#TGW: Safeties Spark Defensive Effort in Saturday's Win

Oct. 16, 2016

Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

Saturday was a good day for Georgia Tech. It was especially enjoyable for safeties Corey Griffin and A.J. Gray because they weren’t asked to play so safely.

In the Yellow Jackets’ 35-24 win over Georgia Southern, the duo combined for 17 tackles — six of which dropped Eagles for lost yardage — with Griffin’s 10 stops and Gray’s seven each representing career highs.

Given that Griffin recorded his first career sack and that he and Gray each had three tackles for lost yardage after entering Bobby Dodd Stadium with a combined 0.5 in 47 combined career games, numbers backed up their smiles.

Truth was, it didn’t take a statistician to see that something was different; Griffin and Gray were “up” in the Eagles’ business all day. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof turned his safeties loose.

“Coach Roof allowed us to play more free,” Griffin said. “Playing an option team like Georgia Southern, you can’t sit back and wait on them . . . Personally, any time a safety blitz is called, we pin our ears back and get happy.”

Saturday brought more happiness than in a while. The Jackets held Georgia Southern to a season-low 335 yards of total offense and the Eagles’ 167 rushing yards on 50 tries fell well below their 286.6-yard average.

Griffin and Gray had plenty to do with that.

Tech blitzed a bit more than standard against GSU, especially the safeties. Normally the last line(s) of defense, they were often the first.

With a 7-0 lead on the board thanks to quarterback Justin Thomas‘ 58-yard race around right end, defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong dropped GSU quarterback Favian Upshaw for a two-yard loss on the Eagles’ first play.

When the Jackets forced a punt two plays later, a streak was broken: for the first time in six games, Tech’s opponent did not score a touchdown on its first possession.

That helped.

“It was great,” Gray recalled. “Coach [Paul] Johnson challenged us all week . . . We just stuck to it and kept in the back of our minds what he said.”

Tech soon built a 14-0 lead on Thomas’ 65-yard pass to A-back Clinton Lynch only to see the Eagles find their collective footing. After an 18-play drive netted a touchdown to cut the Jackets’ advantage in half, Tech drove to lead 21-7.

Each team bogged down, and the Eagles were first to really move again.

Johnson wasn’t pleased after the game that GSU managed to convert 13-of-20 third downs but the Yellow Jackets came up with significant stops on multiple occasions, like when the Eagles moved to first-and-10 at the Tech 16-yard-line late in the first half and the Jackets still holding a 21-7 edge.

After Griffin stopped running back Wesley Fields after a one-yard gain, Gray fired into the backfield to drop GSU quarterback Kevin Ellison for a four-yard loss on second down and Griffin brought Ellison down three yards behind the line of scrimmage on third. The Eagles settled for a 44-yard field goal and never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way.

That game-changing sequence wasn’t a fluke. It was a design.

Much as the Jackets (4-3, 1-3 ACC), Georgia Southern (3-3, 2-1 Sun Belt) prefers the overland route on offense. Since the Eagles entered Bobby Dodd Stadium having run the ball six times more than they’d passed it (298-81), Roof involved the two defenders stationed furthest from the line of scrimmage more in the run defense.

“He made some nice tackles,” Johnson said of Griffin. “He’s a guy who had a couple third-down stops on stunts and blitzes where he tackled a guy for a loss.”

Now Tech’s leading tackler on the season with 44, Griffin wasn’t finished. Saturday was, remember, a very good day for the redshirt junior from Sandy Creek High School.

Not 20 minutes after fellow Sandy Creek graduate Calvin Johnson was honored at halftime for his induction into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, Griffin ended the Eagles’ first parry of the second half.

GSU was just outside of field-goal range at the Tech 37 and staring at fourth-and-five. Up the middle came Griffin, and down went Upshaw. That 11-yard sack was the first in his 32 games at Tech.

The Jackets went three-and-out after that but when the Eagles faced third-and-four at midfield, Griffin blitzed once more. Finding himself behind the line of scrimmage again, he caught Fields from behind for a five-yard loss as the ball-carrier tried to sweep right.

Although the ensuing punt left Tech 90 yards away, they covered it in 11 plays and took a 28-10 lead early in the fourth period on Thomas’ second rushing touchdown of the afternoon, a four-yard reversal of field.

“The safeties blitzed more than normal, yes, but the overall defense was about the same,” Griffin said. “You can’t sit back and wait with an option offense. I think we did fairly well stopping the run, mainly doing our jobs.”

Roof broke form personally, too, moving from the sideline to the coaches’ box for the first time this season.

“I let him go wherever he wants,” Johnson said. “He came to me on Monday and said, `Hey, Coach, do you mind if I go to the box?’ Personally, I think he’s better off up there anyway; he can see better.”

Griffin and Gray went more of wherever they wanted, too, and each had themselves an especially fun day.

“In man coverage, they kind of let us play man coverage like we want to play . . . that allowed us to play more loose,” Gray said. “Some plays, I would roll down in the box. Some plays, [Griffin] would roll down and that kind of is our game because we can play faster … not worry about the same thing over and over [and] not think a lot.”

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