Without the defensive performance we saw, this moment would have been in jeopardy of happening at all. - Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports
Tech's defense played their best game of the year in defeating USC. In a follow-up to yesterday's article, we offer grade-outs, MVPs, and others for Georgia Tech's defensive and special teams performances in their Sun Bowl victory.
Defensive Line Grade: A
When you hold a team that's as wildly talented as USC is to under 100 yards on the ground, you've done something really well. Today, our defensive front was fantastic. They bottled up Silas Redd early and often (Izaan Cross in particular made a habit out of stuffing him), and when defending the pass were able to get pressure with only 3-4 men blitzing. Now, while they didn't score any sacks that I can remember, they contributed a major effect in making Max Wittek uncomfortable, resulting in poor decisions and throws. I was thoroughly impressed with the D-Line today. It might have been the best performance I've seen from them in two years. Not sure I could have asked for any more from this unit today.
Linebackers Grade: A-
The loss of Jeremiah Attaochu early on was a big blow to this unit -- the dropoff between him and Nick Menocal is not to be underestimated. After Jerry left though, Brandon Watts stepped up in a big way, providing pass pressure, run support, and making some athletic open-field tackles. The other guy who had a solid afternoon as I saw it was Jabari Hunt-Days. For a freshman, he didn't make any major mistakes and provided some good support in the running and short passing games. Now, the performance that is probably most underrated across the whole team in today's game was that of Quayshawn Nealy. He provided a ton of support in pass coverage, batting down a few passes and tipping another that resulted in a pick at the end of the game. Oh, and you may have forgotten that he scored an interception as well on a pass into the end zone that he juggled a bit before coming down with. These guys played a great game as a unit, though they suffered from the loss of Attaochu and didn't stand out to me in particular, meaning they get an A-.
Secondary Grade: A+
No starting safety? No problem. You just held a team stacked with 4- and 5-star athletes, including this year's Biletnikoff Trophy winner Marqise Lee, to 107 passing yards and a completion percentage of 38%. They accumulated 2.9 yards per pass play. That's ABSURD. To be fair, it was done against a freshman making his second career start in 40 mph winds. That said, he's a highly rated player surrounded by NFL talent, yet they ended up leaning on him more than they should have had to, and Georgia Tech took advantage. Rod Sweeting just played his best game of a very disappointing season (maybe the best of his career) and just might have gotten himself back into NFL talks (not necessarily being drafted, but at least getting looks). He had a huge afternoon of breaking up passes, locking down receivers, making open field tackles, and even scoring his only interception of the season on a beautiful read. Hell, this unit came into the game without their anchor, Isaiah Johnson, and didn't see too much out of the oft-involved Jemea Thomas, and still had a downright phenomenal game. Between these guys and the B-Backs, we saw the most complete performances as a unit as we've seen out of this team all season. I'm extremely proud of the way they played today. I'd love nothing more than to see them play like this every game. Bravo.
Special Teams Grade: C
When playing a game in 40 mph winds, the passing game will be affected, while the most obvious impacts will be felt in special teams. We saw that today. There was quite a bit of scheming done around kicking field goals into and against the wind, and punts seemed to go 35 yards or 65 yards with few exceptions. USC in particular had quite the circus going on their end, and yet seemed to catch a couple of major breaks in the game when Jamal Golden caught a punt inside his own 5-yard line (why, I'll never figure out), when Sean Poole had some difficulties punting, and when a shanked punt of USC went off of the shoulder of a Tech return blocker, resulting in a huge 40 yard gain for the Trojans. However, just when it seemed like special teams plays were not going to go Tech's way all afternoon, the USC punter kicked a low, end-over-end line drive down the middle of the field that saw Jamal Golden pick it up in quite a bit of traffic and shoot past everyone to make it to the 1 yard line. That return might have been the turning point of a game that was tied at the time -- 2 plays later, Tevin Washington punched it in for a go-ahead touchdown, and who knows what would have happened with significantly different field position. I guess I'd say that Golden's crucial return on that punt is the only real redeeming moment of the game for our special teams units -- kick coverage was good (Matt Connors in particular had two or three nice tackles before a returner could get anything going) but overall we didn't do much spectacular. Obviously it turned out OK, but in a closer game this type of performance could have done Tech in.
Defensive MVP: Rod Sweeting
"Well, shit." We all saw his magnificent performance out there. I don't think much more needs to be said. I was thoroughly impressed by how he performed all afternoon, and I love to see him play this well during his last game in a Tech uniform.
Defensive Unsung Hero: Quayshawn Nealy
Again, I think that he did a lot of big stuff in pass defense that didn't get much attention (at least by CBS). His interception in the end zone was huge, and a result of baiting Max Wittek into making the pass. He tipped a few passes, one of which ended in Jamal Golden's victory-sealing interception. Really, I'm tempted to go back and watch this game again, with one of my focuses being the contributions Nealy made on defense -- at first glance, he deserves a LOT more credit than he got.
Defense/Special Teams Inspired Performance: Jamal Golden
You know, I have a theory about return men. They come from a similar breed of humans as fighter pilots and the cast of Jackass in that they're extremely reckless and love living lives of high-risk, high-reward situations laced with danger. I won't tell you that Jamal played a perfect game, because he made a huge mistake in catching that punt on his own 5-yard line and was generally underwhelming on returns and in pass coverage. Then you take a look at his interesting decision to field a ball in traffic that ended 3 feet from a touchdown, and his instinctual snagging of the interception that sealed the game, and you immediately become a little more willing to accept the good with the bad. Just let me say this, readers: Give this kid a little more time to develop. He's a special one, who could end up being the next superstar of our team.
Who are your defensive and special teams MVPs, Tech fans? Did I get these right, or was I way off base with a couple of them? When was the last time you saw a Tech defensive performance quite like this one? I'd love to hear your opinion.