September 25, 2007
ATLANTA - Georgia Tech went from darkhorse national title contender to longshot ACC Coastal Division contender on the equivalent of a quick count.
The defending Coastal champions were winless in league play midway through September. And with Clemson, Maryland, Miami and Virginia Tech next up on the schedule, the Yellow Jackets could be at risk for a free-fall.
Georgia Tech's 24-10 loss to Boston College in its ACC opener hurt but was excusable. BC is a possible top-10 team, with an NFL-caliber quarterback and a sound defense. But the 28-23 loss at Virginia, a game the Jackets appeared to be in control of after an awful first quarter, revealed a team with a few glaring weak spots and a penchant for mistakes at crunch time.
The two losses obliterated the confidence and respect Tech had earned in the first two weeks, when it hammered Notre Dame 33-3 and Samford 69-14.
"You talk about a morale disrupter," Tech quarterback Taylor Bennett said, his voice trailing off. "To be 2-2, from where we were and as good as we are, is just something that wasn't expected."
The Jackets' biggest shortcomings were foreseeable, however.
The cornerbacks have been as bad as critics feared. BC and Virginia employed extra blockers to slow Tech's ferocious pass rush, and the quarterbacks abused the secondary.
BC's Matt Ryan threw for 435 yards, picking on Avery Roberson and Pat Clark. Clark played most of the final three quarters because of an injury to the Jackets' best cover man, Jahi Word-Daniels.
Tech adjusted its outside coverage for the Virginia game, so the Cavaliers' Jameel Sewell looked underneath to his tight ends instead. Tom Santi and Jonathan Stupar combined for 10 catches and 133 yards. The only person to really slow Sewell in the first half was his coach, Al Groh, who rotated in Peter Lalich for several series despite Sewell leading UVa on long touchdown drives (81 and 94 yards) on two of the Cavs' first three possessions.
Sewell drove Virginia twice more in the third quarter, but a fumble ended one drive and an interception the other.
Word-Daniels' health could make the situation worse as the season goes on. He suffered a mild concussion in the second quarter of the opener and left the BC game because of illness, although Gailey said it had nothing to do with the concussion. The UVa game was the first full game he's played this season.
Tech also has passing issues on the other side of the ball. Bennett has yet to find consistency and has just missed on several big plays. His wide receivers haven't helped, dropping several passes and failing to make the spectacular plays every offense needs a few times a game.
"We've been close," Bennett said. "What bothers me is the wide-open stuff we've missed. We just have to hit those. We've done a good job on the underneath routes. But the guys are giving me a chance. Sometimes you come up with the big play. Sometimes you don't."
Bennett's made one in four games: a 56-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on the opening drive versus Virginia. His overall numbers are similarly unspectacular. He's completing 51 percent of his passes, is averaging less than 200 yards per game and has as many interceptions (one) as touchdowns.
"I was hoping we would be more consistent with our passing game," Tech coach Chan Gailey said. "It's never one thing. It's always several things."
THIRD DOWN A BANE FOR TECH
Bennett's erratic play also contributed to Tech's abysmal third-down conversion rate of 21 percent. That was 118th - next to last - nationally. Bennett doesn't have a receiver like Calvin Johnson to go to in the clutch, and until he finds one, third-and-long will translate into punt for the Yellow Jackets.
Getting chunks of yardage on first and second down is another key to solving the third-down woes, Gailey said. In the fourth quarter versus UVa, the Jackets faced four third downs, and the shortest was a third-and-nine situation.
"The majority of our third downs have been eight-plus (yards)," Gailey said, "and when you get to seven- and eight-plus, your odds of converting go down extremely. You're doing something wrong to end up with third and long."
INJURIES TAKING SERIOUS TOLL
Tailback Tashard Choice's strained hamstring doesn't bode well for Tech getting out of the third-and-long situations. He suffered the injury in the third quarter of the BC game, pulling up lame on his longest run, a 10-yarder that must have felt like a game-breaker against the Eagles' tremendous run defense.
Choice played just two series against Virginia, pulling himself out of the game and wrapping the hamstring in ice. His replacement, true freshman Jonathan Dwyer, rushed for 75 yards on 15 carries. But Dwyer has yet to develop the instincts to turn a stuff play into a short gain or a short gain into a medium one the way Choice does. That's an ability that turns third-and-sevens into more manageable third-and-threes.
Choice's injury isn't the only one slowing the Yellow Jackets. They lack experienced depth, a result of the NCAA probation that has limited their last three recruiting classes.
Offensive tackle Jacob Lonowski got hurt against BC and missed the Virginia game. Backup Cord Howard, who missed the first three games while resolving an academic issue, ended up playing several dozen snaps. Free safety Djay Jones went down at UVa, forcing true freshman Morgan Burnett to play every down and not just in nickel and dime situations.
But the most costly injuries, at least for one week, were ones to unheralded players Tyler Evans and Brad Sellers.
Evans, the starting punt returner, was hurt on the first punt of the Virginia game. Andrew Smith replaced him and performed well - until he muffed a punt in the fourth quarter. UVa recovered the fumble at the Tech 25-yard line and scored the deciding touchdown a play later.
Sellers went down with a knee injury against Samford and is out for the season. The Jackets still have Colin Peek as the starter, but they lack a second tight end for short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Gailey and coordinator John Bond looked to the defense for help, recruiting backup defensive end Derrick Morgan to play the role for the Virginia game. Morgan's inexperience showed in the waning minutes.
Trailing 28-23 but with the ball at the 16-yard line, Tech faced a fourth-and-one. Morgan lined up as the second tight end only to move before the snap, drawing a five-yard penalty. The Jackets failed to convert the fourth-and-six.
"I'm not going to say it doesn't affect you, but you've practiced other people in those spots," Gailey said of the injuries. "And when they get their opportunity, you hope and expect that they'll go in and perform. You've got to prepare for those situations."