Thursday night against No. 8 Clemson, the Yellow Jackets will have their biggest test yet in 2013.
The Tigers (8-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) have won two in a row since suffering an embarrassing home loss to Florida State three weeks ago, but the Tigers are a tough draw for Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2 ACC).
Clemson’s offense ranks 11th nationally. Its defense ranks first in tackles for lost yardage and many of the same players beat the Jackets 47-31 at Death Valley last year
“I don’t think the score was indicative of the game,” Johnson said. “I think it got away from us, but we were up one in the fourth quarter and had the ball on the 12-yard line on fourth-and-1 and we fumbled the snap. So they’ve been good games.”
Since he took over Georgia Tech’s program, Johnson has won four of six games against Clemson, though one of those victories was a 2009 ACC championship vacated for a violation of NCAA rules.
“This may be the best team they’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said.
Johnson has been pleased with recent improvement in the Jackets’ defense quarterback pressure and the play of senior defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu and senior safety Jemea Thomas.
Attaochu, who ranks fourth in Georgia Tech career sacks with 25, has five tackles for lost yardage, four sacks and one forced fumble in wins over Virginia and Pittsburgh.
Thomas, named the ACC’s top defensive player over the last two weeks, had 18 solo tackles, two pass breakups and one interception in the last two games.
Offensively, Johnson has been pleased with sophomore quarterback Vad Lee, arguably the most skilled passer in the coach’s six seasons, and his efficiency in orchestrating the triple-option attack.
He said perimeter blocking has improved, too.
Under Johnson, Georgia Tech has always had one of the nation’s top rushing offenses, and this year is no exception with a No. 5 ranking.
What the Jackets hope is that their defense, which ranks 12th nationally matches up well with an offense led by senior quarterback quarterback Tajh Boyd and junior receiver Sammy Watkins.
Both players are dynamic.
Boyd is just 41 yards rushing shy of becoming the first ACC quarterback with at least 10,000 passing yards and 10,000 rushing.
Watkins needs two catches one catch to surpass DeAndre Hopkins’ 2006 for most in school history.
“They’ve got good skill,” Johnson said. “They’ve been good offensively, but this might be their best team defensively since I’ve been here, just personnel-wise and athletically. They’ve had some good individual players, but as a whole this might be their best defensive team since I’ve been here.”
Johnson hopes that Georgia Tech’s run-first, option attack lessens the impact of defensive end Vic Beasley, who has 10 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 15 sacks over his last 16 games.
Regardless, Johnson is nonetheless concerned about the abilities of linebackers Grady Jarret and Stephone Anthony and defensive end Corey Crawford.
The Jackets must win to keep their slim hopes alive of advancing to a second straight ACC title game. At 5-2 in the league, they’re one victory ahead of Virginia Tech and two ahead of Miami, but Georgia Tech lost to both schools and thus loses a tiebreaker.
They won’t face another league opponent in the regular season after Thursday, with Alabama A&M and Georgia left on the schedule.