Offense stalls, so Georgia Tech wins with defense

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are 7-4 heading into the Nov. 24 regular-season finale against the Georgia Bulldogs.

Georgia Tech could not score an offensive touchdown for three quarters Saturday. That’s five-plus drives and 48 plays. Coach Paul Johnson’s spread offense purportedly cannot be stopped when run correctly, yet Virginia’s defenders were onto most everything the Yellow Jackets tried.

This was worrying for the Jackets. They were asking their defense to win it, and that’s a hard ask. It’s not supposed to work that way for the Jackets, but it worked against Virginia because their defense had just enough answers at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The final one won Tech the game in overtime.

Tech led by three after one OT possession. Then defensive end Anree Saint-Amour upended Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins before he could get a first down. Virginia missed the field-goal try, and the Jackets won 30-27. 
Photos from the Jackets' win

“Tribute to the defense,” Tech wide receiver Brad Stewart said. “They did a great job.”

It’s not often you hear those words at Tech. Johnson’s offense pulls the freight and the defense is along for the ride. That hasn’t changed in Nate Woody’s first year as coordinator, but there have been signals that his group can develop into something more than an afterthought.

Now here was a victory that could be attributed to Tech’s defense. It was significant. The Jackets are 7-4 after a 1-3 start. They will have a winning season no matter what happens in Athens next weekend.

Usually Tech loses when its offense sputters like this. That’s how it looked in the first half against Virginia. The Cavaliers scored three touchdowns on four real possessions and led 21-16 at halftime. Tech’s only TD came via kickoff return.

Johnson’s offense continued to scuffle after halftime, but Woody’s defense came alive. Virginia had five possessions after halftime in regulation and managed only two field goals. The Cavaliers were 2-for-2 on third down in the first half, 3-for-7 after that.

That last part is key. Woody’s defense has been good with creating turnovers and limiting big plays but awful on third down. It’s hard to play good defense that way. Takeaways can be a matter of luck, and opponents don’t need many big plays if they can methodically march down field.

That’s what Virginia did for much of the first half. The Cavaliers found more resistance from there. Tech’s defense nearly undo all its good work when Virginia drove 55 seconds for the game-tying field goal, but the Jackets stiffened one last time to win the game.

Perkins had given the Jackets fits all game. His blueprint : quick outside passes, speedy keepers around end and scrambling when nothing was there.

“He’s really good with his feet,” Tech safety Jalen Johnson said. “He’s the best dual-threat quarterback we’ve played all year.”

In overtime, Perkins completed a four-year pass on first down. A rush by Chris Sharp went for no gain on second down. That brought up third down, Tech’s big weakness.

Perkins took the shotgun snap and immediately looked to run to his right . He appeared to have an opening if he could make safety Tariq Carpenter miss.  Perkins hurdled Carpenter but landed off balance.

Saint-Amour limited the gain to three yards. Brian Delaney missed the 35-yard kick. Tech’s defense preserved the victory.

It was turnaround from the first half, when the Cavaliers scored three touchdowns. Their fourth real drive of the half ended with a safety that should have sent Tech on its way, but didn’t because Johnson’s offense struggled to score TDs.

After Tech’s second drive went nowhere, punter extraordinaire Pressley Harvin boomed a 57-yarder that was downed at the 1-yard line. Perkins tried to pass on second down but linebacker Brant Mitchell grabbed him in the end zone. Big nose tackle Brandon Adams ran over to flatten Perkins.

Tech got two points for the safety, and Perkins stayed down from the big (clean) hit. It got worse for Virginia when Juanyeh Thomas returned the ensuing kickoff 77 yards for a touchdown. The safety, the touchdown and a two-point conversion gave Tech a 13-7 lead and electrified its fans.

But the Jackets were behind 21-16 at halftime. That was still the margin after three quarters. Tech’s defense kept getting stops while Johnson’s offense couldn’t find its footing.

The Jackets needed to get lucky for a chance to score their first touchdown. It happened when, after a Tech three-and-out, Harvin’s punt bounced off a Virginia player and Tech recovered the live ball. Given new life, the Jackets ran the ball 11 consecutive times until they finally scored a TD for a 24-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

The Cavaliers started their next possession at their 17-yard line and made it all the way to Tech’s 13. The Jackets forced an incomplete pass on third down and Virginia settled for the tying field goal.

There was 4:36 left on the game clock. This was a time for one of Tech’s trademark clock-killing touchdown drives. The Jackets ran clock, but didn’t get the TD when Virginia stopped them on fourth down at its 31-yard line.

That go-ahead field goal wasn’t enough to win. Virginia’s game-tying field goal drive was too easy. Tech’s defense wasn’t perfect.

But the Jackets held the line defensively until their offense finally scored a TD. Then Tech’s defense made the plays to win the game.

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