#TGW: Pick Pockets
The Yellow Jackets are leading the ACC in turnover margin
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
As he lugged his way down the sideline Saturday at N.C. State while carrying an interception that had begun to feel like an anchor, Quayshawn Nealy had an idea as the Wolfpack gave chase.
"I thought about cutting right, to the middle of the field; there was more green there," recalled the senior linebacker. "But . . . I was kind of tired. It had already been like a 12-play drive."
The sight of Georgia Tech's senior linebacker not exactly zipping past teammates and coaches on the sideline only to be caught from behind and stripped of the ball after a 71-yard return was in itself odd, but the start of the scene was not unusual.
Takeaways have been a big part of Tech's success this season, as the No. 22 Yellow Jackets (8-2, 5-2 ACC) lead the league in turnover ratio with a +8 total in conference games (17-9 takeaways/turnovers) and a league-high average of 1.18 more takeaways per game than turnovers.
Nealy is leading the way.
With a team-high three fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and one of each returned for scores, he leads Tech defenders with 33 points on the squad's impact plays board. "He tends to be around the ball," said head coach Paul Johnson.
Cornerback D.J. White is second on that list, with 29 points, after he and Nealy both scored big at N.C. State.
Defensive scores are worth six points (and one for every teammate on the field at the time), and each fumble forced, fumble recovered, interception and sack is worth a point.
Two plays after Nealy's interception/fumble, which actually came on the 14th play of an N.C. State drive, White stepped in front of a Jacoby Brissett pass, intercepted and returned it 48 yards to give the Jackets a 21-13 lead.
Six plays later, linebacker Tyler Marcordes sacked Brissett to force a fumble that Nealy scooped and returned 43 yards. Nobody caught him that time, and the Jackets led a 28-13 lead with 7:12 left in the half.
Even as N.C. State ran 25 consecutive offensive plays and the Jackets ran zero, the game turned dramatically thanks to three Tech takeaways.
That was nothing new.
Tech has scored 101 points this season off 21 takeaways (14 touchdowns, one field goal). The Jackets' +70 points-off-turnovers margin is their greatest since 2000 (+74, 107-33).
"It was certainly a big confidence boost for us," said defensive coordinator Ted Roof. "That's the way you preach . . . keep playing hard, and something good will happen for you and it did. It changed the complexion of the game. It changed the entire game," he said of the sequence.
N.C. State freshman running back Jaylen Samuels caught Nealy after the pick, ripped the ball out and stole the thing to return possession to the Wolfpack.
One could make the argument that despite Nealy's re-gifting, the damage to N.C. State was done. The `Pack was hardly a threat from that point onward.
Nealy's pick came on the 14th play of a 70-yard drive, and that followed consecutive N.C. State touchdown-scoring drives of 9-75 and 12-71.
The Pack was rolling with three consecutive drives of 70-plus yards, two of which ended with touchdowns and a third that was close.
Before that odd pick.
N.C. State's next six possessions netted 63 yards in 20 plays, and the Jackets ran away (season-high 479 rushing yards) to post a 56-23 win in Raleigh.
The Jackets were emboldened; the `Pack was sacked.
"It feels great as a defensive player to get in the end zone," said White. "It can be such a momentum changer."
Takeaways have been central to the Jackets' success, and turnovers unfortunately critical in their most important loss.
White and safety Jamal Golden have joined Nealy with a knack for keen timing.
Golden forced a fumble late against Georgia Southern, and not long after end KeShun Freeman recovered, quarterback Justin Thomas drove the Jackets to win on a 13-yard pass to Deon Hill with 23 seconds left for a 42-38 victory.
White's fourth-quarter interception at Virginia Tech sent the Jackets on another game-winning drive to kick off the ACC season. Linebacker Paul Davis also returned an interception for a score in that 27-24 win in Blacksburg.
Golden's end zone interception with 1:11 left sealed the Jackets' 28-17 win over Miami.
The model flipped in a 31-25 loss to ACC Coastal division leader Duke as the Blue Devils - who are second in the conference with an turnover ratio of +0.80 per ACC game - did not cough up the ball, and the Jackets gave it away three times. On another occasion, Tech lined up offsides on a punt to give away a possession.
When the Jackets rolled 56-28 at Pitt, they recovered a whopping six of the Panthers' seven fumbles, five in a first-quarter sequence for the ages.
Tech led 7-0 soon after safety Isaiah Johnson forced a fumble, and Nealy recovered to propel the Jackets.
Moments later, White made a most notable play, chasing down Pitt back and ACC leading rusher James Conner (1,342 yards) on the next possession - 74 yards into a run that ended at the 1 - just before a potential game-tying touchdown.
The Jackets recovered in the end zone, and went up 14-0 on a 79-yard Thomas-to-Charles Perkins pass.
Davis forced a fumble in almost no time, and again Nealy recovered to send the Jackets toward a 21-0 lead.
Not long after that, Golden forced a fumble that Isaiah Johnson recovered and the Jackets expanded the lead to 28-0 before the Panthers knew what hit them.
A lot of the same names keep popping up in these inspections.
Nealy's three recoveries lead Smith, Johnson, Freeman and Kyle Travis with one each.
Golden's three interceptions are tops on that chart ahead of Nealy and White with two each, Davis, Smith, Johnson, Adam Gotsis (on a pass tipped by Freeman), Lawrence Austin and Corey Griffin with one apiece.
Johnson and Roof point to takeaways being forced/made by players who, "tend to be around the ball."
There's no arguing that.
The Jackets' three leading tacklers are Davis with 77 combined solos and assists, Nealy (65), White (53), Smith (52), Johnson (48), Golden (38) and Freeman (38).
No other player has more than 21 stops.
The people who end up around the ball are clearly more likely to be involved.
"I think some guys have more of an awareness as far as when they can get the ball out as opposed to securing the tackle," Roof said. "That's such a big factor in winning and losing football games. It's as much an effort and awareness thing.
"Some guys just have a knack for doing that. [Nealy] has exhibited that he does have a knack for doing that. Sometimes it's just being in the right place at the right time."
That's no joke about Nealy.
He has eight career interceptions, returning two for scores, and nine career fumble recoveries, two returned for scores.
Nealy returned an interception for a score against Utah in the Sun Bowl as a freshman, and had an interception against USC in a Sun Bowl win as a sophomore.
"A lot of it is preparation, film study and knowing [the opposing offense's] tendencies," he said. "Sometimes, it's maybe a little luck. The [pick at N.C. State] just kind of bounced up . . . and I didn't even see the ball at Tulane [an interception]. I turned, and it was just there."
Roof said the defensive staff has not emphasized takeaways any more this season in practices than last year, but the Jackets are better at both thievery and protecting the pigskin orb.
Last season, the Jackets (7-6) were -4 in turnover ratio, throwing 13 interceptions and losing 11 fumbles while picking off 14 passes and recovering just six fumbles.
This season, they're +9 having thrown just four interceptions and losing eight fumbles while picking off 13 passes and recovering eight fumbles.
A big difference has been interceptions, where the Jackets' 10 in ACC games rank No. 2 in the conference to Louisville's 19.
Roof and the Jackets will keep working their priorities with regard to meeting ball carriers: "First guy, second guy go for the ball. How do you do it? Where is the ball? Is it coming up or down? Do you rip the fingers off the front tip? What's the technique?"
Players keep eyes on that board. "I know enough to know that I'm right behind Quayshawn," White said.
There will be a reward at the end of the season for the Jacket who ends up at the top of that point list. "It hasn't been determined yet," Roof said. "It will be within NCAA rules, I know that."
Competition aside, the Jackets push for turnovers no matter who gets them.
Looking back, Golden said that after Nealy ran all that way last Saturday with the interception only to be stripped, "I felt bad for him because I was running, and I blocked [inside] when [Samuels] was coming up; he ran right by me on my left."
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