Georgia Tech pass-rush pressure unsettles Virginia

Virginia senior QB Matt Johns #15 hits the ground after being tackled by Georgia Tech senior LB P.J. Davis #40 during the first half of the game Saturday, November 19, 2016. SPECIAL/Daniel Varnado

Georgia Tech defensive tackle Patrick Gamble’s second-quarter hit on Virginia quarterback Matt Johns may not have won the game for the Yellow Jackets. But it was impactful, clean and appeared to unsettle the senior making his first start of the season.

As the Jackets took control of the game in the second half, both ends of their pass defense played a big part. It was a considerable departure from the inadequate pass rush and soft coverage that have undone Tech often this season.

“We got some pretty good pressure all game, I believe, got some hits on him,” Gamble said. “I think it got in his head a little bit, hopefully. And that’s what you want.”

In the past two games, against Virginia Tech and Virginia, Tech has eight sacks and five interceptions, which is as many sacks and one more interception than the Jackets scraped together over their first nine games. The difference-making plays that Tech has direly needed have come in abundance in the past two games.

In the first half, Johns was 12-for-18 for 112 yards, a decent 6.2 yards per attempt. Distributing the ball to five different receivers, Johns converted three third downs with passes. In the second half, though, Johns was 15-for-26 for 108 yards, gaining 4.2 yards per pass. He also threw his sole touchdown and all three of his interceptions (including a desperation heave on the final play of the game) in the second half.

“Anytime you can get pressure on the quarterback, I think the quarterback starts to get antsy in the pocket and his eyes go everywhere and can’t get the right progressions,” Griffin said.

As the game progressed, Johns appeared less comfortable in the pocket, throwing off his back foot instead of stepping into throws, even when the pass rush was not reaching him. One such play was on a first down from the Tech 29-yard line in the third quarter immediately after the Cavaliers had stopped the Jackets on fourth-and-1. Throwing off his back foot to wide receiver Ryan Santoro, Johns gave Tech cornerback Lamont Simmons more of an opportunity to make a play, and Simmons broke up the pass.

Virginia failed to gain a first down and missed the field-goal attempt, a critical play in the game.

Johns, whose 17 interceptions last season were the most in FBS, also was off target on his first two interceptions. The first one sailed over wide receiver Keeon Johnson’s head down the seam to safety Corey Griffin and set up a field goal. On the second, with the pocket closing, Johns was again high to Johnson, who tipped the ball, which was caught by cornerback Lance Austin and returned 24 yards for a touchdown and a game-sealing 31-17 lead with 4:03 to play.

“It’s up to us in the back to cover, so those guys (up front) can get those sacks or that pressure that we need,” Griffin said. “It coordinates. The back five, we cover, and the front four, the front five, they get pressure. It goes hand in hand.”

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