Nov. 20, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word – A lot could be said about Georgia Tech’s defense on Saturday afternoon.
The unit certainly gave fans and critics alike enough time to talk about them. They were on the field that long.
Tech’s defense was in action for 38:37, as Virginia’s offense, which came in 12th in the conference in total yards per game (108th in the country), 14th in the ACC in rushing yards per game (123rd) and ninth in passing yards (45th), ran 88 plays — more than double Georgia Tech’s 41. Both the time of possession and plays were the most that the Jackets have yielded all season, while the 4:03 they had the ball in the the second quarter and the 4:07 they had it in the fourth were their worst quarters of the season in terms of possession. Their 5:37 T.O.P. in the first was sixth-lowest mark of any period this year.
“We couldn’t get them off the field,” was a common postgame refrain for Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson, who grew even more vexed when his offense came off the field after an unsuccessful fourth-and-one at its own 29 with 7:15 left in the third quarter. The Jackets trailed, 10-7, at the time.
Little did Johnson, or anyone else for that matter, know what kind of game-changing response the defense was about to make.
The Jackets’ defense, which was on the field for 24 of the game’s 38 minutes to that point, forced an incompletion from UVA quarterback Matt Johns, who was 13-of-20 for 130 yards to that point, on first down. After a five-yard run on second down, the Jackets stopped Cavs’ running back Taquan Mizzell for no gain on third. Despite taking over at the GT 29, the Cavaliers came up empty when kicker Sam Hayward pushed a 42-yard field goal left.
“Maybe it woke everybody up,” Johnson said of the missed fourth-and-one. “The defense did a great job.”
The defense never expected anything but a stop to pick up the offense.
“I think it’s pretty much an understanding. When things don’t go our way, the other side of the ball tends to pick up the other side,” said redshirt junior strong safety Corey Griffin, who recorded his second interception of the season later in the third quarter. “So if the offense isn’t doing well, is not having a good day, we have to pick it up. We have to score on defense. We have to get stops. We have to get turnovers.”
“Whenever you keep them from scoring points like that, it’s always a good feeling. Then we give our offense a chance to score,” said redshirt senior defensive tackle Patrick Gamble, who made four tackles (all solo) and added a sack to pad his team-leading total to 5.5, in his final home game. “When you keep points off the board, you have a chance to win. That’s like a turnover to us.”
The Jackets took that “turnover,” and, as they made habit of doing the prior week when they scored 17 points off Virginia Tech miscues, cashed it in. Four plays after the missed field goal, A-back Clinton Lynch continued doing what he’s made a habit of — getting behind opposing defenses. Lynch and quarterback Justin Thomas hooked up on a 54-yard pass play to give Tech a 14-10 lead and the Yellow Jackets would never trail again.
After the stop and go-ahead score, the GT defense, which hadn’t limited UVA to less than four plays on any series after the game’s opening drive, locked down the Cavaliers on four of their next five possessions with a three-and-out, a pair of interception and a turnover on downs. On those four series, the Cavs ran just 13 plays and had the ball for 4:33 and Georgia Tech, which trailed 10-7 late in the third quarter, took a commanding 31-17 lead. The final seven points came on a 24-yard interception return for a touchdown by Lance Austin, Tech’s first defensive score of the season.
Virginia’s final drive ended with the Jackets’ third interception of the half by linebacker Brant Mitchell.
“The defense was piggybacking off of last week. They kept the momentum going,” said A-back Qua Searcy, who broke off a career-best 60-yard touchdown run during the Jackets’ second-half spurt. “It definitely lifted our spirits. It’s always terrible not getting a fourth down and some people may get down on themselves but our defense held its own and got off the field and gave us another chance.”
“Anytime the defense makes big plays like that, it helps the whole team. It gives everybody a lift,” added B-back Marcus Marshall, who rumbled for a game-high 127 yards on 16 carries, including a 67-yard scoring burst in the first quarter that tied the game at 7-7. “It’s kind of a boost on the sideline and when we go out there, we feel we have to try to capitalize on it.”
The Jackets turned the tables on Johns, who finished 27-for-44 with one TD but threw three interceptions on the seven possessions following Tech’s missed fourth-and-one.
Gamble felt that the pressure they’d exerted all day finally caught up with the Cavs’ senior QB.
“We got some pretty good pressure all game, got some hits on him, got into his head a little bit, hopefully,” said Gamble. “That’s what you want to do. I feel like we did a good job of getting pressure and we affected the QB like we should.”
“[The turnovers] were very big,” he added. “We needed it, especially the one Lance returned for a touchdown. We made plays that we needed to make when it was time to. We didn’t fold. I think that helped us get the win.”
The defense bent but didn’t break, even in the first half, when they seemingly never left the field (staying on for 20:20 and 42 plays) but remained tough mentally.
“When we’re on the field the whole defense’s mindset is to make a play,” said Austin. “The D-line is trying to get a sack, linebackers are trying to make a big hit and us back there, we’re always looking to make a big play. [The game-clinching interception] happened to come to me. The defense just made a play.”
The next opportunity to make plays comes next Saturday against archrival Georgia.
“Any time you play Georgia you’re amped up. Whether we’re sitting here at 7-4 or last year at 3-and-whatever, it doesn’t matter,” said Griffin. “Any time you play an in-state rival, it’s always amped up.”
“We have a big test ahead, playing Georgia. State championship game, at Georgia. So it’s going to be hyped. We just have to go and get a `W,'” said Gamble, who added that his last game at Bobby Dodd was special.
“I took it all in. I tried to take it a step at a time but you can definitely feel it. When you know it’s your last time playing at Bobby Dodd, last time going out in front of the fans, running out behind the Wreck. It’s a bittersweet feeling.”
Johnson was also bittersweet after the win over UVA but will take the win.
“You need to be happy when you win. It’s hard to win a football game. [But] I was disappointed in the way we played,” he said. “I’m happy for our seniors to go out with a win. Any time you win, you have to be happy. It’s hard to win. We made enough plays.”