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Georgia Tech lives — and dies — on the edge against Pittsburgh

Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire

It’s almost never a bad thing for a head coach to be aggressive and confident in his players. Far too often, coaches play not to lose and avoid unnecessary risks to escape the media backlash.

For Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, a more conservative late call would have served his team far better against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

With the game tied, under three minutes to go and the ball at their own 34-yard line, the Yellow Jackets elected to go for it on fourth and 1. It backfired, and set up the Panthers in excellent field position to kick the game-winning field goal.

After the fourth-down stop, Pittsburgh gained 21 yards to get closer and run out the clock. Kicker Chris Blewitt hit the upright, but his kick bounced through the pipes to lift Pittsburgh over Georgia Tech, 37-34.

Prior to the fourth-down try, the Yellow Jackets were 2-for-3 on fourth down and 7-for-11 this season, but with the ball so deep in their own territory, the risk of failure exceeded the value of moving the chains. Senior quarterback Justin Thomas had one of his better games, completing 70 percent of his passes for 13 yards per attempt and a touchdown, but he had only 10 attempts on the day.

With that in mind, it seems improbable he would have been a huge factor in helping the Yellow Jackets drive down for their own game-winning field goal. Georgia Tech needed at least 35 more yards to reach field-goal range and had just 2:25 to do it. It’s unlikely their rushing attack would have been able to cover that amount of turf in that allotment of time.

The Yellow Jackets averaged 5.4 yards per rushing play, so their offensive line clearly dominated most of the day, but the Panthers also stopped a Georgia Tech runner for a loss or no gain six times prior to the fourth down try. The seventh stop proved to be extremely costly.

On the final drive alone, Pittsburgh held Georgia Tech to no gain and a 1-yard loss on the first two plays before Thomas completed a 10-yard pass to create the fourth-and-short situation. The fact the line had no push on the first two running plays of the final drive should have been a dead giveaway a run wasn’t going to work, and punting was the better choice in that situation.

Surviving to live another series in overtime would have been a better decision. Pittsburgh is a run-heavy team, so a decent punt combined with good special teams coverage would have made it difficult for the Panthers to drive down the field.

Instead, Johnson and Georgia Tech might not survive this disastrous fourth-down choice. The loss is their third straight defeat in the conference. With games still remaining against ranked opponents such as North Carolina and Virginia Tech, along with previously ranked Georgia, six wins might be the most the Yellow Jackets can hope for at this point. That means they have to beat Georgia Southern, Duke and Virginia at home to even be bowl eligible.

For Pittsburgh, this is an absolutely huge victory. The Panthers recovered from their own awful defeat two weeks ago against North Carolina and improved to 4-2 overall and 1-1 in the ACC. Pittsburgh still has No. 3 Clemson, No. 10 Miami, and No. 25 Virginia Tech on the schedule, so needing only two more victories to be bowl eligible is noteworthy.

The Panthers are also still alive in the Coastal Division race. With lots of football still to be played, Pittsburgh is one of five teams in the division with one or zero conference losses. Georgia Tech is all but eliminated from the race, now having three conference defeats on its ledger.

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