There’s no mistaking it. It’s only the third week of the season, but Georgia Tech’s game Saturday at Pittsburgh is highly important. The Yellow Jackets are trying to end a road losing streak, start ACC play well and shed some bad habits.
“This is one we need to win,” coach Paul Johnson said. “It’s a big game for us.”
The Panthers, blown out at home Saturday by archrival Penn State, are feeling the same way. For either team, both of which are coming off losing records in 2017, it figures to be a struggle to seize a much-needed win.
Better kickoff coverage
Johnson was highly agitated with the play of the kickoff team after South Florida scored on back-to-back kickoffs Saturday. He called for more veteran players to be put on the unit, as there were five freshmen on the kickoff team that allowed the first Bulls touchdown.
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Johnson was asked this week about the new rule permitting teams to fair catch kickoffs inside their 25-yard line and start drives at the 25.
“Shoot, if I was playing us, I wouldn’t use it, I’d return every one of them,” he said.
Pittsburgh’s Maurice Ffrench, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Albany in the season opener, may take the advice.
Tech kicker Brenton King will have to deal with the notoriously tricky winds at Heinz Field, which opens up onto the Allegheny River. Last season, Pitt and its opponents were 8-for-16 on field goals in that stadium.
Minding the gaps
Tech’s defensive play in the second half (28 points allowed and 7.3 yards per play after halftime compared with seven points and 4.2 yards before) failed in no small part because players didn’t stay in their assigned gaps, a problem that created gaps for USF running backs and quarterback Blake Barnett to run through for big yards.
There were also times when players ran different plays, with two linemen slanting in one direction and the third going in the other. Other times, players supposed to be dropping into coverage rushed, and vice versa. Team members said that USF’s fast-paced tempo and the newness of defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s scheme were part of the reasons why the mistakes were made and called them easy fixes.
“Just lack of execution and that comes with learning a new defense and getting into a new system, but every game, we’re going to get better and that was yesterday,” defensive end Anree Saint-Amour said. “Today’s a new day.”
Young Jackets stepping forward
Two members of the 2017 signing class have important jobs Saturday. Redshirt freshman B-back Jordan Mason will start after KirVonte Benson suffered a season-ending knee injury Saturday. Mason may not have the tackle-breaking power of Mason, nor the experience, but has decent speed and quickness.
In two games, Mason has run 24 times for 180 yards with one touchdown. Last year, Benson gained a career-high 196 yards against Pittsburgh.
“We’re excited about (Mason),” Johnson said. “I think he’s going to be a good player.”
Sophomore linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling will start in place of David Curry, who will sit the first half after he was penalized for targeting in the second half of Tech’s loss to USF. Curry is tied for the team lead in tackles and has been among the more effective players on the defense.
Jordan-Swilling will be playing in his first game in Woody’s scheme. He missed the first two games with injuries.
“Bruce is a heck of an athlete,” Johnson said.
Watching usage of backups
Last Saturday, Tech coaches seeking the same objective – winning – used diametrically opposite methods to attempt it. Apparently not wanting to risk lowering the level of performance by putting in backups, Tech offensive line coaches Mike Sewak and Ron West kept the starting five offensive linemen in for virtually the entire game against USF, not a small workload considering that Tech played 75 offensive snaps in high heat and humidity.
On defense, Woody subbed liberally, going into the third string and even using a walk-on defensive lineman, in part to keep players fresh and also to help develop depth that should pay off in games and seasons to come.
Neither approach met Johnson’s satisfaction. He wants the offensive line to use backups (not many, perhaps one at guard, one at tackle and one at center) to share the workload. He also wants Woody to use fewer backups.
Asked if he thought it was a hindrance that so many defensive players were rotating, Johnson answered, “I consider it a hindrance when they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.”
Solve the road jinx
The last time Tech won a road game was Nov. 26, 2016, a 28-27 win over Georgia at Sanford Stadium. Since then, the Jackets have lost five consecutive road games, along with a neutral-site loss to Tennessee in the season opener in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Unfortunately for Tech, it hasn’t been that long since the Jackets had a longer road losing streak. They lost seven true road games between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, a stretch that does not include the 2016 season-opening win over Boston College in Ireland, a game that was technically a home game for Boston College. The sixth game of that losing streak was, coincidentally, at Pittsburgh.
In five of the six losses in the current streak away from Bobby Dodd Stadium – Tennessee, Miami, Virginia, Duke and South Florida – Tech led by double digits before losing. Ironically, Tech overcame a two-possession deficit in the fourth quarter in that most recent road win in Athens.
“We’ve just got to learn how to finish,” linebacker Brant Mitchell said.