#InsideTheChart: None Shall Pass

Senior linebacker P.J. Davis has been a key cog in a Georgia Tech rushing defense that is allowing just 3.8 yards per carry this season.
Oct. 6, 2016

Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart -

In addition to being Georgia Tech’s most prolific tackler, P.J. Davis may also be its most prolific talker. When he or his teammates make a big play, the outside linebacker from Cairo, Ga., often punctuates it with an exaggerated, full-armed clap – think the Florida gator chomp – followed by some variation of the phrase “Let’s eat,” coated heavily in his south Georgia accent.

“We’ve got to make plays. Especially when it’s third down, everybody knows it’s time to eat. It’s time to get off the field,” explained Davis, whose 266 career tackles rank fourth among active ACC players and 15th among all active NCAA Division I FBS defenders.

A three-year starter, Davis has also led a run-defense renaissance that has been quietly overlooked during the first month of the season. Heading into Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh (12:30 p.m. EST, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network), Georgia Tech ranks 54th in the nation in yards per carry allowed (3.8).

By itself, that ranking may not carry much sizzle. But last year the Yellow Jackets ranked 91st in the nation in that category (4.7). The year before, as they romped to an 11-3 record and an Orange Bowl victory, Georgia Tech ranked 101st (5.1).

Yards Per Carry Allowed

Year         YPC Allowed    FBS Rank
2014 5.07 101
2015 4.69 91
2016 3.83 54

Davis attributes it to more reps and better savvy.

“We’ve just had great experience, guys coming in and getting more experience game-wise,” he said. “We have great leadership on our defense this year.”

In addition to Davis (31 career starts), linemen KeShun Freeman (29 starts), Patrick Gamble (19 starts) and Rod Rook-Chungong (19 starts) have started to show the rewards of their reps.

The improvement becomes even more magnified when looking at the roll call of running backs the Yellow Jackets have faced in recent weeks. It began with Vanderbilt’s explosive Ralph Webb, who had averaged 120 rushing yards over his previous eight games. Georgia Tech held him to 69 in a 38-7 win.

Next came Clemson workhorse Wayne Gallman, the reigning ACC rushing champion who gashed the Jackets for 115 yards last year. He only ran for 18 yards on 8 carries.

Last week brought the Miami duo of Joe Yearby and Mark Walton, who ranked sixth in the nation in yards per carry (8.35). Walton managed just 44 yards on 15 carries.

Yellow Jacket fans may take little consolation in those numbers – after all, Tech went 1-2 in those games. But the goal of any defense is to make an offense one-dimensional and force more predictable run-pass decisions. Compared to seasons past, the Yellow Jackets have made strides in that direction.

Head coach Paul Johnson prefers to keep his praise more muted.

“I think we’ve not had a lot of long runs in the games. Miami broke a couple that were a little longer. You don’t give up long plays and big runs, then the average will come down,” Johnson said on his weekly call-in show.

Still, the numbers bear him out. Georgia Tech ranks third in the nation in fewest runs of 10+ yards allowed.

Runs of 10-Plus Yards Allowed

Year         Avg. Per Game    FBS Rank
2014 5.3 88
2015 4.9 40
2016 2.2 3*

* among teams that have played five games

Johnson singled out another veteran as an unsung force in slowing the run.

“A guy who’s been consistent and doesn’t end up with a lot of stats but really battles and takes a beating in there is Pat Gamble. He eats up blocks,” Johnson said of his fifth-year senior.

Johnson also gave sophomore Kyle Cerge-Henderson his first start against Miami, lining him up alongside Gamble at defensive tackle.

“Kyle’s not a tall guy but he’s really thick and he plays with good leverage. He’s pretty active inside cancelling gaps and playing his responsibilities,” he said.

Combine that with fewer broken tackles and a linebacking corps that was considered a strength of the Jackets in the preseason and their numbers have continued to trend downward.

Johnson says he still wants to see improvement – namely, more tackles for loss and takeaways (Georgia Tech has forced the fewest fumbles in the ACC). The Yellow Jackets will also get a challenge this weekend from Pittsburgh, which ranks 16th in the nation in rushing at 250.0 yards per game. The Panthers combine the rugged, downhill running of 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner with a liberal amount of speed sweeps and pre-snap deception.

Johnson knows more talented offenses lie ahead.

“It’s kind of almost a flip. We started out the season, we played three of the top 10 defenses in the country. As we get more into it, we’ll start to play some of the better offenses,” he said.

But as the numbers show, the Georgia Tech defense has made big gains by doing exactly the opposite: preventing them.

They’ll look to continue that improvement Saturday.

Pull up a chair. It’s time to eat.