October 9, 2007
ATLANTA Meet the new Georgia Tech, same as the old Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets' nine-win 2006 season now looks more like an anomaly than a breakthrough for coach Chan Gailey's program.
The Jackets dropped to 3-3 with an Oct. 6 loss to Maryland their third defeat in four games and appear destined for the finish Gailey's first four Tech teams posted: seven wins and a bid to a lower-tier bowl in college football outposts such as Boise, San Francisco, Nashville or Charlotte.
The Yellow Jackets' 1-3 conference start all but eliminated them from ACC championship game contention. They've lost just one Coastal Division game, but it came against Virginia, which is 3-0 in league play and would have to suffer a monumental collapse down the stretch for Tech to catch up.
The Jackets' best hope of getting to the ACC title game is to win the rest of their league games to post a 5-3 conference record, have Virginia and at least one other Coastal team also finish 5-3, and have the other 5-3 Coastal team defeat Virginia. That would negate Virginia's head-to-head win against Tech and result in the division-record tiebreaker deciding the Coastal champ.
"The odds of making it to any kind of championship game with three losses are pretty long, if not out of the question," Gailey said following the Maryland loss. "It hurts. You have a goal, and it looks like you're not going to make that goal."
What hurts Tech fans is the way the Yellow Jackets are losing. They have returned to being a team that digs a hole early and doesn't have enough shovels to catch up. The Jackets have been outscored 42-10 in the first quarter of their three losses. They fell behind Maryland 21-3, Virginia 21-7 and Boston College 14-0 in the first half of those games.
"You go out there and try to get your defense pumped up and ready," linebacker Gary Guyton said. "I think we were ready. There were just things we didn't see. A few mistakes here and a few mistakes there, and that can lead to big plays."
Big plays long have been the soft spot in Jon Tenuta's aggressive defense. The Yellow Jackets' blitz schemes often leave defensive backs and sometimes even linebackers in man coverage. The risks are usually worth the rewards, but Maryland, Virginia and BC exploited Tech's approach.
Tenuta's defense eventually buckled down in all three losses, but the deficits were either too much for the offense to make up or left Tech no margin for error down the stretch.
The Yellow Jackets' errors have been catastrophic. They led Virginia in the fourth quarter only to muff a punt deep in their own territory that led to the go-ahead and deciding touchdown. They drew a false-start penalty on a fourth-down play while trying to answer the Cavaliers' score.
Then, against Maryland, Tech moved inside the 30-yard line and within easy field goal range for kicker Travis Bell in the final minutes. But on the play before the kick, the Jackets were penalized 10 yards for holding. On third-and-20, they ran a draw play for no gain.
The game-winning field goal try was from 52 yards, not 40, as a result, and Bell missed it wide right. The Yellow Jackets lost 28-26.
Adding to the public disillusionment is how the Jackets played in their one league win. They dominated then-No. 13 Clemson from kickoff to the final gun on Sept. 29, holding the Tigers' high-powered offense to three points and 34 yards on 32 carries. Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper went into the game as the ACC's most efficient passer, only to struggle to a 17-of-39 performance. He threw his first interception of the season and was sacked six times.
The defensive inconsistency is baffling. Aside from the odd game each year where Tenuta's defense plays poorly Clemson last season, Utah in 2005, Georgia in 2003 Tech can count on the defense keeping the game close.
The result last year was a handful of late rallies for victory, including ACC wins against Miami, Maryland and N.C. State. The Yellow Jackets are losing those kinds of games this year, though, after falling too far behind.
Asked the reason behind the slow starts, a frustrated Gailey said if he knew the answer, he'd fix it.
"We're doing everything the same way every week," Gailey said. "Same routine. Same everything."
OFFENSE HITTING ITS STRIDE?
The shame of Georgia Tech's current ACC predicament is that its offense finally appears to be on track.
The Yellow Jackets have run the ball well all year, with tailback Tashard Choice well on his way to a 1,500-yard season.
But quarterback Taylor Bennett and a group of wide receivers trying to move on without Calvin Johnson underperformed in the season's first month.
Their breakthrough came in the second half against Maryland. Bennett completed 13 of 16 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown in four possessions to rally the Jackets from behind on the road. The performance was similar to the one he posted in January's Gator Bowl loss to West Virginia, his debut as Tech's starter and the main reason hopes were so high on The Flats in the preseason.
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had his coming-out party at the same time. The redshirt freshman who starred in spring and preseason practices even drawing quiet comparisons to Johnson caught six passes for 120 yards in the second half at Maryland and finished with nine catches for 139 yards.
"That's us. You come to our practices, that's what we look like in practice," Bennett said of the second half against Maryland. "I can't blame anybody but myself for our struggles and our recent history. I've just got to keep playing like I did in the second half, and we'll win ball games. We'll win big."
Unfortunately for the Yellow Jackets, it's already too late for that.