In his remarks at the Georgia Tech kickoff luncheon in August, Tech grad and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough offered up an only-at-Tech statistic. The Yellow Jackets are 2-0 when he has been in outer space.
His space shuttle mission orbited over Atlanta on Nov. 20, 2008, just before Tech routed Miami at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (It remained in space for the Jackets’ 45-42 win over Georgia nine days later.)
Ever the dutiful alumnus, Kimbrough volunteered to return to space for the Jackets. Ever the superstitious coach, Paul Johnson took the podium later and practically offered to strap him to a rocket. Kimbrough won’t be in orbit Saturday, but Johnson wouldn’t have refused the help. Since that 2008 Thursday night win over the Hurricanes in Johnson’s first season, Tech has dropped three in a row to Miami by a combined 92-34.
“Miami has handled us fairly easily the last couple years,” Johnson said. “So we have to see if we can’t put our big-boy pants on and play a little better against them.”
Miami’s control of the Jackets is hardly representative of its overall play, and likewise for Tech. From 2009 through last season, the Hurricanes were 10-11 against the rest of the ACC. In the same span, Tech went 16-5 in the ACC against teams whose mascot isn’t an ibis.
But the Hurricanes have placed quite the headlock on the Jackets. In 2009 and 2011, Miami held Tech to 95 and 134 rushing yards, respectively, Tech’s second- and third-lowest rushing totals in the Johnson era. (No. 1 was the near-catastrophe against Gardner-Webb in 2008.) In 2010, the Hurricanes pummeled the Jackets with 277 rushing yards and 507 total yards, both third most since Johnson’s hire.
“They’ve kind of had our number the last couple of years,” Johnson said.
Kimbrough aside, another Tech rocket scientist has his own perspective on the Jackets’ Miami problem. Sean Bedford, the former All-ACC center and graduate of the aerospace engineering program, played in the 2009 and 2010 games and remembered the Hurricanes controlling both lines of scrimmage.
“When that happens, when you get penetration up the middle, it closes up the (option) reads and makes everything more difficult,” he said.
Bedford has gone back to watch the games again – “I’m a nerd like that,” he said – and has cultivated an appreciation for Miami defensive lineman Allen Bailey, who played tackle in 2009 and end in 2010 before becoming a third-round draft pick in 2011.
“Allen Bailey was just a stud,” he said. “He ate my lunch in 2009 and we couldn’t block him with anybody in 2010.”
In 2011, the mismatch continued. B-back David Sims gained 29 yards on 10 carries, evidence of the lack of push created by the offensive line.
“I think that what’s happening is you’ve probably got five blocking four and the four are winning,” Johnson said after the 24-7 loss at Sun Life Stadium.
There were other problems. In 2009, Tech played its third game in 13 days and ran on dead legs. (The Jackets will be playing their fourth game in 20 days Saturday.) In each of the games, Tech fell behind early, requiring the Jackets to abandon their game plan. Last year, on Tech’s first play, quarterback Tevin Washington threw an interception that was converted into a Miami touchdown. Zach Laskey’s second-quarter misplay of a punt inside the Tech 10-yard line was recovered by the Hurricanes for another score and a 14-0 lead, voiding a strong defensive performance.
Miami beating Tech at the line of scrimmage is “part of it,” Johnson said. “It’s not just that. It’s overall, they’ve beat us on the perimeter, we haven’t read the [option] well, we haven’t done whatever. We just haven’t played very well.”
While Johnson warned this week that Miami’s players are as talented as any team that Tech will see this year, the Jackets showed last Saturday that their offensive line may be ripening. After being soundly defeated a year ago against Virginia, Tech’s line was the superior unit last Saturday in the Jackets’ 56-20 defeat of the Cavaliers.
Four of Tech’s five starting linemen from 2011 are still in the lineup, a year older, stronger and more experienced. Miami coach Al Golden observed this week that Johnson, with his first recruiting classes now juniors and seniors, has his lineup exactly how he wants it.
“Clearly, this is a mature, physically rugged team on both sides of the ball,” he said.
Adding to this strength is that the Hurricanes, while typically full of NFL-bound talent, are young. The advantages appear to point Tech’s way. Should Miami prevail and become only the second team to deal Johnson losses in four consecutive years (Notre Dame beat Navy in his first five seasons in Annapolis, Md.), the Jackets will have to wonder what it will take to beat the Hurricanes.
If you’re wondering, Kimbrough isn’t scheduled to return to space until 2015.
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