ATLANTA — Coach Paul Johnson hopes Georgia Tech’s defense hasn’t played its best game of the year.
It might be hard for the Yellow Jackets to top last week’s upset win over Florida State, a performance that helped snap the team’s longest losing streak in 21 years.
Regardless, Johnson is eager to see if the defense can continue to play tough against the run and force turnovers when Georgia Tech (3-5, 1-4 ACC) visits Virginia (2-5, 1-2) on Saturday.
There are still plenty of basic problems to correct.
Even after holding the Seminoles scoreless in the second half and 16 points overall, the Jackets are still allowing high averages of 32 points and 380 yards in ACC games.
“We still had some misalignments and missed assignments,” Johnson said Monday. “We just kind of played better. We got more overlap from our guys. They weren’t buried in a gap.”
Led by safety Jamal Golden, cornerback Lawrence Austin and linemen Patrick Gamble and KeShun Freeman, the defense made enough important plays to keep Florida State off balance.
“We rallied to the ball better, and guys made some plays,” Johnson said. “We still missed some tackles, but we had other guys there (to help).”
Golden and Austin combined for a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone. Freeman had a 14-yard sack in the closing minutes. Gamble blocked the 56-yard field-goal attempt that Lance Austin returned for a 78-yard touchdown as time expired.
Johnson was pleased to see the Jackets, for the first time in an ACC game this year, playing as a collective unit within coordinator Ted Roof’s scheme.
“We kept them off the field,” Johnson said. “When they got down it the red zone, we held. When you play the run better, you give yourself a chance and the red zone defense was 100 times better than it’s been.”
The Seminoles’ lone touchdown came in the second quarter after Lamarcus Brutus ran back an interception 57 yards and stepped out of bounds at the 2-yard line. In the first quarter, with Florida State at the 2-yard line, the defense made the Seminoles settle for a field goal.
Georgia Tech held Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, the league’s leading rusher, to 82 yards — about half what he usually gains. Freeman and Rod Rook-Chungong were adept at setting the edge to keep Cook from breaking free on the perimeter.
“That running back is a really good player, but for the most part we kept him contained,” Johnson said. “He didn’t rip off any 70 to 80-yarders that he’s used to doing.”
Georgia Tech will need more of the same against Virginia’s Taquan Mizzell, one of the nation’s most prolific receivers as a running back, wideout Canaan Severin and quarterback Matt Johns.
The Cavaliers, who have dropped three of their last four, have beaten the Jackets in nine of the last 11 series matchups in Charlottesville.
“Their backs are to the wall, too,” Johnson said. “This is probably a draw a line in the sand game for them. They’re trying to salvage their season. You’ve got to get ready for their best shot up there.”