Jackets stumble in ’09 road opener

A late comeback attempt was not enough to save Tech’s football team last week, as then-No. 20 Miami built a large early lead and went on to defeat the Jackets 33-17 in Coral Gables, Fla. Tech dropped to 2-1 overall (1-1 in ACC play) after the loss and dropped out of the AP Top 25 poll for the first time since late last season.

“I am disappointed in the way we played Thursday night and the way we coached. It was a group effort…They did to us what we did to them a year ago. We need to get better,” Head Coach Paul Johnson said in his weekly press conference on Tuesday.

The Jackets put up 472 rushing yards in their home finale against Miami last season, but this time the Hurricanes rebounded and shut down the option attack. Tech managed just 159 rushing yards, and no player reached 50 yards individually.

Meanwhile, Tech’s defense allowed 454 total yards as the fatigue from playing three games in 12 days seemed to set in for the players. Miami running backs Javarris James and Graig Cooper combined to average 5.6 yards per carry, and with the running game working, quarterback Jacory Harris had no trouble finding open receivers downfield as he completed 20 of 25 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns.

“On both sides of the ball we are not that good at anything right now,” Johnson said of the defense.

The first drive of the game seemed to indicate that Tech’s offense would once again be effective against the Miami defense. The Jackets ran 13 plays on their opening drive and controlled the ball for nearly seven minutes. The drive stalled at the end, though, and Tech settled for a field goal by junior kicker Scott Blair to take a 3-0 lead.

“We took the opening drive down the field, had two missed assignments on back-to-back plays and had to kick a field goal,” Johnson said.

The Jackets forced the Hurricanes into a third-and-10 situation, but Miami quarterback Jacory Harris threw to receiver Leonard Hankerson for a 35-yard gain to enter Tech territory. On the next play, Harris connected with LaRon Byrd for a 40-yard touchdown as Miami went ahead 7-3. After a Tech three-and-out, Harris completed eight of 10 passes on a lengthy drive as Miami drove 71 yards in 5:54, finishing with a touchdown pass to tight end Dedrick Epps.

The Jackets’ next possession showed promise, as they earned first downs on the first two plays. The drive stalled at Miami’s 22-yard line, though, and a 39-yard Blair field goal attempt sailed wide right.

The Hurricanes responded by driving downfield for a Matt Bosher 34-yard field goal. Tech’s offense was unable to do much on its final two possessions of the first half, and the score remained 17-3 at halftime.

Miami received the opening kickoff of the second half and drove 60 yards on six plays for a touchdown. Hurricane running back Javarris James had 23 yards on three carries, and his three-yard touchdown run put Miami ahead 24-3. Tech responded with a 39-yard pass from Nesbitt to Thomas that set up the Jackets’ first touchdown, a three-yard run by redshirt junior A-back Anthony Allen that cut the lead to 24-10.

Tech’s defense had no answer for Harris and the Miami offense. The Hurricanes continued to run frequently with James and Graig Cooper, and Harris went three-for-three on the drive and hit tight end Jimmy Graham for his third touchdown pass of the game.

The Jackets stalled and decided to try to convert a fourth-and-one situation, but a false start penalty forced them to punt; the snap was off track, and redshirt sophomore punter Chandler Anderson was forced to kick the ball out of the end zone, resulting in a safety that gave Miami a 33-10 lead at the end of three quarters.

Tech added a score when Nesbitt hit Thomas for a 56-yard touchdown, but it was the only sign of life from the Jackets in the final quarter. Miami used its running game to run down the clock, as James and Cooper combined for nine carries on a drive that lasted nearly five minutes before ending with a missed field goal.

The Jackets’ final drive saw Nesbitt get sacked twice, throw an interception that was negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty and fumble the ball. He recovered from that sequence and threw an accurate deep pass to Thomas, but the ball bounced off the receiver’s fingertips and fell incomplete. Two plays later, Tech turned over the ball on downs, and Miami ran the final seconds off the clock.

The offense struggled against a quick Hurricanes defense that had ten days to prepare for the game and seemed to have made the most of the time. Miami contained junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer, holding him to just seven yards on five carries before Dwyer left late in the first half with a shoulder injury. Allen led Tech with 45 yards and a touchdown; he and redshirt sophomore B-back Preston Lyons—who had one carry—were the only Jackets to average over three yards per carry.

Nesbitt was able to connect on some deep passes late in the game, but once again the only receiver to make a catch was Thomas, who had six receptions for 133 yards to mirror Nesbitt’s passing numbers.

“Can we be better on offense? You bet, and we need to be better. We need to block the perimeter better…We have to do a lot of things better,” Johnson said.

More concerning, though, were the struggles of Tech’s defense. After the Hurricanes opened by attacking through the passing game, they were able to establish the running game against Tech’s six-man defensive front. The Jackets could not contain Miami’s balanced offense through the air or on the ground and only forced the Hurricanes to punt once.

Asked whether the switch back to a traditional 4-3 defensive scheme from the current 4-2-5 might be in order, Johnson said that the scheme did not matter.

“It won’t matter what we play if we don’t put our eyes where they belong and play defense. That’s part of our problem. We worry too much about all of that stuff…We could play a 4-12-9 and it won’t matter,” Johnson said.

Injuries also became a concern for Tech. Dwyer sat for the entire second half, but he has practiced since and is expected to play this week. Redshirt junior defensive end Robert Hall suffered a knee injury that will keep him out of the lineup against North Carolina, and two defensive backs—junior Dominique Reese and sophomore Cooper Taylor—remain questionable for Saturday’s game with undisclosed injuries.