Because Paul Johnson’s stylized offense has become the public image of Georgia Tech football, it’s tempting to blame his creation whenever Tech loses. (Which, not incidentally, it has done seven times in its past 11 games.) But here’s where numbers rear their pesky head. The Jackets scored 36 points and gained 419 yards against Miami on Saturday. And we pin this loss on the offense?
Right about here, you’re probably expecting some Al-Groh-has-to-go screed. If so, you’ll be disappointed. Has this coordinator elevated Tech’s defense? Those 42 points and 609 yards yielded Saturday are all the answers we need, but to finger Groh and the D is to miss the bigger picture. What’s dragging Tech back to mediocrity is …
Yes, he’s the same coach who went 20-7 his first two seasons here, beating Georgia in Year 1 and winning the ACC title (since vacated) in Year 2. That’s the trouble: He’s still the same coach, and he’s coaching the same way.
Whenever you’d see Johnson’s teams at Georgia Southern or Navy, your first thought was, “What it would look like if you ran that offense with real Division I-A talent?” For two years we saw. We saw Joshua Nesbitt and Jonathan Dwyer and Demaryius Thomas and this offense score 45 points in Athens and 49 in Tallahassee and 39 against Clemson in the ACC championship game, and we hailed Johnson for taking Chan Gailey’s players and winning bigger than Gailey ever had.
Then Gailey’s players began to leave, as college players will. From the 20-7 of those two giddy seasons, Tech has since gone 16-14 overall, 10-9 in ACC play. An even more salient stat: With Nesbitt as starting quarterback, Tech was 23-11; since Nesbitt broke his arm at Virginia Tech in November 2010, Tech is 11-10.
That sounds like an indictment of Tevin Washington, who succeeded Nesbitt. It’s really not. Washington isn’t the player Nesbitt was, but that isn’t his fault. The greater issue is that Tech football functions less as a total program and more as a front for Johnson’s stylized offense. In 2008 and 2009, that offense had so many good players it could overcome most any failing anywhere else. Without those players, the whole operation has suffered.
Oh, the offense still functions. Tech ranks 19th nationally in total yardage, 13th in scoring, third in rushing yards. But the offense couldn’t kill the clock — you’d think a running team would be able to kill the clock — with a 17-point lead against Miami, and by the final frantic minutes the Jackets’ defenders, who aren’t to be confused with Alabama on their best day, were covering nobody and missing every tackle. For the third time in five games, Tech couldn’t hold a late lead and was forced to overtime. For the third time in those three overtimes, the offense couldn’t score a touchdown.
We flash back to Nov. 7, 2009. Tech had seen Wake Forest score late to force OT. The Deacons took the ball first and kicked a field goal. Tech faced fourth-and-1 at the 3. After considerable lobbying from Nesbitt, Johnson chose to go for the first down. Nesbitt converted. He scored the winning touchdown on the next snap. He did those sort of things.
On Saturday, Johnson eschewed an overtime field goal and saw Washington stopped on fourth-and-inches. Same coach, same bold choice. Different players, different result.
Those who criticize the scheme have it backwards. If you took these same players and put them in a pro-style offense, Tech might finish next-to-last in its division. Johnson’s offense is the only thing that makes Tech worth mentioning. (Lest we forget, that offense stacked 56 points and 594 yards on Virginia only nine days ago.) But Johnson is not just some scheming offensive coordinator: He’s the head coach of a proud and distinguished program, and too often it seems the program exists only to prop up his offense.
Johnson might think recruiting rankings don’t matter — he has said as much — but we’re seeing now the limits of a team that has talent closer to Georgia Southern’s than, say, Georgia’s. So long as Johnson can outsmart somebody and his offense can run free, Tech can win. But you can’t outsmart everybody, and the better teams won’t let that offense go unchecked. So then it’s down to execution, and Tech has lost five of its past six games decided by 10 or fewer points. The exception came against Duke.
Johnson might say his team is two plays away from being 4-0 and leading its division, and he’d be correct. But plays must be made by players, and Tech doesn’t have enough of those. What it does have is a stylized offense. And that’s about all.
By Mark Bradley