Tech defense in good position to force turnovers against Virginia

Georgia Tech junior DE KeShun Freeman (42) closes in on Duke junior RB Shaun Wilson (29) as he runs the ball in the second half of the football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium Saturday, October 29, 2016. SPECIAL/Daniel Varnado

Georgia Tech’s defense finally clicked in Saturday’s 30-20 win over Virginia Tech by pressuring quarterback Jerod Evans and the Hokies’ offense into making mistakes, but a new challenge arises this weekend in preparing for a Virginia quarterback who’s barely played this season.

On Monday, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall announced this season’s starting quarterback Kurt Benkert will be replaced by senior quarterback Matt Johns against Georgia Tech on Saturday after the Cavaliers’ fifth-straight loss.

Johns entered the Cavaliers’ 34-14 loss to Miami with 5:47 remaining in the game and threw 3-for-7 for 64 yards.

“(To prepare) you go back and you watch (Johns’) previous tape and at the same time, try to figure in how they would use him schematically,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “You know when I read the comments after their game about how they were happy to get him in the game and what a boost he gave and I figured that a change may be coming. We anticipated that, but at the same time, we have to get ready to play. We have a lot of respect for them and we have to make sure we’re ready to go. I anticipate us being ready to play.”

Johns has thrown 5-for-9 for 77 yards and one touchdown in his senior season.

Although Tech (6-4, 3-4) has little film of Johns from this season, facing Johns on Saturday isn’t uncharted territory. Johns was the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback against the Yellow Jackets in contributed to 408 total yards from the Cavaliers and only one turnover in the Jackets’ 27-21 loss at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va.

Johns threw 17-for-28 for 175 yards, one touchdown and one interception against Tech in 2015. Johns also rushed for 13 yards against the Yellow Jackets.

“He did some really great things (last year),” junior defensive end KeShun Freeman said. “He ran it up the middle a few times, but he was a really good quarterback and we have to really make sure that everyone’s knowing their responsibilities and everyone’s fitting in their gaps right and just making sure that we just do the best we can can.”

In his junior season with Virginia (2-8, 1-5), Johns threw for 2,810 yards, 20 touchdowns and had a completion percentage of 61.3. Johns’ also threw 17 interceptions in 2015.

“Virginia, they have a good team even though the scores and everything may not show it,” Freeman said. “The film actually shows where they’ve made some really great plays. We lost to them last year and so we go into this game, with remain focused and we have to flush last week and just go into it with the mentality to just do our jobs and just be the best we can be.”

But the Yellow Jackets may not want to “flush” everything from their win over previously ranked Virginia Tech.

Especially in their last five games, the Cavaliers struggled with turnovers on offense. Virginia had one turnover against Pitt and against North Carolina, two against Louisville, three against Wake Forest and four in their most recent loss to Miami.

By contrast, the Yellow Jackets are coming off their win over Virginia Tech where they forced four turnovers — a season high. The Yellow Jackets caught two interceptions and forced two fumbles, but also blocked a field goal in the first quarter and caused the Hokies to turn the ball over on downs in the third quarter.

Freeman thinks the Yellow Jackets were able to pressure Virginia Tech so effectively on Saturday because their communication in Blacksburg, Va. was the best it’s been all season.

“If we can continue to communicate, the backs covered really well last week, so they gave us as much time to rush and vice versa,” Freeman said. “I think sometimes we rushed really well and it gave them some interceptions too. We just have to continue to communicate and make sure that everyone’s on the same page whether they be in the front, whether it’s a linebackers, whether it’s the defensive backs.”

Freeman had two tackles and was credited with half of a sack against Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Although the Yellow Jackets’ defense allowed 437 total yards from the Hokies, their ability to shut out the then No. 14 team in the country 20-0 in the first half boosted their confidence entering the second half and maybe even this weekend against Virginia.

“You hope that they’ve got some confidence and some juice, some energy,” coach Paul Johnson said of his defense. “The way the game started was perfect for it because we got a couple turnovers, we got a hit, we made some big plays on defense, so we got a little juice going. Hopefully you can carry it over.”

In their loss to Miami, the Cavaliers entered the game averaging 365.6 total yards per game, but only managed 289 total yards of offense.

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