ESPN assigns Georgia Tech a 15 percent chance of pulling the upset Saturday against No. 3 Clemson. After the Yellow Jackets’ showings in the past two games – road losses to South Florida and Pittsburgh – Tech fans may find even that calculation generous to their team.
Nevertheless, Tech and Clemson will line up for the 83rd time in a series that dates to 1898 in a 3:30 p.m. game (airing on WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News) at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Jackets are trying to break a three-game losing streak to the Tigers in which they’ve been outscored 93-41 and outgained by an average of 469 yards to 195.
Avoid trouble in first quarter
The opening 15 minutes of Tech’s past three games have been 45 minutes of disaster. In each game, the Jackets entered the game knowing that they needed a near-perfect game to have a chance and proceeded to make a mess of those plans off the jump. In 2015, Tech gave up a 66-yard touchdown run on the third play from scrimmage and threw an interception in its own end on its first possession, staking the Tigers to a 10-0 lead less than four minutes in.
In 2016, Tech permitted an opening-drove touchdown to Clemson, went three-and-out on its first two possessions and was down 14-0 at the end of the quarter. Last year, Tech fumbled on the fourth play from scrimmage and was down 7-0 two plays later. Later in the quarter, it had first-and-goal from the Clemson 9, but came away with only a field goal. That’s standard procedure for Clemson, which outscored opponents 129-51 last year in the first quarter.
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“I think if you watch, probably a lot of people have had trouble against them,” coach Paul Johnson said. “Their speed, getting accustomed to it, and just execution and the hype.”
» From the coach: Paul Johnson said holding onto the ball is ‘not rocket science’
Better play from Marshall
It isn’t merely quarterback TaQuon Marshall who needs to play well, but any attempt for an upset of the three-time defending ACC champions, winners of 22 of their past 24 regular-season conference games, needs him at his best. Marshall has been inconsistent throwing the ball, completing 47.1 percent of his passes in 51 attempts with two touchdowns and four interceptions. He has been errant on potential big pass plays, fumbled twice and missed some reads in the option game.
It’s not like he hasn’t helped the team – he has back-to-back 100-yard rushing games and picked up some tough first downs. But it might take the best game of his career – throwing, running and executing the option – to give his team a shot.
“I think we’ve just got to be consistent,” said Johnson, referring to Marshall. “You’ve got to take care of the ball and we’ve got to play with some consistency.”
» From the quarterback: How TaQuon Marshall is feeling before leading Tech vs. No. 3 Clemson
» Looking back: How Tech’s first quarters have gone the past three years against Clemson
Focus and execution for four quarters
In the 49-38 loss at South Florida, the Jackets went hot and cold on offense, killing back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter with turnovers. The defense gave way in the second half, giving up four touchdowns in five possessions. Special teams was a disaster by giving up two touchdowns on back-to-back kickoff returns.
In losing 24-19 at Pittsburgh, the offense was shut out in the first half and then turned it on after that with 19 points and 231 yards. On defense, the Jackets allowed two touchdowns in the first three possessions (one on a short field after a short-circuited fake punt) but then gave up 10 points over the next eight possessions.
“At times, it’s all inconsistent,” Johnson said.
Tech can probably afford a mistake here and there against Clemson, but the Jackets have to be far sharper than they’ve been from start to finish. That’s offense, defense and special teams.
“That’s something we’re going to have to do in the future, is play better in the first half and not let ’em get up as much,” linebacker Brant Mitchell said.
Holding back Clemson’s line
Perhaps Tech’s biggest challenge will be finding answers for Clemson’s defensive line, touted to be possibly the best in the history of college football. Starting linemen Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant are all potential first-round draft picks.
They helped stonewall Tech last year in the Jackets’ 24-10 defeat. In the game, Tech ran 56 plays. Exactly half gained one yard, no yards or negative yards. The Jackets’ game is setting up third-and-short plays to grind out first downs and wait for big plays to break. Clemson, particularly with its front, is superbly equipped to prevent that.
“It’s hard to put together consistent plays without them getting a sack or a negative play to get you behind the chains,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be able to protect your quarterback if you’re going to play them because they’re going to come after him.”
And, to make the climb more steep, the Jackets may have to do it without two key offensive linemen, Will Bryan and Andrew Marshall, whose status was uncertain as of Wednesday because of lower-body injuries.
Losing to Clemson would drop Tech to 1-3 for the first time since 2003 in coach Chan Gailey’s second season. It would not be the end of the season, but, at the least, it would make winning the ACC Coastal Division significantly more difficult by dropping the Jackets to 0-2 in conference play.
Likewise, it would put the Jackets in a place of needing to win five of their final eight games to make a bowl game with four games on the road (Louisville, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Georgia) and three against teams in the AP top 25 (No. 2 Georgia, No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 21 Miami).
Further, it could put more stress on the team’s unity and resolve.
“We have a big group chat with everyone on the team in it, and I think the main thing we kind of harped on after this past weekend is, no matter what, we all have to stay together,” Marshall said. “As long as we’re together, everything’ll be good.”
» Looking ahead: Paul Johnson previews Saturday’s game