Temple arrived at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday ready to test Georgia Tech’s secondary. Quarterback Anthony Russo threw on the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth plays of the Owls’ first drive.
By the end of the first quarter, Temple had put the ball in the air 11 times and run it five. The results would seem to have guided Temple’s play-calling the rest of the way. With not much success against tight coverage provided by the likes of cornerbacks Tre Swilling, Zamari Walton and Myles Sims, Russo threw just 11 more times over the final three quarters, finishing 9-for-22 for 127 yards with one interception.
Meanwhile, with the Temple offensive line often winning at the point of attack against Tech’s defensive line and linebackers, the Owls steadily pounded the run, running 44 more times for 171 yards and two touchdowns.
The strategy illustrates Tech’s status on defense. Four games into the tenure of coach Geoff Collins and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker, the Jackets have fashioned a defense that has handled its business against the pass better than Tech teams of the recent past. The defense against the run, though, needs work.
That development is critical over the course of the final eight regular-season games, starting Saturday against North Carolina.
“We’ve got to stop the run,” Thacker said.
While Tech’s blitz pressures have helped pressure opposing quarterbacks, the work in the secondary has been solid. On Saturday, Russo often threw at targets blanketed by Tech’s cornerbacks and safeties. With pass-rush help from defensive linemen T.K. Chimedza and Antwan Owens, safety Kaleb Oliver stopped Temple’s opening drive by intercepting Russo’s pass to receiver Isaiah Wright in the end zone.
“He looked straight at me, and I guess he just thought it was a one-on-one play, so the best player was going to get the ball, and then I ended up with it,” Oliver said.
Tech ranks 33rd in FBS in defensive passer rating (117.47) after finishing the past five seasons between 51st and 100th. The Jackets are 18th in defensive completion percentage (54.3 percent). In the past five seasons, Tech’s final rankings ranged between ties for 75th and 120th.
Thacker credited progress to coaches teaching and players responding.
“And then, to be quite honest, the secondary has won a bunch of those one-on-ones,” Thacker said. “They just have. They have, and that’s a credit to them, it’s a credit to (cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich).”
Even as the man coverage has enabled Thacker to commit more defenders to stopping the run, the Jackets aren’t as competitive there.
Tech’s defensive yards-per-carry rate is 5.12, which is 114th in FBS. In the past five years, the Jackets have finished between 79th and 105th.
Chasing after Clemson running back Travis Etienne didn’t help, but even absent his performance (12 carries for 205 yards), Tech would still be tied for 83rd.
Tech had some trouble with Temple’s experienced offensive line, getting dislodged out of gaps or driven back off the line. Setting the edge on runs to the perimeter was also a challenge.
North Carolina, which has a big offensive line and two backs averaging more than 60 rushing yards per game, should pose similar challenges.
“Although they’re going to go fast, we know they’re going to want to establish the run, so unbelievably huge point of emphasis for us,” Thacker said.
At Tuesday’s practice, Thacker said, the first period was devoted to stopping the run, with the defense facing 20 consecutive run plays.
Thacker’s priority is creating more negative-yardage plays, such as the safety against Temple created by Owens and linebacker Charlie Thomas, to set up third-and-long situations. It likely will require improved play from the line to fight off blocks, stay in gaps and get into the backfield.
“It’s point of attack and setting edges, so having force players, making sure you’re not allowing the ball to get out (to the perimeter),” Thacker said.
Tech has improved at containing big plays. After Clemson dinged the Jackets for seven plays of 20 yards or more, the Jackets have allowed nine in the past three games.
“We’ve made people earn drives,” Thacker said.
A moment for context: On a yards-per-play basis, Temple is tied for 80th in FBS and South Florida is 114th. The Citadel ranks 106th – in FCS. North Carolina, for that matter, is tied for 83rd.
Also worth noting: Of the 28 players on Tech’s defensive “Above the Line” chart, only two are seniors and 17 are freshmen or sophomores.
There’s a lot of season left, and there are tougher opponents to face. But the Jackets likely will continue to improve also.
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