Paul Johnson had two options: Keep losing the same game the same way or try something different. Not much of a choice if your job depends on winning, is it?
Said Johnson, speaking Monday afternoon: “We’ve been ahead in some games and we haven’t seemed to win any of them.”
Also this: “The way we’ve played is not acceptable. That’s not why I came here.”
It is, however, why Al Groh is gone. To fault the defensive coordinator for everything that has gone wrong at Georgia Tech would be a gross overstatement. (Pretty sure Groh hadn’t been tutoring the Jackets in the art of turning a kickoff into a safety.) But he was given a task to perform, and he failed. A team that’s 90th in the land in total defense, 89th in scoring defense and 103rd in third-down defense — and, as Johnson noted of the latter category, “we tried to make that a point of emphasis” — cannot be said to have given ground grudgingly.
And the really bad thing about Groh’s really bad D was it got worse as it went. Of the 181 points Tech has yielded, 80 have come in the fourth quarter and beyond. If we throw out the Presbyterian game, Tech’s opponents have scored 77 points in 75 fourth-quarter minutes (plus two overtime possessions). That’s point-a-minute stuff. That’s bad beyond belief.
“The Virginia Tech game,” said Johnson, referring to the Jackets’ first loss of this 2-4 season, “was eerily similar to the [Sun Bowl, in which Tech also lost in overtime], and the Miami game [yet another OT loss] was eerily similar to Virginia Tech … There were a lot of recurrent things.”
Firing Groh in midseason can’t do any harm and might do some good. “To me, [the decision] was inevitable,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to give up the rest of the season.”
But — and this is a humongous “but” — Al Groh wasn’t the guy missing tackles on third down. The scariest Tech loss wasn’t any of the three in which the Jackets wasted a late lead but the Middle Tennessee game, in which Tech last led 7-0. Middle Tennessee plays in the Sun Belt, which isn’t a BCS league. Georgia Tech plays in the ACC, which is, and back in 2009 it claimed the conference title (since vacated). On manpower alone, Tech should have been able to line up in the same defense on every snap and beat the Blue Raiders. Instead it lost 49-28. Instead it saw Middle Tennessee score seven touchdowns, the first five on drives of 68 or more yards.
That suggested — heck, it did more than suggest — that Tech’s failure had less to do with Groh’s X’s and O’s than the X’s themselves. Third downs are those moments when good players make plays; Tech’s players, alas, get blocked and blow coverages and miss tackles. “I don’t think you’ve got to trick people,” Johnson said, and then, sensing where this might be heading: “I’m not sold that we don’t have great players.”
On that, he’s surely in the minority. Johnson said he plans to be more involved with the defense, and toward that end he reassigned duties among the holdover coaches. (Charles Kelly, who last coordinated a defense in 2005 at Nicholls State, will be the interim coordinator.) Johnson knows what needs to be improved — “i.e., tackling and i.e., pursuit,” he said — but being able to run fast and hit hard are functions of ability. All the scheming known to man won’t turn a barely adequate collegiate linebacker into Lawrence Taylor.
See, Al Groh once coached Lawrence Taylor. Say what you will, but Groh does know football. Even Johnson conceded the point before saying: “The communication part wasn’t transcending to the field; we were having a hard time getting lined up.”
There can be no real defense, if you will, of Groh’s Tech tenure, no real argument with Johnson’s decision to dump him now. “To do what you’re doing,” Johnson said, “you have to know what you’re doing.”
Can’t dispute that. But to do what needs to done, you have to be physically able to do it. Al Groh tried for 2 1/2 years and couldn’t make these Jackets play good defense. Still unclear is whether anyone can.
By Mark Bradley