Georgia Tech’s margin of error getting thinner

Georgia Tech will play Georgia Southern on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Facing fourth-and-4 at Pittsburgh’s 36-yard line and trailing by one early in the third quarter, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson made a decision that he has made many times: he went for it.

Quarterback Justin Thomas dropped back, the offensive line gave him enough time, and he zipped a pass to wide receiver Mikell Lands-Davis … who dropped it. Had it been caught, Tech would have had a first down and likely would have come away with at least a field goal. Thomas was visibly aggravated after the drop before recovering and running to the sideline.

It was just one mistake, but it's the type of mistake that Johnson has repeatedly this season said Tech can't afford to make. Their margin for error is simply not great enough to overcome an opponent as well as themselves. Every play needs to be executed as if it could decide the game.

“It’s a thin line,” Johnson said. “Except for a few teams in the country, there’s really a thin line between most of the teams.”

Pittsburgh may not have the athletes of Clemson or Miami, but mistakes made by Tech like the drop by Lands-Davis contributed to the demise. Now, Georgia Tech will try to find enough polish to take care of Georgia Southern on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The margin is so fine for many reasons that Johnson has noted throughout the season: the team is inexperienced on offense with just two seniors in the starting 11. Mistakes are being made, or rather better plays not being made, because most the players are still learning what’s right and what they can’t get away with. The defense, going back to last season, features several senior starters but hasn’t shown an ability to consistently rush the passer and therefore create turnovers or impact plays to swing momentum. Combine those issues with Tech playing very few ACC programs that would be considered sub-standard and the Yellow Jackets right now have to play very, very well to increase their chances of victory with a two-deep roster that is still learning how to do so in practice.

“The more positive things you do the more confidence you have because those are your habits,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “We try to create good habits on the practice field because gameday is just a reflection of our habits. We have to continue to work on that. We all have to continue to work and get better and that’s what we will do.”

There has been example after example in each of Tech’s losses this seasons of small mistakes made that, should the Yellow Jackets fail to reach bowl eligibility for the second consecutive season, likely won’t be remembered by supporters, but will become teaching tools for the coaching staff going forward.

And the mistakes are happening on both sides of the ball.

Twice Lance Austin has had chances for interceptions – including one against Pittsburgh that likely would have been returned for a touchdown – only to see the ball either bounce off his hands or go right through them. Adding insult to the miss, the pass that went through his hands was caught by Miami’s Stacy Coley and turned into a big gain.

“Hopefully I can finish and get one,” Austin said.

There’s more: wide receiver Brad Stewart ran out of bounds a yard short of the first-down marker against Pittsburgh, setting up the pivotal fourth-and-1 that Tech couldn’t convert. That mistake gave Pittsburgh the ball on the 34-yard line and set up the game-winning touchdown as time expired.

Even Justin Thomas isn’t immune. It appears that he missed a read running the option on third-and-3 on Tech’s opening drive against Pittsburgh that resulted in a field goal instead of a possible touchdown.

These are the types of errors that have led to Tech going 3-9 last year, and 3-3 this season with three consecutive losses.

“You just have to keep plugging and keep coaching and keep working,” Johnson said. “You’ve got two choices: you either work and get better … guys aren’t dumb. They can look at the tape and see what happened. They know. You just have to make plays.”

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