Now we know. The Georgia Tech offense isn’t as good, and the defense isn’t any better. And that’s why the Jackets, who suffered their second regular-season loss of 2009 two days after Thanksgiving, have lost twice before October this season.
This isn’t a failure of tactics, be they Paul Johnson’s or Al Groh’s. This has to do with players, and the lack thereof. Even when the defense was hemorrhaging yards last season, there was always the chance Derrick Morgan would make a play. There’s really only one playmaker on this roster now, and he’s the quarterback. And even Joshua Nesbitt needs help.
“We had 81 plays on defense,” said Groh, the new coordinator. “We made three plays of significance — Brad Jefferson’s two sacks and Jerrard Tarrant’s interception.”
North Carolina State came to town and left having hung 45 points and 527 yards on Tech. Whenever the Jackets drew close, the Wolfpack drove the length of the field and rebuilt its lead. There was nothing mysterious about it. N.C. State just had better players, and they made bigger plays.
Groh again: “There’s a lot of one-on-one football when it’s zone blocking.”
Meaning: State’s guys won the one-on-ones. And they didn’t just win them against Groh’s hapless defenders; State overpowered Johnson’s stylized offense, too.
The Jackets mustered only seven first downs and 137 first-half yards, and when you’re an option team, you cannot do as a more conventional team would do — pass your way out of an early funk. For Tech to fall 10 points behind, as happened on four different occasions, is to play the other guy’s game. And Tech isn’t very good if it can’t play its coach’s way.
“Sometimes you just get beat,” Johnson said, and this was such a day. The pros in charge of State’s defense — coordinator Mike Archer and linebackers coach Jon Tenuta, who once worked for Tech — deployed an NFL-caliber linebacker in Nate Irving, and Irving’s forays into the backfield kept the Jackets in third-and-long all game. For all his daring, Nesbitt isn’t a third-and-long quarterback.
Irving was credited with 16 tackles (4 1/2 for losses) and two sacks. Asked how many times No. 56 slammed into him, Nesbitt said: “I lost count.”
There have been times under Johnson where his offense could override almost any level of defensive largess, but that’s not apt to happen as often this season. Anthony Allen isn’t Jonathan Dwyer. Stephen Hill isn’t Demaryius Thomas. Nesbitt still is Nesbitt, but a quick and strong defense — such as State’s — isn’t about to be undone by one man.
If it sounds weird to be talking about offensive liabilities on a day when the defense was awful … well, Johnson has built his program on the spread option, and it was the mighty ‘O’ that carried Tech to the ACC title a year ago. If these Jackets are to play for another league title, it will say more about the weakness of the league than it does their intrinsic worth. Last year’s Tech would beat this year’s by two touchdowns.
Tech fans already are all over Groh, but the man who worked under the Bills Parcells and Belichick didn’t forget how to draw a 3-4. There’s just no Lawrence Taylor to wreak the off-the-corner havoc that a 3-4 demands. (Jefferson, who had two of Tech’s three sacks, is a middle linebacker.) And there’s nothing Groh or Johnson can do to turn one of these Jackets into a Hall of Famer.
Groh: “There’s no supermarket we can go down to and buy new players. This is our team as constituted.”
Tech will get better as it goes — these are clever coaches — but “better” still could fall short of “good.” In preseason Johnson was asked if this team had as high a ceiling as last season’s. His reponse: “I don’t know why it wouldn’t.”
Surely he knows now. As smart as Johnson is, he can’t outflank and outscore everybody all the time. He needs better players. He had better players last year, but too many of them left. This doesn’t mean Tech still can’t have a decent season. It just means that the ceiling in 2010 is a lot lower.