Georgia Tech defense elevates in second half Saturday

Bryant Horn of Jacksonville State is sacked by KeShun Freeman (42), Desmond Branch (99) and Anree Saint-Amour (94) of Georgia Tech on Sept. 9, 2017, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Hidden underneath the offensive explosion by Georgia Tech against Tennessee on Labor Day, the Yellow Jackets defense displayed the same frightening trends that plagued it in 2016.

After a rough 28 minutes to open their game against Jacksonville State at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, the defense appeared to flip on a switch and showcase the areas they promised to be better at in 2017 on their way to a 37-10 win over the Gamecocks.

Most notably, the front seven brought the consistent pressure that helps lead the Yellow Jackets to their biggest goal on defense -- forcing turnovers.

Jacksonville State controlled the clock for most of the first half and capped an 8:11 drive with a touchdown to grab a 7-3 lead in the first quarter. Late in the half, the Gamecocks made their first mistake with an interception thrown to Lawrence Austin.

“I thought the defense did a great job starting on the next to last series there in the first half when Lawrence got the pick,” coach Paul Johnson said. “If I’m not mistaking, it was like two or three consecutive possessions where we got turnovers and short fields.”

After halftime, the aggression and pressure picked up substantially. The Jackets finished with five sacks and eight tackles for loss -- both passing the effort from Monday in which they managed only one in each category. Anree Saint-Amour had two sacks, while freshman linebacker T.D. Roof added two late in the game.

In 2016, Tech finished 107th in the nation with 18 sacks and 114th with 57 tackles for loss. The increased aggression against Jacksonville State made those numbers look easily improvable.

“Absolutely, we talked about being more aggressive and we did a good job of that,” Johnson said. “I thought they had a good plan and ran a lot more stunts and a lot more blitzes and got some negative plays, which makes it easier to play.”

Saint-Amour looked like the most talented player on the Jackets’ defense for most of Saturday’s game. From the defensive end position, he consistently applied pressure and finished with three tackles for loss.

“(Anree) got some pressure, and we got some guys back in the backfield,” Johnson said. “We did some jets and some stunts and got some guys up the middle, and our defensive staff and players had a good plan and executed it pretty good.”

While he has moved into a starting role this season, Saint-Amour totaled five sacks in his first two seasons as mostly a situational pass rusher.

“What was working for the defensive line … I feel like it was more of a team-defense type of thing,” Saint-Amour said. “On the sacks, it was great pressure up the middle, and he just kind of popped out to me. So, just a great job by the whole defense doing their jobs and just executing up there.”

Senior defensive back Lawrence Austin said the increased effort from the defensive line in the second half was a result from the team wanting to finish strong this week after the Tennessee game. Jacksonville State quarterback Bryant Horn began feeling the pressure and forcing the issue in the second half.

“That’s always great,” Austin said of the defensive line’s play. “I know a couple freshmen got the first sacks of their career, so I was super proud of those guys. But even the older guys got a lot of pressure, and that makes our job easier. We like to put the pressure on them and say ‘we’re going to hold them and y’all get the pressure,’ so it goes both ways.”

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