I apologize for belaboring a point I’ve already belabored, but what we saw Thursday was that coaching can only get a program so far. There has to be some playing involved, too. And Georgia Tech — stop me if you’ve heard this one — doesn’t have an abundance of top-shelf players.
This isn’t to say the Jackets aren’t feisty and resourceful. They wouldn’t be 7-3 if they weren’t. And with 16 minutes remaining against the nation’s No. 10 team and the Jackets leading by five points, it was possible to envision this crew of modest means playing for the ACC title on Dec. 3 in Charlotte.
Then reality intervened. Georgia Tech didn’t score another point. Virginia Tech scored 16. The Jackets lost by 11 and were eliminated from the Coastal Division chase. They hadn’t played poorly — they made no turnovers and scored 26 points against an opponent that was yielding 15 a game — but they hadn’t been good enough.
Virginia Tech completed only seven passes. On three of them, a Jacket was in position to make a play on the ball but didn’t. That’s not coaching, or a failure thereof. That’s playing. At the end of both halves the Hokies’ offense was pushing the Jackets backward, which can happen when your heaviest defensive linemen is outweighed by four of the other team’s five starting O-linemen. (And when their enormous quarterback outweighs eight of your starting defenders.)
The common denominator in Georgia Tech’s three losses has been size and strength. The Jackets were overpowered by Virginia’s offensive line, by Miami’s defensive front and by Virginia Tech across the board. On Thursday the GT defense would do its job on first and second down only to be undone on third. (The Hokies converted 10 of 16 times.) The Jackets couldn’t make the necessary play on the get-off-the-field down. That’s not coaching. That’s playing.
Even as Georgia Tech was pulling ahead in both halves, the thought occurred: How many first-team all-ACC players are on this roster? Guard Omoregie Uzzi will make it, but will anybody else? That notion served to illustrate the Jackets’ position in the football pecking order: They’re clever enough to give anyone trouble, but they have to function at such a high level to win that any wobble — Jeremiah Attaochu’s personal foul, say — can assume outsize dimensions.
In 2008 and 2009, Georgia Tech had enough players of the first rank to override mistakes. (You know the names: Dwyer, Morgan, Nesbitt, Thomas.) With their departures, the Jackets have become a team of mid-level talent. That Georgia Tech stayed in the division race this long was a credit to its fighting spirit, but against Virginia Tech the difference in manpower showed.
Jacket fans point to this team’s relative youth — 18 of 24 starters are set to return — as reason to believe next year will be better, and it might. But how many of those 18 players are capable of being difference-makers? Maybe Vad Lee, the redshirt freshman quarterback, will become the new Nesbitt, but there’s no guarantee he’ll dislodge Tevin Washington, who’ll be a senior.
The more you watch this team, the more you wonder if what we’ve just seen is what we’ll be seeing in 2012 and beyond. Sometimes what the recruiting mavens say is true. Sometimes there really is no substitute for talent.
By Mark Bradley