Tech’s defense — yes, the defense — saves the day

Sometimes it seems Paul Johnson doesn’t really coach a team. He coaches his offense. The other stuff just gets in the way. On Saturday, what figured to be Georgia Tech’s easiest conference game was imperiled by Johnson’s impatience. The defense saved the game and spared the head coach much embarrassment.

Afterward, Johnson would pay only grudging homage. “The defense did a great job on that,” he said, speaking of Tech’s unavailing attempt to convert on fourth-and-1 at its 29 that positioned Virginia, which entered at 2-8, to take a two-score lead late in the third quarter. He also credited his unsound decision with inspiring all around him.

“Sometimes you’ve got to do that,” Johnson said of going for it. “It woke everybody up.”

Imagine, though, if the Yellow Jackets’ unloved defense had yielded a touchdown to make the score 17-7. That it didn’t yield even a field goal — the Cavaliers would miss from 41 yards — changed the game. Tech’s offense finally got going, banking long-distance touchdowns on its next two possessions.

That his Jackets won 31-17 didn’t make Johnson any less grouchy. (“I’m just kind of that way,” he said.) Still, Tech is 7-4 after being 4-3. A season that could have broken either way will be viewed as a rebound from last year’s 3-9. But that’s football at the Flats: If the offense isn’t cooking, the chef isn’t thrilled.

He mentioned early in his remarks that Tech’s defense “couldn’t get off the field.” (He would reiterate the point.) His offense, he allowed, “was abysmal on third down” — which is part of the reason the Jackets ran only 41 plays and made eight first downs. They scored fast or went nowhere.

For the record, Virginia converted on 5 of 9 third downs in the first half, 2 of 8 thereafter. But Tech’s defense did limit the Cavaliers to two touchdowns, intercept three second-half passes and score the clinching touchdown on Lance Austin’s 24-yard return with 4:03 remaining. There have been worse days.

Only two Tech possessions spanned two minutes; its longest was 4:01, and that one ended in a punt. And it wasn’t as if the Jackets were going against the ’85 Chicago Bears. Four of Virginia’s six previous ACC opponents had topped 400 yards. Tech had 321. Of that total, 181 came on its three touchdown.

To be fair, this lesser offensive performance might have been written on the wind. The Jackets were coming off the season’s biggest victory, the upset of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg without their starting quarterback, B-back and center. Virginia here after Virginia Tech there surely appeared easy pickings.

“I’m disappointed in the way we played,” Johnson said. “I thought we’d turned the corner. We got those guys back. (Actually, suspended B-back Dedrick Mills also missed Saturday’s game.) Maybe we should have played the other guys.”

Matthew Jordan, who led Tech against the Hokies, did get deployed. He was inserted on fourth-and-1 — and stopped on fourth-and-1. Johnson claimed his team missed multiple blocks on the play. “We were 0-for-3,” he said.

Tech’s defense held its ground and changed the game. Justin Thomas found Clinton Lynch for a 54-yard touchdown off play-action — Tech’s Brad Stewart dropped what would have been a similar touchdown moments earlier — and then Qua Searcy started right, cut left and fled 60 yards.

The offense did, however, flub two chances to kill the game. Corey Griffin’s interception gave Tech the ball at the Virginia 18; after a clipping penalty on third-and-1, Harrison Butker’s 41-yard field goal made the score 24-10. When the Cavs closed within 24-17, a kickoff out of bounds gave Tech possession at its 35. It went three-and-out, Thomas fumbling when Virginia jumped what Johnson said was a snap on the wrong sound.

Ryan Rodwell’s punt was downed at the 2. (Special teams, that other unloved Tech unit, had a very good day.) With 5:21, lowly Virginia had a chance to tie. Austin’s interception/touchdown foiled that chance. So much for not getting off the field.

What’s maddening about Johnson isn’t that his offense never delivers. It often does. And it would be wrong to say that the Jackets’ defense has ever been a fortress in his nine seasons here. (Even Saturday, Ted Roof’s crew yielded 409 yards.) But this coach has never gone out of his way to protect his defense, the latest example being this fourth-down whiff.

Given a chance to drop more than a dollop of praise on his defense, the eschewer of punts essentially punted. Johnson noted twice that the Jackets’ interceptions had come on “overthrows,” which was true. But let somebody else say that. Just once, couldn’t these defenders be thrown a bone?

Put it this way: Had Tech’s defense had played at the same level as Johnson’s offense, Johnson’s team would have lost to Virginia. That would have been truly abysmal.

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