Tech’s defense trying to eliminate giving up big plays

Georgia Tech’s defense can do its part to help the Yellow Jackets defeat North Carolina on Saturday afternoon by not giving up big scoring plays.

As stout as the defense has been this season — and coach Paul Johnson said it was at its best in the second half of Saturday’s loss at Duke — it has been hurt by scoring plays of at least 30 yards several times this season. Four of the 10 touchdowns the Jackets (2-2, 0-1 ACC) have allowed on plays from scrimmage (non-returns) have been at least that distance. Three of those scores have come in Tech’s past two losses, including the Blue Devils icing their 34-20 win with a 30-yard touchdown run with 1:49 left.

“Losing’s never acceptable and never will be, so we’ve got to play better, and we’re capable of it,” Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “At the same time, all those mistakes are correctable, and we’re working to correct those and build off the positives because there were certainly a lot of positives.

“But we’re just not a football team that can give up a big play and survive. We’ve got to be consistent. We’re got to be on the grind for 60 minutes.”

North Carolina will be a tough opponent to try to fix the mistakes, which Roof and cornerback D.J. White said include missed tackles and inconsistent communication.

The Tar Heels (3-1, 0-0) are averaging 38.8 points, more than 200 yards passing (268.5) and rushing (217), and rank 13th among FBS teams with 27 plays of at least 20 yards this season.

North Carolina likes to throw screen passes down the line of scrimmage to try to get the cornerbacks and safeties to move up. If the defenders begin to inch forward, Tar Heels quarterback Marquise Williams will then take shots down the field to wide receiver Quinshad Davis, who has a school-record 22 career touchdown receptions. Seven Tar Heels, including Davis, have caught passes of at least 20 yards this season.

“We have to make plays when we get an opportunity,” White said.

Few on Tech’s defense made plays against the Tar Heels in last season’s 48-43 loss in Chapel Hill.

North Carolina totaled 579 yards, scoring the game-winner on a 2-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds left. The Jackets gave up just two big plays in the game, but both went for touchdowns: a 68-yard pass from Williams to Ryan Switzer and a 36-yard pass from Williams to Mack Hollins on a fourth-and-6.

White was the cornerback beaten by Hollins on that pass.

“You can’t hang onto it,” he said. “Stuff like that happens. You hate that it happens, but as a player, you’ve just got to kind of move on and look for the next one.

It seems Tech’s defense adopted that philosophy in its next games.

After allowing averages of 29.9 points and 430.5 yards per game to the first six FBS opponents it faced, the Jackets allowed averages of 23.1 and 407 yards per game in its next seven games.

After allowing 17 plays from scrimmage (non-returns) of at least 25 yards against its first six FBS opponents, it allowed only 18 against its past seven. Just four of those plays were touchdowns in the final seven games of the season compared with six touchdowns in the first six.

The Jackets have been better this season, allowing 20 points and 314 yards per game. It’s the penchant for giving up big scoring plays that must be fixed.

“The goal is to be better this week than we were last week because we’re going to have to be,” Roof said. “North Carolina’s got an explosive offensive line and explosive skill players. They’ve got a lot of balance. They throw it well, they run it well and they score a lot of points, so it’s a huge challenge for us, but one that we’re working hard to prepare for and see what it is.”