Football: 10 games into 2009, a look back on early-season questions

With their win against Wake Forest last Saturday, Tech’s football team can clinch a berth in the ACC Championship game with a win this Saturday against Duke. The Jackets have already won nine games this season, and are ranked No. 7 in the BCS standings.

Tech’s success this season has followed an offseason filled with questions and skepticism. After the Jackets completed a surprising 9-4 campaign in their first season under Head Coach Paul Johnson, skeptics wondered if the team would be able to continue that success in year two.

The first and most prominent question mark heading into the season was whether or not Johnson’s triple option-based offense would be successful in his second year on the Flats. Skeptics were concerned that with a year’s worth of film on the Jackets’ offense, opposing coaches would be able to prepare their teams for the reverses, pitches and other ways that Tech attacked defenses.

Early on, Tech’s performances did little to quell the concern. The offense had trouble producing substantial yardage in wins over Jacksonville State and Clemson, aside from a pair of long touchdown runs early in those games.

Against Miami, Tech failed to crack the 100-yard mark on the ground against a Hurricanes defense that allowed 472 rushing yards in last season’s meeting. The loss at Miami ignited concerns dating back to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl loss to LSU that teams with extra time to prepare could effectively shut down Tech’s offense.

Since then, though, the Jackets have emerged as one of the nation’s most potent offensive teams. The Jackets are second in the nation with 315 rushing yards per game. All those yards have equated to points, and Tech is first in the ACC in scoring with an average of 34.7 points per game.

Johnson has made adjustments to his system when needed, both between and during games. The result is that the Jackets have the best record in the ACC, and Johnson’s option attack continues to produce successful results.

Another major question regarding the 2009 season involved the potential of junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer. In 2008, Dwyer was the first sophomore to win the ACC Player Of The Year Award. He led the conference in rushing with 1,395 yards and added 12 touchdowns.

Coming into this season, Dwyer was regarded as one of the nation’s top running backs and was mentioned as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate if he could build on his success. He received the ACC’s Preseason Player of the Year Award in recognition of the high expectations.

Dwyer’s first carry of the season seemed to be a good sign. Against Jacksonville State, he caught a pitch on Tech’s first offensive play and raced 74 yards for a touchdown.

After that big run, though, Dwyer’s production tapered off somewhat. The junior managed just 66 yards against Clemson, and the following week he picked up just seven yards on five carries against Miami and had to leave the game with a shoulder injury.

The injury proved to be minor, and since then Dwyer has rushed for over 100 yards in five of Tech’s last seven games. Notably, he broke his single game record with a 186-yard performance on the ground against Vanderbilt two weeks ago, then broke that record again with 189 yards against Wake Forest last week.

Perhaps the biggest questions for Tech, though, were on the other side of the ball. Last season, three seniors—end Michael Johnson and tackles Darryl Richard and Vance Walker—anchored Tech’s defensive line, but all three of those players graduated and have gone on to play in the NFL. As a result, Tech has had to find replacements this season.

The lone returning lineman, junior defensive end Derrick Morgan, has been the leader of the defensive line this season and is second in the nation with 11.5 sacks. Often, though, Morgan has been the only Tech lineman able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Junior defensive end Robert Hall got injured early this season, and that has put more strain on Tech’s inexperienced front four. The Jackets have tried a number of players at the three other spots on the line with mixed results.

The players at those positions have combined for just 1.5 sacks and have struggled at times to defend the run as well. Tech has used a handful of freshmen and sophomores to occupy the three spots alongside Morgan, and as a result the Jackets’ rush defense has been inconsistent this season.

At times, Tech’s run defense has looked good, holding four opponents to under 100 yards on the ground, but there are other times where running backs have gashed the defense. Mississippi State ran for 209 yards against the Jackets, and Vanderbilt ran for 218 yards.

Still, the defensive line played their best game against Wake Forest last week, holding them to just 28 yards rushing. The defensive tackle rotation of redshirt junior Ben Anderson, redshirt sophomores Jason Peters and Logan Walls and freshman T.J. Barnes should continue to get better with more experience.