MIAMI GARDENS — While there probably is some cachet in playing the ESPN Thursday night game two weeks in a row, as Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson lamented the other day, “Like they say, it is a fast turnaround. We are trying to figure out what day it is.”
Take comfort, coach. There shouldn’t be any confusion from here on out. After Thursday night’s game against Miami, the Yellow Jackets were scheduled to play the remainder of their games on Saturdays, just like common folk, at least until the bowl season.
The only confusion that may still linger centers on Johnson’s team.
I’ve got to be honest: I was pretty high on Georgia Tech coming into the season. But the Clemson game last week threw me a bit, as I’m sure it did Johnson. Pulling out a victory after the relative trauma of seeing a 24-0 potential laugher turn into a 27-24 deficit on national TV definitely showed character. But the flaws the Jackets exhibited on defense and at quarterback raised serious red flags, particularly since they’re in a difficult stretch of ACC games that continues against North Carolina, at Florida State, Virginia Tech and at Virginia in the next five weeks.
There is no way of knowing this now. But the Miami game could wind up being one of those season-defining weeks. It certainly will have an impact in the ACC’s Coastal Division, which impacts the conference title game, which impacts rankings and bowls.
But this much seems certain: If the Jackets don’t improve defensively and gain some assurances they will be able to count on Josh Nesbitt for something better than a 3-for-14, two-interception performance, they are going to have issues.
“We need to throw the ball better — there’s no secret there,” Johnson said earlier in the week. “Our passing efficiency has to be better. We know we have to do better on third down. But I’m not going to become overly concerned unless that becomes a trend. Sometimes it happens like that. But looking at the film, I don’t think [there are problems] we can’t get correct.”
Nesbitt showed he can lead. He completed two key third-down passes on each of Tech’s final two possessions that resulted in the tying and winning field goals against Clemson. Those are intangibles a coach and an offense look for in a quarterback. But until those two possessions, the junior was 1-for-11 for 20 yards and two interceptions. Given those numbers, Tech was fortunate to be in the game, option offense or not.
Defense may be an even bigger issue. The Tigers scored on their first four possessions of the second half (two touchdowns, two field goals). They had big plays on every drive: a 20-yard run, 16-yard pass, 77-yard pass, 25-yard-run, 37-yard pass and 21-yard pass.
Johnson said, “If you take away those big plays, the defense actually played pretty well.”
But he knows better. Take away the iceberg, and everybody was having a great time on the Titanic. If an opponent can hurt you with big plays, they’re not going to be concerned about the six plays on that drive that didn’t work.
This has the potential to be a special season for the Jackets. If they navigate this difficult stretch, they face three opponents they should beat — Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Duke — and then have a week off before facing Georgia at home. But the Clemson game was somewhat of an escape, one they can’t afford a repeat of.
♦ ♦ ♦
I’ll be heading out to the stadium with Doug Roberson shortly, then I’ll kick off the live blogging. Meanwhile, here’s a few links for you.
♦ Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald points out that the Hurricanes are 13-2 on ESPN Thursday night games, but that one of those losses came to the Jackets.
♦ Shandel Richardson of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel discusses how the Miami offense has improved under first-year coordinator Mark Whipple (who replaced the fired former Georgia Tech assistant, Patrick Nix).