“I think we’ve been really solid running the football this year so far,” Tech freshman left tackle Ethan Mackenny said. “I think we’ve done a phenomenal job, with our coaches helping us properly get the right landmarks and running to the right spots. There’s room for improvements in certain areas, but I think were gonna get better as the season goes on.”
In the post-option era, Tech’s 2020 team set the standard through four games for running the ball with 855 yards. That team ended the season with 1,908 yards on the ground and Tech is on pace to surpass that total by Game 10 (the ‘20 team played only 10 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic).
The Jackets certainly have been a bit more reliant on the pass than the run through four games, with more passing yards than rushing in each game this season. Tipping the scales toward a more-balanced attack could pay dividends in the long run for offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner’s offensive scheme, especially one-third of the way through the season when there are no more surprises.
“After four games, now the book’s kinda out. People know what you’re gonna do in a lot of ways,” Tech coach Brent Key said. “They know what’s been good against your offense and defense. So as much as it goes into preparing for the next team, you’re also preparing against and ironing out your own flaws, things that people have done previously against you. That’s why self-scout is so important. The majority of my day Sunday night and Monday is doing self-scout on offense, defense and special teams. What have people done against us? What are our tendencies? What are we doing to break our tendencies?
“You start to get to 80% tendency in something, well that’s a tell-tale sign. You wanna move those tendencies out, but at the same time, most good football teams do have good tendencies because that means you’re doing something good.”
The Jackets have relied almost exclusively on converted wide receiver Jamal Haynes and Louisville transfer Trey Cooley out of the backfield, and that duo has been impressive. Both are averaging more than five yards per carry and have combined for 539 yards on the ground.
Dontae Smith, who led the Jackets with five rushing scores in 2022 and who ranks 40th in career rushing yards at Tech, has missed the past two games with an injury. Key said this week that Smith is back to 100% and could return to the backfield Saturday.
One surprising factor in Tech’s ground game has been the play of Haynes King. A sophomore quarterback, King has kept the ball 31 times, totaled 148 yards and scored once. His ability to keep defenses honest via his legs changes everything, Key said.
“He’s a guy that’s going to do things with his feet without having a designed run per se for him. He carries the ball nine to 11 times a game, and that’s enough to break a defense down and make them have to honor that guy, a quarterback that can run like that,” Key said. “He’s looking to run, evade a rush and still be able to throw the ball down the field. It’s a headache, now, for defenses when you have a guy like that that’s not just looking to run, but is also looking to throw the ball while he is (running).”
The Jackets will face a Bowling Green defense Saturday (3:30 p.m., ACC Network) that has been relatively solid in stopping the run through four games. Liberty was able to pile up 246 yards against the Falcons (1-3), but no one (including No. 2-ranked Michigan) has been able to run for more than 169 yards in a game since.
If Tech is to be successful Saturday on the ground, it has to be more consistent, Key said. That could equate to his team’s best rushing game of the season thus far.
“It’s not the old days where you line up ‘mano a mano’ and move a guy off the line of scrimmage,” he said. “They’re gonna slant, they’re gonna angle, they’re gonna move the front to the direction you run the ball. We’ve got to be able to sustain those blocks.
“There’s certain things defenses do to take plays away. We’ve got to be able to come back now with these complementary plays that affect that as well.”