A number of things could be said about Georgia Tech following consecutive losses to Duke and North Carolina. None of those things were, “They might beat Clemson,” or, “They might beat Georgia.”
They were a spinning compass. There were struggles against Tulane and Georgia Southern. There were impressive wins over Virginia Tech and Miami that teased fans with an ascent the program hadn’t experienced since 2009. Then there were the belly-flops.
“It makes you sick the way we played in the two we lost. But that’s football,” coach Paul Johnson said Saturday.
Specifically, that’s Tech football this year.
Maybe the fluctuations are over.
The team with bipolar tendencies won its third consecutive, a 56-23 dismembering of North Carolina State. The Yellow Jackets have outscored their past three opponents — Pittsburgh (56-28), Virginia (35-10) and the Wolfpack — by a combined score of 147-61.
This is a young and improving team, particularly on defense, where the unit has forced 11 turnovers in the past three games.
Tech’s defensive coordinator position has been the scene of several psychotic breaks. But Ted Roof — whose unit allowed 48 points and 579 yards in the loss in Chapel Hill — apparently has found something that works: increased use of a three-man front with blitzing linebackers, which partially compensates for the team’s smallish size and inexperience up front.
So suddenly, yes: The next two weeks against Clemson and Georgia don’t seem as daunting.
“I’ve never been scared of them,” Johnson said. “They’ve been close games pretty much every year.”
Only a 1.5 on the Paul Johnson scale of smack talk. Yeah. Probably best to be guarded.
But to suggest things went so well Saturday would be understatement. You know it’s going to be a good day when an opponent runs 25 consecutive offensive plays over four possessions, but because of a strange sequence of turnovers, is outscored 14-0.
Tech’s offense spent 46 minutes in real time on the sideline, mostly in the second quarter.
“It was like starting the game all over,” quarterback Justin Thomas joked when asked what it was like returning after so long.
The brief summary: Tech led 14-13. The Wolfpack was driving for an apparent go-ahead score when Quayshawn Nealy intercepted a Jacoby Brissett pass at the Jackets’ 1-yard line and returned it 69 yards, only to have the ball stripped from him by N.C. State’s Jaylen Samuels.
Nealy: “The first 40 yards I think I was good. I just ran out of gas.”
Johnson: “It was like slow motion when Quayshawn picked that ball up. I saw it coming.”
Didn’t matter. Two plays into the Wolfpack’s new possession, D.J. White intercepted a Brissett pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown.
Next drive: Blitzing linebacker Tyler Marcordes separated Brissett from the ball and his wits. Nealy picked up the ball and returned it 43 yards for the score. (This time, he looked over his shoulder to make sure nobody was catching up to him.)
So a potential 20-14 N.C. State lead turned into a 28-13 Tech lead and the start of a runaway. The Jackets went on a 49-3 run.
The interception by Nealy started it all. Then again, as Johnson noted, “They weren’t going to win if they never stopped us.”
And they didn’t. The Jackets never punted. They scored eight touchdowns and accumulated 549 yards of offense (479 rushing) in 10 offensive possessions. Their last three possessions made the Wolfpack and the clock scream for mercy, lasting 6:12, 7:13 and 7:05. N.C. State had the ball only three possessions in the second half.
Tech’s two non-scoring drives: an early fumble at the N.C. State 29 and a we’ll-be-nice-and-won’t-score possession that ended at the 3-yard line as time expired.
North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren never figured out how to stop Tech. Nor, for that matter, did he give much thought to the well-being of his players. He never took out the starters, including Brissett, who was banged up. (Conversely, Johnson pulled starters late in the third quarter.)
Doeren became prickly in the postgame when asked afterward about leaving in his No. 1 offense. When asked if he was concerned about Brissett getting injured, he shot back to a reporter, “Obviously, you’re concerned about it.”
Now that’s the guy you want coaching your kid, right?
Damn soft media.
On the other sideline, it’s all good. The Jackets could’ve unraveled after their two losses, but they went in the other direction.
“Coach Johnson’s demeanor trickles down to us — a fight-back kind of attitude,” said Synjyn Days, who rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown before being pulled in the third quarter. “We never really got down after losses because we know we have the talent and we can compete with anybody.”
White echoed the sentiment: “Coach Roof has just been preaching resiliency and bouncing back. Our defense does that.”
This much is certain: The Jackets have made their final two games interesting.
“This definitely sets up those two games to be bigger ones,” White said. “Let’s get to it.”
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