After Tech’s first two games, junior quarterback Justin Thomas looked to be en route to his deadliest season yet, eluding hapless defenses and making decisive reads.
Two weeks later, the scene could hardly be more different. Fresh off a difficult defeat at the hands of Notre Dame and a stinging conference loss to rival Duke, Tech fans are justified in wondering what exactly has happened to the offense Thomas has skillfully directed. Whether the Jackets contend for an ACC championship or finish in middle of conference hinges upon how well Coach Johnson — and the offense — can answer that question.
A significant issue that the Jackets have faced in the last two games is the offensive line’s inability to open lanes in the run game, typically a hallmark of that unit. In wins versus Alcorn State and Tulane, the team did not look as though it would miss the stellar play of All-American right guard and draft pick Shaq Mason, but the poor play by the veteran offensive line and the inexperience at the skill positions has been exposed in recent weeks.
The team was held to its lowest rushing total in almost two years. That is a serious concern for a team that prides itself on playing clock-chewing, smash-mouth football. Coach Johnson has not been afraid to criticize the unit. After the Notre Dame loss, Johnson mentioned that the team missed over 70 assignments on offense. His comments after the team’s loss this past Saturday were even more critical. Against Duke, the blocking was once again subpar, and the team couldn’t handle Duke safety Jeremy Cash.
Another potential cause of Tech’s inability to run the ball against high-profile opponents has been an inability to throw the ball efficiently.
Historically, quarterbacks in the Paul Johnson offense pass to make running the football easier. When a defense must respect a team’s ability to make deep completions, its ability to stop the run is weakened.
Last season, Thomas completed 51.3 percent of his passes for 9.2 yards per attempt and a 153.9 rating. The past two games, his completion percentage is 31 percent, and he is averaging only 5.8 yards per attempt. The past two games have been the lowest completion percentages of his career.
Granted, the presence of any sort of pass blocking has been nonexistent, but the lack of reliable targets such as former wide receivers DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller certainly contributes to the issue.
With junior receiver Michael Summers missing time due to an upper-body injury, Tech is in dire need for a second receiver to step up to go along with sophomore receiver Ricky Jeune.
Despite these issues, Tech’s offense statistically ranks as one of the better units in the nation, although these numbers have been skewed thanks to the two early drubbings to start the season.
Additionally, the defense’s admirable performances versus both Notre Dame and Duke have been overshadowed.
After losing to Duke, Johnson said the defense in the second half was as good as it has ever been in his time at Tech. Stellar defensive play will make it much easier for the offense the rest of the year.
Fortunately, the offense faces an easier defense this weekend. UNC has yet to surrender more than 17 points in a game, but they’ve played inferior competition. Their defense allowed Delaware to run for 279 yards last week.
After losing two consecutive games last season, Thomas and his teammates went on a torrid run that returned Tech football to national relevance. If the offensive line solidifies and Thomas acclimates well to his new weapons, there is no reason to believe the same success is not possible in 2015.