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Georgia Tech Football: Defense and Turnovers and Luck - Oh My!

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Georgia Tech enjoyed an amazing 2014 year, but was the defense lucky or good?

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets enjoyed a very successful season. They won their division, beat their in-state rival and routed Mississippi State (a team that was ranked No. 1 for a good portion of the season) in the Orange Bowl. 2015 is another season that could bring a lot of enjoyment to Georgia Tech fans, but there are some question marks heading into September. Will they be able to replace the production of Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days? What about Shaq Mason on the offensive line? Who is Justin Thomas going to throw to with DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller taking their talents to the next level? Yes, these are questions that need to be answered, but I argue that those are not the biggest problems the team will face in 2015.

Another year under Ted Roof and his system should make the defense better, right? Absolutely, but it’s only fair to also expect some regression. How can you have it both ways? It’s easy; just look at the turnovers.

2014 was a playmaking and opportunistic year for the Georgia Tech secondary. Five fumbles in five possessions against Pittsburgh, two fumbles inside the one-yard line in Athens and a big, game changing interception against Clemson are just some of the many memories the defense made in 2014. It’s unfair to say that fans should expect this same success in 2015. Not because these players aren’t opportunistic, but it’s more about how they got some of these turnovers.

Some of these turnovers were just ridiculous. Georgia, which took care of the football the eighth best in the nation in 2014, committed three turnovers against Georgia Tech and two of them came from inside the one-yard line. How about Pittsburgh turning the ball over with six fumbles in one game, including fumbling their first five drives of the game? And then there was Florida State, which turned the ball over the second most in the NCAA in 2014, but didn’t turn the ball over once against Georgia Tech. Yeah, football is a crazy sport.

My takeaway from the 2014 defense is that their shortcomings were masked by being opportunistic. The Yellow Jackets forced 29 turnovers in 2014, which was good for 17th best in the nation. I have no problem with a team being opportunistic and getting the big momentum swings, but I think it’s fair to say that the turnovers helped cover up some defensive flaws on this team. I’m going to look at stats from 2014 to unveil some truths about the Georgia Tech defense in 2014 and what this could mean in 2015.

Big Yards for the Opponent

The Yellow Jackets allowed 6.32 yards per play in 2014, which was good (or bad) for 18th-worst in the country. Sure there was a transition to Ted Roof to get used to, but that stat is extremely alarming for even the most optimistic of Georgia Tech fans. Even with another year with Roof’s scheme, what is a fair assessment for the improvement the defense can make? Let’s take a look at Georgia Tech’s last four games of the 2014 season to see how the defense did under year one with Ted Roof, and, yes, I’ve included Clemson’s abysmal game with the great Cole Stoudt at quarterback to make the numbers look better.

Opponent Rushes Yards Per Play
Mississippi State 33 152 4.6
Florida State 33 179 5.4
Georgia 39 194 5
Clemson 33 131 4
Total 138 656 4.8

Against their toughest opponents, the Yellow Jackets rush defense allowed 164 yards per game, which was three yards less than their season average of 167 yards per game. This was also better competition than they played in their first nine games, so the argument can be made that their rush defense improved. Holding Georgia to five yards per rush is very impressive, considering they averaged over six yards per rush in 2014. Mississippi State also averaged almost one yard less against Tech than they did over their season. Clemson and Florida State, however, averaged more yards against Tech than they did against their other 2014 opponents. So did they improve or not?

Yes, they did. Florida State didn’t commit a turnover in the ACC Championship Game, which is weird considering that Georgia Tech was creating turnovers all over the field and Florida State committed the second most turnovers in the nation in 2014. Dalvin Cook is also a factor in this, as he showed that he can be an elite runner when he doesn’t cough up the football. Clemson averaged 3.53 yards per rush in 2014, which isn’t a huge difference from their numbers against Georgia Tech.

Long story short: I expect the Georgia Tech rushing defense to be ranked inside the top-40 in 2015.

Opponent Pass Attempts Comp. Comp % Yards Yards per play
Mississippi State 51 33 64.7% 453 8.9
Florida State 30 21 70.0% 488 16.3
Georgia 28 18 64.3% 194 6.9
Clemson 21 11 52.4% 59 2.8
Total 130 83 63.8% 1194 9.2

This is where it gets scary. The 9.2 yards per attempt would have ranked second worst in 2014 had Georgia Tech played like this all season long. Don’t forget that the Cole Stoudt game is factored into this as well. If you take that away, the Georgia Tech defense allowed a whopping 10.4 yards per pass attempt. For the season, the Yellow Jackets ranked 102nd in the nation with 7.6 yards allowed per attempt.

I think a big reason for this astonishingly large number is due to the fact that the Jackets put more of a focus on stopping the rush. I don’t want to spend too much time on this because, quite frankly, these stats are just disappointing to look at. Just understand that Georgia Tech didn’t play the best quarterbacks in 2014. They played a group that includes Cole Stoudt, Huston Mason, Cody Brewer and Tanner Lee. This unit is going to need to figure something out and figure something out fast.

So How Did They Mask This Flaw?

Turnovers. Plain and simple, Georgia Tech masked their shortcomings with turnovers. Had Georgia not fumbled twice inside the one-yard line that game might have had had a different outcome. Had Pittsburgh not fumbled in their first five possessions, perhaps that story has a different ending. Fortunately, this defense was opportunistic and was able to make up for its terrible pass defense by creating and causing turnovers. But how effective is this method?

I love turnovers as much as the next guy, but I also think it’s a dangerous way to live. How many times did the opposition get into Georgia Tech territory and a score seemed imminent? I can’t count on one hand how many times that happened in 2014. Tech caused 29 turnovers in 2014, which ranked it in a tie for 17th most in the nation. This was the most since 2008 and only the second time that a Georgia Tech defense ranked inside the top 20 in turnovers gained since Johnson started.

15 of Georgia Tech’s turnovers came from inside their territory. Nine of those 15 came from inside the 10-yard line. That accounts for 31 percent of all turnovers and 60 percent of their turnovers inside their own territory. That’s a scary line to play with. When an opponent is about to punch one in, a turnover is a great thing to have, but it’s hardly something you can rely on with your backs against the wall. 45 percent of all Georgia Tech’s turnovers came within 30 yards of the end zone. Again, relying on the turnover is a dangerous game to play.

Is it possible for this unit to do the same thing in 2015? Sure. Why not? It’s just going to be difficult. If Tech can’t shore up its pass defense, they are going to need the ball to bounce their way again, if they want a legitimate chance to be a playoff team.

In Summary

The rush defense got better under Roof, but the pass defense suffered. Fortunately Roof’s "bend but don’t break defense" was able to cause some timely turnovers in 2014 and create an incredible year for Georgia Tech fans. They’ll need to do that again, or greatly improve their pass defense if another New Year’s Six Bowl is in the plans.

Dual threat quarterbacks beat Georgia Tech in their three defeats last year and who knows what could have happened had Deshaun Watson not been injured in the match-up against Clemson. These are just some of the things that concern me going into the 2015 season. Roof is a smart guy (though I’m not the biggest fan of his defensive scheme) and should be able to put together some sort of fix for their defensive shortcomings. I’m still expecting big things from Georgia Tech in 2015, but how far they will go solely depends on what happens on the defensive side of the ball.

There's something to be said about a defense that found a way to flip momentum when their backs against the wall, but it's a deadly thing to live by.