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Georgia Tech Football: GT Defense vs. Duke Advanced Stats Review

Georgia Tech’s Defense dominated this game, and that’s music to my ears

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Duke at Georgia Tech Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Final Score: Georgia Tech 23 Duke 20 (OT)

Model Prediction: Duke by 2, GT to cover: Correct

Projected EPA (Offense and Defense) Margin of Victory: GT by 17

GT Win Probability (Based on Success Rate, Yards Per Play, and EPA): 88%

Georgia Tech won its second straight game for the first time since Paul Johnson’s farewell season. Overall, Tech largely dominated this game despite the razor-thin final margin. Unlike last week, GT did the more predictive things much better than Duke did in this game. The 17 point EPA margin and 88% win expectancy point to that domination, which was also reflected in various models that have come out so far this week. In Bill Connelly’s SP+, Tech rose from 92nd to 85th, while the Binion Index saw GT jump from 100th to 78th.

Advanced Stats Comparison

Coming into the game, we noted that Duke held the advantage in 21 of the 22 categories we compare in our previews but emphasized that the context for those numbers was very important. They came against the 116th rated schedule for the Blue Devils and the 11th rated schedule for GT, per FPI. That warning was right, as GT ended up finding the edge in 14 of the 23 matchups during the game. Further, Georgia Tech held an advantage in the most significant categories (EPA/play, yards per play, success rate). The offense was generally average; the advantages mostly come because the defense was so, so good in this game. Let’s dive into more of why that was the case.

When Duke Had the Ball

Duke was below average in efficiency and had absolute zero in the way of explosiveness. It’s awfully hard to win a game in which your offense is in the 32nd percentile in success rate and the 1st percentile in explosive play rate. Georgia Tech’s tackling, alignment, and coverage all worked together to keep Duke from hitting hardly any chunk plays. The secondary especially, with Clayton Powell-Lee stepping in for the injured leader Jaylon King and LaMiles Brooks making only his fourth career start, was just fantastic. Georgia Tech blitzed a lot in this game, and the staff was right to bet that Leonard would largely be unable to take advantage of that.

Rushing Defense

The run defense was not dominant but provided a high level of containment. The numbers end up looking quite similar to how they did against Pittsburgh, as Georgia Tech was willing to concede short gains to Duke but prevented any kind of explosive runs. Duke’s opportunity rate was relatively high at 46% (the % of runs that gained four or more yards), but these were not very hurtful yards, as evidenced by the excellent EPA/rush number that GT posted on defense.

At the individual level, Charlie Thomas really struggled in run defense in this one, grading out on PFF at 38. Otherwise, the safeties were excellent in run support, with the true freshman Clayton Powell-Lee leading the way with a run grade of 73 and LaMiles Brooks close behind at 67. The defensive line did its part and held up well, as evidenced by Noah Collins at 73, Kyle Kennard at 68, D’Quan Douse and Keion White at 67, and Ayinde Eley, Zeek Biggers, Akelo Stone, and Makius Scott all at 64. The key takeaway there is that there was no real weak link up front, no clear place for Duke to attack. At the end of the day, Duke lost value when it ran the ball almost every time.

Defensive Disruption

GT Disruption vs. Duke

Player Defending Havoc Plays # of Pressures # of Run Stuffs PFF Grade
Player Defending Havoc Plays # of Pressures # of Run Stuffs PFF Grade
Thomas 4 3 1 53
Eley 0 3 0 61
White 0 1 0 61
Walton 1 0 0 77
Kennard 1 3 0 67
Brooks 1 0 0 69
Wallace 2 1 0 64
Gee 1 1 0 78
Johnson 1 0 0 72
Yondjouen 2 2 0 52
Douse 1 1 0 64

Looking at our top line disruption metrics, Georgia Tech’s run stuff rate was very low, the havoc rate was about average, and the pressure rate was excellent. Andrew Thacker used Charlie Thomas extensively in blitz packages, and Thomas led the way in pressures. Ace Eley and Kyle Kenanrd were getting consistent pressure as well. PFF’s pass rush grades (Thomas was at 67, Kennard at 66, everyone else lower) do help us notice something important: GT got a lot of pressure but also consistently struggled to maintain rush lanes, allowing Riley Leonard to escape for significant scramble yards, especially early. All of GT’s disruption metrics continue to be improved from last year, and one clear picture of the impact of that was the K.J. Wallace interception that was caused in large part by the pressure Kyle Kennard got on that play.

Pass Coverage

GT Coverage vs. Duke

Player in Primary Coverage Targets CPOE Allowed YAC Allowed PFF Coverage Grade
Player in Primary Coverage Targets CPOE Allowed YAC Allowed PFF Coverage Grade
Sims 4 -1.17% 3 63
Thomas 4 -8.25% 8 60
Eley 1 22.50% 1 60
Allen 1 47.00% 2 55
Walton 8 -29.33% 4 78
Brooks 5 10.63% 1 69
Wallace 4 -35.44% 17 63
Johnson 1 -51.00% 0 72

The most impressive single metric for the defense on Saturday is the 0th percentile performance for Riley Leonard in Completion Percentage over Expectation. That speaks to the pressure he felt in the pocket but perhaps more so to the excellent coverage that the secondary provided all game long. With Clayton Powell-Lee making his first career start and LaMiles Brooks just his fourth, this could have been a difficult game for GT’s backend. Instead, it was one of the best games they’ve played in years. Zamari Walton was lights out in coverage, but once again, there really wasn’t a weak link. When Duke did complete passes, there was nearly always a player in perfect position to make an immediate tackle. The Blue Devils had minimal yards after the catch.

There was one frustrating play when K.J. Wallace missed a tackle to give up extra yardage on a fourth down conversion for Duke, but it’s refreshing to only have one play come to mind when thinking about potential improvement for the secondary. This group is night and day from last year. Let’s give credit to Coach Tillman, to the senior leaders in Myles Sims and Zamari Walton, and to the great development in the young guys like Brooks and Powell-Lee.

To sum things up here, PFF’s top five graded defenders for GT’s defense overall were secondary players. This group led the way to the win.

EPA Highlights

EPA calculates the expected number of points added (or lost in the case of a negative number) on a particular play based on the down and the location on they field.

As always, we’ll take a look at the most helpful and hurtful plays for GT.

Most Helpful Plays

  1. 3.67 EPA - Jeff Sims’s 37 yard touchdown pass to Leo Blackburn on 2nd and 2 to give GT a 17-3 lead.
  2. 3.29 EPA - K.J. Wallace’s interception of Riley Leonard after Kyle Kennard got pressure on 3rd and goal from the GT 8.
  3. 3.28 EPA - LaMiles Brooks’s pass breakup to force a turnover on downs on 4th and 5 from the GT 39 with GT leading 20-13.
  4. 2.80 EPA - Jeff Sims’s 18 yard touchdown pass to Nate McCollum on 2nd and 9 to make it 10-3.

These highlights give an excellent picture of how Georgia Tech won this game: two impressive passing touchdowns and two excellent instances of pass defense. Mike Glennon highlighted the throw to McCollum as an NFL level play from Sims, and the other play to Blackburn showed adept touch and ball placement. Here’s to hoping for the Leo Blackburn breakout to continue over the second half of the season.

Most Hurtful Plays

  1. -5.32 EPA - Duke punt return touchdown to make it 20-13.
  2. -3.05 EPA - Pass Interference on K.J. Wallace to give Duke 1st and Goal from the 2 on the final possession of regulation.
  3. -2.99 EPA - Riley Leonard’s 22 yard completion on 4th and 2 from the GT 31 in the middle of the third quarter.

The lack of items on this list that were directly generated by Duke’s offense once again speaks to how much GT generally outplayed the Blue Devils in this game. The punt return for a touchdown was extremely frustrating and allowed Duke back in the game, and Coach Key acknowledged that was probably a result of moving too far in the direction of emphasizing punt protection over coverage. It almost happened again on the following punt, and that has to get cleaned up.

Tracking Season Goals

*I set these goals for the 2022 season in some of my offseason preview work. We will be tracking them as we go this year.

GT Season Goals vs. Duke

Metric Season Goal This Week Season Long
Metric Season Goal This Week Season Long
GT CPOE >= 2% 3% -4%
Pressure Rate Allowed <=26% 18% 30%
Run Rate on 2nd Down and Long <=40% 55% 57%
Average Depth of Target >=9 8 9
Defensive Passing EPA/play <= 0.08 -0.05 0.02
Defensive Havoc Rate >=18% 17% 16%
Defensive Pressure Rate >= 27% 37% 30%

Tech hit four of my seven weekly goals in this game, and those were all significant factors in the win. Sims’s increased accuracy combined with an offensive line performance that limited pressure made the passing game much more effective. As we’ve covered already, the pass defense was absolutely excellent and continues to run miles ahead of where it was last year. For the second straight week, the pressure rate was also very high, and that combination could keep GT a defensive menace over the second half of the season.


  1. Leo Blackburn got on the field for the first time as a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket and almost immediately showed the glimpses of star power that had been promised. He had two drops as he shook off the early cobwebs, but his touchdown catch was a decisive blow in the game and a harbinger of what could be to come in this passing game.
  2. The secondary is on a different plane from last year, and the defensive glitches that were so painful and so inexplicable by season’s end have all but stopped. This is a huge achievement and a meaningful raiser of the floor for this team’s performance level.
  3. Team quality has improved meaningfully, as Georgia Tech’s weekly rating in The Binion Index shows, rising from -8.5 to -7.7 to -4.3 since the dismissal of the previous head coach. The schedule has also opened up, as UVA, Virginia Tech, and Miami have continued to decline in team quality. The door to bowl eligibility is absolutely open at this point, as GT now projects for 5 wins and could continuing improving to the point where 6 is a very realistic outcome. Enjoy the bye, and come out loud and proud for UVA next Thursday night.