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Georgia Tech football midseason review.


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Georgia Tech midseason review / preview

Reviewing how Jackets got to 5-1; previewing how second half could shake out

By KEN SUGIURA

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What if the magic football genie had appeared in August before Paul Johnson and offered him a 5-1 record halfway through the season?

“I wouldn’t have taken it,” Georgia Tech’s coach said Tuesday. Rather, Johnson said he’d try to bargain to be 6-0.

The Jackets, in their coach’s words, are “fine from a confidence standpoint,” and it’s easy to deduce that they’re getting some of it from the man in charge.

Remember where Tech was seven weeks ago, when it kicked off against Jacksonville State. The Jackets were starting under a new coach, running a fairly foreign offense and a new defense. The depth chart was heavy with underclassmen and the quarterback, all three running backs, two linebackers and two defensive backs, among others, had never started a game.

Since then, Tech has blown out three teams (Jacksonville State, Mississippi State and Duke), escaped with two more wins (Boston College and, improbably, Gardner-Webb) and nearly pulled off a win at Virginia Tech’s boisterous Lane Stadium. With two more wins, the Jackets, picked to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal Division, would become bowl eligible.

There’s a lot of highway left, including a stop in Athens Nov. 29. But, while Johnson might not have taken 5-1, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Tech fan who wouldn’t have.

The AJC reviews the first-half of the season, and offers predictions for the second-half:

REVIEW

On the whole, the Jackets did well. Any reasonable-minded Jackets fan would have gladly taken 5-1 at the halfway point. The offense has shown improvement in its efficiency and the defense is fourth in the country in scoring. Perhaps most encouraging is that, particularly offensively, there’s much room for growth.

Best game

It did not rate much for suspense, but the Jackets delivered their most complete effort against Mississippi State in a 38-7 blowout Sept. 20. Coming on the heels of the loss to Virginia Tech, the Jackets gouged the Bulldogs for 500 yards and kept them off the scoreboard until the fourth quarter.

Biggest surprise

It works! The surprise isn’t that Johnson’s offense could be effective at a BCS conference, but that it has done so this quickly. By gobbling up almost 1,000 yards against Mississippi and Duke, both with the No. 2 quarterback running the show, Tech has won plenty of believers. Even after a clunker last Saturday, Tech ranks eighth in rushing offense in the country.

Biggest disappointment

Despite the fact that the Jackets actually beat Gardner-Webb 10-7, the team’s lackluster effort was, as Johnson put it, embarrassing. There were mitigating factors, but not so many that Gardner-Webb should have had a chance for overtime with less than a minute to go. The effect, though, is that Tech won’t take anyone lightly for a long time.

First half MVP

B-back Jonathan Dwyer’s 43-yard touchdown run against Boston College was a game-saver as was, it turned out, his 79-yard touchdown reception against Gardner-Webb. Dwyer’s power and speed make him dangerous going up the middle and on the perimeter, and have repeatedly tilted the field in Tech’s favor. Johnson has called him the “prototype” B-back for his offense.

Best coaching decision

Second-stringers get as many practice repetitions as the starters, a methodology that proved its worth when quarterback Josh Nesbitt left the Mississippi State game with a hamstring Injury. Backup Jaybo Shaw, a true freshman, navigated the Jackets to wins over the Bulldogs and Duke. Particularly against Mississippi State, Shaw looked like a veteran running the offense.

Breakout star

A quartet of sophomores — safety Morgan Burnett, defensive end Derrick Morgan, quarterback Josh Nesbitt and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas — have provided a flurry of big plays. With a newfound vigor for blocking in addition to ability to make big plays, Thomas symbolizes Tech’s transformation as well as anyone. Thomas’ nine-catch, one-touchdown, 230-yard explosion against Duke showed Tech’s offense isn’t all about running the ball.

PREVIEW

Could Tech finish 11-1? It’s possible. Going 6-2 in the conference (9-2 overall) is more likely heading into the game with Georgia. The Bulldogs will win their eighth consecutive game against Tech, but the tide is turning.

Best game

Tech’s final five ACC games will be tough, starting with what should be a manic environment at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium this Saturday. If the Jackets can defeat Clemson, Virginia and Florida State, they’ll go to No. 18 North Carolina in what should be a battle of one-loss teams trying to stay in the ACC title hunt.

Biggest surprise

The Jackets will likely roll in one or two of their final six the way they did against Duke and Mississippi State, whom they beat by a combined 65-7. For one thing, the defense is strong enough to do its part. Second, there isn’t any reason that the offense can’t continue to be that explosive.

Biggest disappointment

One of Tech’s biggest failings of the first half — holding onto the ball — may happen again at an inopportune time. Tech’s fumbling issues aren’t exclusively tied to playing in a new offense. Regardless, the Jackets have fumbled 21 times, losing 10, which is fourth most in Division I-A. Losing the ball factored in Tech’s 20-17 loss to Virginia Tech, and odds are it will happen again.

Second half MVP

Some days, the offense hits, some days it doesn’t. Three games in particular — Miami, Florida State and Georgia — seem candidates for the “doesn’t” category because each team defends the run well. In those instances, the Jackets will have to rely on their greatest strength, a defensive line that stops the run, forces bad throws and creates chances for the offense. Look for defensive end Michael Johnson to confirm his standing as top-10 draft pick.

Best coaching decision

Midway through the fourth quarter in Athens, Tech will face a 3rd-and-5 and Johnson will call … just kidding. Johnson has shown his willingness to risk going for it on fourth down. It has backfired — the Jackets are 5-for-10 so far on fourth downs, including a failed fake punt Saturday — but it will pay off significantly at some point.

Second half star

Nesbitt will grow increasingly comfortable running the offense, meaning better decisions, bigger plays and fewer mistakes. His ability to make something out of nothing could be crucial. Nesbitt won’t be the first-team all-ACC quarterback, but he’ll have his supporters for it. Also worth watching: Burnett, a ballhawk who’ll have chances against several teams that don’t mind throwing.

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the tide is turning?? where did he get that info.. LOL that's hilarious..

now to talk about the legitimate comments above: Dwyer is indeed the MVP. Against powerful gardner-webb (I kid, I kid).. ;) he was the big reason they won that game.. he is an awesome rb.. i think gt loses 4 games this year and uga wins their 8th in a row.. should be a fun game however.

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great read. I agree with most of it

The fumbles are my biggest concern against a team like ga, Tech would likely lose 3 of those 5 fumbles.

Lose a fumble 3 times in a game to quality team and our azzes will be handed to us!

Regardless of the turmoil going on at clemson this should be a very difficult challenge!

Go Tech!!!!

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