Late on the night of Oct. 18, the Kenan Stadium visiting locker room was pungent with humiliation. North Carolina had just claimed a 48-43 win over Georgia Tech, winning the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive completed with 11 seconds to play.
“From a defensive perspective, the vibe was definitely that we let our team down,” cornerback D.J. White said.
The Tech offense played almost flawlessly, averaging 8.9 yards per play. On their 10 drives that didn’t end either half, the Yellow Jackets scored six touchdowns and a field goal, including the stunning 75-yard run by wide receiver DeAndre Smelter that gave Tech a 43-42 lead with 3:07 left.
But the Jackets defense failed to pressure quarterback Marquise Williams, missed tackles, made mental mistakes and allowed the Tar Heels to convert 10 of 15 third downs. With two consecutive losses, Tech’s 5-0 start was now but a memory.
“I think our kids were embarrassed,” defensive line coach Mike Pelton said. “I know as coaches, we were embarrassed. And they didn’t want that to happen again.”
Fueled by the lessons of the North Carolina loss, the Jackets defense has had reason to hold its head high. Tech’s ACC Coastal championship, its win over Georgia and its appearance in the Orange Bowl New Year’s Eve would not have happened without defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s unit making vast improvement.
“We changed a little bit and we started playing a lot better and really improved the second half of the season, especially the last five games,” Roof said. “I’m really proud of the guys.”
By virtually any measure, the defense’s play was noticeably improved in the final six games compared to the first seven. Yards per play was 6.4 in the first seven games, 6.1 in the final seven. Completion rate: .652 compared to .60. Pass plays per sack: 25.9 through the North Carolina game, 19 after.
Players and coaches point to the UNC game as the turning point.
“When we watched the film that following Monday, it was just a disaster,” safety Jamal Golden said. “We were determined that we weren’t going to put that back on film anymore this year, and I felt like we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping our word to that.”
There was some reason for the team’s play through the North Carolina game. With inexperience across the defensive line and two safeties in Golden and Isaiah Johnson who were working off rust, Tech gave up 10 plays of 25 yards or more in the first three games, which led Roof to adopt a safer, less aggressive style. Further, Tech reached 5-0 with that tactic.
“At 5-0, you didn’t want to make wholesale changes,” Roof said.
But then, as Roof put, the bottom dropped out against North Carolina, and he and the staff tightened the screws.
Golden said he thought the defense had become complacent after the 5-0 start. In the defense’s Monday meeting, White called that Roof gave the simple message that “We can’t play like that. That wasn’t Georgia Tech football.” Golden remembered Roof having more of an edge that week, with intensity and hitting raised back to preseason camp levels.
“There was no leniency,” Golden said. “It was either you do what you’ve got to do or you’re going to get chewed out and you’re going to sit on the bench. It was kind of like an audition, really, for your position.”
Perhaps the biggest strategic change was that cornerbacks were asked to play more man coverage to free up linebackers and safeties to blitz on passes. Starting with the Virginia game, defensive lineman Patrick Gamble was moved from tackle to end. Linebacker Tyler Marcordes, who missed most of the preseason with an injury, began to produce. Defensive end KeShun Freeman, a first-year freshman, continued his season-long improvement. Johnson and Golden regained their pre-injury form.
“It’s not just one specific thing that you improve,” Pelton said. “Going at the ball more, being aggressive. Coach Roof did a good thing of getting those guys in the right place at the right time and it’s just a whole conglomeration of things that started to go our way.”
Most significantly, the Jackets began to shake turnovers out of the opposition like a schoolyard bully taking lunch money. After forcing five fumbles and recovering one in the first seven games, a span of 457 snaps by the opposition, Tech forced and recovered four Pittsburgh fumbles in the Panthers’ first six plays from scrimmage. Tech’s offense cashed in all four for touchdowns for a 28-0 lead before six minutes had elapsed. Tech recovered a fifth fumble before the end of the quarter to tie the FBS record for most fumble recoveries in a quarter.
Against Virginia, the Jackets held Virginia to 22 rushing yards – 167 yards below Tech’s season average to that point – in a 35-10 win. Against N.C. State, White intercepted quarterback Jacoby Brissett and ran the ball in for a 48-yard touchdown. On the Wolfpack’s next possession, linebacker Quayshawn Nealy recovered a fumble forced by Marcordes and ran it back 43 yards for his fourth career defensive touchdown.
Two more defensive touchdowns against Clemson spurred the Jackets’ 28-6 win over Clemson. Against Georgia, Nealy and Johnson forced fumbles – both recovered by the Jackets – at the Tech 1-yard line, erasing a likely 14 points in a game won in overtime, clinched on White’s interception of quarterback Hutson Mason. In that five-game span, Tech accumulated 17 takeaways, as many or more than 36 FBS teams had in their entire seasons to this point.
Said Golden, “It’s just guys hustling or guys being in the right place at the right time.”
Increased pass pressure and tighter coverage lead to interceptions. Better tackling, harder hitting and more players running full speed to the ball cause fumbles and recoveries. But the flurry still confounds.
“Never been around (a run) like that, that it had so many games in a row,” said Pelton, in his 14th year of coaching. “But you know what? Once it started happening, it’s just like anything else. It becomes part of your identity. That’s what we expected.”
Roof could point to two of his previous defenses that binged on takeaways. In 1998, when he was Tech’s linebackers coach, the Jackets had 23 takeaways for the ACC co-champions. In 2008, his only season as Minnesota defensive coordinator, the Gophers tied for 11th in the country with 31 takeaways.
“Sometimes, it’s just like that,” Roof said. “It’s just the way it is. I wish I had a magic answer, because if I did, I’d make sure we did it every week. You coach it, they apply it, and when it works, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Tech failed to squeeze a turnover out of Florida State in the ACC title game, when one might have meant a victory for the Jackets. The Jackets will finish with a worthy adversary. Mississippi State is ranked No. 12 in the country in yards per play, 6.62, virtually identical to Tech’s offense. Quarterback Dak Prescott is No. 6 in the country in total offense. Notably, the Bulldogs haven’t turned the ball over in their past two games.
On a defense devoid of stars, the Jackets will look to their formula – 11 players with relentless effort, attention to detail and a knack for turnovers – to stop the Bulldogs.
“You’re going to get bloodied during the battle and it isn’t always going to be pretty, but you’ve got to keep swinging,” Roof said. “You’ve got to keep punching, keep playing hard. And if you do, good things will happen.”
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