Pittsburgh tight end Chris Clark (87) is stopped by Georgia Tech linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling (12) in the second half of an NCAA college football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, September 23, 2017. Georgia Tech won 35-17 over te Pittsburgh. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech defense rescues offense

Georgia Tech’s 38-17 win over Pittsburgh at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday provided a switching of traditional roles.

Often in the past during coach Paul Johnson’s tenure, the Yellow Jackets relied on their offense to bail out a defense that has struggled to get off the field — evidenced by their 126th-ranked third-down conversion rate a season ago.

On Saturday, that trend completely reversed. Tech’s offense turned the ball over four times, and Pitt scored zero points on those opportunities. The Panthers converted only one of their 13 third-down plays.

“I thought that our defense played really, really well today, especially in sudden-change situations,” Johnson said after the game “I think we had four times where we turned the ball over, and I think all four times they went three-and-out. So that was huge.”

While the Jackets moved the ball effectively and gained nearly 500 yards of offense, turnovers derailed multiple drives and continued to put the defense in tough spots. It responded with a dominant pass rush without needing blitzes and shutting down the usually-strong Pitt running game.

“We got a lot of negative plays, we got good penetration,” Johnson said. “We got a lot of negative plays in the run game. And I thought we tackled well in space.”

Pitt took its opening drive 78 yards on five plays in just 2:32, signaling concern for the defense. Its offense didn’t find the end zone again over the course of the next 57 minutes.

The pass rush responded to a solid game against Jacksonville State with another impressive performance against Pitt. Without much added pressure from other spots, the defensive line got to the quarterback with just four rushers consistently.

“I thought we’ve been a little more aggressive the last two games, and we brought a little more stunts and a little more pressure,” Johnson said. “And our guys are kind of better at that. That’s kind of what they like. We’re not huge and not real long, but we’re pretty quick and fast.”

Quarterback TaQuon Marshall had another efficient game on the ground, including some spectacular highlight plays, but he realized the role the defense had in leading the Jackets to a victory on a day the offense didn’t support itself enough.

“If it weren’t for the defense, we wouldn’t have won … let’s be real,” Marshall said. “Everybody saw the game, they played great. Pitt was 1-13 on third down. You can’t ask for much more.”

Behind the pass rush, Tech’s linebackers and defensive backs put on a tackling clinic that featured very few missed tackles once Pitt threatened the second level. It had been a concern before Saturday.

“First two games, we watched how many missed tackles we had,” defensive end KeShun Freeman said. “Coach Roof really wanted us to work on, when you get there, really wrap up.”

Defensive end Anree Saint-Amour brought pressure from the outside again following his two-sack effort against Jacksonville State — though he couldn’t finish one against Pitt. The junior felt the defenses performance was possibly the best since he arrived on the Flats.

“Everybody was doing their job, everybody was running to the ball, and we had great intensity … great energy,” Saint-Amour said. “So yeah, that was one of the best performances I’ve been a part of.

Though he was proud that the defense stepped up and carried the offense on a rare day that it needed the help, Saint-Amour said he’s ready for the entire team to step up and perform as a whole.

“We’re a team, so if one falls, we all fall,” he said. “We all swarm together. We’ve just got to do better as a team just to execute on all sides.”

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