Georgia Tech learning from defensive mistakes in UCF game

September 19, 2020 Atlanta - University of Central Florida's quarterback Dillon Gabriel (11) gets off a pass under pressure from Georgia Tech's defensive lineman Mike Lockhart (94) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, September 19, 2020. UCF won 49-21 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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September 19, 2020 Atlanta - University of Central Florida's quarterback Dillon Gabriel (11) gets off a pass under pressure from Georgia Tech's defensive lineman Mike Lockhart (94) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, September 19, 2020. UCF won 49-21 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

On Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Central Florida throttled Georgia Tech’s defense with a pace and efficiency that defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker had never witnessed. A week later, the Yellow Jackets will test themselves against Syracuse, an opponent that plays at nearly the same breakneck pace, albeit with not close to the same productivity.

“Going against (an up-tempo) team like that, it’s always a challenge,” defensive tackle Djimon Brooks said. “Make sure you get your eyes back to the sideline getting the call. And then, reading the offense so you can execute it how you’re supposed to. But, we’ll be better moving forward with the tempo.”

At times, the Knights got to the line at a dizzying pace, cranking out 92 snaps on offense, which is 19.5 more than Tech faced on average last season. After the Jackets scored to cut the lead to 28-21 early in the fourth quarter, UCF fired back with a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to push the lead back to 35-21. The Knights' last three plays in the drive – runs of 23, 6 and 1 yards – took 34 real-time seconds.

After the 23-yard run set up a first-and-goal from the 7-yard line, UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel took the next snap about 10 seconds later. At the snap, four Tech players were still running to get into position.

“To UCF’s credit, they execute the NASCAR-tempo offense better than anyone that I’ve seen in the country, at a very effective rate,” Thacker said.

The Knights finished the game with 660 yards. Tech has given up more yards in a game once in school history.

“I’ve got to do a better job for the guys and help them execute, get them in the right calls and sustain through the course of the game, so we can come out with a great result on Saturday,” Thacker said.

Syracuse operates with similar pace as UCF. Last season, only seven FBS teams (including UCF) averaged more offensive plays per game than the Orange’s 75.8. Syracuse, though, has been a bit of a mess in its first two games, road losses to North Carolina and Pittsburgh by a combined 52-16 score. The Orange rank last in FBS in total offense (186.5 yards per game) and have allowed 14 sacks. Thacker noted that both North Carolina and Pittsburgh possess formidable defenses.

Thacker said that some of the issues against UCF stemmed from players not looking quickly enough to the sidelines after a play was dead to get the next call. He added that players had a “great attitude” in the Sunday review of the game and practice to recognize and address the mistakes from the UCF game.

“If we don’t learn from the mistakes that we made this previous week, shame on us,” Thacker said.

The Jackets had their moments against the Knights. After giving up 28 points and 357 yards in the first half, Tech held the Knights to no points and 100 yards in five third-quarter possessions, which gave the Jackets the space to get in the end zone for that 28-21 deficit.

On the first two possessions of the half, the Knights started in Tech territory and were prevented from scoring both times, getting stopped on downs and getting intercepted by safety Juanyeh Thomas.

“I think that’s a character piece for us as an organization, as a defense, and just speaks to the care factor of our kids,” Thacker said.

However, after that stout third quarter, Tech gave way in the fourth, allowing 21 points and 203 yards in 22 plays.

“Once we got into possession 14, 15, 16, once we got up into the 80-to-90 play range, it took a toll on us, and we didn’t execute at a high level,” Thacker said.

Tech was not positioned well, particularly on the defensive line, to withstand such a high volume of plays. Defensive ends Antonneous Clayton and Curtis Ryans were both out, leading Thacker to shift to playing with three down linemen instead of the usual four. Tech had to call upon freshman linemen such as Jared Ivey (who came through with a fourth-down quarterback pressure) and Emmanuel Johnson.

Clayton, an expected starter, has yet to play this season. Ryans, after a two-sack game against Florida State, did not play against UCF.

Asked if there was a chance that they could be back for the Syracuse game, Thacker responded that, yes, there was indeed a chance.

“Without saying things that I can’t say, let’s get our big guys back so we can be dominant up front,” he said.