Third downs — both offensively and defensively — could determine the rest of the season for Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets (4-3, 1-3 ACC) will get a good test on both sides when they host Duke (3-4, 0-3) for homecoming in the next-to-last home game of the season at noon on Saturday.
If Georgia Tech can make some stops on third down and get the Blue Devils off the field in a timely manner, it will have an excellent chance of success. Likewise, if the Yellow Jackets can convert some third-down opportunities on offense, that will help them in their quest for ball control, clock domination and victory.
The third-down woes on defense are well documented. Georgia Tech forced one three-and-out against Pittsburgh and Georgia Southern. Opponents have converted 50 percent of their third-down possessions. The Yellow Jackets have only forced six turnovers, too. Those two factors help explain why Georgia Tech has only a slim lead in time of possession, a stat it normally dominates.
“We’ve got to be better on third down and try to get off the field; we’ve beat that horse to death,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “We’ve talked about it, but that’s the bottom line. I think at times we’ve been OK on scoring defense, but the games have had limited possessions, so it kind of masks some of that. I think if we can be better on third down, then everything will fall into place. It will make everything better if you can get off the field.”
Duke has been adequate on third down, converting 40 percent of its chances. The Blue Devils were 8-for-16 on third down against Louisville two weeks ago and have the sort of short-passing game that makes them a dangerous third-down team.
“We certainly worked hard at (third-down conversions) in the open date,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I thought our players understood what we had to do (against Louisville) and if we couldn’t stay on the field, we had no chance. Georgia Tech does a lot of different things on third down, so you’re just trying to grasp all of it and put your players in a position if they execute they’ve got a chance. That’s all you can do.”
Chances are pretty good that Georgia Tech will make sure that quarterback Justin Thomas is involved in any third-down play.
Against Georgia Southern the senior attempted six passes on third down — three of them targeted for Ricky Jeune — and ran a keeper three times. B-back Dedrick Mills had one third-down run and backup quarterback Matthew Jordan had a third-down run in the waning seconds.
Two weeks ago, Thomas ran three times on third down and threw four times, twice to Jeune and twice to Brad Stewart. Mills has three third-down runs but didn’t pick up a first down on any of them.
A year ago, the Blue Devils halted Georgia Tech’s 17-game streak of rushing for 200 yards and the Yellow Jackets never got any traction on the wet field in Durham. But Johnson didn’t try to make an excuse of the conditions.
“I think last year they just beat us,” Johnson said. “The year before we turned the ball over a bunch down here. Last year up there we got behind, they ran a kickoff back on us and the moved the ball really well and shut us down offensively. We didn’t play very well.”