Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson isn’t averse to risks, and Saturday he paid the price on a hefty gamble.
Down 7-0 in the first quarter, the Yellow Jackets went with a fake punt on a fourth-and-7 from their own 28-yard line. However, Zach Roberts’ snap to upback Antwan Owens resulted in a two-yard loss and gave the Panthers the ball on Tech’s 26-yard line. The change on downs put Pitt in position to get into the end zone for a 14-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game. It was a cushion that proved critical in Tech’s 24-19 loss Saturday at Heinz Field.
Johnson explained that the assistant coach in charge of the punt team advised him that the play would work, but Johnson accepted accountability. On a day when both teams were trying to improve poor special-teams play in their previous games, the Jackets were the ones to make another error in the kicking game.
“That was a bad call,” Johnson said. “I’ll eat that one. That was on me.”
On the play, Roberts snapped to Owens, lined up as a punt protector with Brant Mitchell and Desmond Branch at the 21-yard line, seven yard behind the line of scrimmage. Owens, lined up on the left of Branch and Mitchell, took the snap and ran right. Branch took on a Pitt player charging right up the middle.
Mitchell ran right to the edge of the formation as a lead blocker for Owens. On the right edge, Ajani Kerr blocked Pitt’s Jim Medure and even managed to turn him back to the inside of the play. It appeared that, had Owens followed Mitchell around Kerr’s block, he would have had enough open space in front of him to reach the 35-yard line for a first down and give the Jackets a momentum boost.
However, Owens, while a tight end in high school, is a 265-pound defensive end and not accustomed to running with the ball, particularly in a high-pressure situation. For whatever reason, he did not follow the design of the play around Kerr and behind Mitchell. Instead, perhaps seeing a gap in the line, Owens ran the ball up the middle, and right into Medure, who, having been sealed off by Kerr from reaching the perimeter, was now in position to get off Kerr’s block to make the tackle.
After the game, Johnson said that “I’m not sure it wouldn’t have been easy” for Owens to pick up the first down had he run to the outside, “but that was a bad call. That’s on me.”
Tech did not have to be in position to risk the fake in the first place. On the previous three downs, Tech’s failure to get blocks on three run plays – a toss to A-back Qua Searcy, a dive by B-back Jordan Mason and a handoff to A-back Clinton Lynch on a counter – kept the Jackets from picking up a first down in a more conventional method.
Johnson has called a number of fake punts for the Jackets, often successfully. Perhaps the most memorable was a successful run by punter Ryan Rodwell against Miami in 2014. A year ago, a snap to KeShun Freeman earned a first down in Tech’s upset of Virginia Tech. Another fake last season – a pass by punter Pressley Harvin designed to draw a pass interference against Duke – failed when it was not executed properly.
Saturday’s fake was a considerable risk, given the field position and the ballcarrier. Like many things that happened against the Panthers, it didn’t go Tech’s way.