Pick-Six Degrees of Separation
Secondary's three interceptions sparked defense in Tech's rout of Clemson
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Georgia Tech came into Saturday’s game against Clemson at Bobby Dodd Stadium ranked 12th in the ACC in red zone offense (eighth in conference games). That seemed low considering the Yellow Jackets came in leading the conference in scoring (second in ACC games).
Evidently the stats don’t take into account the Jackets’ defense, which in 2014 has extended the red zone to cover the entire field and, seemingly, is always in scoring position.
On Saturday afternoon in the 28-6 rout of Clemson, Tech’s defense not only stole the spotlight from a really good Clemson unit but also accounted for more points than either team’s offense, nearly outscoring both combined!
“We haven’t had a game like that defensively in a while,” said Head Coach Paul Johnson, whose team raised its record to 9-2, 6-2 in the ACC and 7-2 at home against ranked teams — Tech had been 3-14 vs. the top 25 in the 17 games preceding Johnson’s arrival in 2008. “Those kids work so hard it was so pleasing to see them come out and play as well as we did defensively. We needed that kind of defensive effort from our team and we got it.”
For the second straight week the Jackets defense directly accounted for 14 points, this time on a pair of interception returns — a game-changing 85-yarder in the first quarter by redshirt junior Jamal Golden and a back-breaking 62-yarder late in the third by junior Chris Milton. The secondary not only outscored Clemson, which managed a season-low six on two field goals, but also outscored the Jackets’ offense, which put up 11, nearly four touchdowns off its per-game average. Throw in the field goal off a pick they didn’t take the distance by junior D.J. White and the D led to 17 points.
Contributing to the offense is becoming common place for the Jackets’ defense, which now has six defensive TDs on the season, at least one takeaway in each of the last five games, and has helped Tech score 116 points off 24 turnovers.
Golden’s pick-six, the first of his career and his first touchdown on the defensive side of the ball — he has two career TDs on kick returns, with both coming in 2012 — came on a third-and-four play from the Tech 8, as Clemson was marching toward the end zone already up 3-0.
The pick was set up to plays earlier, when on third-and-one from the 21, sensational freshman Deshaun Watson, who had 40 yards on seven carries and was 5-for-7 passing, left the game, with knee injury after gaining a first down at the Tech 14. With the mobile Watson out, Tech’s defense changed its approach.
“[The injury] was a big game-changer,” said senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, who celebrated Senior Day with 10 tackles (3 solo). “With Watson being as athletic as he is, a dual-threat quarterback, when he went out, it definitely changed the game and we took advantage of it.”
Two running plays by back-up Cole Stoudt, who’d started the previous three games with Watson out, netted four yards. On third down the Tigers tried to run a counter screen to the left. Stoudt rolled right, stopped, and lofted a pass back across the field. Stoudt’s pass never reached its intended target, as Golden stepped in, grabbed his team-leading fourth interception and had nothing but daylight ahead. He knew just what to do.
Golden said he also knew what was coming from the week’s film study.
“It was a formation they were in,” he said. “Whenever the tight end’s on the ball to the back side and he was just alone by himself they were either running a stretch play or they ran the sprint out with the throw back. They ran the throw back and I broke on it and made the play. [DE Rod] Rook-Chungong was actually there, too. Either one of us could have made the play. We both were in great position.”
The Jackets had changed their position, from being down six or 10 to leading by three (they’d miss the PAT), a lead from which they would not be caught. They’d also torment Stoudt, who went 3-for-11 for 19 yards, with three interceptions, stacking the box and pressuring constantly.
With both defenses in control, the game went to half, 9-3. But Tech came out firing in the second half scoring 10 points in a span of 3:31, to a 19-3 lead.
The second score, a Harrison Butker 32-yard field goal, was set up by an interception by junior D.J. White, who made a leaping grab of a Stoudt pass headed toward the left sideline and receiver Mike Williams.
The play resembled White’s pick-six last week in the second quarter at NC State.
“Same exact coverage. Same exact route combination. Pretty much the same technique,” said the junior corner of his third interception of the season. “Everything was the same except it was on the opposing sideline this time.”
The Jackets would add a field goal to push the lead to 13, which was more than enough.
“Our defense stepped up and made plays,” said redshirt senior B-Back Synjyn Days, who ran for a game-high 89 yards and for all but one of the 33 Tech gained on the drive, including a 22-yard burst. “Two pick-sixes for our defense. So kudos to them for saving us offensively this game.”
The defense has become real good at that. So good that even when Tech turns the ball over they find ways to turn it back into a positive. Saturday, they picked up senior B-Back Zach Laskey.
Laskey, playing for the first time in almost a month, fumbled on the Clemson 39 on his first drive of the game but for the second straight week a Jackets’ lost fumble was turned into points on an interception return. Last week it was White picking up Nealy, who’d fumbled on an interception return. This time Milton picked up Laskey, in the process, burying Clemson.
On third and nine at the Tech 49, Stoudt dropped, looked right and fired over the middle, intending to find Germone Hopper. Instead, he found Milton, who broke left, found the sideline then put turned on the burners to score.
“I was [reading Stoudt’s eyes]. I was reading the receiver’s too,” Milton said. “He kind of ran a slant and the QB was kind of looking at me the whole time so I figured he was coming that way. When he let it go and I looked for the receiver and didn’t see him. I knew it was coming to me. I tried to get toward the sideline. When I got to the sideline there was not a lot of room left so I just tried to get [to the end zone].”
The Jackets were able to do pretty much whatever they wanted, especially after Watson left, allowing only 198 yards all day, 131 after Watson left.
“We were definitely trying to stop the run and make them throw the ball and give our DBs a chance. They did a great job today,” said Nealy.
For the defense, it was nice being lead dog.
“Our offense is there week-in and week-out putting up points,” said White. “We really wanted to make it a point to not be the weak link. We take a lot of pride in that as far as going to work every day and getting better each week.”