Oct. 30, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word –
On a day when the Georgia Tech and Duke offenses rolled up a combined 1,164 yards and 73 points and Tech quarterback Justin Thomas flirted with George Godsey’s single-game school record for total offense (he finished with 459 yards, 18 short), it’s easy to joke how the theme of Saturday’s 38-35 Yellow Jackets victory was “The Defense Rests.”
But the unwillingness of Georgia Tech sophomore free safety A.J. Gray to rest on a second-quarter play resulted in arguably the biggest play — and certainly the biggest defensive play — of the game.
“It was a great effort play by A.J. He saved a score,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “It was a great effort play. You’d like to see the guy not run down the middle of the field untouched but it was a great effort play by A.J. Gray.”
With Georgia Tech leading 21-7 and Duke facing second-and-eight at its own 40, Blue Devils running back Shaun Wilson took a handoff, and burst through hole up the middle. With no Tech tacklers in sight, he motored toward the south end zone. He slipped a desperation diving tackle attempt by strong safety Corey Griffin at the Tech 31. He then sought the best way to avoid corner Step Durham, the last Jackets’ defender, who was engaged with Duke receiver Chris Taylor.
Actually, Durham was the last Jackets’ defender Wilson could see. What he could not see was Gray in full sprint, catching up. When Duke’s junior running back, who slowed slightly to navigate, re-accelerated and headed toward the left corner of the end zone, Gray closed in and blindsided the 5-9, 180-pounder. He grabbed Wilson’s left arm with his left hand and separated him from the ball at the 10. The ball rolled toward the sideline and Durham picked it up at the two.
While Tech wouldn’t score on the ensuing possession the Jackets would score next, just prior to the end of the half. A potential 21-14 game was instead 28-7 — a 14-point swing in what would end up being a three-point game.
“That was huge,” said Thomas. “Even if we didn’t score [on the ensuing possession], it kind of stopped their momentum and it got the ball back on the other side of the field, so that was huge.”
The play brought back memories of a similar hustle play and momentum-changer by then junior corner D.J. White, who ran down Pittsburgh running back James Conner two seasons ago. That play came on the heels of a 74-yard run with Tech leading 7-0, opening the floodgates to a 28-point first quarter in what would end a 56-28 rout.
“What a play. It reminded me of D.J. White a couple of years back at Pitt,” said linebacker Terrell Lewis, who was a true freshman on the Jackets’ sideline that day and was right behind Durham in pursuit of the ball on Saturday. “A.J. made the play and Step was able to get there and scoop it up. If he wasn’t going to try to scoop it up, I was going to try to scoop it up.”
The play was a bright spot for the Yellow Jackets, who struggled all day on defense with Duke. Tech allowed first downs on 8-of-13 third downs and was on the field for 73 plays versus 61 the Jackets’ offense. The defense especially struggled in the second half, when the Blue Devils scored on four-straight drives to take a 35-31 lead.
But Thomas answered with a lightning-quick scoring drive and then the Jackets’ defense stood tall, forcing their first three-and-out of the game. Tech’s offense would kill the game’s final 3:53.
“We found a way to make enough plays to win,” said Johnson. “Hopefully we learned a valuable lesson.”
Gray made lots of plays for the defense, which should be bolstered this week by the return from injury of linebacker P.J. Davis, and showed he’s learned some very valuable lessons.
Gray tied for the team lead for with nine tackles against Duke, marking the second-consecutive game that he’s set a career high for stops (he had eight stops against Georgia Southern two weeks back). He now ranks second on the team in tackles with 39, 12 behind Griffin. Gray also showed that he’s listening to defensive coordinator Ted Roof about never giving up on a play.
“Coach Roof always tells us to make sure you finish the play, that you run down the field because you never know what’s going to happen,” said Lewis.
Thomas hopes the Jackets will follow that example over the season’s final four weeks, beginning this coming Saturday when they begin a brutal two-week stretch that sees them travel to Chapel Hill to face No. 21/20 North Carolina (winner of six of its last seven games overall and two straight vs. Tech), then to Blacksburg, where No. 25 Virginia Tech (winner of five of its last six overall and 4-of-6 all-time versus Georgia Tech awaits.
“That’s something that we have to continue to do,” Thomas said. “That comes down to effort. We count our efforts every game, both sides of the ball. That’s something that everybody on the field, all 11 guys, have to do, is continue the play and give a lot of effort.
“Usually it’s one play that can happen. D.J. White made one play that turned the whole game around,” Thomas added. “It can happen any way. Defense can make a big play that can turn the whole game around. Offense, too. It’s something that we have to do. A lot of guys made big plays today.”