Georgia Tech defense wants to build on Clemson showing

Antonio Simmons #93 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets tries to stop Kelly Bryant #2 of the Clemson Tigers during their game at Memorial Stadium on October 28, 2017 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Credit: Streeter Lecka

Credit: Streeter Lecka

Georgia Tech’s offense had its worst game of the season on a nasty night in Clemson on Saturday, but the defense proved to be much of the same against the Tigers.

Facing the former national champions, that could be seen as a positive considering the Yellow Jackets allowed 24 points, which is just a few more than the 21.3 they average on the season.

After the game, Tech coach Paul Johnson clearly expressed disappointment in his offense -- coming as no surprise after just 10 points and 230 yards -- but he wasn’t too satisfied with the defensive effort either. He did give a little credit to the second-half improvement.

Overall, the numbers were hard to decipher. Allowing 428 yards in a driving rain for the majority of the night isn’t what Johnson and the team are looking for. But the offense’s failures also allowed Clemson to run 88 plays, which totals a 4.8 yards per play average that stands strong by itself.

That number was around 7 yards per play in an uninspiring first half, but just like against Wake Forest, the Tech defense came out strong after halftime and looked like a different unit as Clemson tried to string together a scoring drive. Outside of a field goal, it was unable to in the final two quarters despite the Jackets not moving the ball themselves.

“Just that we can play with anybody if we do what we need to do and correct the little things, defensive back Lawrence Austin said about what the second half showed him. “But we’ve just got to put that whole game together and not just one half.”

There’s now been a strong difference between halves for the Tech defense in multiple games this season. Saturday was no different. Johnson and players didn’t point toward any schematic change, but rather execution and mindset.

“I don’t want to say that we relaxed more, but I feel like we realized that it was going to be on the defense to will us in the game,” defensive lineman Desmond Branch said. “And once we realized that, everyone started calming down. We started filling the right gaps. Hopefully we can continue that into the next game.”

Now seven games into an up-and-down season, a defense that showed potential to be the best in Johnson’s tenure still has as many question marks as it did before the season. Johnson addressed his overall thoughts of it during his Wednesday news conference and showcased his on-the-fence viewpoint of the success it’s had.

“It’s better than it was a year ago,” Johnson said. “I think that we’re both better on defense and I think, quite honestly, the offenses in the league aren’t as good as they were a year ago with all the guys they had (who are no longer in the league). It’s like the offense. … it’s like everything. It’s a work in progress. You keep working to try to play better. I don’t know that they’re better than I thought they’d be. We had a lot of returners coming back. We had seven or eight starters back from a year ago and returned the whole secondary.”

The end of Johnson’s answer likely signaled his truest belief -- that the experienced defense has still been inconsistent at times. While there have been massive improvements -- most notably getting off the field on third down -- there still have been plenty of quick, way-too-easy touchdown drives from the opposition that gets an undermanned and fatigued offensive line right back on the field.

And with a large chunk of the season gone, it’s still hard to evaluate the Tech defense so far. Most numbers would say it’s fairly mediocre, and the simplest measurement -- points allowed -- places the Jackets 39th in the nation, which is a fairly standard ranking for them in the past decade.

But there is a bright side, and the players see it after nearly shutting out the ACC favorites in the second half Saturday.

“It’s definitely encouraging,” Branch said. “That’s the previous national champion and they went up 21-3 on us. A lot of teams would go down after that, but we’re resilient and just let up three points. That’s impressive. We still lost, but that’s something to hang your hat on and take pride in that.”

Austin is excited to see the defense play a full game as it did against the Tigers in the second half.

“That’s the bright side to it, we still haven’t put a full game together and we still have the potential to put that game together and climb as a defense,” he said.

They’ll have as good of a chance as ever on Saturday in Virginia. The Cavaliers rank 96th in the nation in scoring.

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