Georgia Tech running back Zach Laskey (37) reacts after Miami defensive back JoJo Nicolas scored after Laskey fumbled a punt return during first half of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011 in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech's dream season has turned ugly.
The once-unstoppable offense is sputtering. The special teams are anything but special. Two straight losses have knocked the Yellow Jackets out of the rankings and put their Atlantic Coast Conference title hopes in severe jeopardy.
It doesn't get any easier Saturday night: No. 6 Clemson is coming to town.But coach Paul Johnson is trying to look at the bright side. The Yellow Jackets (6-2, 3-2 ACC) could still play for the conference title by winning out. It won't be easy, not with Clemson (8-0, 5-0) and No. 15 Virginia Tech looming as the next two games. But at least Georgia Tech will be at Bobby Dodd Stadium for both contests."We're glad to be back at home," Johnson said Tuesday. "The last couple of weeks have been disappointing, to say the least."After getting off to its best start since 1966, Georgia Tech was overpowered by Virginia and bumbled its way to another loss at Miami last weekend. Now, the key is forgetting about those defeats while addressing the issues that led to them.Running back Roddy Jones already spoke to the team, pointing out that Georgia Tech still has a shot at a 10-win season and a spot in the ACC title game. Every other team in the Coastal Division has at least two conference losses except Virginia Tech (7-1, 3-1)."We still have a lot to play for," Johnson said. "Have we dug ourselves a little hole the last two weeks? Yeah. I'd be lying if I said we didn't. But we've got to flush it and move on. We're 6-2. I don't think many people thought we'd be 6-2 at this point to begin with."Jones, a fifth-year senior, said it was important to speak out before the losing streak affected the entire season.
"I wanted to be proactive," he said. "I didn't want it to get to the point where people were walking around with their heads down. We've really kind of taken a beating from the media, from the fans, from people around campus asking, 'What happened?' People are really kind of discounting us now. We have to circle the wagons and really believe in what we're doing. We're a good team. We just have to go out and prove it."To beat Clemson, the Yellow Jackets will need a much better performance from quarterback Tevin Washington. The junior was highly effective the first five games, making nearly all the right reads out of the triple-option and taking advantage of those occasional big plays that cropped up in the passing game.
Washington rushed for more than 100 yards in both a win over Maryland and the loss to Virginia, but he carried the ball far more than Johnson would like -- a total of 58 times. Against Miami, he was held to just 36 yards on 20 more carries.
His passing numbers also have dropped off considerably. He's just 14 of 39 (36 percent) for 201 yards in the last three games, with four interceptions and no touchdowns. The first five weeks, Washington was 31 of 54 (57 percent), accounting for 938 yards and 10 touchdowns with only a single interception.
"It's not all Tevin," Johnson insisted. "Clearly, he can play better. But the guys around him have to play better, too. Those guys (quarterbacks) get too much credit and too much blame. I know Tevin is working hard trying to correct what he needs to correct. That's all you can do."
With the Yellow Jackets trailing Miami by two touchdowns, Johnson brought in redshirt freshman Synjyn Days, hoping he could spark the offense. It didn't work. Days fumbled the ball away, and Washington finished up a 24-7 loss.
"Sometimes, you change things up and see what happens," Johnson said. "He threw a couple of pretty good balls, had a quarterback draw that wasn't blocked very well, then he fumbled the ball. That's his thing. If he takes care of the ball, he'll play more. He's a talented kid who can do some things. But you've got to take care of the ball."
Georgia Tech has struggled on special teams all season, and those problems were especially acute against the Hurricanes. The Yellow Jackets gave up a touchdown on a fumbled punt and surrendered a 48-yard kickoff return that set up another Miami score. Sean Poole is averaging only 37 yards a punt, and Justin Moore is just 4 of 8 on field goal attempts.
Johnson defended the makeup of his coaching staff, which doesn't have an assistant dedicated solely to special teams. Secondary coach Charles Kelly runs the meetings, several other coaches oversee various areas, and Johnson has the final say on schemes and personnel.
"It's not what we want. We're not satisfied with it," the head coach said. "We're going to keep working on it and try to get better. That's all we can do."