Georgia Tech quarterback Tobias Oliver (8) runs with a ball in the first half at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, September 14, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Looking at Georgia Tech’s quarterback rotation vs. The Citadel

With the game on the line Saturday, Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins made the decision to use quarterbacks Tobias Oliver and Lucas Johnson in the span of three plays. When the strategy failed to generate points in the overtime period of the Yellow Jackets’ 27-24 loss to The Citadel, it was easy to conclude that Collins’ rolling Johnson and Oliver throughout the game, sometimes in the same series, was a factor in the defeat.

It was an unconventional decision, but one that Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude evidently felt compelled to make, based on the particular strengths of Oliver and Johnson. The decision itself lent some insight into their approach and leads to questions about what lies ahead for the Jackets in games to come with Oliver, Johnson and James Graham, who missed the game with a foot injury.

Johnson hit pass plays of 28 and 33 yards with on-target downfield throws to wide receivers Malachi Carter and Jalen Camp, a demonstration of his passing acumen. (Oliver also made a nice throw to Camp down the seam for a 29-yard gain.)

Johnson easily could have added another 70 yards of passing yardage on two incomplete passes. One was a 50-50 ball that he threw to Carter in the first quarter that was well-covered but that Carter got his hands on. Another was a third-quarter pass on a third-and-8 to tight end Tyler Davis, who was covered but probably could have made a better play for the ball. Both would have advanced drives well into The Citadel territory that ended in punts.

On Tech’s final offensive play of the game, a third-and-8 in overtime, a breakdown on the line caused a sack, denying Johnson the opportunity to make a play for a first down.

Johnson and Oliver each led one touchdown drive alone and shared on drives that resulted in a touchdown and the game-tying field goal.

Tech’s loss to The Citadel was inexcusable. However, the rotation of Johnson and Oliver, if it was a factor, would not seem nearly as significant as other aspects of the Jackets’ play.

Beyond the impact of the eight penalties and the Tech defense’s inability to get off the field, there were a number of failed offensive plays that had little to do with either Johnson or Oliver.

On a third-and-3 on Tech’s opening drive, for instance, a Citadel linebacker had a free run at running back Dontae Smith, who was tackled for a 2-yard loss. It either was the selection of a less-than-optimal play or poor execution, and Tech punted.

A third-quarter run of Oliver’s was limited to a 1-yard gain when the same linebacker, Willie Eubanks, couldn’t be reached on a block. Oliver also had a downfield pass to Davis that was catchable but broken up.

Collins’ comments after the game indicated that he’s quite comfortable proceeding in the same manner.

“These guys are battling to earn playing time, and however much playing time they get is determined upon what they do in their body of work since we’ve been here, and it will continue that way moving forward,” he said.

There might be wisdom in choosing one quarterback and sticking with him. Patenaude has said he would like for one of the quarterbacks to claim the job, but he and Collins clearly are not at that point, and the differing skill sets of the three only complicate the decision. 

Oliver’s ability to make plays with his feet may make him a better choice, particularly as he plays in front of an offensive line that, while patched up, has shown that it can run block. But it’s also possible that giving Johnson (and the rest of the offense) time to develop the passing game will pay dividends in the future, particularly considering that Tech may frequently find itself playing from behind this season and also that Johnson is also an effective runner. And it may well be that Graham, who might have the highest ceiling as a dual-threat quarterback but also has the least experience, might be the best choice.

Without Collins and Patenaude having full confidence in one of the three to be the starter, deciding on one of the quarterbacks at this point would have repercussions if the choice proves sub-optimal. (It wouldn’t be difficult, though, to find a Tech fan who would contend that not committing at this point already had repercussions in the form of Saturday’s loss.)

And this all overshadows other issues that the Jackets face, namely the injury-plagued offensive line and a defense that permitted The Citadel to hold the ball for almost 42 minutes of regulation.

Tech faces a number of questions about its team as it prepares for Temple during its open date. Who will be the answer at quarterback is but one.

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