When a team looks flat, lost and beat up and loses 31-17 to its chief rival — and it really wasn’t even that close — generally no player or area is immune to criticism.
Physically, Georgia Tech got hammered Saturday by Georgia. There were mental lapses. Emotionally, the Jackets seemed to lack a pulse on their home field against the only opponent that usually defines their season — which probably is the greatest indictment of all, considering the 364 days of buildup on a campus where the rallying cry is, “To hell with Georgia.”
“You have to play with everything you have. We didn’t,” linebacker Steven Sylvester said.
How does that happen? Were they saving it for the Sun Bowl?
But Tech’s biggest problem Saturday against Georgia was no different than what its biggest problem has been for four years under coach Paul Johnson. Their defense stinks. They can’t stop anybody or intimidate anybody. Two many games come down to pinball games.
Bad defense got Dave Wommack fired after two seasons. Bad defense under Al Groh should leave his future uncertain at the end of a two-year contract. Groh hasn’t said definitively that he wants to come back, but the question Johnson needs to ask himself is: Do I want him back?
This is no minor issue. Johnson has won 34 games in four seasons. The Jackets’ 8-4 record this season going into their bowl finale certainly is not worse than most projected at the outset of this season, and it’s probably better. But when you have a defense that ranks 43rd in yardage, 56th in points allowed and 89th in third-down conversion, you’re not going anywhere.
Georgia is good, very good. The Dogs have better players and are as hot as any team in the country, save LSU (next week’s opponent in the SEC championship). But when the Bulldogs accumulated 254 yards on their first four possessions, this game was over. Georgia didn’t even punt until its sixth possession. By then, it was 24-10.
Johnson’s view of his defense’s inability to stop the Dogs: “It’s deflating. I think it deflates the whole team.”
The option offense isn’t built to play from behind. Neither is quarterback Tevin Washington. When the Jackets tried to open it up, Washington was intercepted twice on Tech’s first three possessions in the second half.
But remember where the problems started.
Georgia’s superiority on the field shouldn’t discount that Groh’s 3-4 defense got worse late in the season and has failed in the big picture. Tech is no better off on defense today than it was when they fired the last guy. Nationally, under Wommack the Jackets finished 28th (2008) and 54th (2009) in total defense. They were 64th in Groh’s first season and went into this week 43rd. Scoring defense in the past four seasons: 20th and 38th, respectively, under Wommack; 37th and 56th (entering the week) under Groh.
Johnson is an offensive-oriented coach. When he goes consecutive series without a touchdown, he goes postal, but even he recognizes the importance of having some semblance of a defense, or he wouldn’t have made a change two years ago.
Groh wasn’t made available for comment Saturday. Just as well. He might need some time to figure out how to spin this one. There was an expected transition period with the switch to the 3-4 defense last year, but it’s not any better now. The Jackets still don’t have the players to play it, particularly up front.
Young teams should get better as the year goes on. But Tech has back-slid since a 31-17 upset of Clemson, with mediocre defensive performances against Virginia Tech, Duke and Georgia.
Sylvester on the difference since the Clemson game: “I think it’s just playing with emotion. If you turn on the film of the Clemson game you can see how emotional we were. I feel like we came out flat the last couple of games. We didn’t have as much energy as we should have, and our attention to detail wasn’t [good enough].”
Players should be able to get up for its rival, but that’s also on coaches for not having them prepared. Johnson and Groh share that responsibility.
But the head coach isn’t going anywhere. Groh, we’re not so sure. And when Tech fails, it’s usually not because of the offense.
By Jeff Schultz