Is improved defense more than a phase?
Miami will test whether positive signs from past three games are for real.
Is this the year the Georgia Tech defense turns a short stretch of encouraging play into a season-long occurrence?
That’s been a topic of discussion numerous times during coach Paul Johnson’s tenure. The answer should come Saturday against Miami.
Since a strong showing from the Yellow Jackets’ defense in Johnson’s first season, 2008, the defense mainly has been a negative outside of blips — most notably 2013, 2014 and 2016.
Coming in with one of the more experienced groups in the nation, the Tech defense didn’t start well when it allowed 42 points on Labor Day against a Tennessee team that has imploded since. But in the past three games against Jacksonville State, Pittsburgh and North Carolina, its performance has rivaled the best stretch of play from the defense in the last decade.
Taking only scoring outcomes
into account, Tech’s 34 points allowed in that stretch has been outdone just twice during Johnson’s tenure. In 2008, it held Mississippi State, Duke and Gardner-Webb to a combined 14 points. Last season, the Jackets started by allowing 31 combined to Boston College, Mercer and Vanderbilt. The 2013 defense matched this season’s in the opening three games, against Elon, Duke and North Carolina.
Perhaps the most impressive streak came in 2014, when the defense allowed 39 points to Virginia, North Carolina State and Clemson, a three-game stretch that didn’t include an FCS opponent, as the others did.
The issue has been the results at other times during those seasons. Last season following the strong defensive start, Tech allowed 34.2 points per game over the next six games, going 2-4. In 2014, in the Jackets’ final three games after the threegame run, the defense allow an average of 31.7 points, but the offense picked up the slack during victories against Georgia and Mississippi State.
Much like the season after, 2013’s defense quickly fell off a promising start with three consecutive losses in which it allowed 33.3 points per game.
The only season in which it mostly held up to be a consistent unit was 2008 — a team that featured future NFL starters in Morgan Burnett, Derrick Morgan, Michael Johnson and Vance Walker. Tech went on to finish 28th in the country in points allowed — the best finish under Johnson.
The Yellow Jackets currently are 27th.
Still, Johnson and the defense know the biggest tests lie ahead. With UNC and Pitt appearing to be suffering through major down years, the strength of opponents hasn’t been overwhelming. That’s about to change. ESPN ranks the rest of Tech’s schedule as the toughest in the country. It all starts with Miami.
“I think we are playing better — we’re tackling better,” Johnson said. “We’re being able to stop the run with some blitzes and stunts and some of that. The competition level is going to move way up next game.”
Miami ranks 13th in ESPN’s Football Power Index rankings. The next highest team the Jackets have faced is Tennessee at 51st. Tech is ranked 27th.
With the Hurricanes’ star running back, Mark Walton, now out for the season, the Jackets will catch a break in trying to contain a group ranked sixth in the country in offensive efficiency.
Quarterback Malik Rosier has stepped in seamlessly for Brad Kaaya and presents the dual-threat skill set former ACC quarterbacks such as Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and Marquise Williams have succeeded with against the Jackets.
Outside of the obvious improvement in pass rush thus far, the major key has been the sure tackling of linebackers and defensive backs.
Brant Mitchell has settled in as the leader in the middle of the field. A.J. Gray had a standout performance against UNC at safety, and defensive coordinator Ted Roof has seemed to figure out a fitting role for the versatile junior.
With a combination of experience and young, maturing talent, the Tech defense has its first chance to solidify itself as an emerging unit against a team — andacoach—thathashad its number for years.
Mark Richt is 7-2 against Johnson, most of that at Georgia, and Miami is 7-2 against him. The Hurricanes have scored 35 or more points against Tech in four of the past five meetings.
Adding to the importance, Miami will come in with the most hype around its program in a while, as it ended a losing streak in its rivalry with Florida State last week and climbed to 11th in the Associated Press poll.
All things considered, Saturday will show whether the Tech defense is ready to take the next step — or if the recent success proved to be a result of inferior opponents and streaky play that has plagued it for years.