CLEMSON, S.C. – A year ago, Georgia Tech wins this game. Somebody makes a block. Somebody makes a catch. Somebody on special teams actually gets his hand on the ball instead of taking out the punter like his own personal bobo doll less than two minutes into the game.
A year ago, something always went right. The Jackets followed a path to the ACC title game and then the Orange Bowl. On Saturday, something always went wrong — and any chances of them repeating either of those trips this season probably imploded with this performance.
It wasn’t just that the Jackets lost to Clemson 27-13, it was the way they stumbled and bumbled through four quarters. They never found a rhythm on offense. They never found a clue on defense. They were pounded up front on both sides of the ball.
Special teams? As coach Paul Johnson neatly summarized: “It was a nightmare.”
The Jackets came into this season wanting another trip to Miami. If this game was any indication, they might be seeking travel trips from Georgia about Shreveport.
From the outset, they didn’t look like an ACC contender. Too often and too early, they were one pie fight away from resembling a Three Stooges episode. It was 17-0 before the first, “Hey Moe!”
They were penalized for roughing Clemson’s punter on the opening drive. (One play later, Clemson’s Andre Ellington, on his way to a career-high 166 yards, ran 55 yards for a touchdown). They had a personal foul for a late hit on Clemson’s first punt return. They had a player on punt coverage let the ball slip through his hands inside the Clemson 5 (Isaiah Johnson fielding a little bit like Brooks Conrad).
They had an illegal block on a kickoff return.
And a bad pitch for a fumble (recovered).
And several dropped passes (including a would-be touchdown by Stephen Hill).
On defense they missed tackles. Or misread plays. Or just missed the boat. Clemson, an average offensive team, converted nine of 15 third downs and totaled 403 yards in offense.
The defense produced neither a sack nor a turnover and allowed Clemson an average of 6.2 yards per rush.
Isn’t this where Dave Wommack left and Al Groh came in?
“On a lot of plays I thought we were ahead of them,” linebacker Brad Jefferson said. “We thought we knew what was coming. We were out there, but we just couldn’t beat blocks. That was a little frustrating.”
It was a similar story on offense. The Jackets failed to take advantage of chances. Tech’s first two drives in the red zone, it had to settle for field goals. Johnson gets as much enjoyment out of field goals as he does shooting himself in the knee.
Offense, defense, special teams — it all adds up to the same conclusion: The Jackets are just average.
It doesn’t mean they can’t finish with a winning record. But getting smacked by Clemson is probably a more accurate gauge for where this team is than consecutive wins over Wake Forest, Virginia and Middle Tennessee State.
Nothing about Saturday suggests they will win at Virginia Tech in two weeks, and the Hokies already are two up in the loss column in the ACC Coastal. The Miami game that follows also figures to be a struggle — unless Tech suddenly morphs into something closer to what it was last year.
The problem is that the issues go far beyond Groh’s inability to make the defense any better. The offense isn’t nearly as potent as it was in either of Johnson’s first two seasons. The primary reason is the loss to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. He gave Johnson (and Nesbitt) a game-breaker, a guy who could make plays down the field and in the end zone. He drew a safety in double coverage, which helped the Jackets’ running game, which is the engine that makes this team go.
He also could block, something this team seems to struggle with. Derrick Morgan, Morgan Burnett and Jonathan Dwyer were all terrific college players, but Thomas is the player Tech misses most.
Johnson and Roddy Jones both referenced dropped passes after the game. The coach also referenced dumb mistakes.
Quoting: “We have the ball third-and-[short], run the option, 10 guys go one way, the tackle goes the other way.”
Last season, everybody went the right way.