Sept. 24, 2017
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Football can be such a game of momentum. It’s why the turnover battle is so important.
A lost fumble and suddenly momentum is on the other sideline.
On Saturday afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Georgia Tech was on the wrong side of the turnover battle, 4-1 — losing one fumble in each quarter — giving”Uncle Mo” every opportunity to go to the Pittsburgh sideline.
But the good uncle didn’t go anywhere, primarily because the Panthers offense didn’t. The Yellow Jackets defense wouldn’t let them.
“I thought that our defense played really, really well today, especially in sudden-change situations,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “I think we had four times when we turned the ball over and I think all four times they went three-and-out right after that, so that was huge.”
The Yellow Jackets’ defense loomed larger than life, limiting the Panthers to 1-for-13 on third downs (7.6 percent success), including 0-for-8 in the second half.
“We were very happy about that,” said defensive end KeShun Freeman, who led Tech’s defensive linemen with four tackles (three solo), two of them for loss. “We’ve been trying as a whole defense to be more effective on first and second down, so third downs can be a little easier. I’m really proud of what we put on film today.”
What the Jackets will see on film is a proverbial brick wall that forced the Panthers into second-and-five or longer 14 times in 16 second-down plays and third-or-five and longer on 14-of-15 third down plays. Of those 31 combined plays, 15 of them required double-figure yardage for a first down. A lot of that was shutting down the Panthers’ running game, which netted only 37 yards all day — only two more yards than they totaled in lost yardage on the ground (35).
“We shut them down pretty well,” said defensive tackle Anree Saint-Amour, who had two tackles (both solo), a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery. “Everybody was doing their job, everybody was running to the ball, we had great intensity, great energy. That’s one of the best performances I’ve been a part of.
“Everybody was filling their gaps,” he added. “Linebackers were filling in on the blitzes at the end, the ends, the d-tackles, they were in the gaps so wherever they tried to go, we were there.”
Georgia Tech shook off a shaky first drive, when the Panthers marched 78 yards in five plays, capped off by a 28-yard touchdown pass from Ben DiNucci to Qadree Ollison.
That drive didn’t get the unit down, however.
“After the first drive, everyone got on the sideline and there was a bunch of motivating, saying, `Hey, let’s pick this up. Focus in on what you’ve got to do,'” said Freeman. “So that’s what everybody focused on and it turned better.”
A lot better. A lot of the defense’s effectiveness came in their improved tackling. The only other scoring play for Pittsburgh the rest of the day was an 80-yard punt return by Quadree Henderson in the second quarter, which was about the only time the Jackets didn’t wrap up a Panthers’ ball-carrier, missing two tackles along the way.
“That’s definitely one of the things that we’ve been communicating about,” said Freeman. “The first two games, we watched how many missed tackles that we had. Definitely in the first game, we missed a lot of tackles. [Defensive coordinator Ted] Roof really wanted us to work on when you get there, really wrap up. It’s not always about making the big hit but you get the person on the ground when you get there.”
He admitted the extra week of practice caused by the cancellation of the Jackets’ Sept. 16 game at UCF didn’t hurt.
“It definitely helped us out a little bit,” Freeman said. “We got to make changes, we got to communicate what we wanted to do with the gameplan and it helped us perfect it when we came into the game.”
Saint-Amour tipped his hat to Roof for his game plan.
“I feel like it was a mixture of scheme and talent,” he said. “Coach set us up well, teaching us, working on the pass rush all week long as well as the run. So scheme and talent. Amp [defensive end Antonio Simmons] did great today. He gets around the edge great. He lowers his shoulder, he has amazing speed. So just speed and talent.”
A lot of the talent displayed up front came courtesy of the coverage talent in the secondary.
“Whenever you have great coverage back there, and the quarterback’s sitting [in the [pocket], you always can make better pressure,” said Saint-Amour. “You have time to execute your moves when he’s holding the ball for more than three seconds. That’s a great shout-out to the corners and the safeties.”
Nothing got the Jackets’ defense down on this day. Even the plethora of turnovers — one at the Tech 34, two around midfield and one at the Pitt goal line — didn’t get the unit down. If anything, it got them even more fired up.
Saint-Amour got a tad giddy talking about the opportunities and the way the defense responded to it.
“I don’t want to say I’m excited because [we] turned the ball over, but I feel like, as a defense, it’s kind of testing us,” he said. “Whenever we go out there, our goal should be to get a three-and-out. Our goal should be to get the ball back. Our goal should be to get a turnover. So no matter if [we] turn the ball over on the one or the 50, whatever, we’re going to go out there with the same intensity as if [we] got a touchdown. We’re going to go out there trying to stop them, regardless.”
Tech did just that, as Pitt actually lost six yards total in the four possessions following Tech turnovers, completing 1-of-6 pass attempts and missing a field goal. The Jackets had three tackles for loss in those four drives alone, totaling negative-21 yards, including a 15-yard sack of DiNucci by Simmons.
While Saint-Amour admitted it was something of a guilty pleasure following the offense’s turnovers, quarterback TaQuon Marshall and B-back KirVonte Benson spoke about putting the defense in tough spots and how proud they were that their teammates rose to the occasion.
“The defense played great. If it weren’t for the defense, we wouldn’t have won the game, honestly,” said Marshall. “We had four turnovers. The defense went out and stopped them. Let’s be real. Everybody saw the game. They played great. Pitt was what, 1-of-13 on third down? You can’t ask for much more.”
“The defense did an amazing job. I don’t think we ever would have come out with the `W’ if it wasn’t for the defense,” said Benson, who lost two fumbles but ran for a career-high 196 yards and sealed the victory with a 47-yard touchdown run with 5:37 left in the game, his second score of the game. “I was glad they could keep the momentum. Sometimes fumbles can be a down play. I’m glad the defense came out and performed to the best of their ability.”
No sweat according to the Jackets on the other side of the ball.
“You’re always happy when you can keep them out of the end zone,” said Freeman. “As far as the offense, we trust our offense. They’ve bailed us out so many times in games in the past … we’re all a team and we’re excited about what we’re doing.”
“We’re a team. We all swarm together,” said Saint-Amour. “If [the offense is] messing up, they depend on us to do great. If we’re messing up, we depend on them.”
Georgia Tech hopes to be hitting on all cylinders next Saturday, when North Carolina comes to town. The Tar Heels, who lost 27-17 to Duke on Saturday, will come into Bobby Dodd having put up 48, 38 and 48 points against the Jackets over the past three matchups.
But Freeman believes the defensive line, especially, will continue to build off of the sterling performance against the Panthers.
“I’m really proud of the communication that we have,” he said. “You can see all across the line, we’re turning our heads, talking to each other, making calls. That really put us in a great place and the preparation that we had throughout the week, people are starting to establish themselves really well with a certain move. Antonio Simmons, he sped back there. Anree’s been doing great things with his speed and his power. So it’s been really good to see our defensive front show what we are.”