Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson knows this much about Saturday’s game against No. 15 Clemson. The defense he brings to Death Valley had best not bear any resemblance to the one that was pummeled for 510 yards and 49 points by Middle Tennessee State.
“If we play like we did Saturday, they may not have enough lights on the scoreboard for Clemson,” Johnson said.
Poor tackling has been at the heart of Tech’s disappointing start, which has included overtime losses to Virginia Tech and Miami and then the humbling 49-28 loss to MTSU on Saturday. Not only did it trigger the Blue Raiders avalanche that buried the Yellow Jackets, but Johnson said that ineffective tackling probably cost Tech its games against the Hokies and Hurricanes, also.
It bottomed out, or so the Jackets would hope, Saturday, when Tech defenders tackled shadows and deflected off MTSU running back Benny Cunningham like pebbles off a dump truck. Johnson said after the game that Tech probably had as bad a tackling game as he’d ever seen, comparing it only to the Jackets’ efforts the previous week against Miami.
“What was really lacking was the energy level and the contact level and the toughness that has to be part of the culture of this defense and had served it pretty well in the preceding four weeks,” defensive coordinator Al Groh said.
What likely comes as little consolation to Tech or its fans is the perception among coaches that poor tackling technique has encroached upon the game at all points. Teams practice full-speed, to-the-ground tackling little, if at all, and less time is devoted to tackling in spring and preseason practice than in the past. Injury concerns and NCAA rules limiting fully-padded practices are a driving force.
“But what happens is, when you don’t get to play this game live and full speed often, and then all of a sudden, you show up on game day, it’s just hard to simulate, so it takes a little bit longer, I think, for people to really improve,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
With offenses also spreading the field, ball-carriers have more space to elude tacklers. MTSU widened Tech’s defense by splitting out wide receivers, which left the Jackets vulnerable in the middle and also often unable to bring down Blue Raiders perimeter players one-on-one.
That said, the problem against MTSU was less about form than effort.
When a defensive player doesn’t play with focus or energy, “you don’t come up with the intensity you need to come up with,” outside linebacker Brandon Watts said. “Every runner’s going to try to keep running after contact. If you don’t bring the intensity you need to bring with the hit, they’re probably going to run through you.”
Tech practices tackling drills every day, but players usually don’t tackle to the ground. That said, the team has conducted more tackling drills this week than usual and has heard plenty from coaches about wrapping up scout-team players in practice.
Starting with wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Clemson may be loaded with the most elusive playmakers that Tech will face this year. In five games this season, the Tigers have broken 28 plays for 20 yards or more. Stopping Clemson will require technique and will. A productive week of practice bodes well, but is no guarantee.
According to Groh, the best Thursday practice this season was probably last week’s.
“There’s a big difference between Thursday, as good an effort as you get from the scout-team players, and Saturday, when the other guys are trying to win,” he said.
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Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog