In a form true to his style, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said he was not interested this week is finding the right balance between patting his players on the back and applying a kick to the rear.
“I’m not walking a line,” Johnson said. “I’m going to coach my personality. Those guys know if they’re worried about getting kicked after that (South Florida) game, then they need to find something else to do. That’s embarrassing.”
In Tech’s loss to South Florida on Saturday, the embarrassment was multi-faceted. One of the causes was that Tech lost a game in which it held a double-digit lead for the fifth time in the past 12 games. Since the start of the 2017 season, which opened with the glorious-then-ghastly double-overtime defeat to Tennessee, the Jackets are 4-5 against FBS teams when they attain an in-game lead of 10 points or more.
The rest of the ACC’s record over that time, through the second week of this season: 75-8.
The difference is even more pronounced with second-half leads of 10 points or more. In position to close down a win with a double-digit lead after halftime, Tech is 4-4 (.500). The rest of the ACC is 73-4 (.948).
“It’s getting old,” said Johnson, whose team plays at Pittsburgh on Saturday in both teams’ ACC opener.
The pattern has clearly infiltrated players’ thinking. Part of the reason that Tech faltered on defense against USF was that players were too aggressive, abandoning their responsibilities to try to make a singular play. Defensive end Anree Saint-Amour described a feeling of angst.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that,’ and people try to do more than what you’re supposed to do, and when you try to get more, you get caught,” he said.
That idea resonated with quarterback TaQuon Marshall.
“I can definitely sense that,” he said. “Of course, when it comes down to crunch time, everyone wants to be that person to make the play. You want to be the guy to make the difference, and that’s everyone. So I think that could be the case sometimes.”
It runs counterintuitive to Tech’s offensive style, which is built to burn the clock and limit possessions and, hence, opportunities for comebacks. But the five come-from-ahead losses – Tennessee, Miami, Virginia, Duke and USF – have been characterized by the offense coming up short.
For example, after taking a 28-14 fourth-quarter lead against Tennessee, the Jackets punted and fumbled before a blocked field-goal attempt sent the game to overtime. Against Miami, Tech held a 24-13 third-quarter advantage but then punted on four consecutive possessions, running a total of only 18 plays.
Of course, the defense obviously is also highly accountable. Consider this: In the five losses, the opposition has had 30 possessions after Tech took its last double-digit lead. Those drives have produced 16 touchdowns, five field goals, eight punts and no turnovers. (One drive ended the game.)
Likewise, difference-making special teams plays have been sparse, too.
“I think it’s pretty simple,” Johnson said. “We haven’t been able to hold on (defensively), so you’ve got to keep scoring. We’ve turned the ball over a couple times. And then you’ve got to get a stop. Hell, you call it what it is. At some point, you’ve got to stop somebody in the second half.”
Also mixed into this cauldron of gloom is that all five of the losses have taken place away from home. Perhaps the support of the Jackets faithful at Bobby Dodd Stadium rescued Tech from another such loss.
The Jackets’ most noteworthy win of 2017 was over Virginia Tech, another game in which they actually gave up a second-half double-digit lead to Virginia before rallying with an 80-yard touchdown pass from Marshall to Ricky Jeune and then closing it out with cornerback Ajani Kerr’s pass breakup in the end zone. (Against FBS competition, Tech also held onto or built on double-digit leads last season against Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Wake Forest.)
The outcomes of all but the Duke game could well have been changed by one play – holding onto a pass, making a field goal, picking up a blitzing linebacker, wrapping up a ballcarrier, staying in the assigned gap, a better play call.
It isn’t hard to imagine how different Tech’s season would have been had the Jackets been able to keep their foot on the gas.
Tech and Johnson haven’t always had this problem. In 2016, Tech was 6-0 when it took a 10-point lead at any point in the game. In 2014, equipped with a record-setting offense that could invariably hold serve, the Jackets were 8-0 in their ballyhooed Orange Bowl season. Both seasons included near collapses, though, when Tech surrendered a 25-point lead to Georgia Southern in 2014 and a 21-point lead to Duke in 2016 before Justin Thomas bailed the Jackets out in both games.
In Johnson’s first nine seasons – the 2017 season was his 10th – Tech was 52-8 when taking a 10-point lead at any point in a game and 51-4 when it seized a double-digit lead in the second half of a game. (Interestingly, Tech won its first 26 games under Johnson when it held a double-digit lead in the second half, but is 29-9 since then.)
There is hope, certainly, that new defensive coordinator Nate Woody will develop his unit into the most effective in Johnson’s tenure, utilizing depth to have fresh players on the field at crunch time. Likewise, a veteran offensive line with a returning starter at quarterback would figure to be resolved and capable of burying an opponent with a clock-consuming touchdown drive. Perhaps the USF game will be the one that forges a team-wide intolerance for losing.
Tech may well have an opportunity Saturday to break its road losing streak and to finish out the game by forcing a turnover or squeezing the life out of the Panthers with a patented “death march” drive.
Until that happens, though, it’s easy to fear the worst.
“It’s tough,” Marshall said. “I mean, I think it’s a little curse that we have to break. I don’t think I’ve won a road game since my sophomore year. It’s something that’s going to change.”