ATLANTA -- The last thing a team like Georgia Tech that’s struggling on offense probably wants to see is Clemson as its next opponent.
Even though the Tigers have several players from last year’s team who have landed on NFL rosters, they’re once again loaded with talent on defense. And while the Notre Dame defense was good and the Duke defense might have been a little better, the Clemson defense might be the best the Yellow Jackets see this season.
It doesn’t get any easier for Georgia Tech, which must travel to Death Valley on Saturday to play No. 6 Clemson.
“We’re probably playing the best team we’ve played all year, certainly defensively, always year in and year out very good,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said.
The Tigers have the 12th best scoring defense in the country (14.8 points), 23rd in total defense (304.8 yards) and 25th in rushing defense (115 yards).
So while players like Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett have moved on to the Atlanta Falcons, the Tigers have emerging stars like Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd who have stepped in to take their places. Lawson has 8.5 tackles for loss and had 3.5 in the win against Notre Dame.
“Our first group has been outstanding,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They’ve been really, really good, just like I thought they would be. I think we’re right on schedule.”
That means a big challenge is ahead Saturday for Georgia Tech, which is trying avoid its first four-game losing streak in the Johnson era.
Last week, the Georgia Tech offense looked like it was going to be OK. The Yellow Jackets used a no-huddle offense, with Johnson relaying plays in from the side rather than shuttling a player into the game with the call. Georgia Tech scored on its first three possessions on drives of 10, 14 and 13 plays.
But where the Yellow Jackets have suffered recently is the shortage of big plays. Georgia Tech had one play of at least 25 yards against Notre Dame, four against Duke and one against North Carolina. And all of those plays were passes.
“We executed a lot better, not nearly as many missed assignments,” Johnson said of the game against North Carolina. “We need to have explosive plays, too. It’s hard to have 14-, 15-play drives without messing it up. It’s more important against good defenses.”
It’s also tougher with a group of skill position players that has little experience. The problem goes back to the dismissal of veteran Dennis Andrews, the season-ending knee injury to Nate Cottrell and an assortment of injuries to Broderick Snoddy, Qua Searcy and TaQuon Marshall.
But the finger can’t be pointed at one group. Georgia Tech is an equal opportunity provider when it comes to meltdowns. The Yellow Jackets can’t afford the untimely fumble or interception, missing a tackle that leads to a big play or a special teams blunder.
“What we’ve got to do is get a contribution from all three phases of the game and not have one phase implode,” Johnson said. “We’ve yet to play a game where all three have contributed positively, after the first two.
“Last year, the offense was good enough to carry the team. This year, they’re not. This year, nobody is good enough to carry anybody. Everybody’s got to do their part.”
The stakes for Georgia Tech are incredibly high this week. A loss essentially would eliminate any chance of winning the Coastal Division, especially with games remaining against Pittsburgh (3-1), No. 12 Florida State (4-0) and Miami (3-1).
And if the Yellow Jackets fall to 2-4, it would leave very little margin for error when it comes to qualifying for a bowl game.
“We’ve clearly dug ourselves a pretty good hole, and we’ve got to try to dig out of it, and it’s not going to be easy this week,” Johnson said. “We put ourselves here. We’ve had a chance in every game with play here or a play there and there’s a very fine line between winning and losing. Nobody is riding in to save us, so we’ve got to save ourselves, if we’re going to get it done. We’ve got to come out swinging.”