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Third-down woes plaguing Tech

ATLANTA - Third down has shut down Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets lost their second straight game Saturday. The 28-23 defeat at Virginia dropped the Jackets to 0-2 in Atlantic Coast Conference play for the first time since 2003.

And third-down inefficiency is partly to blame.

The first-team offense converted 28 percent of its third downs in the first four games, among the worst conversion rates in the Division I-A football. Georgia Tech was even worse in its two losses, converting 20 percent.

Maybe head coach Chan Gailey can steal an idea from one of his predecessors, Bobby Dodd, and quick kick on third down.

"Third down is something we need to work on - a lot," quarterback Taylor Bennett said. "I tend not to think of specific things like that, but it's obviously hurting us."

Gailey diagnoses the pain elsewhere: First and second down. Georgia Tech's starting offense chewed up chunks of yardage on the ground against Notre Dame and Samford, facing third down just 17 times in the two games combined.

But Boston College and Virginia succeeded in stuffing the run on first and second downs. That put the offense in third-and-long situations - 22 of the 30 third-down situations in the two losses were third-and-seven or longer. The Yellow Jackets converted just three of those.

"The majority of our third downs have been eight-yards plus, and when you get to third-and-seven and eight, your odds of converting go down extremely," Gailey said. "You're doing something wrong to end up with third and long."

An in-depth look at the Jackets' offensive possessions in which they faced third downs yields shocking results:

- On 32 first-down plays, Georgia Tech netted eight yards. Seven plays went for negative yardage, and 11 more went for no gain, either via incompletions or zero-yardage runs. The Yellow Jackets were also flagged for five penalties on first down.

- On 32 second-down plays, Georgia Tech netted 18 yards. Seven plays went for negative yardage and 15 for no gain. The offense drew one penalty.

- Of the seven third-and-longs converted, three were courtesy of defensive penalties.

Complicating the situation are Bennett's inconsistency - he's completing just 51 percent of his passes - and tailback Tashard Choice's hamstring injury, which could sideline him again this week against Clemson.

Choice's absence makes a big difference on first and second downs. He's a veteran tailback with the ability to turn a stuffed play into a short game or a two-yard gain into four or five yards. He turns third-and-sevens into more manageable third-and-threes.

His backup, Jonathan Dwyer, is a true freshman. He's still learning Choice's under-appreciated skill.

"He tries to bounce a lot of things he should cut up on," Gailey said of Dwyer. "That's part of learning to play the position. I think he's a great runner, he just hasn't had the experience."

Georgia Tech must solve its woes quickly. After Clemson, the Yellow Jackets face Maryland and Miami on the road. A 1-4 or 0-5 ACC start is possible.

"We're doing OK," Dwyer said. "We just have to get good plays on first and second down and finish on third down. That's pretty much it: We have to finish what we start."

SideBar: CLEMSON AT TECH

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Where: Bobby DoddStadium, Atlanta

TV/Radio: ABC/790-AM