In the midst of his team’s open week, Georgia Tech running back Nathan Cottrell offered a vow on behalf of his team as it prepared for the final five games of the regular season.
“We’re just going to keep our nose down,” he said last Wednesday. “We’re going to stay humble and not let this win (against Miami) blow our heads up. We’re just going to keep moving forward and keep working like we have been doing.”
The Yellow Jackets will get their first opportunity to prove their diligence Saturday with a home game against Pittsburgh. That will be followed by a road trip to Virginia and then three home games against Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Georgia.
What’s the prognosis for Tech to seize victory again? Consider three reasons why the Jackets could finish strong and three why they may not.
3 reasons why
1. Run game getting better
Behind the powerful and elusive running of back Jordan Mason, Tech’s run game has become formidable, grinding for 173 yards against Duke and 207 against Miami. The 207 against the Hurricanes are the most they’ve allowed this season. Quarterback James Graham, who has 97 rushing yards (not counting sack yardage) in the past two games, adds a speed threat on keepers.
Going forward, the Jackets wouldn’t mind using a run/pass ratio similar to the 45/19 that they employed against Miami. Mason is probably the best thing Tech has going for it, so the more offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude can put the game in his hands, the better for the Jackets.
2. Opposing offenses aren’t strong
Tech is only one of two power-conference teams to not reach 30 points this season – Cal is the other – but perhaps the good news for the Jackets is that their upcoming opponents aren’t scoring machines, either.
Pitt, at 21.0 points per game, is 115th nationally in scoring, just four rungs up from Tech at 119th (18.1 points per game). Virginia has scored 21 or fewer in three of its past four games. In three league games, N.C. State has averaged 17.7 points and converted 25 percent of its third downs.
Even Georgia has had some scoring challenges of late.
If Tech can play a ball-control style with Mason and backs like Jerry Howard and Jamious Griffin, that could work in the Jackets’ favor against teams.
3. Jackets are getting better
Linebacker Demetrius Knight’s strip sack of Miami quarterback N’Kosi Perry was a pivotal moment not only because it led directly to a Tech touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. It was also Tech’s first forced fumble in four games.
Plays like that, or defensive tackle Ja’Quon Griffin’s sack, or Graham’s developing poise in the pocket, are evidence of Tech’s improvement over the course of the season. The progress hasn’t always been linear – the Jackets haven’t had an interception in the past 98 opponent pass attempts after five in the first 85, for example – but the overall trend seems discernible.
All of Tech’s remaining ACC opponents have conclusively demonstrated their capacity to be beaten. (Georgia, while a home loser to South Carolina, seems a different type of hill to climb.) If they continue to improve, the Jackets could steal wins against any of their final four ACC opponents under the right conditions, particularly the three at home.
3 reasons why not
1. Offense still not productive
As invigorating as the win over Miami may have been, Tech pulled it off despite the fact that the Jackets scored seven points in regulation when their offense was on the field. In regulation, the offense averaged .8 points per possession (tossing out the fake-punt score and the final kill-the-clock possession). Against Duke, the number was 1.8, as it was against North Carolina, and most of the scoring in those games was done when the Jackets were far behind. A healthy number might be 2.4 or 2.5.
The reasons are many – among them, consistently poor field position, the shortcomings in pass protection and the lack of explosive plays – but they likely all have to be improved for Tech’s productivity to increase enough to win without scoring help from the defense or special teams.
2. Tough defenses ahead
Of Tech’s five remaining opponents, four are in the top 30 in defensive yards-per-play. (Virginia Tech is 60th) Further, those defenses feature a slew of elite pass rushers, starting with Pitt, which leads FBS with 38 sacks. Not good news for Tech, which has had difficulty keeping Graham protected.
The more Tech can rely on the run, the better, and the Jackets did do some damage against Miami, another top-30 defense, with 207 rushing yards. But, as noted above, for the Jackets to beat the likes of Pitt will likely require winning their share of third-and-longs and/or pounding out long drives. Those tasks will be all the more formidable against the slate that awaits Tech.
3. Getting better, but…
While Tech is getting better, it’s probably worth remembering the baseline – namely, a home overtime loss to an FCS team (The Citadel) that is now 5-4 and a 24-2 loss to Temple. The Jackets remain vulnerable against the run, aren’t getting much of a lift from special teams (the fake punt and blocked field goal against Miami aside) and the offense is hit-and-miss.
Also, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that Tech’s opponents are likewise improving as the season goes along. Tech could continue to improve and still not notch another win. That said, given the week-to-week unpredictability of the ACC, it won’t be a surprise if the Jackets nab one more win or more, but it won’t be easy.