LAWRENCE, Kan. — During his mid-week news conference last week, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson made it clear: run stoppage was emphasis No. 1 for his defense.
“We’ve got to do better against the run,” Johnson said.
After a pair of South Carolina State running backs torched the Yellow Jackets to the tune of 178 yards — mostly by pounding the ball inside between the tackles — the head coach pleaded with his defenders to not repeat the mistake again.
They were listening, but not hard enough.
Kansas on Saturday rushed for 141 yards on a whopping 41 carries against the Yellow Jackets. With a spread offense noted mostly for its passing game, the fact that the Jayhawks were able to move the ball on the ground rather successfully was enough to turn attention to the very area Johnson had hoped would be cleaned up. By comparison, the Yellow Jackets’ embattled defense from a year ago held opposing teams to under 100 yards rushing five times.
“They ran the ball well,” Johnson said following the game. “It started with mostly draws and they did a good job protecting their quarterback.”
Georgia Tech fell to Kansas Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Ks. Failing to stop the run game was among the problems the Yellow Jackets faced. Here, Isaiah Johnson, a true freshman who got his first start, tackles quarterback Jordan Webb as the ball hits the turf. Photo Credit: Kansas City Star/McClatchy
Kansas true freshman running back James Sims rushed for 101 yards and had a rushing touchdown. Another back, Angus Quigley, picked up 46 yards on just eight carries.
“We did OK, but ‘OK’ is the key word. We’ve got to do better than OK,” defensive coordinator Al Groh said.
Groh was also asked if the transition to his 3-4 defensive scheme is part of what has slowed down the Yellow Jackets’ proficiency in stopping the run to this point in the season.
“Look, it is what it is,” Groh said. “We made the transition, we’re playing the defense, we’ve just got to play it well enough. To say anything else is built in excuses and you’re never going to be competitively tough as long as you start taking excuses.
“We, simply starting with me and all the way down the line, just have to do better than that.”
Players being accountable
In addition to coaches, the players said they must also be held accountable for the lack of defensive discipline that has led to missed tackles and the wide-open holes that have been created for opposing ballcarriers to run through.
“Schemes are only the X’s and O’s on paper,” Yellow Jackets linebacker Kyle Jackson said. “I think back to something my high school coach used to tell me: ‘It’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s about the Johnny’s and Joe’s.’ At some point in time, we’re going to have to step up. In a game like (Saturday’s), we never stepped up. We made some big stops here and now, but you can’t rely on big stops at the end of the game to try to come back. You’ve got to be able to make stops throughout the entire four quarters.”
The sentiment Jackson relayed about being held accountable is one Johnson has repeated often during this early-season campaign.
At times, the head coach has said that while scrutiny often is placed upon schemes and whether systems are working, sometimes that onus should be lumped on the players themselves who have to execute them.
“He’s absolutely right,” Jackson said. “We can’t just rely on our scheme to make plays for us, we’ve got to be able to go out there and make plays ourselves.”
McRae, others get starts
Nick McRae, a sophomore offensive guard from Dublin, received his first career start Saturday due to the loss of redshirt freshman Will Jackson last week.
Will Jackson left the season-opening South Carolina State game with leg injuries that were later called knee and ankle sprains. He didn’t practice last week, although the Yellow Jackets were hopeful he might have been able to play against Kansas.
“It was exciting, but the end result wasn’t good, so that cancels all the excitement out,” McRae said, referring to the Yellow Jackets’ 28-25 loss to Kansas.
In addition to McRae, a former All-Middle Georgia selection and state champion, A-back Marcus Wright and safety Isaiah Johnson also received their first career starts.
Wright rushed five times for 35 yards, while Isaiah Johnson tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack for a 10-yard loss.
Like at other colleges Saturday, Kansas commemorated the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks with special pre- and in-game tributes.
During its pregame performance, Kansas’ marching band played several American-themed songs, including a rendition of the national anthem that drew a loud ovation. Also while the anthem was being performed, a C-135 plane flew over the stadium to its own applause.
Georgia Tech fans may remember the Yellow Jackets’ flyover last season before the Wake Forest game. The pilots, one who was a Georgia Tech graduate, were later punished after a military review of the flyover found that they flew too low. Skimming the top of Bobby Dodd Stadium, they zoomed overhead before peeling off toward the western sky.
In addition to its anthem tribute, Kansas officials lowered all stadium flags to half-staff, and at halftime, draped a massive, near 100-yard American flag across the field as “God Bless America” was played.
Georgia Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt rushed for two touchdowns Saturday, giving him 30 for his career. That mark put him in sole possession of fourth on the school’s all-time list, placing him ahead of former running back Tashard Choice (28), and one shy of Joe Burns. … Nesbitt’s 30 career touchdowns overall surpassed former receiver Calvin Johnson for fourth-most in school history. … Georgia Tech now has a 10-5 all-time record against the Big 12. … The Yellow Jackets are 2-5 all-time when playing on Sept. 11.