved. Will it get you beat? Absolutely, the same way that special teams and not tackling guys and not blocking guys and missing open receivers and dropping balls and all that stuff get you beat.”

What aggravates Johnson is what he called careless fumbles.

“Once in a while, they’re going to put their hat on the ball and you can live with that if you’ve got the ball high and tight and you’ve got it secured and you’re against the ball,” he said. “The ones that drive you nuts are the ones that you inflict on yourself. That’s the ones that kill you.”

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 23: Running back KirVonte Benson #30 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets fumbles in the second half during the game against the the Pittsburgh Panthers at Bobby Dodd Stadium on September 23, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Photo: Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

In the win over North Carolina, Johnson was livid with Benson when he lost possession while trying to extend the ball over the goal line on a first-and-goal play. The smarter play was to try again on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Tech lost another fumble when center Kenny Cooper had the snap count wrong. Marshall had the ball punched out on a carry up the middle. Johnson said the ball wasn’t secured tightly enough.

“I feel like we’re playing well, but it’s definitely not the best we can play,” Searcy said. “We’re obviously turning the ball over too many times, too many balls on the ground.”

Tech demonstrated the potentially high cost of fumbles in last year’s loss to Miami. The Jackets did some things really well in that game. B-back Dedrick Mills ran for 99 yards and two touchdowns. The defense limited Miami to 1-for-7 on third downs and kept running back Mark Walton to 44 yards on 15 carries. But Thomas fumbled twice in a span of three plays from scrimmage in the second quarter, and both were returned for touchdowns. The 14 points off turnovers were difference makers as the Hurricanes won 35-21 despite holding the ball for a little more than 20 minutes.

And the problem isn’t only losing possession on turnovers. A recovered fumble usually puts the offense behind schedule to pick up the next first down and can throw off rhythm.

While the sample size is admittedly small, Tech scored nine points last season on its 13 possessions against power-conference opponents when it fumbled and recovered. (The Jackets have made outrageous gains in that category this season, scoring 21 points on their five drives when they’ve retained possession after a fumble.)

The Jackets do have other problems to address going into their matchup Saturday with Miami. The return game has struggled. Wide receivers Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart have not been as sure-handed as they’ve previously been. While the interior of Tech’s offensive line has been superb, the play of the offensive tackles needs improvement.

And, as one of only seven FBS teams to score at least 30 points in all of their games, the Jackets are hardly flailing. But, as Johnson wryly observed after the win over Pittsburgh, Tech has to clean up its fumbling problems “because against a good team, we won’t be able to survive.”

Beating the Hurricanes may require the utmost attention from both the Jackets and their managers.

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