Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson laid it out last Tuesday, four days before Miami would send his football team home from South Florida with another cruel loss to the Hurricanes.
“It’s hard to tell where we are,” he said. “We’ll know a lot more after Saturday, that’s for sure.”
What did Tech learn Saturday in its 25-24 loss to the No. 11 Hurricanes, beyond another unnecessary reminder that losing in the final moments of a game is a crushing experience?
It might be this: the Jackets offense is not quite the invincible run-game machine that it had often appeared through four games, and that perhaps the flawed offenses belonging to Pitt and North Carolina had something to do with the prowess that the Jackets defense had displayed through four games.
But also that, while a team that is two plays away from being 5-0 is still 3-2 in the standings, it evidently has the means to make amends in the final six games.
Once again, Miami’s victory – its eighth in 10 attempts in the Johnson era with wins by four different Hurricanes coaches – was the product of superior playmakers taking advantage of the Jackets. Miami avoided blocks on the perimeter and in the interior to thwart the toss plays that were so effective at the start of the game. On the Jackets’ rare pass plays, Hurricanes linemen and linebackers overwhelmed the Tech line to pressure quarterback TaQuon Marshall.
Miami running back Travis Homer, making his first career start in place of Mark Walton (out for the season with an ankle injury), ran powerfully, exploiting creases created by his line to gash the Jackets defense. He was quick to holes, ripped through the linebacker level and ended the day with 170 rushing yards. Only seven running backs have gained more against the Jackets in the Johnson era, according to sports-reference.com.
In special teams, Miami returners Braxton Berrios and Jeff Thomas broke tackles and sped through Tech’s cover teams for returns of 34 and 38 yards, respectively, both of which proved meaningful to varying degrees in the game’s outcome.
Wide receiver Darrell Langham’s last play of the game, the deflected 28-yard reception on fourth-and-10 in the final minute, will haunt Tech fans for a long time. But it was an earlier catch that Thomas made that perhaps more exemplified the game. On a third-quarter pass play, Thomas caused safety Corey Griffin to bite on a feint, freeing him up for a downfield reception. (Griffin owned his mistake in a post-game interview.)
But Griffin chased him down just shy of the goal line for a 70-yard gain, and Miami settled for a field goal, saving Tech four points, an effort play that would have been hailed as a difference maker had the Jackets won. Griffin’s hustle prevented the worst possible outcome on the play, but Langham’s speed and route running exploited the Jackets nonetheless.
For the game, Miami accumulated 481 yards on offense, the most allowed by Tech since North Carolina dragged the Jackets for 636 last season. The Tech defense had played far more effectively in the eight games since that egregious afternoon in Chapel Hill, N.C., giving rise to the appearance that defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s unit had turned a corner, but Saturday’s performance invites consideration that the improvement lay more in the level of competition. That said, it was only one game. Time will tell.
“We’re going to work hard, we’re not going to lie down,” linebacker Victor Alexander said. “We know that this time around, even though we took this ‘L’ against Miami again, we’ve just got to play better, become stronger as a team and execute better.”
The fact remains that one more play by the Jackets – and there is no shortage to choose from, going back to the first quarter – could have flipped the result and given Tech its most significant road win since the epochal upset over Georgia in 2014.
The Tech defense held Miami to 2-for-12 on third downs, continuing its improved play in that critical facet. Defensive end Antonio Simmons continued his impactful play with 1.5 sacks. Freshman linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling held his own in place for the injured Brant Mitchell.
Challenged to keep the ball secure, the Jackets offense managed to make it through 61 snaps without a fumble despite weather conditions that practically begged for it. A-back Clinton Lynch showed again his explosive playmaking ability. Marshall turned in another highlight play, shot-putting the ball while under heavy pressure to A-back J.J. Green for a three-yard touchdown pass.
“I just tried to make a play,” Marshall said. “J.J. was wide open.”
Saturday’s result doesn’t have to be a condemnation of the rest of the season. As uncomfortable as the description may feel, being a team that comes within four seconds of beating the No. 11 team in the country on its own field (albeit with the considerable help of a fluky kickoff return for a touchdown) isn’t nearly as discouraging as being a team that had no business being on the same field with that same team.
The challenge now that faces the Jackets will be in their response to a second crushing defeat in five games, following the double-overtime loss to Tennessee in the opener. Having proven they can come one step shy of the summit on the road against a possible College Football Playoff team, can the Jackets instead be one play better going forward against other ranked opponents?
Having had weaknesses exposed, will the Jackets – whose practice habits Johnson didn’t quite extoll last week – be determined enough to address them on the practice field?
“This is a team that has a lot of heart, a lot of confidence, but at times we get away from what we’re supposed to do,” Griffin said. “That’s the things that we definitely want to work on going forward.”
The rest of the schedule provides the Jackets a surplus of opportunities to prove themselves a team worthy of the Top 25. By the same token, the strength of the remaining six opponents – Wake Forest, Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke and Georgia – also threatens to confine Tech into the considerable pile of “coulda been” teams if the Jackets fail to respond properly.
Tech voted for its captains last week – defensive end KeShun Freeman, nickel back Lawrence Austin and Marshall. With a better-than-usual team from Wake Forest arriving next Saturday, they’ll have to exercise their leadership sooner than they might have hoped.
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