Two defensive touchdowns edge Miami over Tech

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas falls down as Miami Hurricanes linebacker Shaquille Quarterman runs for a touchdown after he stole the ball from Justin Thomas in the first half at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, October 1, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Miami’s back-to-back defensive touchdowns in Saturday’s ACC Coastal matchup with Georgia Tech proved the difference between a clean getaway and a nail biter — and Hurricanes coach Mark Richt knew it.

“You got to tip your hat to Georgia Tech in the way they played,” Richt said. “Obviously, they have the two turnovers which were gifts to us basically. Without that we’re probably still playing. There’s a good possibility were in overtime right now.”

Richt, who coached against Tech every year since 1993 when he was quarterbacks coach at Florida State, helped improve Miami’s record in the past six matchups against Tech to 5-1 with the 35-21 victory.

The defensive touchdowns, both scored by freshmen in the second quarter, add to Miami’s defensive power which led the nation in scoring defense, team tackles for loss and sacks entering Saturday’s game.

The first of the two touchdowns was scored by linebacker Shaq Quarterman on a 17-yard return off a fumble by Justin Thomas. Defensive lineman Trent Harris sacked Thomas, causing the fumble.

The Canes’ second touchdown in the sequence was an 18-yard fumble returned by defensive lineman Joe Jackson.

“At first, I couldn’t believe that I scored,” Quarterman said. “After I scored, I’m still a little tired and a little out of breath, so we get right back out there. Joe (Jackson) gets the fumble and runs it back and I don’t have a lot of words to say about it. It was really exciting.”

Quarterman, a freshman linebacker from Orange Park, Fla., is used to scoring touchdowns. Quarterman said he played quarterback during his senior year at Oakleaf High School and scored three touchdowns.

Encouraging the Canes to keep up the defensive intensity they’ve had in their past three games, Richt began Miami’s practice during the week with a disruption drill.

In his first-year as defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz is starting the youngest defense he’s ever started against Tech on Saturday with three freshmen at linebackers, including Jackson and Quarterman, and two sophomore defensive tackles. With his young defensive starters, Diaz wasn’t surprised freshmen were involved in Saturday’s plays.

“As we know, we talk about a lot of times with defense, they score because of the efforts of somebody else,” Diaz said. “Somebody else made the ball pop out, and those guys were just running the ball and hustling, both for charity hops.”

Harris finished Saturday’s game with seven tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss.

Because the Canes had two weeks to prepare for Tech’s offense and the option, practice was thorough throughout the bye week. The Canes used running backs and fullbacks on their scout team to prepare them against the speed of Tech’s offensive line.

“When playing this type of offense, you see them on film but you can’t really gauge how fast those linemen are going to come at you,” Quarterman said. “For two weeks straight, we’ve been running past these little guys, using our hands and trying to defeat blocks. So when we came to the game and the lineman actually are bigger, even though they may be flying out from there and staying on point, our speed is on another level as far as what we’ve been practicing.”

Quarterman finished Saturday with eight total tackles and one tackle for loss.

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