Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Turnovers and points off turnovers are game-changing and game-breaking stats in football.
During last year's season-ending four-game winning streak, Georgia Tech held a 41-10 bulge on opponents in points off turnovers thanks to their 10-3 edge in turnovers created.
Then, on Monday, in their season-opening 42-41 double-overtime loss to Tennessee, which snapped that four-game streak, the Yellow Jackets lost the points-off-turnovers battle, 14-0. The Jackets didn't record a takeaway against the Vols.
But the ability to create turnovers and convert them into points made all the difference in Georgia Tech's 37-10 home-opening win over Jacksonville State on Saturday. The Jackets turned the game around, then put it away, by creating and cashing in on takeaways in three-straight series bridging the first and second halves.
"I thought that the defense did a great job starting on the next-to-last series in the first half when Lawrence [Austin] got the pick," said head coach Paul Johnson, who moved to 10-0 in home openers at Tech. "Then, it was like two- or three-straight possessions where we got turnovers and short fields and we were able to hit a couple of plays on third down down there."
It all started with an interception by Austin, the Jackets' senior nickel back, with 1:44 left in the half and Georgia Tech trailing, 7-3.
Austin had talked in the days leading up to Saturday's game -- one of only four days that separated the Yellow Jackets' first two games of the season -- about how badly Georgia Tech's defense needed to make plays. The Jackets desperately needed one on Saturday, as they had just been stymied offensively and had just been stopped on fourth-and-one at the Gamecocks 36 with 2:38 left before intermission. On first and 10 at the JSU 49, Austin stepped up -- stepped in, actually, -- in front of a pass intended for a receiver on left flat from Gamecocks' QB Bryant Horn.
"I saw a sprintout and when we see a sprintout, we just run our play," said Austin, of his sixth career pick, which he returned all the way to the JSU 32 before getting accidentally pushed down by his twin brother, Lance. "The linebacker put on great pressure so it made it easy for me. [Horn] just threw it right to me. I think that got momentum going. TaQuon made a great throw, Ricky Jeune made a great catch. So I think we got momentum going into the half, which was what we needed."
As Austin mentioned, two plays after his pick, TaQuon Marshall found Jeune in the right corner of the end zone. Jeune won a jumpball and, instead of a 7-3 deficit or worse, Tech took a 10-7 lead into the break.
As is so often the case with something like turnovers, all it takes is getting that first one and then the floodgates open.
The Georgia Tech turnover-creation machine came out in force in the second half, causing miscues on consecutive plays to end each of JSU's first two drives.
On second-and seven on the opening drive, senior corner Step Durham picked off another Horn pass, putting Tech back in business at the 16.
The defense's playmaking fired up the offense, which kept the momentum building.
"It's always great when the defense gets a turnover and you're on your own side of the 50. You have more variety of plays you can run -- when you're that close, you can switch it up," said Marshall, who accounted for four more touchdowns and who saw his QB rating at one point hit 361.9. "We were very excited. We were glad the defense could get us back on the field so we could put some points on the board and secure them more."
Four plays after Durham's pick, Marshall again found Jeune on the right side. He blew past corner Siran Neal then spun away from safety Marlon Bridges and walked into the end zone.
On the ensuing Jacksonville State possession, Bryant lost control of the ball after a one-yard gain and junior safety A.J. Gray fell on the ball at the JSU 26. This time, the Jackets needed six plays and a roughing the kicker penalty -- taking a made field goal off the board -- before hitting paydirt. On third-and-nine at the 10, Marshall started right then threw back across his body to the back of the end zone under the goalpost, where a leaping J.J. Green pulled in the scoring pass.
Even though Shawn Davis missed the PAT -- the only stain on an otherwise perfect day -- the Jackets had breathing room at 23-7.
On the other side, Jacksonville State, the nation's No. 5-ranked team in NCAA Division I FCS, would barely have room to breathe as the Yellow Jackets defense swarmed.
"It was effort." said Austin. "We talked about finishing. We know how we felt last week in the second half. Nobody wanted to feel the same way, so [the front seven] started to take over."
On the day, Georgia Tech's front seven, which didn't have a sack and only one tackle for loss for minus-two yards against Tennessee, compiled five sacks for 33 yards in losses and eight total tackles for loss, accounting for 48 lost yards. Five different players recorded a TFL, led by junior defensive lineman Anree Saint-Amour, who had two sacks among his three stops behind the line of scrimmage.
"It was a team-defense kind of thing," said Saint-Amour, who upped his career totals to seven sacks and nine tackles for loss. "On one of the sacks, there was great pressure up the middle and it just kind of popped out to me. The other one, [Brentavious Glanton] did a great job wrapping around and it fell into my hands, again. So it was a great job by the whole defense, doing their jobs and just executing off of that."
Georgia Tech's defense came down hard on the Gamecocks especially in the final 30 minutes. After allowing 94 rushing yards on 19 attempts in the first half, Tech surrendered 22 on the ground on 19 attempts after the break. They also limited JSU to 1-for-5 on third down after the Gamecocks were 2-for-4 in the first 30 minutes.
Tech's pressure limited JSU to one second-half scoring drive, an 11-play, 65-yard drive that lasted 5:45 but only resulted in a field goal. The other Gamecocks' other five possessions combined for 12 plays, gained 27 yards, lasted 7:23 and resulted in an interception, a fumble and three punts.
"We talked about being more aggressive and we did a good job with that," said Johnson. "I thought they had a good plan and we ran a lot more stunts, a lot more blitzes and got some negative plays, which makes it easier to play. And we made plays. When they threw the ball and we had the chance to get turnovers, we did."
"A couple of freshmen got the first sacks of their career, so I was super-proud of those guys. Even the older guys got a lot of pressure," Austin said. "That makes our job [in the secondary] easier. We said, `We're going to hold them. You get pressure.' It goes both ways. I'm super-proud of the defensive line and the linebackers for getting pressure."
With the turnover monkey off its back, the defense will look to build on Saturday's performance against JSU and prepare for its first true road game of the season next Saturday, in Orlando against the Knights of UCF.
"There'll be some learning. We can play much better," Johnson said. "We won the game ... thank goodness the defense showed up and played big."