Two ACC Coastal games are down, and thanks largely to strong defensive play, Tech is 2-0 in conference play as September comes to a close. Saturday’s home win over UNC was particularly sweet for a Tech defense that has been gashed by the Tar Heels’ offense in recent years, giving up 48, 38, and 48 points in the last three matchups. This time, the Jackets held UNC scoreless until the waning minutes of the fourth quarter and kept them under 250 total yards for the game. With a brutal section of the schedule coming up, this was a key win for the defense—and the team as a whole—to build momentum before diving into the heart of the ACC slate.
Week 5 vs. UNC: Defense by the Numbers
|Points per Possession||0.6|
|Points Off Turnovers Allowed||0|
|Total Yards Allowed||247|
|Rush Yards Allowed||106|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||4.1|
|Pass Yards Allowed||141|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||4.7|
|Opp. Yards per Play||4.4|
It’s worth noting that 93 of UNC’s total yards (a little under 40% of their total) came after Tech had gone up 27-0 and had started putting in reserves on defense. The Jackets opened the game by forcing three consecutive three-and-outs, and through three quarters, they held the Tar Heels to seven first downs and zero points.
If there’s one area that Tech struggled, it was in containing the run game. UNC averaged 4.1 yards per carry; removing Tech’s two sacks from the equation, that number goes up to 4.9, which is a bit alarming. Given that the Tar Heels trailed for much of the game and were constantly throwing as a result, a higher YPC figure is understandable for those plays where they did keep it on the ground... but it’s also true that UNC’s offensive line did a good job of opening up holes in the run game.
The team’s havoc rate was down from last week, dropping from 23.9% to 14.3%. Havoc rate is based on forced fumbles, tackles for loss, and passes defensed; the Jackets did fine in the last category on Saturday but had less to show in the first two. The main issue is the lack of forced fumbles; through four games, the defense has officially forced just one fumble.
Other than an early sack by Antonio Simmons that helped to force a three-and-out, it was a relatively quiet day for the front four on the playmaking front. Simmons and Anree Saint-Amour got close to landing more sacks, but the unit was not as disruptive as it had been a week prior against Pitt.
A concern that emerged was that UNC was generally getting good leverage in run blocking, paving the way for their running backs to pick up decent gains on most of their carries. It wasn’t a killer on Saturday, as the Tar Heels were generally far enough behind on the scoreboard that they had to throw frequently. But if it’s a sign of things to come
Status: Stable with signs of leakage
The rotation that Tech used to start the year seemed to clear up in the UNC game, as Victor Alexander played alongside fellow junior Brant Mitchell for almost the entire first three quarters. Alexander finished with five tackles, and while he remains without a tackle for loss this season, he did have one tackle for no gain on a run play (as did Mitchell, who is in the same boat). So far they’ve done a reasonable job of bringing down the ballcarrier quickly on run plays, and they’ve had some success in the pass rush—Mitchell nearly recorded a sack in this game and was credited with a QB hurry on the play. But they’ve had trouble evading blockers who get to the second level, and if that continues, it could lead to some big plays in the run game as Tech takes on more and more athletic offensive linemen and running backs.
While he didn’t see much action until late, Terrell Lewis did record a tackle for loss in the fourth quarter, meeting Jordon Brown right as the running back caught a dump-off pass and pulling him out of bounds for a four-yard loss. True freshman Bruce Jordan-Swilling was on the field for a chunk of the fourth quarter as well; he needs to work on his pursuit angles, but for a rookie who’s still learning his assignments, he shows promise.
Status: Stable with signs of leakage
So far, ACC play has been a coming-out party for safety A.J. Gray. After an excellent effort against Pitt that featured several good tackles, the junior followed up on Saturday by adding four more tackles and recording a pair of interceptions, his first and second of the season. The first was a savvy veteran play that saw Gray give a receiver a cushion along his route, then close quickly and undercut the route to snag the interception:
The second came on the first pass attempt of the day by Brandon Harris, the LSU transfer who entered the game for Surratt in the third quarter. Harris tried to thread the needle on a deep pass, putting the ball over Alexander’s head but well within range of a leaping Gray (possibly because Gray was directly behind Alexander and out of view when the ball was released). It ended up being Harris’s only attempt of the day, as Surratt took over again on UNC’s next drive.
Strong safety Corey Griffin could have one-upped Gray’s eventful day, but he dropped a pair of potential interceptions, one of which could have easily gone for a pick six at the end of the first half. Nickel back Lawrence Austin had five tackles, and his backup Jalen Johnson took over for a chunk of the second half and added one tackle of his own.
The starting corners both had eventful days. Boundary corner Step Durham recorded a timely sack, the first of his career, on a third-and-1 corner blitz in which he had a clear lane to the quarterback. Field corner Lance Austin had a team-high seven tackles and made a nice diving deflection on what would have been a touchdown pass in the second quarter, forcing UNC to attempt a field goal; however, he also got beaten on a stop-and-go route by UNC receiver Jordan Cunningham late in the game for a 34-yard gain.
It wasn’t a perfect day for the secondary, but they forced two turnovers and made several other plays to hold the Tar Heels in check. The seasoned unit is working well together and rounding into form—which is good, because the level of play from opposing quarterbacks is about to rise dramatically.
While it isn’t a brand-new development, coordinator Ted Roof’s decision to essentially flip the roles of Gray and Griffin in the defense has paid off tremendously. Gray is nominally listed as the free safety and Corey Griffin is listed at strong safety, but they have effectively taken on the opposite roles, with Gray playing up in the box often while Griffin patrols center field. (There are still plenty of plays where both safeties are covering deep; one such play was the one where Gray made his first pick.) Overall, the switch puts Gray in position to make more plays against runs and short passes while also letting Griffin work in deep pass coverage instead of making him focus on pursuit angles in run support.
As for playcalling on Saturday, the new and more aggressive Roof was back at it again. The total fraction of blitzes seemed to drop a little, but he did continue to be creative with blitz packages, sending Gray and even the corners after the quarterback alongside Mitchell or Alexander. The zone blitzes that saw success a week ago were back, and while they weren’t always successful—UNC did a good job of picking up one such play where Simmons dropped into coverage while Mitchell and Lance Austin blitzed—they’re still fresh and keep the opposing offense on its collective toes. All in all, Roof is showing more faith in his veteran secondary, and it’s opening things up for the defense.
The big question is whether that will continue against a very talented Miami squad. Roof has opened things up against teams that were largely outmatched by Tech, but that will not be the case for the Hurricanes, who may have the most physically talented roster in the division. Will Roof throw a variety of blitzes at Miami quarterback Malik Rosier and trust in his defensive backs to make impact plays, or will he fall back on his traditional formula of soft coverage behind a four-man rush, giving up the short plays to prevent deep strikes?
Over the past three games, there’s been very little to complain about on the defensive side of the ball. Tech has almost completely silenced two straight divisional opponents that had moved the ball against them with ease in recent years, and that’s no small feat. The marked improvement of Ted Roof’s unit has been huge in helping the team win three straight contests.
But the elephant in the room is that the level of competition in those games has not been particularly high. Jacksonville State’s offense revolved around a very talented running back, but they were still an FCS team. Pitt and UNC both lost multiple NFL-caliber offensive stars in the offseason, and both faced Tech with inexperienced (and somewhat scattershot) quarterbacks who were stepping in for graduate transfers who didn’t pan out. On top of that, UNC has had to deal with numerous injuries—their situation isn’t too different from what Tech faced in 2015.
The defense deserves full credit for shutting down ACC opponents in two straight games. All the same, their next game—a road contest at No. 13 Miami on Oct. 14 following a bye week—will be a huge litmus test. If they can contain a talent-rich Miami offense that has been moving the ball with ease through three games, it’ll be a huge statement in a game that the Jackets need to win to solidify themselves as contenders in the ACC Coastal.