The #5 Tigers and Yellow Jackets meet this Thursday to put their 3-0 records on the line. Clemson has lost in each of their last five visits to Bobby Dodd Stadium and will be looking to snap that ugly streak before hosting #3 Louisville next weekend. After missing a bowl for the first time since 1996, Georgia Tech hopes to surpass last year’s win total (3) in just their fourth game of the season.
We’re fortunate to have Josh Brundage from our SB Nation sister site, From the Rumble Seat, join us to answer our questions and shed some light on the Yellow Jackets.
The Yellow Jackets looked sluggish in Ireland where they were fortunate to eek out a win over Boston College, who just lost 0-49 to Virginia Tech. Georgia Tech then got off to a slow start against Mercer before pulling away in the second half. This past Saturday however they struck quick against a solid Vanderbilt defense and controlled the game en route to a 38-7 victory. What has GT figured out? Are they as good as they looked on Saturday?
It’s hard to tell – for those of us who follow them closely every year, we’re drawing a lot of similarities to the start of 2014, where it took the offense several games to get going before things really started clicking. Perhaps the biggest part of that is blocking, which is something we didn’t have hardly at all last season. This year, the A-backs and WRs on the outside have shown much more promise in executing successful blocks on the correct defenders – something we took for granted until last season when it became apparent that playing eight freshman on offense by the end of 2015 meant no one had any idea who or how to block.
The most encouraging thing that may be pointing to this year’s Yellow Jackets being as good as they looked on Saturday is that Justin Thomas seems to have returned to his stellar, 2014 form. He’s been rather deft with his reads so far and has already made some outstanding plays this young season. It’s amazing what he can do when given time to pass or get up-field. We’re trying to not get too optimistic yet, but the passing game looks somewhere between coherent and a respectable threat so far.
Coming into the season, we projected an improved offense from Georgia Tech, but with only five returning starters on defense (per Phil Steele) we figured the defense would be somewhat soft. They've allowed just 14, 10, and 7 points in their first three games, but have played the three weakest offenses on the schedule. What's your assessment of the GT defense?
The point totals don’t tell the whole story… Mercer went on an almost eight-minute drive in the 3rd quarter that had us ready to fire the entire defensive staff.
It seems to be the same things we’ve struggled with since 2008, which mostly comes down to no pass rush. Despite turning over our entire secondary, there’s a lot of talent and experience there, so that hasn’t been as much of a concern. They’ve actually looked pretty good so far. The biggest concern that we’ve seen these three games, and seven-plus years, is that opposing quarterbacks have an eternity to throw. This obviously hurts our secondary and hangs them out to dry, especially in obvious passing situations. You’ll see our corners usually playing soft coverage on the outside to keep everything in front of them.
Ted Roof’s defensive philosophy is “bend, don’t break,” but we seem to do a whole lot of bending, even against inferior competition. The lack of pass rush and soft coverage doesn’t bode well for us against an offense as talented as Clemson’s. We rely heavily on turnovers for stops, which isn’t always viable. Our general assessment so far this season is just more of the same that it has been most of Johnson’s tenure.
To what degree can the GT defense slow down Clemson's offense, which seemed to find its groove last week with 31 first quarter points (seven from special teams)? How do you think they try to do so?
This is probably the Jacket’s biggest question mark heading into this game – the defense hasn’t been tested yet, and Clemson obviously presents a huge one. Our run defense has actually looked pretty good this season, we’ve got a talented group of linebackers who have been more than willing to plug holes in the line. However, like I mentioned before, the lack of a pass rush is a concern, especially against a QB as talented as Watson.
If the Tech D is going to have any success, I would expect them to be much more aggressive than they have been so far this season, and rush more than four in an attempt to disrupt Watson’s timing and reads. It seems we have the most success against HUNH teams when we’re playing press coverage and attacking, rather than reacting to the play. However, that also makes it much more likely that Clemson connects on some big plays.
I don’t think the “bend, don’t break” philosophy will get it done against Clemson’s offense whatsoever, so I would expect a lot of five-plus man blitzes from the Tech defense to try and generate some negative plays and turnovers.
Clemson will likely be without Austin Bryant at defensive end on Thursday (foot injury). Christian Wilkins, our versatile, affable DT will likely get the majority of the SDE snaps. He's been excellent, but hasn't faced a speedy QB who can attack the edge like Justin Thomas yet. Opposite him, Clelin Ferrell is a first year starter at WDE. Meanwhile, Clemson's interior line has been dominant. How does this impact Tech's offensive attack? What are you expecting to see from your offense?
One of my favorite things about this offense is that if there’s a D-lineman raising hell that we can’t block, Coach Johnson will quickly switch his play calls to optioning him instead. Basically, we would leave him unblocked, read him, and try to make him wrong on every play. Thomas isn’t the best QB to run midline options with (which reads interior linemen), due to his size, but if our O-line is getting crushed on the interior upfront, I would expect to see those Clemson defenders in the backfield tackling people who don’t have the ball.
Traditionally on a triple option play, the first read is the DE or OLB, whichever has the dive. If Clemson’s inexperienced DE’s don’t stick to their assignments when optioned, it could be a very long day for the Clemson defense. Some times, we’ll see inexperienced DE’s play slow trying to muddle the read when they’re left unblocked. About 9/10 times when CPJ sees that happening, he’ll call a zone dive, so no one is optioned, and that DE usually gets planted onto the field in order to encourage his future decision making.
If the Clemson D does force Tech into passing situations, I’ll be curious to see how our O-line looks in pass protection against a front seven as talented as Clemson’s. The pass protection has actually been decent this year, but that was against competition vastly inferior to what they’ll see on Thursday.
What matchup or positional battle gives you the most heartache headed into this contest?
That’s easily our defensive line against Clemson’s offensive line. I don’t think just rushing those four are going to generate any pressure whatsoever on him. That’s not good when you’re playing against Watson and he has an entire evening to play catch with his receivers.
Which matchup or position battles gives you the most optimism?
The most encouraging sign this season, that has had the offense clicking, is the blocking from our A-backs and WRs on linebackers and the secondary. It’s been pretty outstanding so far this season, so that at least gives us a lot of optimism on the perimeter.
A big thank you to Josh for sharing with us! To see our answers to their questions click here.
Finally, how do you envision this game playing out?
I see this game being way closer than anyone thinks it will be – I think Tech scares Clemson in Atlanta and maybe holds a lead for a while… but Clemson pulls away in the 4th quarter and finally breaks their longstanding curse at Bobby Dodd… Clemson wins 38-28