The scenario facing Georgia Tech’s defense this week isn’t exactly ideal.
Three wins are in the ledger, and that’s the good news. But those first three were supposed to be the easy ones, and instead, the Yellow Jackets have had to sweat out each ‘W’ thus far.
In what should have served as the Yellow Jackets’ final tune-up before ACC play last week, Georgia Southern racked up 528 yards of offense and nearly pulled off the upset before a frenetic finish allowed Tech to escape with a win. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof summed up the performance is blunt fashion: “Embarrassed and disappointed,” he said.
And now comes a road game at Virginia Tech, and still so many questions on the Georgia Tech defense remain.
“We’re happy we’re 3-0, but we’re not happy with how we got there,” defensive end Adam Gotsis said. “There’s plenty of work to still be done. We’ve shown some good things, but we also have a lot of bad that we need to improve on.”
The numbers tell a relatively bleak story. Georgia Tech’s defense ranks 113th nationally in yards-per-play allowed, a particularly galling stat given the level of competition, which includes FCS Wofford and two teams from outside the Power 5. Among all Power 5 teams, only Iowa State, South Carolina and Kansas have allowed a higher yards-per-play to teams outside the Power 5 so far this season -- and they’ve played just one such game apiece. The Yellow Jackets are surrendering nearly 2 yards per play more against non-Power 5 teams than they did just a year ago.
Last week’s game, in particular, illustrated what Gotsis and Roof believe to be the biggest culprit, however.
“We shouldn’t have been in that position,” Gotsis said. “We should’ve come out and put our foot on the pedal, but we let up a bit.”
If focus was an issue in the first three weeks, Virginia Tech has the Jackets’ undivided attention.
What the Hokies also have, however, is a passing game.
Perhaps the biggest question mark on Georgia Tech’s revamped defense entering the season was the pass rush, but with two option teams in the first three weeks, that’s one area that hasn’t gotten much of a test.
That won’t be the case against the Hokies, who lead the ACC in passing attempts and have thrown the ball 52 percent of the time thus far.
With that in mind, Roof is rotating in younger players in the secondary and on the line during practice, hoping to build some much-needed depth.
“We’re looking to give more people opportunities,” Roof said. “We’ll have to rotate guys, and with that comes some growing pains. But that’s also how you develop depth.”
Gotsis was Georgia Tech’s leader in sacks among returning players with just 6.5 entering the year, but the opportunities to get after the quarterback have been rare thus far. Of the 180 plays the Jackets have faced so far, 61 percent have been runs. Even in the one game they faced a more pass-heavy team, Tulane went to battle with a freshman QB making just his second career start.
Still, the work in practice has Gostis optimistic that improvement is just around the corner.
“[The pass rush] is not where it has to be at the moment, and we lost a lot of guys who were at getting to the passer, but we’ve had some guys step up,” Gostis said. “Playing the option teams, it’s hard to get pressure on the quarterback, but when we get out there and do one-on-ones, we need to make the most of those opportunities so when we get into a game, we’re ready for it.”
Tech has just four sacks thus far -- three coming against Tulane -- but they’ve come from some encouraging sources. Gotsis praised the work of sophomore Tyler Stargel and freshman KeShun Freeman, and said he’s encouraged by the progress they’ve made in limited opportunities.
But this week is the real test, and against Virginia Tech there won’t be room for growing pains or lost focus. The Hokies have a veteran quarterback who has already toppled a top-10 team. They have two hulking running backs eager to break tackles. They have a game plan that won’t be one-dimensional.
It’s also an opportunity, and after three sluggish warm-up acts, Georgia Tech is eager to see what happens when it puts the pedal to the floor.
“It’s going to be a good battle going into Virginia Tech,” Gotsis said. “They have a very experienced O-line coming back and it’ll be good to get some young guys in for us and get a good rotation going and get some pressures and some sacks.”