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Oct. 19, 2013

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Saturday was one of those rare days in sport where everything that had been wrong was suddenly right, and the foundation of that sweeping proclamation was built not on heavy building materials but the small stuff like nails.

Georgia Tech routed Syracuse 56-0 in a game so lopsided that if the Yellow Jackets had remained peddle-to-the-metal it might have ended up 77-nil. The Orange (3-4, 1-2) are not Florida State, but they’re not Elon, either.

For that, the day was a bit of a shock because the Jackets (4-3, 3-2) squeezed the visitors like fruit while memorizing every dimple in the peel. It was all in the eyes. So much of football is about, as coaches like to say, “having your eyes in the right place.”

Wow! After three straight losses to teams now a combined 17-3, did Tech need that.

“We focused on the little things that make big things happen,” linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said. “Coach Roof is definitely . . . . big on details.”

If you wanted to squint,and pick one thing that was more amazing than all others, it would have to be Tech holding Syracuse to 75 rushing yards on 26 carries.

Much was made ahead of kickoff of two things more than all others: Syracuse not only never having faced Tech’s unique offense but any option, and the Orange averaging 342.5 rushing yards in its first two ACC games.

Tech was on point, on task, dialed in, whatever you want say . . . on both sides of the ball – especially on defense as coordinator Ted Roof moved from the sideline to the coaches’ box. The Roofster had a little something in mind for the O.

“Day one of practice [this week], that’s a statistic that [Roof] put up, that they averaged 300-something yards, that they’re going to try to run it down our throat,” Nealy said. “We just took it as a challenge, and we delivered out there today.”

Oh, did the Jackets tune into details.

While the home team made its share of big plays, the roots of Tech’s success went deep into the Earth to draw not only water but essential minerals in registering the largest margin of victory in an ACC game in program history.

To simplify, the Jackets did almost nothing to hurt themselves and that was a big change from losses to Virginia Tech, Miami and Brigham Young.

“I don’t think we had a penalty, which was a big focus,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “We talked a lot about how in the last three weeks we’d been doing a lot of things that had beaten ourselves.”

Indeed, the Jackets did not commit a single penalty – the first time that’s happened in a game since 1968.

Other than an interception thrown by wide receiver DeAndre Smelter, whose shoulder injury clearly has sapped his fastball, they did not turn the ball over.

Blocking on the perimeter was the best it has been in a long while. Decision making by quarterbacks was the best it has been this season. The blocking up front was superior. The defensive line was remarkable. The passing game was – other than Smelter’s eephus – perfect. Special teams were, other than a long kickoff return surrendered, pretty special. And hey, when you kickoff a few dozen times, whadya expect?

Nealy expected success, and boy did he deliver.

The junior outside linebacker made an acrobatic interception to set up a score, knocked down a key third down pass to set up another, scooped up a fumble to once again key open the door for the offense, and overall played, well, better than ever.

“I can really say it has to be my best game,” he said. “I had fresh legs today. I just felt good out there on the field. I was just having fun. I felt like my old self, and I definitely felt like, yeah, that was probably my best game.”

That pick came on Syracuse’s second possession, not long after the first ended when Chris Milton blocked a punt. Big surprise there. Milton’s the best in the nation at that.

Terrel quarterback Terrel Hunt dropped to pass, and Nealy found found himself with no major responsibility. He was in a man coverage, and his man had stayed in the backfield to block.

So, rather than freeze or push forward to soft blitz, he did as he should have and dropped into a soft middle zone. Hunt had a receiver in his sights. He did not lay eyes on Nealy dropping gently to slide underneath the crossing receiver.

Hunt let fly.

A moment later, the former keen rebounder from Lakeland (Fla.) High School’s basketball team leaped. Nealy just did get his fingers on the ball. Then, crumpled to the ground, and the ball – after being deflected straight upward – fell on him.

Good thing it wasn’t a piano.

“I just read the quarterback. That really wasn’t even my man; my man had blocked in the backfield. I read his eyes, and his eyes took me to the right place,” Nealy said of his sixth, yes, sixth, career interception. “I made a play. I thought I didn’t have it, but it was on my fingertips and it just kind of fell in my lap.”

Saturday’s win did not fall in the Jackets’ lap. It was a complete arse kicking.

It was pinned on them crossing T’s and dotting I’s ahead of time and in real-time.

How did the Jackets so well defend the Orange?

They prepared and executed.

Remember, since Hunt was installed three games ago as the starting quarterback, Syracuse has been running the ball much like the Jackets typically run.

They ran not Saturday, at least not much. Because Tech was reading between the lines.

The Jackets did their book work. And film work. And they brought it to game day.

“We just didn’t want to beat ourselves this week,” Nealy said. “Guys were just flying around and having fun out there. [It was about] assignments as far as who has the quarterback . . . whether I was taking the quarterback on the zone read, making sure you were responsible for your gap and things of that nature.

“We wanted to stop the run. We knew they were going to try to run the ball . . . we took it as a challenge.”

Many are as qualified as Nealy to comment on the grand scheme of things.

He, though, had that pick. And he blocked Hunt’s third-down pass at the start of the second quarter to set up yet another Tech score. And he scooped up the ball when Jemea Thomas sacked Hunt on an untouched blitz in the second quarter.

Nealy’s 7-yard return put Tech at the Syracuse 7. Moments later, Vad Lee’s 1-yard run gave the Jackets a 28-0 lead with 54 seconds left in the first half.

It was a good day for Tech. It was a good day for Nealy.

“I can really say it has to be my best game,” he said. “I had fresh legs today. I just felt good out there on the field. I was just having fun. I felt like my old self, and I definitely felt like, yeah, that was probably my best game.”

Anybody have any ideas what Nealy’s “old self” might be? He’s 22.

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