Duke running back Deon Jackson (25) gets tackled by Georgia Tech linebacker Brant Mitchell (51) in the first half of the Oct. 13 game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com)

5 Georgia Tech observations at the open date

Before the season began, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson spoke with typical confidence about his team’s prospects for the season ahead. Speaking at the team’s media day prior to the start of the preseason, Johnson said he went into every season – this one included – thinking that his team had a chance to win every game.

As always, the goal was to win the ACC’s Coastal Division and the conference title.

“I don’t see any reason we can’t do that if everything comes together and we stay healthy and play,” Johnson said.

Barring an unlikely turnaround, the Yellow Jackets will fall short of their goal. As they catch their breath during the open date and prepare for their matchup next Thursday at Virginia Tech, the Jackets are 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the ACC.

Here are five observations about Georgia Tech’s season just past the halfway point.

1. Inconsistent play

Like last year’s team, the Jackets have struggled to put together a full 60-minute effort. Against South Florida, Tech was felled by two kickoff returns for touchdowns in the first half and two turnovers in the second.

Against Pitt, the Jackets fell behind 21-0 in the first half. Facing tall odds against Clemson, the Jackets didn’t give themselves a chance with mistakes on both sides of the ball.

In the Duke game, it was the three fumbles on three consecutive plays in the third quarter - all leading to Blue Devils touchdowns.

Defensive end Anree Saint-Amour and left guard Parker Braun have been consistently productive, but the Jackets need more from the rest of the roster.

Tech was able to start quickly and put games away against Bowling Green and Louisville, both those teams are a combined 3-11. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall was at his best in those two games, but has been inconsistent at other times.

“I think sometimes when we start out and we don’t have immediate success on offense, guys try to do too much and they don’t just kind of go with the flow and go with the system, and then it gets worse, as opposed to just kind of playing,” Johnson said.

2. Missing Benson

The replacements for B-back KirVonte Benson – Jerry Howard and Jordan Mason – have done fine. They’ve gained 739 yards on 118 carries with seven touchdowns.

But, as logic would dictate, they were behind Benson for a reason before his season-ending knee injury. As a sophomore (Howard) and redshirt freshman (Mason), they don’t have the tackle-shedding power that Benson showed last year in earning second-team All-ACC honors, strength that he showed in his ability to turn a one-yard gain into a four-yard gain or a five-yard run into a 15-yard play.

Further, Benson had more experience and was more developed as a blocker.

3. Defense coming along

Defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s scheme is not yet completely implemented, and players almost certainly aren’t as comfortable in it as they will be in a year’s time. But there are indications that it’s improving, and the number of younger players on the depth chart portends more progress in seasons to come.

Led by Saint-Amour, the pass rush is more potent. The defense is top 10 nationally in turnovers created with 16, which is six more than the defense gained all of last season.

However, Tech is giving up 5.6 yards per play, in the same range as former coordinator Ted Roof’s final three defenses. The Jackets have particularly vulnerable against the pass on second and third down, when they’re often using sub packages that are still being developed.

4. Special teams not dynamic

For a team that, as Johnson has mentioned often, has a small margin for error, the Jackets have not provided themselves much of a cushion through special-teams play. Punter Pressley Harvin is playing at an All-ACC level – Tech is 20th nationally in net punting.

Beyond that, though, the Jackets have not produced much in the way of big plays that could spark the team or aid in the field-position game. Tech has not blocked a kick or punt, returned a punt longer than 30 yards or returned a kickoff longer than 40 yards - making the Jackets the only ACC team that can make that claim. Further, the Jackets are last in the conference in opponent kickoff return plays of 30 yards or more with seven.

The kickoffs to start both halves of the Duke game illustrated the lift that Tech isn’t getting out of the kicking game. The Blue Devils brought the opening kickoff out to their 48, leaving them only 52 yards to drive for the game-opening touchdown.

With the score tied at 7, Tech returner Juanyeh Thomas was blown up inside his 20 on the opening kickoff of the second half and a penalty brought the ball back to the 8-yard line, setting the stage for the field-flipping that led to Duke’s go-ahead touchdown later in the quarter. Thomas’ fumble on the kickoff after the Blue Devils took a 21-7 lead virtually sealed the game.

5. Not the best of times

There’s time for things to improve, but this has been a bumpy seven games. The losses to USF and Pitt were both winnable. The Jackets were outclassed by Clemson. The Jackets’ loss to Duke was their fourth in the past five seasons to the Blue Devils.

The segment of the Tech fan base that is disenchanted with Johnson has made itself heard on social media and on game day. Of the eight smallest home crowds in Johnson’s tenure, three have been this season. A bowl berth is still a possibility, but it will require the Jackets to play better in all three phases and do so against a slate that is arguably stronger than the first seven games.

Picking up wins at North Carolina and against Virginia seems plausible, but the other three assignments – at Virginia Tech, vs. Miami and at Georgia – are far more difficult.

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