Seventeen points isn’t exactly a bad day at the office on paper, but while the offense took a major step forward on Saturday, the defense didn’t exactly have a perfect showing. Tech gave up nearly 400 yards of offense and several long drives to Bowling Green, one of the least imposing teams in all of FBS.
For the clearest evidence, let’s check in with Nate Woody himself:
Still, the defense did well enough to help Tech win comfortably thanks largely to a few timely turnovers, one of which turned into a defensive touchdown. The turnovers are, of course, a very promising sign; the fact that they gave up yards in droves to BGSU’s offense is not.
Week 5 vs. Bowling Green: Defense by the Numbers
|Points per Possession||1.5|
|Total Yards Allowed||393|
|Rush Yards Allowed||63|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||1.7|
|Pass Yards Allowed||330|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||6.7|
|Opp. Yards per Play||4.5|
|Third Down Conversions||11/19|
|Fourth Down Conversions||2/3|
On the surface, Tech had an excellent day against the run, allowing just 1.7 yards per carry. It’s important to note, however, that this average includes two sacks of BGSU quarterback Jarret Doege and a third play in which Doege took a 17-yard loss on a botched snap. Removing those three plays—which totaled -40 yards—leaves BGSU with 103 yards on 35 actual carries, which is still below 3.0 yards per carry. Tech was beaten for some moderate gains on the ground, but the longest rush they permitted was for just 14 yards.
The bigger concern was the passing game, where the Falcons had little trouble racking up yards against Tech’s zone-heavy coverage. Tech got more pressure than usual, but BGSU’s Air Raid offense relied on the short passing game. They moved the ball via quick passes on short curls and quick slants, exploiting holes underneath in Tech’s Cover 3 scheme. BGSU converted 11 third downs and had five possessions that lasted for 10 or more plays.
The havoc rate is respectable, if a tick low. For this calculation, the Victor Alexander strip-sack was only counted as one havoc play even though it featured both a tackle for loss and a forced fumble; double-counting it would bump the havoc rate up by about one percentage point. The stuff rate looks decent at first glance—seven stuffs on 38 rushes—but note that this rate includes those three Doege plays that went for -40 yards. Removing those three plays leaves a stuff rate of 11.4 percent on actual run plays, which is... not all that promising.
Anree Saint-Amour continues to be the star for Tech up front. He finished the game with a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss, and the most entertaining play of the day—which also resulted in his first career touchdown:
Credit Desmond Branch with an assist for swatting the pass at the line, and credit Saint-Amour for tracking it and reeling in the pick. Earlier on, Antwan Owens recovered a fumble deep in BGSU territory to set up a Tech touchdown. Each of the three was also credited with a QB hurry during the game.
All in all, it was a solid day for the line, which rotated in a number of players and delivered a number of plays at key moments. They still need to work on getting leverage in the run game, but to date they’ve been one of the more effective position groups in Woody’s defense.
Senior Victor Alexander, the primary Jack linebacker, delivered one of the biggest impact plays of the game, forcing the fumble that Owens recovered:
Alexander’s best asset has always been his tackling power—when he gets up to full speed, he can hit like a truck. On this play, a simple blocking breakdown left him completely unblocked on a blind-side rush, and he delivered a turnover that gave Tech the ball inside the BGSU 20-yard line. All in all, Saturday’s game was a step forward for Alexander, who has struggled to generate impact plays this season but delivered the strip-sack and a QB hurry to boost the defense.
In the second half, a new face entered the mix at Jack: true freshman Charlie Thomas, a safety-turned-WR-turned-LB who lined up at Stinger LB in the preseason. Thomas is a bit undersized for the Jack position, and that could give him trouble in the pass rush and in defending power runs in future games. But he makes up for it with good coverage skills and a sharp ability to attack the backfield.
Across the field, Stinger linebackers Jalen Johnson and Christian Campbell each had relatively quiet days. Johnson got beaten on quick slants a couple times, but he also had a QB hurry on a well-executed play:
Johnson sees Saint-Amour and Kyle Cerge-Henderson occupying the left guard and center, respectively. Instead of going outside as designed, Johnson cuts back to his left and, with the running back not staying home to block, has a clear lane to the passer. The pressure forces Doege to get rid of the ball. It’s a smart play from a veteran, and plays like that will help to make the defense successful in the long run.
Senior Brant Mitchell covered the most ground, finishing with eight tackles, but it was David Curry who had the play of the day for the defense. With BGSU in a goal-to-go situation in the third quarter, Doege took a shot at the end zone on third down, and Curry—who had positioned himself well in his zone—stepped in front of it for a drive-killing interception.
The ILBs still have work to do in run fits (being in the right place as a run play develops), but just as Alexander’s strip-sack was a much-needed big play for the senior, Curry’s pick was a boost for a position group that has similarly struggled to make impact plays.
For the second straight week, Ajani Kerr and Lamont Simmons got the nod at corner. It was a rough day for Kerr; he was solid in run support and finished with eight tackles, but in coverage, he got beaten on multiple occasions, including BGSU’s first touchdown and a later would-be TD where the receiver made the catch but failed to get his foot down. It was probably just an off day for the sophomore, who has to date shown a talent for sticking with receivers. Tre Swilling stepped in occasionally and had one nice pass breakup, but he didn’t add much in run support.
Simmons had a quiet day on the other end, which isn’t a bad thing for a corner, but he suffered what appeared to be a shoulder injury in the second half. His status going forward is unclear, but with Jaytlin Askew already having missed two straight games, it’s a blow to depth at a position where Tech is already fairly inexperienced.
True freshman Jaylon King saw some action late in the game. It’s worth noting that on the Saint-Amour pick six, King broke on the ball immediately; had the pass reached the receiver, it’s entirely possible that he would have been in position to either swat it or pick it off. If both Askew and Simmons have to miss extended time, it’s very possible that King and fellow true freshman Zamari Walton end up in the regular rotation.
It was another day at the office for Malik Rivera and Tariq Carpenter. Rivera didn’t have an interception off a deflection in this one (maybe it’s an every-other-game thing?), but he did have a team-high 10 tackles. Carpenter added six of his own, including a key third-down stop at the line of scrimmage on BGSU’s first possession that forced them to kick a field goal. Reserve Kaleb Oliver had an up-and-down day; he missed at least one tackle in run support, but he also had a nice pass breakup in the third quarter.
Woody continues to lean on two general personnel packages. The first is the base 3-4, which is on the field in most situations and takes advantage of the outside linebackers’ versatility to cover slot receivers. The second is the dime package, in which Saint-Amour lines up as a pass-rushing linebacker and Tech replaces two other linebackers with an extra corner (varies) and safety (usually Kaleb Oliver).
In terms of coverage, Woody still calls a heavy dose of Cover 3 while occasionally mixing in some man coverage. Neither was particularly effective in this game; BGSU routinely completed short curl routes when Tech lined up in zone, and they got completions via quick slants when the Jackets were in man.
One notable new wrinkle was a playcall that used one of the inside linebackers to cover a deep zone over the middle. It was reminiscent of the famous NFL Tampa Two scheme, in which a 4-3 middle linebacker is responsible for patrolling both short and deep zones over the middle... but in this case the ILB dropped back deep immediately at the snap, so it was more likely just a new Cover 3 variant that used an ILB for the middle deep zone instead of a safety. This would theoretically free up both corners to play shorter zones and thus let them play up closer at the line, but at the cost of having a linebacker in coverage downfield.
On BGSU’s first drive, the lack of heat was alarming; Tech more or less sat back and allowed BGSU to complete pass after pass to move the ball downfield. That changed with time, and Woody mixed in some interesting playcalls, ranging from a boundary corner blitz to a zone blitz with the NT in coverage to sending all four linebackers. That said, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Tech DC does not plan on throwing blitzes quite as frequently as his reputation suggests—which might simply be the result of working with a young secondary and a linebacking corps that’s still learning the ropes.
The interior of the defense seems to have hammered out depth. All three defensive line starters are secure, as are the inside linebackers and both safety spots. That leaves the outside linebackers (or at least Jack LB) and corners as the positions in flux.
Charlie Thomas’s emergence at Jack was a bit out of left field, but he held his own at a position where Tech has been in dire need of production. It’s not yet clear if he’s moved past Jaquan Henderson and Jordan Domineck on the depth chart, but it’s clear the coaching staff wants to get him on the field. Meanwhile, the cornerback situation is muddled thanks to the injuries to Askew and Simmons. Swilling and Kerr would seem to be the starters by default, but it would leave Tech with a pair of true freshmen (Walton and King) as the second-string corners, which is... less than ideal.
Giving up 400 yards to a meh offense is far from a positive outcome, as Woody can attest*:
But to their credit, the defense did deliver several turnovers and (to borrow Uncle Verne’s term) an N.O.T., meaning they gave up a net point total of just 10 points. That is indeed a positive outcome, as Woody can also attest:
If nothing else, there were at least positives to take away in a big win just one week after Tech got pushed around by Clemson. It was also more reminiscent of Woody’s overall brand of defense: attack and capitalize on mistakes, even if it means giving up yards. If Tech can bring all of that to bear in its remaining ACC games, it’ll be a step forward for the unit.
The competition steps up again as Tech travels to Louisville for a Friday night tilt against a certain offensive-minded coach who was branded a coward the last time he left Atlanta. It’s not the toughest matchup left on the schedule, but if the Jackets are to leave with their first ACC win, they’ll almost certainly need the defense to wreak some havoc.
* Note the game situation here. Woody is this mad immediately after a play where Tech gave up one yard.