By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Memory can be a tricky thing.
Football players talk about having a short one, especially when it comes to negative plays -- some of them bitterly disappointing -- yet they have amazing recall when it comes to incentivizing off those very same plays.
Imagine, then, the vast wealth of motivation Georgia Tech has gained over the last two years for the University of Pittsburgh, the Yellow Jackets’ opponent in Saturday afternoon’s ACC opener, a part of Hall of Fame Weekend (kickoff at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field is at 12:20 p.m. ET).
"They came down to the last possession – both games. Two years ago here, the kid kicked a 56-yard field goal on the last play and then up there a year ago, we failed to make a fourth-and-less-than-one,” said head coach Paul Johnson, who is 7-2 in conference openers. “That was as much our fault as theirs with what we did and the way we lined up. You have to give THEM credit for making plays but also we contributed to it."
The Jackets players haven’t forgotten.
“I remember the kicker named (Chris) Blewitt beat us the past two years,” said senior DB Lawrence Austin. “We haven’t beaten them the past two years so that’s motivation, it’s our first ACC game. THAT’s motivation. We’re excited to play.”
The Jackets won’t have to worry about Blewitt, as he’s graduated. In fact, field goal kicking is a wash, as both the Yellow Jackets and Panthers are relying on true freshman kickers -- Shawn Davis (1-3 on field goals, 9-for-10 on PATs) and Alex Kessman (2-for-5, 7-for-7).
More pressing will be the first 59 minutes, especially after last week’s canceled game with Central Florida, which changed Tech’s schedule from three games in 12 days to two games in five and then a 13-day layoff. The Yellow Jackets are more eager than anxious to resume play and seeing those past two games vs. the Panthers on film this past week has them seeing more red than usual heading into Saturday. There’s a lot of grudge held and built up over the past 706 days.
“They got away from us two years in a row,” said senior strong safety Corey Griffin, whose tip of a third-and-nine pass late in last year’s game with Tech up 34-27, turned into a 74-yard game-tying touchdown completion. “I mean, it hurts, but short memory. You’ve got to move on. We get a chance at these guys again this weekend and we’re going to give it all we’ve got. We’ve got a new, experienced defense that knows what it’s doing. I’m pretty excited.”
The Jackets’ defense will need to draw on that experience and know what it’s doing against Pitt’s multi-set offense and constant sleight-of-hand attack, referred to all week as “Eye Candy.”
While much of the focus has been on which quarterback will start -- senior Max Browne, who last season won the starting job at Southern California and started the Trojans’ first three games, or sophomore Ben DiNucci, the bigger issue for the Jackets is avoiding cavities from the sweets from the specialist that either QB will give the ball to.
That means watching their P’s and Q’s, especially a pair of Q’s -- junior tailback Qadree Ollison and junior wide receiver Quadree Henderson.
Ollison is looking to become only the sixth Panther with multiple 1,000-yard-rushing seasons (he had 1,121 in 2015), while Henderson is an all-purpose threat who accounted for 2,083 total yards last season -- second in program history behind only Tony Dorsett’s Heisman-winning season in 1976. Henderson scored 10 TDs last season via four different methods (five rushing, one receiving, three on kickoff returns, and one on a punt return) in 2016 and he has six career kickoff returns of more than 80 yards.
"Offensively they have good skill players,” said Johnson. “Henderson is dynamic and they try to get him the ball in a lot of ways. They have a stable of good running backs. It’s a little uncertain with their quarterback right now, whether it will be Browne or DiNucci, but we kind of get ready for their system.”
The key avoiding another postgame ache in the Pitt of their stomach is moderation when it comes to taking in the eye candy. Keeping the unit in check will require the Jackets knowing their checks.
“You just have to be disciplined,” said senior defensive end KeShun Freeman, whose seven career sacks tie for the team lead. “You have to know. If you’re going to check something, check it. If not just play your keys and do what you have to do because they’re definitely going to throw a lot of eye candy at you. Play your keys and play your part.”
“(It’s) checking where the tight end is, making sure if the reverse is coming, just making sure where you are,” said senior defensive end Anree Saint-Amour, who leads the Jackets with 3.0 tackles for loss (his 1.5 per game rank sixth in the ACC), is tied for the team lead with 2.0 sacks (both vs. Jacksonville State) and is tied with Freeman with seven career sacks. “The coaches do a good job teaching us our technique and it puts us in a position to make a play so we don’t get sucked up in all the eye candy. So as long as we keep disciplined and do what the coaches tell us to do we should be fine.”
Defensive line isn’t the only unit looking to keep its sweet tooth in check.
“They’re definitely similar to last year. They have all the eye candy, they have great players,” said Griffin, who’ll see action against Pitt wide receiver and good friend Jester Weah. “We’re going to go out there and make sure we’re on top of everything, make sure our eyes are in the right place. When they go into 12 personnel, pretty much see like a Georgia Tech offense with all the eye candy, you have to be disciplined.”
“They still have explosive players. They’re still a good team,” said Lance Austin. “You have to stay on your keys. That’s one thing we’ve been working on this week and last week.”
Lawrence Austin assured that the Yellow Jackets won’t get sucked into a false sense of security even with the Panthers coming off a pair of lopsided losses. He’s looking at the teams they played -- 33-14 at then-No. 4/4 Penn State and 59-21 last week against then-No. 9/8 Oklahoma State -- and is focused solely on the team he’s playing.
“I don’t take any game for granted,” he said. “We’re motivated because I haven’t beaten those guys since my freshman year so (the margin of the losses) doesn’t make me over-confident at all. I know what they’re capable of and we haven’t been able to beat them the past two years. So I’m ready to play those guys and get a little bit of revenge.”
To exact revenge the Jackets will need to extract the Panthers offense from the field, something they could NOT do in either of their last two games against them. Pitt won time of possession both years (30:21-29:39 last year and 34:20-25:40 two years in ‘15) and was a combined 10-for-22 on third down and 3-for-3 on fourth -- they’re 18-for-43 (41.9 percent) and 7-for-9 (77.8) this year. Tech’s opponents are converting at 38.1 percent (8-for-21, eighth in the ACC) on third down and are 0-for-1 on fourth. The Jackets (36:30) and Panthers (34:47) rank second and third in time of possession so far in 2017 (Duke’s 37:01 leads the way).
Tech’s defense would like to pick up where it left off at Bobby Dodd two weeks ago, when their ability to force turnovers changed the course of the game against Jacksonville State,
“[The JSU win] gives us a lot of confidence,” said Lance Austin. “We got a couple of picks, Lawrence got a pick, thought we had a pick-six. Step (Durham) got a pick. I feel like we’re coming into our own and getting more comfortable.”
Freeman feels that the Jackets would be most comfortable making the Panthers play uphill as long as possible. The last two weeks, the Panthers trailed 14-0 and 21-0 after 15 minutes. In their season-opening 28-21 OT win over Youngstown State they led 14-0 after a quarter.
Georgia Tech has led after the first in both games and hasn’t allowed a point, outscoring Tennessee and Jax State, 10-0.
“You always want to come out with a jump,” said Freeman. “So if our offense can score and we can make stops at the beginning of the game to get ourselves up, that’s our goal.”
After the last two years, Lance is more concerned about the other end of the spectrum.
“We have to finish,” he said. “(The last two years are) definitely in the back of our minds but we can’t harp on it too much. We have to think about this year and the way to finish and win the game.”
No one would like that more that Griffin, not only to exorcise the Pitt demons but to send a message for the rest of the season.
“Everything is still up for grabs right now in terms of our goals,” he said. “Everything’s still intact with our goals. We’re hungry.”
Just don’t eat too much candy….