Updated, 10 p.m.
On the same day that the weakest team in the ACC showed up, Georgia Tech’s gloom fell away.
Returning from its bye week and eager to air out the stink of a three-game losing streak, the Yellow Jackets throttled Boston College 37-17 Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. In Tech’s first game since the firing of defensive coordinator Al Groh, the Jackets defense looked like a more cohesive and agile unit.
The scenes repeated with head-scratching frequency –ball-carriers slipping out of the grasp of Tech defenders, quarterback zipping downfield passes to convert long third downs, opponents flipping footballs to officials in the Jackets end zone and giving teammates five – did not get nearly as much play Saturday.
“Everybody was kind of on the same page,” coach Paul Johnson said. “We’ll see when we grade the film, but you didn’t see the busts.”
After firing Groh Oct. 8, Johnson said that the defense would be simplified to enable players to play with free minds and faster feet. At least for one day, it appeared that his directives were met. In the past three games, opponents had converted 31 of 46 third downs, dropping the Jackets to 103rd in the country in third-down efficiency. Saturday, Boston College converted one of nine third downs. It limited the Eagles to 47 plays and 296 yards, both season bests for Tech against an FBS opponent.
“We lined up and had a couple of keys to read, do our assignments and run around,” outside linebacker Brandon Watts said. “It was a whole lot simpler.”
The difference, according to inside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy:
“Just being able to not think about a lot of things, just go out there and play,” he said. “We didn’t have too many calls out there (Saturday). It was just pretty basic. It just came down to the players.”
Caveat time: the Eagles (1-6, 0-4) have yet to beat an FBS opponent this season. They entered the game 79th in the country in total offense and 110th in third-down efficiency. Within the limits of the ACC, Tech could not have chosen a better opponent to shake out of its defensive funk. That said, the Eagles were able to bite off 63 points and almost 1,000 yards of offense against Clemson and Miami. They showed fight in the fourth quarter, cutting the margin to 31-17 with touchdowns on consecutive possessions.
The scores undoubtedly introduced unease into the Bobby Dodd Stadium stands for fans who had witnessed Tech give up three fourth-quarter leads this season, including a 14-point advantage against Miami.
However, Tech punched back Saturday in a way it didn’t in losses to Clemson and Miami, responding to the second score with a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that swallowed more than eight minutes of game time. Of no small benefit to Tech was a roughing the kicker penalty assessed to Boston College defensive back Ameer Richardson when he plowed over punter Ryan Rodwell well after he had punted the ball away.
Instead of trying to cut the lead to one score with more than 9 minutes left in the game, the Eagles instead had to return their defense to the field, never a winning strategy when the defense is ranked 115th in the country. B-back David Sims’ seven-yard touchdown run with 4:49 to play removed all doubts from the game’s outcome.
“It didn’t hurt,” Johnson said. “It’s good to get a break like that.”
The Tech offense continued its production, accumulating 391 rushing yards and 563 yards altogether. With the Eagles committed to defending the perimeter, where A-back Orwin Smith has made hay, Tech gave B-backs Sims and Zach Laskey 30 of its 76 rushing attempts, a season-high for the position. Both delivered punishing runs and combined for 156 yards.
Quarterback Tevin Washington led Tech to touchdowns on its second and third possessions, giving the Jackets a 14-0 lead and giving them rare breathing room. It opened up snaps for backup quarterback Vad Lee, who flashed his playmaking aptitude with a 24-yard touchdown run for a 21-3 second-quarter lead and then by powering a long downfield pass to wide receiver Anthony Autry for a 45-yard touchdown on the first play of the next possession.
The day wasn’t completely satisfying. Three offensive starters – Laskey and offensive tackles Will Jackson and Ray Beno – left the game with injuries. The second half was not nearly as sharp as the first. The special-teams play was not acceptable.
But as dusk settled on the Tech campus Saturday, those challenges seemed entirely more surmountable than the ones that accompanied them home from Clemson Oct. 6.