Thin Georgia Tech defense holds N.C. State below average scoring total

Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics

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Georgia Tech football coach Geoff Collins addresses the defense, short a few starters, and how they held the Wolfpack to below average scoring.

Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics

The list of Georgia Tech’s defensive starters who were unavailable for Saturday afternoon’s loss to N.C. State at Carter-Finley Stadium may have been longer than the list of those who were available.

Despite being listed on the “Above The Line” chart Friday afternoon, defensive ends Chico Bennett, Curtis Ryans and Jordan Domineck — the reigning ACC defensive lineman of the week — all were ruled out shortly before the game. Additionally, the Yellow Jackets were without starting cornerback Tre Swilling and safety Kaleb Oliver, who made a handful of big plays in last week’s win over Duke.

The Wolfpack entered the game averaging 31.9 points per game, and though Tech was without many of its key players on defense, the Jackets were able to hold N.C. State to 23 points — including only three in the second half. And though it wasn’t enough to get the win as Tech lost 23-13, the shorthanded defense’s performance was key in keeping the game close.

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“A bunch of young guys had to step up,” Tech coach Geoff Collins said. “Really proud of some of those guys that, on short notice, had to jump in and contribute and contribute at a high level.”

Among those young players who had to step up are freshmen defensive ends Jared Ivey and Kyle Kennard. Kennard was involved both times that Tech sacked N.C. State quarterback Bailey Hockman, earning his first career sack with a solo effort early in the first quarter and splitting a sack with sixth-year linebacker David Curry later in the game. Ivey finished with three tackles.

A key element of Collins’ coaching philosophy is his use of the “Above The Line” chart rather than a traditional two-deep depth chart. The intention is that every player listed on the chart is expected to be able to play meaningful minutes. Tech found out about some of the absences as recently as Saturday morning, putting that philosophy on full display.

“Everybody that’s on the plane is expected to be able to play,” Curry said. “Yeah, we had some big hits, but it’s just the next guy up. With what we have, (the coaches) decide to maybe tweak the game plan a little bit here and there, but ultimately, if you’re on the plane, you’re expected to be able to play. I think that the guys that stepped up, I think they played well.”

After allowing the Wolfpack 262 yards and 20 points in the first half, Tech’s defense came out in the second half and allowed only 135 yards and three points — a field goal with 3:31 left in the game. On a night when multiple freshmen had to play larger roles than they have in the past, it was the Jackets’ leadership group that helped turn things around for the defense at halftime.

“Coach Collins came in at halftime and said, ‘Guys, we’re worrying about the wrong stuff. We need to worry about staying together and playing one play at a time and don’t worry about the scoreboard,’” Curry said. “And then of course you had leaders, myself and some of the guys on offense, some of the other guys on defense, step up and get the guys riled up and ready to go. We take pride in coming out strong in the third quarter, and I think we did that well.”

With a short week this week — Tech plays Pittsburgh on Thursday — the defense’s strong second half may help carry momentum forward to that game. It’s unknown at this point if any of the players who missed the game Saturday will be able to return by then, but for the less-experienced players who had to step up, the experience against N.C. State and progress throughout the game will be valuable.

“Just the way the guys battled (and) stayed together is commendable,” Collins said. “It’s something to build on as far as our culture goes.”