Key plays define early direction of Tech season

Photo by Mark Russell

A third of the season is  through and Tech’s 3-1 record is very far from telling the story of the season so far.

First of all, by no means is Tech’s chance of winning the Coastal Division of the ACC gone. However, based on their performance this year, the Jackets have a tough road ahead.

This season can be summed up into three key moments. In the Boston College game, it was the 4th and 19 pass from senior  quarterback Justin Thomas to sophomore A-back Qua Searcy to keep the miraculous fourth quarter drive alive.

On a drive that looked like it was destined to stall, Thomas stepped up and made a play to keep Tech in the game. The momentum it provided was unquestionable. Moreover, it proved that the 2016 Tech offense was capable of moving the ball downfield, if only in spurts.

The most important point in the Vanderbilt game came from the defense on a 4th and 1. Vanderbilt received the ball to start the second half and was driving down the field looking to force its way back into the game.

Down 10 points and on Tech’s 28-yard line, the Commodores decided to go for the first down with one yard left. However, the Jackets’ defense would not allow Vanderbilt’s needed momentum.

The defensive line broke through the backfield and stopped sophomore running back Khari Blasingame for no gain. This stop proved to be a huge turning point as the Jackets proceeded to run away with the game from there.

The pivotal play against Clemson was also perhaps the most memorable for Tech fans. With two minutes left in the first half and Clemson leading 14-0, Ted Roof’s defense did what it needed to do most: force a turnover.

Unfortunately, that success was extremely short lived as junior defensive back Lance Austin proceeded to run the ball a couple yards out of the end zone and fumble it back into the end zone for a safety. While the result wasn’t the most points Tech could’ve given up on the play, it was extremely deflating and made what could have been a two-posession contest one that was out of hand by halftime.

The most common rhetoric being used to describe the Jackets is that it is slowly building up like the 2014 team did. That still seems to be the perfect description.

In 2014, the Jackets suffered two tough losses in a row to Duke and UNC. This year, Tech is coming off a crushing loss to Clemson in which the offense was dismantled. Hopes may be bleak right now, but Tech has been in this situation before.

Unfortunately for Tech, the saving grace that is usually the triple option has looked shaky this year. In their first two games last year, a season many want to forget, the Jackets scored 134 points. This year, Tech hasn’t even broken into the triple digits through four games, putting them towards the bottom of nation in scoring.

The best offensive game this year, against Vanderbilt, can be seen as a fluke right now. It  doesn’t matter how good a defense is, the biggest thing that shuts down Tech’s offense is a smart defense; Boston College and Clemson both displayed that in their games against the Jackets. Showing discipline against the option is the key to stopping it.

The offensive line’s inexperience has displayed itself in ineffective blocking, preventing the running backs from being able to get the ball rolling. If Tech wants to succeed in moving forward, Coach Paul Johnson and the offense will have to open more holes against the run.

Too much of the load on offense is being put on Thomas. Two years ago, when the Jackets went 11-3 and won the Orange Bowl against Mississippi State, Thomas had other tools on the offense to help him out, the biggest one being the great blocking done by the offensive line, which allowed for Tech to run the ball inside to open up the outside for the triple option.

Although the offensive situation seems dire, the defense provides hope for better times; defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s bend-but-do-not-break defense has bent quite a bit, but rarely broken.

In most years under Johnson and Roof, the implicit agreement has been that the offense will control games and the defense will play average football. The tables have turned. Looking back, if this season is to be like the success seen in 2014, Tech will have to look at its turnover margin. So far this season, Tech has a zero turnover margin. In 2014, the turnover margin was +11 according to Furthermore, through the months of August and September, that number was already at +3.

One thing is very clear: Tech thrives on forcing turnovers. It allows the defense to rest and puts the offense on the field to keep burning clock. If Tech wants to recover from this brutal home loss against Clemson, they’ll need to work on blocking at all three levels and forcing turnovers while on the other side of the ball.