Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Georgia Tech returned to business as usual on Monday after a week that was anything but, and, while preparing for Saturday's game at No. 11/10 Miami (Fla.), the Yellow Jackets are hoping that lessons were learned in their bye week.
High on the checklist during the team's bye: ball security.
Despite having played just four games while many teams have played five or six, the Jackets' eight lost fumbles are more than all but four of the other 128 FBS teams. Tech's rate of two fumbles lost per game is tied with Oregon State for the worst, as the Beavers have lost 12 in six games.
That's not a list the Jackets want to be on, so while last week's bye was hopefully good for injured players to mend, the Jackets' practices were not designed that way.
Head coach Paul Johnson said early in the week that Tech (3-1, 2-0 ACC) would probably include more contact than usual because, "we've got a lot of stuff to work on."
Like ball carriers holding onto the football, "high and tight," as the coach likes to say, while being hit.
"You don't want to fumble, but what gets you is when they're careless," Johnson said. "Once in a while [defenders are] going put their head on the ball and knock it out.
"You can live with that if you've got the ball high and tight, you've got it secured and you're squeezing the ball. The ones that drive you nuts are the ones that you inflict on yourself."
For example, the coach was driven a little nuts when redshirt freshman B-back KirVonte Benson lost the football near the goal line on Sept. 30 upon stretching it forward to try and score in the Jackets' 33-7 win over North Carolina.
However, the fumbles take little luster off the glowing numbers attached to Georgia Tech's offense.
The Jackets rank No. 2 nationally in rushing (396.0 yards per game), No. 5 in passing efficiency (176.98 rating), No. 4 in third-down conversion rate (53.3 percent) and No. 20 in total offense (470.3 ypg), despite leaving something on the table, or balls on the ground.
"We're playing well, but it's definitely not the best we can play," said senior A-back Qua Searcy. "We're obviously turning the ball over too many times, too many balls on the ground, and we've got to finish in the red zone more.
"But I feel like we have a pep in our step and it's like we have a chip on our shoulder, especially [after] losing the first game. I feel like we're coming together."
The Jackets' extra work on ball security was not limited to offense; Georgia Tech has recovered just two fumbles. "The key is to get some of your own," Johnson said. "Then, you can balance it out."
Last week's work on creating turnovers on the defensive side of the ball will be put to the test against Miami (4-0, 2-0 ACC), which has not yet lost a fumble this season.
Nevertheless, the bye week wasn't all about the ball. It also was about getting better.
Starting left tackle Jahaziel Lee missed the North Carolina game and senior right tackle Andrew Marshall hasn't played yet. Right guard Shamire Devine also left the UNC game with an injury and, in juggling linemen against the Tar Heels, coaches decided to lift the redshirt of freshman Connor Hansen.
"We're hopeful they'll all be back," Johnson said.
Quarterback TaQuon Marshall's off to a spiffy start in his first season as the starter and before he returned to his hometown over the weekend, the junior from Hamilton, Ga. (Harris County H.S.) took time to work on his finer skills.
-- GeorgiaTech Football (@GeorgiaTechFB) October 8, 2017
Yes, that included ball security for Tech's leading rusher.
Marshall has already rushed 102 times for 567 yards (a 5.1-yard average) and a team-high nine touchdowns.
He hasn't been completely happy, though, chiefly because of his passing.
Marshall has thrown the ball a modest 33 times, completing 19 for 333 yards with four touchdowns and nary an interception, yet he's far from thrilled with his 57.6 percent completion rate nor his passer rating of 182.3.
So, he dialed in on, "Mechanics, footwork, consistency, placement of the ball, arm slot . . . all the above," the quarterback said. "Most of the time I can tell when I release the ball where my arm slot's at.
"[When] the ball sails over [a receiver's] head, most of the time my arm slot is low because I used to play baseball and I threw sidearm a lot. Sometimes when I throw the football sidearm, the ball seems to sail. So it's just staying on top of the ball."
Junior wide receiver Brad Stewart is eager to get back to business as usual, which means game-planning for an opponent so that, "Hopefully we can come up with a perfect game soon on offense."
For the Jackets, that criteria might include, say, their fourth game this season with more than 400 rushing yards, a few more connections in the passing game and no fumbles.
Miami has the nation's No. 62-ranked rushing defense (148.0 yards allowed per game), and they've been kind of shaky against the pass (No. 84, 235.5 ypg) while beating Bethune-Cookman, Toledo, Duke and Florida State.
The Hurricanes lost their leading rusher, running back Mark Walton, to an ankle injury at Florida State. Given that head coach Mark Richt's team is not considered to be deep at running back, junior quarterback Malik Rosier may be called upon more frequently.
He's completed 58.2 percent of his passes with 11 interceptions and three touchdowns.
Then again, Tech junior safety A.J. Gray suggested that planning for Miami to pass like crazy would be a mistake.
-- GeorgiaTech Football (@GeorgiaTechFB) October 8, 2017
"You've got to play it honest both ways . . . " Gray said. "If you get stuck on, `They're going to throw the ball,' before you know it, they've run three times."
The Jackets have played with growing confidence since losing their opener to Tennessee, 42-41 in double overtime, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Defenders were not at all pleased upon allowing the Volunteers to score on five of their final six possessions and they've galvanized with three-rock solid showings since.
The result is that Georgia Tech is sporting its best October defensive numbers in years.
The Jackets are No. 6 nationally in total defense (260.0), No. 11 in passing defense (158.3), No. 14 in rushing defense (101.8) and No. 4 in third-down defense (23.9 percent).
"I would say chemistry and just wanting to do it," Gray said when asked about the keys to Tech tightening up. "I would say that because everybody is doing their job and not focusing on everybody else's job. Everybody is trusting each other."
Defenders also seem to like the fact that coordinator Ted Roof is calling more stunts and blitzes while, at the same time, simplifying the Jackets' overall plan.
"The defense as a whole, we have this bond, this connection to want to be better and one-up each other almost," reported junior linebacker Victor Alexander. "Coach Roof lately has been making it very simple for us. You just go out there and play ball."
Junior defensive lineman Anree Saint-Amour, who has two of Tech's 10 sacks, said, "We expect to make plays up front. I feel like we've been running a few more games (stunts) . . . we have to get better and better and better.
"[Miami] beat us the last two years and you want to get back at them. We're going to try to keep this winning streak going."