On Saturday, when the Yellow Jackets play No. 3 Clemson, it would be inaccurate to say that the chances for an upset ride squarely on his shoulders, but Tech absolutely needs him to play better.
“I think we’ve just got to be consistent,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to take care of the ball and we’ve got to play with some consistency. You’re not going to beat a team as good as Clemson if you go out there and turn the ball over.”
Marshall has proved himself capable of making accurate downfield throws. He can also be a deft executioner of the option. He has also earned Johnson’s respect with his willingness to earn tough yards on the run.
“You can’t play on this level at 180 pounds and take the shots that he takes and do that without being a tough kid,” Johnson said. “And he loves to play the game. He doesn’t shy away from anything.”
But Saturday, he needs to be far more than tough and intermittently accurate. Clemson boasts a defense that is effective at both limiting big plays (tied for fifth last season in fewest plays allowed of 20 yards or more) and creating tackles for losses (sixth most tackles for loss). As such, Tech has to maximize the few opportunities that they may get to gash the Tigers, both run and pass. Being able to scoop up 40 or 50 yards on a play-action pass play would go a long way to relieving the pressure on the run game to grind out first downs against a defense fronted by a line that’s touted as possibly the best of all-time.
In the past three years, Clemson has devoured Tech’s run game. The Jackets have averaged 121.3 rushing yards per game. Over the same span, Tech has averaged 276.9 yards in the run game against all other power-conference teams.
“They’re big, strong, fast, long,” Marshall said. “Anything you see from the Alabama defense, watching the NFL, they have those caliber players.”
Speaking Monday, Marshall said wasn’t sure why his performance in practice hasn’t been replicated thus far in games. He does have a habit of overstriding when stepping into his throws, which can lead to overthrowing receivers.
“But I’m not really too focused on that,” he said. “I know I can throw the ball.”
On offense, Marshall will need help. The protection has to keep him clean, and his receivers have to bring in the catchable passes. It would help if Tech’s defense or special teams could produce advantageous field position.
Last year, Tech’s average starting field position against Clemson was its 25-yard line. The Jackets started 11 of 13 possessions inside their 30. In 2016, a 26-7 loss to Clemson, the average starting point was the Tech 23. In fact, in the past three games against the Tigers – all losses by an average of 17.3 points – Tech has started one drive in Clemson territory.
“When you’ve got a chance to make plays, you’ve got to make them,” Johnson said.
For Marshall and his team, a group that has amassed a collection of defeats that were a play or two from turning out differently, it’s a familiar but evidently elusive objective. But, especially Saturday, it may well be the only way.