Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
A.J. Gray wasn't about to play the fool again on Saturday afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Instead, he played North Carolina.
With last season's 48-20 loss to the Tar Heels still fresh on his mind, Gray made a pair of third-quarter interceptions that keyed Georgia Tech's 33-7 win, a near whitewash on Whiteout Saturday at Bobby Dodd.
"I learned from my mistake last year," said Gray, who came into Saturday with one interception in his three-year career. "Last year they were reading me off of the run. If I came up (quarterback Mitch Trubisky) threw the slant behind me and if I just sat there, he just handed it off. (This time) I just stayed there and played off of (UNC QB Chazz Surratt). He was playing the game with me but I was playing it with him, too."
Gray played it better, especially early in the third period, as his first pick allowed Georgia Tech to break open a then-10-0 game.
"I thought A.J. probably played as well as he has played," said head coach Paul Johnson, whose Yellow Jackets (3-1, 2-0) snapped a three-game losing streak against UNC (1-4, 0-3). "Some of their run-pass stuff, he was right on cue with it. He stepped underneath the slants and got a couple picks. It was good to see him make plays because he has got a lot of ability. Plus he made a couple nice plays in open field on tackles. I'm proud of A.J., I thought he played well."
As it has for the vast majority of the first month of the season, the entire defense played well. The unit forced seven three-and-outs, including on each of the Heels' first three series, and limited UNC to 2-for-12 on third down. The seven points allowed were a season low, the fewest points allowed since the 38-7 thumping of Vanderbilt last Sept. 17, and the fewest points the Jackets have given up to North Carolina since Sept. 26, 2009, a 24-7 win. The seven points also were a season-low for Carolina and matched the second-fewest scored in Coach Larry Fedora's six-year tenure.
The 26-point margin of victory was Tech's fourth-largest in its 53-game all-time series with UNC and the biggest since a 31-0 win on Oct. 5, 1985, which coincidentally was current defensive coordinator Ted Roof's senior season with the Jackets.
It also marked a nice turnaround for a Georgia Tech defense that had allowed 134 points in the previous three games with the Heels, all losses.
"I said on Tuesday that we were a different defense," said senior defensive end Antonio Simmons, who had a huge sack for a nine-yard loss on third-and-14 in the first quarter after Tech had taken a 7-0 lead. "We are more mature, we were ready. We already knew what we were going to do so it's not a surprise to us."
Gray's two interceptions didn't come as a surprise to senior cornerback Lance Austin.
"A.J.'s a ball-hawk," said Austin, who led the Jackets with a season-high seven tackles (all solo) and added a pass-breakup. "He got two picks in a game. That's hard to do. Then he got them in a critical time, after the offense turned the ball over. I'm proud of A.J. and his performance today.
"As a defense, we're just flying around, having fun and making plays," Austin added.
"The way the defense is playing, we just want it," said Gray. "We play with a lot of energy. That's all there is to it. We just want to do it."
Gray wanted, and got, his two picks the same way: twice closing late and cutting in front of Carolina receivers to snag Surratt passes.
The first interception came on the very first play after Tech's first drive of the second half was abruptly ended by a TaQuon Marshall fumble at the UNC 48. With the Yellow Jackets' lead still rather tenuous at 10-0, Gray stepped in front of wide receiver Roscoe Johnson, who was cutting over the middle, and regained possession for the Jackets at their own 37. A play later, B-back KirVonte Benson scored on a 63-yard run, turning what might have been a one-possession game into a blowout in the span of just two snaps.
"It was definitely a momentum shift," said Benson. "Shoutout to the defense. Any big play is a shift in momentum. It can boost our morale up [to] go down there and score."
"I was very thankful. A.J. made a play and then we got right back on the field and went down and scored," said Marshall. "We probably would have scored on the drive I fumbled on but I really had to just try and put it behind me because I try to spark the offense myself, so if I'm down, then they'll be down."
Gray got his second pick later in the third period, this time cutting in front of a Brandon Harris pass intended for Beau Corrales at the Carolina 41. He'd return it 19-yard return to the UNC 24.
That drive wouldn't end as well, as Benson would fumble into the end zone, but Gray's second INT still represented another big stop for what has quietly become one of the nation's top 10 defenses.
"Of course, turnovers are unfortunate and you don't want to have them," said Benson. "But to have the mindset that the defense is going to go out there and make a play takes a load off."
The defense kept the pressure on all day -- limiting Carolina to 8:25 of possession and 27 plays in the first half -- and has no plans on letting up anytime soon.
"I think we are playing better. We're tackling better," said Johnson. "Other than the one double move there at the end, we haven't given up a lot of big plays. We're being able to stop the run with some blitzes and stunts. It makes it hard if teams don't run the ball."
The Jackets have no doubt they'll continue to rise to the occasion, starting in two weeks at nationally ranked Miami (Fla.).
"As a defense, we're just flying around, having fun and making plays," Austin said. "Everybody on our defensive is self-motivated and we're motivated as a defense. That's one thing about our defense, we're never satisfied and we're not going to get complacent. We're always looking for a way to get better."
"I don't feel like we played our best. We can get better in a lot of ways," said Simmons. "We're still letting them drive the ball. They missed two field goals but we still gave up enough yards that we can play way better than we did."
Gray sees himself continuing to improve and play faster and faster within the scheme.
"I know my job so that allows me to play fast and just do things," he said. "Freshman year, everything was just going real fast and my eyes were everywhere. But now I'm putting my eyes where they're supposed to be and (I can) just play."
Gray expects that from everyone, especially senior strong safety Corey Griffin, who also had his hands on two interceptions -- including what looked like a pick-six at the end of the first half -- but couldn't hang on to either.
"I didn't give him a hard time. That's my boy," said Gray. "He'll get it back. He'll catch the next ones."
No reason to think that otherwise. After all, picking each other up is what this defense does.