There are at least two things Paul Johnson has committed to memory. One is his offense. The other is his counterattack for anybody who questions his offense.
It’s like the other day, when I mentioned to Johnson that his team needed significant improvement on defense and his run-run-run-run-run-oh-look-it’s-third-down-run-run offense needed some semblance of a passing threat for Georgia Tech to move up to the next level. (I never claimed either observation was a stunning revelation). Johnson’s response was expected: both amusing and unrelenting.
“Well, the second part I’m not so sure of,” he said. “We beat Clemson last year, and they were ranked fifth, and we didn’t throw the ball. We beat Georgia in my first year throwing for 19 yards. Would it help if the other team has everybody committed to the run and we could throw it over their heads? Sure. But we’re not going to throw it 30 times a game. And we’ve won national championships [at Georgia Southern] without throwing the ball at another level [I-AA]. And didn’t Alabama win a national championship throwing for 58 yards?”
OK! Stop! I surrender!
(Not really. I’m convinced some opponents are starting to catch up with Johnson’s option offense. And while that doesn’t necessarily differentiate it from any other offense that has obvious tendencies, the Jackets would benefit with something outlandish like the threat of a completed pass to keep defenses honest. That said, I’m willing to explore our common ground for the sake of this column. …)
Johnson’s position is accurate in this sense: The biggest thing that has stopped Tech from ascending isn’t the Yellow Jackets’ lack of a passing game. It’s defense. In Johnson’s four seasons, the Jackets have finished (chronologically) 25th, 54th, 64th and 44th in total defense; and 24th, 68th, 78th and 66th in rushing defense; and 28th, 56th, 57th and 60th in scoring defense; and 57th, 82nd, 52nd and 83rd in third-down defense; and 18th, 72nd 101st and 77th in sacks; and 13th, 93rd, 108th and 94th in tackles for loss.
In the final four games of 2012, Tech allowed 37, 31, 31 and 30 points. (The only win in that span: 38-31 over Duke, which was driving until an interception with two minutes left.)
“To have a championship-caliber team, we have to play better on defense,” Johnson said. “And we can also be better offensively, no question. … When you play a good team, you’re not going to score every time you have the ball. At times I think [people] act like we’re going to score every time. Sometimes you have to shut the other team down.”
Johnson wasn’t throwing defensive coordinator Al Groh under the bus. But, yes — he is driving the bus.
Johnson already has fired one defensive coordinator (Dave Wommack after 2009.) He never considered firing Groh after last season, saying, “I have confidence in him.”
Groh ran defenses with the New York Giants and New England Patriots. He should be good enough for the ACC Coastal, but he hasn’t made an impact yet. Blame Tech’s shortage of talent or a slow transition to the 3-4, but ultimately Groh is the one who will be judged.
Tech blew a 24-10 lead to Utah in the last seven minutes of the Sun Bowl and lost 30-27 in overtime. Johnson’s offense had four consecutive punts after a third-quarter touchdown and missed three field goals. But the loss was more about a defensive collapse.
“We gave up two fourth-down touchdowns,” Johnson said. The second: a 28-yard touchdown on fourth-and-14 to send the game into overtime.
Maybe the most implausible stat of all was that Tech’s defense allowed 16 of 24 fourth-down conversions last season, which ranked 111th nationally.
The Jackets’ should be solid in the secondary. But the key to most defenses is up front (where they’ve been thin), and in a 3-4 it’s in the middle at nose tackle (T.J. Barnes).
We’ll learn pretty quickly whether this group has improved. The opener is at Virginia Tech. Johnson said, based on practices, he believes Tech will be better, but quickly added, “I don’t know if that’s worth a flip. That’s why we play the games.”
It’s Year 3 for Groh. The games need to look better.
By Jeff Schultz
Some selections from the jukebox