Georgia Tech enters Thursday night’s game at Virginia Tech with the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense.
There literally is nobody in the country better at running the ball right now -- which is why it’s all the more bizarre that in Paul Johnson’s run-based option offense, the lack of a dependable receiver has been one of the Jackets’ most glaring weaknesses.
While Georgia Tech tops the FBS in rushing, only one team -- Army -- has fared worse in the passing game out of 120 ranked teams.
“I know that in the passing game we’ve had a lot of chances we haven’t taken advantage of this year,” said A-back Roddy Jones. “We’ve had too many dropped passes. It’s just one of those things you just have to concentrate on and get better because those are catches guys make in practice all the time. We just have to do it on Saturdays. I think a lot of our problems would be alleviated just by catching the ball.”
It’s not the lack of attempts that’s bothersome to Johnson, it’s the lack of production with the ones they have had. The Yellow Jackets have completed just 38 percent of their pass attempts this year. They’re averaging 84.7 yards per game. There’s plenty of blame to spread around, as the receivers have had “several” drops, the pass protection hasn’t always been good, and quarterback Joshua Nesbitt hasn’t always been on target.
“We need to be more efficient in the passing game, for sure,” said Johnson. “It’s just like any offense. I’m sure that teams that throw want to be more efficient in the running game. I don’t think we have to be balanced -- I’m not under any illusions that’s the case.”
Georgia Tech beat Virginia Tech last year and completed just one pass in the 28-23 win. Last year, though, receiver Demaryius Thomas was around to catch that lone 51-yard pass that set up a touchdown.
In 2008, Georgia Tech beat rival Georgia, 45-42, and only threw one complete pass. But again, Thomas was on the receiving end, this time for a 19-yard gain.
Thomas, one of four juniors who left for the NFL last year, might be missed the most.
“Anytime you lose the first receiver taken in the draft, that’s a huge loss,” Johnson said. “But I thought that we had guys that would be more consistent and step up. And I think we still might. I haven’t given up on them yet.”
The player who faced the highest expectations entering this season was sophomore Stephen Hill, who leads the team with two touchdown receptions and 12 receptions. He’s averaging 13.8 yards per catch, but many outside the program had hoped he would be the program’s next elite receiver. The comparisons to Thomas, though, proved too much too soon.
“You’re comparing a kid who probably should’ve been redshirted if we could have, and we’re throwing him out there and all of a sudden he gets compared to the first receiver taken in the draft,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of guys who are going to fall short of that comparison.”
Regardless of whether it’s Hill or a group effort, though, the passing game must improve if the Jackets are going to defend their ACC title.
“When we get in a situation where we’re having some success in the run, teams start bringing their DBs up a little faster -- especially when we’re on the perimeter -- trying to stop the pitch,” said Jones. “So when those guys start coming hard, we’ve got to be able to do play-action to kind of back them off a little bit.”
Aside from Hill’s 12 catches, nobody else on the roster has more than seven receptions this year. Jones said it doesn’t have to all be on Hill.
“It can definitely be by committee, especially with the play-action passes,” Jones said. “We have a very capable receiving corps and a group of A-backs who are talented as well. As long as every pass is completed, it doesn’t matter who it goes to.”
After all, it only takes one to win a game.