Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Georgia Tech wanted to hit the ground running in 2018.
On Saturday afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the defense did just that.
It not only hit the ground running, but never stopped, running roughshod over Alcorn State in the Yellow Jackets’ 41-0 win.
“I thought that defensively we played pretty well for the most part,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “Like I told our defense after the game, if you don’t give up any points you’re probably never going to lose, right? So that was a positive.”
Johnson improved to 9-2 in Georgia Tech season openers and 11-0 in home openers. But this year’s lid-lifter was a stark contrast to last year’s season-opening 42-41, double-overtime loss to Tennessee. In last year’s heartbreaking opener, the Yellow Jackets’ defense was gassed by Tennessee’s up-tempo second-half approach — which became a recurring nightmare all year long.
On Saturday against Alcorn, first-year defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s unit, predicated on a run-’til-you-drop mentality and relentless pursuit to the ball wreaked havoc on the four-time defending SWAC East Division champion’s offense. In fact, the Jackets’ defense outscored the Braves’ offense, 7-0.
Perhaps the game’s biggest positive was a negative — negative plays, that is. The Jackets had four tackles for loss, forced three fumbles, including a 15-yard “scoop-and-score” touchdown by linebacker David Curry, and an interception by redshirt freshman Kaleb Oliver that would’ve resulted in another defensive score had Tech not been penalized on the return.
“I was still pretty ecstatic because it was my first collegiate game, so I was happy just to get my first collegiate interception,” Oliver said. “The effort — I’m glad my teammates were showing effort to block for me.”
The Jackets’ three forced fumbles are only two fewer than they forced all last season and the defensive points match their total from all of last season (Bruce Jordan Swilling returned an interception 27 yards for a score at Virginia for Tech’s only defensive score of 2017).
“Anytime you get some turnovers, it’s always encouraging,” said senior inside linebacker and co-captain Brant Mitchell. “It’s been an emphasis. You want to be a good defense? You’ve got to get the ball out. You’ve got to create turnovers. We’re going to continue to harp on that in practice and throughout the season.”
Flying around a forcing turnovers is proving fun … and (for at least one game) easy!
“This new defense, it’s simple. There’s no confusion,” said Curry, who had a team-high-tying four tackles in his first game back since missing the entire ’17 campaign due to injury. “Everybody is flying around. You’ve got defensive linemen making tackles on the sideline. I just felt like we ran really well as a defense today and we got turnovers. And that’s what we need to take each week and continue to build on that.”
The Jackets held Alcorn State to 2-for-11 on third down, forced four three-and-outs and didn’t allow the Braves to take a snap any closer than the Georgia Tech 40 yard line — and that came after Alcorn recovered a first-quarter by TaQuon Marshall fumble at Tech’s 47. The ensuing 13-yard drive resulted in a punt.
Alcorn did have a 10-play drive in the third quarter, which reached the Tech 42. That drive was something of a burr underneath Johnson’s saddle after the game.
“I thought in the second half, we let them string some first downs together,” he said, pointing to Alcorn State’s six first downs in the half, three of them coming on that third-quarter drive that went 37 yards and lasted 6:14. “I challenged our guys to try not to let them cross midfield and we didn’t do that. But, all in all, our defensive effort was certainly better than offense.”
Video: Georgia Tech 41, Alcorn State 0 — Sights and sounds from Yellow Jackets’ season-opening win
The Yellow Jackets’ first shutout since a 56-0 pasting of Syracuse on Oct. 19, 2013 a span was a nice start for Woody.
It also was a nice first-career start for eight Jackets, five of them on defense — junior NT Brandon Adams, senior OLB Jalen Johnson, sophomore strong safety Tariq Carpenter, sophomore cornerback Jaytlin Askew and redshirt freshman corner Tre Swilling. Additionally, Saturday was momentous for free safety Malik Rivera, who made his first start as a Yellow Jacket — he’d started 18 games over the past three years at Wofford — and Curry, who made his second career start and first since 2016.
“It was simply nice to be back out on the field,” Curry said. “We were just glad to be able to hit somebody other than our offensive linemen and our A-backs. It was awesome to be out there to run around and fly around with your guys against another team. I needed that experience. I felt like it really helped our defense.”
Playing a lot of guys — Georgia Tech had 21 players record at least one tackle on Saturday — is also expected to help the defense.
“We got a lot of guys in today, some guys without experience. We have a lot of freshmen playing,” said Mitchell. “They came in and they performed just like we had expected them to. We put just as much emphasis in preparing our first string as we do our second and third string because you never know when somebody’s going to go down. Guys were prepared and I felt like we came out and executed pretty well today.”
“(Depth) is very important because of how fast we’re running and how much we have to chase the ball,” said Curry. “You have to have guys that are ready to go, so we like to rotate a lot. The next guy’s got to be ready to go. That’s why I say there should be no fall-off from guy to guy. Everybody should be ready to go and that keeps everyone fresh. The guy who came in after me, Quez [Jackson], played lights-out. That’s his first game ever in college, just like [Oliver] and I thought he played amazing. That’s what we need to see and we’ll be getting Bruce [Jordan-Swilling] back next week and he’s a phenomenal athlete. I’m excited about how this team is going to look.”
Of course there are things that need to be corrected heading into Saturday’s showdown at South Florida, a 34-14 winner in its season opener against Elon.
“We did miss some opportunities,” said Johnson. “We missed a couple of turnovers we could have had. We missed a few tackles, some organizational stuff [where] we had to burn a couple of timeouts in the second half with ten [players] on the field. All of that stuff should get worked out and get better. So we have to make a ton of progress from week one to week two, as the competition will continue to ratchet up each week we play.”
Mitchell has no doubt the team will make those changes.
“The biggest improvement is from game one to game two and we need that to happen,” he said. “There were a lot of mistakes that they’re going to cost us in bigger games down the road. I know next week, they’re a group of guys down there that know how to play. So it being our first away game, it’s going to be a little bit different of an atmosphere. So the focus has got to be that much more on your assignment. We have to emphasize focus on the defensive side but still go out there and play how you know how to play and it will take care of itself.”