‘Bittersweet’ performance by Tech defense

Duke junior RB Shaun Wilson (29) sprints downfield Georgia Tech’s defense pursues in the second half of the game Saturday, October 29, 2016. SPECIAL/Daniel Varnado

Georgia Tech’s defensive effort had a few highlights.

The Yellow Jackets scored three takeaways after producing just six in the first seven games. They included safety A.J. Gray’s remarkable downfield strip to avert what could have been a 60-yard touchdown run. The defense forced a fumble for the first time since the season opener. The Jackets came up with stops on two fourth downs in the second quarter to help build a 28-7 halftime lead.

However, the Jackets’ defense also left plenty to be desired in their 38-35 win over Duke on Saturday. After allowing seven points in Duke’s first seven possessions (not counting one to end the first half), the Jackets allowed the Blue Devils back in the game with touchdowns on four consecutive second-half possessions. Overall, Tech gave up a season-high 559 yards of total offense and 7.7 yards per play.

Ultimately, the turnovers and fourth-down stops, along with the efficient play of the offense, redeemed a defensive performance that typically contributes to defeat. Before Saturday, ACC teams had given up 550 yards of total offense and 7.5 yards per play 48 times since the start of the 2012 season. Those teams were 6-42. (Tech’s Orange Bowl victory in 2014 over Mississippi State was one of the six wins.)

Safety Corey Griffin called the effort “bittersweet,” as Tech was able to create the turnovers they lacked in the first seven games, but gave a second-half effort that he deemed lackadaisical.

“It all comes back to execution, lining up, putting your eyes where they need to be and executing,” he said. “We couldn’t get lined up or execute the defense.”

Duke’s offensive line played the physical style that Tech expected, using the read-option game to great effect. The Jackets, who had been somewhat effective defending the run this season, gave up 254 rushing yards on 37 carries. It was Duke’s season high for rushing yardage against an FBS opponent. Running back Shaun Wilson ran 10 times for 109 yards and a touchdown.

“I have no idea what’s the problem,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I’ll find out (Sunday).”

Johnson was not happy about mix-ups such as one that necessitated him calling a timeout when Duke lined up inside the Tech 5-yard line and the Jackets did not have anyone covering the Blue Devils’ wide receiver.

“I don’t know why they didn’t just snap it and throw it to him,” Johnson said.

Short fields were part of the problem. Duke started one touchdown drive on the Tech 45-yard line after the Jackets lost a fumble and then began the next one on the Tech 10-yard line when returner J.J. Green had the ball jarred loose on his runback.

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