Now for a few kind words about the Tech defense

North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt (12) is planted by Georgia Tech's Tyler Merriweather in the second half Saturday. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)



The challenge this day was monumental. Could we draw from Paul Johnson a few nice words about his defense for a second straight week?

Impossible, you say? Like trying to squeeze honey from a lemon not just once, but twice, you think?

Well, just listen up.

“For the most part our defense played real well again,” Georgia Tech’s offensively-obsessed coach said.

For Johnson, this was a geyser of praise. Why, he opened up the fire hose full blast and washed D-coordinator Ted Roof’s fellows in a complimentary torrent.

More hugs and hosannas after the Yellow Jackets dispatched North Carolina 33-7, coming within a fourth-quarter, garbage-time touchdown drive of hanging on the Tar Heels’ Larry Fedora the first shutout of his 10-year head coaching career:

“I think we’re playing better, we’re tackling better. They (opponents) haven’t been scoring a bunch of points,” Johnson said. The opponents’ yield the last three games: 10, 17 and now seven. Considerably less combined than that first game alone – Tennessee’s 42-point comeback push at Mercedes-Benz Stadium that just about made you believe Tech had removed all defenders from scholarship in the second half.

And, then, this from the coach who has never been free with his flattery, especially that aimed at his oft-times culpable defense: “We’ve been able to stop the run with some blitzes and stunts. Some of that makes it’s hard for teams to run the ball.” Last week, Pitt ran for 37 yards. Saturday, North Carolina put up just 106 yards on the ground.

This was not the same North Carolina team that had beaten Georgia Tech the last three years, averaging 45 points and 543 yards. Any player you ever heard of left Chapel Hill following last season. One of them, quarterback Mitch Trubisky went second overall in the NFL draft.

But, then, as Tech’s senior defensive end Antonio Simmons pointed out, “We’re a different defense.”

“We’re more mature. We were ready. We already knew what we were going to do, so it was no surprise to us,” he said.

The three-and-out was until recently considered an unfamiliar concept to the Yellow Jackets defense. Something as unfathomable as string theory or the popularity of the fidget spinner. But it inflicted seven such quick exits on Pitt two weeks ago, and another seven upon the Tar Heels Saturday.

And, really, for this team to prosper, all that’s required of its defense are a couple such stands a half.

Honestly, they don’t have to be monsters. Just get in the way for those few minutes when the Tech offense isn’t hoarding the football like it was the last loaf of bread on earth (time of possession Saturday: Tech 38:35, North Carolina 21:25).

The defense did considerably more than that Saturday. It was the defense that bailed out Georgia Tech in the third quarter following a midfield fumble by its clever quarterback, TaQuon Marshall. On the next play, safety A.J. Gray latched onto the first of his two interceptions of the day and put the Yellow Jackets back on the rails again.

Of his junior safety, Johnson said, “A.J. played probably as well as he’s played. Some of their run-pass stuff, he was right on cue with it. He stepped underneath the slants and got a couple picks. It was good to see him make plays because he has a lot of ability. Plus, he made a couple nice plays in the open field on tackles. I’m so proud of A.J. I thought he played well.”

Since exactly when did Tony Robbins start giving the Georgia Tech post-game breakdown?

There’s an off week coming for the Yellow Jackets, so you can pretty well assume Johnson will put much of the positivity back in storage. That doesn’t make anyone better.

But his defense, perhaps beginning to overcome that night in the new stadium when it couldn’t stop Tennessee, is starting to think better of itself.

“If we continue to go after it, we’re going to be good,” senior cornerback Lance Austin said.

“The way the defense is playing, we just want it,” Gray said. “We just want it more and are playing with a lot of energy. That’s all there is to it, we want to do it.”

Should Johnson, however, be moved to giddy praise after the next game on the schedule, then Tech might be onto something defensively. Then that unit could be something more than the appendix of the body football at Tech, the vestigial appendage with the uncertain purpose.

“The competition level is going to go way up on offense the next game,” Johnson said.

That’s Oct. 14, at Miami, to be precise.

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