ATLANTA — There is still pain and shock from a loss Paul Johnson describes as the worst of his five years at Georgia Tech.
There also is a big question for this week: How can Georgia Tech’s defense hope to stop No. 15 Clemson’s high-powered offense on Saturday after the Yellow Jackets were overwhelmed in last week’s 49-28 loss to Middle Tennessee State?
There was a similar shortage of defensive stops in a 42-36 overtime loss to Miami two weeks ago.
Johnson said Tuesday he told his players he believes Georgia Tech (2-3, 1-2 ACC) is better than it showed in the back-to-back home losses.
“It’s like I told them yesterday, I know that we’re a better football team than we’ve played, and I’m not going to give up on them,” Johnson said. “I don’t want think they’re going to give up on themselves. We’ll keep grinding and keep going. In my mind, nothing is over. You keep playing.”
The losses have left the spotlight on third-year defensive coordinator Al Groh, the former Virginia coach.
Johnson says he’s paying more attention to defense while giving Groh room to find a way to end a trend of missed tackles and big plays allowed.
Asked if he has seen Groh make necessary adjustments, Johnson’s response made it clear more fixes are needed.
“Well at times, but I’m not going to sit here and try to defend how we’ve played the last couple of weeks,” Johnson said. “It’d be stupid because we’ve played terrible.
“I don’t think the man (Groh) forgot everything he knew in the last two weeks, but ultimately we’re responsible. You’ve got to get it on the field. It doesn’t matter what you know, it’s what happens and so we’ve got to do a better job of getting it on the field.”
Johnson said he tries to determine if players are being asked to do too much.
“The last couple games we haven’t done it very well, but I don’t think we have asked them to do anything out of the ordinary,” he said. “There have been some communication issues. Having said that, the bottom line is we have to tackle better, quit giving up the big plays, take better angles and every time the ball breaks the line of scrimmage it doesn’t have to be a touchdown. There are a lot of things we can get better on. There are things we can get better on everywhere.”
Clemson (4-1, 1-1 ACC) is averaging 40.2 points and more than 500 yards per game.
The Tigers boast balance with the ACC’s leading rusher, Andre Ellington, and quarterback Tajh Boyd, who has passed for 12 touchdowns and completed almost 70 percent of his attempts.
As if that’s not enough offense, Johnson said Clemson receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins “are great players” who may be the league’s best duo at the position.
This is Groh’s third season with his 3-4 scheme at Georgia Tech. Growing pains were expected early under Groh, but better results were expected this year as Johnson spoke in the preseason of improved depth throughout the roster.
The depth may be better, but there is a shortage of big-play leaders on defense.
No Georgia Tech player has more than one sack, interception or forced fumble.
Another alarming sign: Three of the defense’s top six leaders in tackles are defensive backs, including safety Isaiah Johnson, who has a team-best 32 stops.
Georgia Tech players had difficulty explaining the success of Middle Tennessee running back Benny Cunningham, who ran for 217 yards and five touchdowns.
“We have so many tackling drills in practice and we emphasized it so much,” said linebacker Quayshawn Nealy after the game. “We were prepared to tackle because we practiced it so much, but guys were just missing tackles. I don’t know what to say about that.”
Groh normally works on the sideline during games, but Johnson suggested he move to the press box for last week’s game. Johnson said in his days as an offensive coordinator it was easier to see the field from the press box and he had fewer distractions.
Johnson said he and Groh haven’t discussed where Groh will be stationed at Clemson.
“If he feels strongly and he can give me a valid reason as to why he wants to be down there, if you’re going to hold him accountable, you’ve got to give him some leeway to do it the way he wants to do it,” Johnson said.
Outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu and cornerback Louis Young missed last week’s game with injuries but are expected to play against Clemson.
“We’re going to get their absolute best,” said Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. “That’s exactly what we’re going to get. Those guys have been beat the prior two weeks, they’ve got some guys injured which they’re expecting to get back this week. We’re going to get their best.”