Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins scored on a 30-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of Georgia Tech’s 49-21 loss to the Tigers Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Associated Press
Photo: Associated Press
Photo: Associated Press

The self-inflicted problems that bedevil Georgia Tech’s defense

It was a first-and-10 for Clemson in the second quarter, and uncertainty had overtaken the Georgia Tech defense. As the Tigers’ offense came to the line, at least four Tech players signaled to the sideline, apparently asking for the defensive play call. And then one player ran off the field, leaving the Yellow Jackets with 10 men.

Finally, Tech called timeout. Walking to the sideline, linebacker Brant Mitchell unsnapped his helmet in frustration.

“It was just confusion,” coach Paul Johnson said.

As Johnson explained it, some players on the field believed that they were in a dime defense, defensive line coach Jerome Riase was trying to sub out the line and a player who wasn’t supposed to leave the field thought he was being summoned.

As No. 3 Clemson effectively demonstrated in its 49-21 win Saturday, Tech has had enough trouble beating its opponents. Part of the Jackets’ problems thus far is that they’ve gotten in their own way at times with self-inflicted errors that have only made the task of winning games more difficult. Defensive players and Johnson shed light on some of the controllable matters that have not been executed as well as possible.

“We’ve got to do a better job of coaching those things and emphasizing the little things,” he said.

Tech uses two staff members to signal in plays from the sidelines. One is a live call and the other a dummy to make it more difficult for the opposition to pick up the signals. A problem: Players can mistakenly look to the wrong signal-caller.

It happened to cornerback Lamont Simmons later in the second quarter Saturday. Looking at the dummy call, he played one coverage while the rest of the secondary played another. As a result, Simmons didn’t stay with wide receiver Justyn Ross as he ran past, passing him along to safety Malik Rivera, who was expecting Simmons to defend him man-to-man. Ross ran free for an easy 53-yard touchdown reception. After chasing Ross into the end zone, Rivera turned to Simmons with his palms in the air in a “What just happened?” gesture.

Against fast-tempo offenses, Simmons described a rushed state in which the opposition is rushing to the line of scrimmage while the defense is waiting on the call from the sideline and then trying to line up accordingly.

“It’s definitely a struggle when we have a fast-paced offense,” Simmons said.

Johnson said that signals coming in from the sideline late has been a problem, particularly as the Jackets have played two fast-tempo teams, South Florida and Clemson. Saturday’s opponent, Bowling Green, also gets to the line quickly. Johnson said a solution is to simplify play calls.

Defensive end Desmond Branch estimated that there have been communications issues on perhaps 10 or 15 percent of the plays, which to this point would average between six to nine plays a game. Sometimes it can be not getting calls quickly enough, other times between teammates, such as not talking with another lineman about a line stunt.

“Something with communication, that’s so easy, that’s unacceptable,” Branch said. “So you really can’t attribute that to anything but just not focusing on what you’ve got to do.”

Linebacker Victor Alexander recalled a drop he took into pass coverage against USF. He retreated about five yards and ranged backward as the pass was thrown over his head, just out of his grasp, for a completion. Given that USF scored a touchdown on that third-quarter drive in a game decided late in the fourth quarter, it’s hardly a stretch to think that that one play could have changed the game’s outcome. Defensive coordinator Nate Woody used it as a teaching point to take the correct depth on a pass drop.

“The main thing he’s teaching us is the angles of the game,” Alexander said. “When the ball’s in the air, it has to come down at a certain point. By you being up here (closer to the line of scrimmage), the ball’s still here (over your head). But if you would have been back there, it would have dropped in my hands.”

The progress that Tech players and coaches see can be easily overlooked in the blowout loss to Clemson and the three-game losing streak in general. The list of corrections is long. But, for instance, players staying in their assigned gaps was an issue against USF, but hasn’t been as much in the past two games. Tech has five interceptions in 107 opponent pass attempts, compared with six in 333 pass attempts last season.

Alexander said he guaranteed that the Tech defense (and offense, for that matter) will look totally different by season’s end.

Said Alexander, “We’re getting everything together now.”

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