ATLANTA — Paul Johnson will have more reason to believe his Georgia Tech defense can build momentum from a key late stop in last week’s win at North Carolina if the Yellow Jackets end their streak of run-defense futility.
Johnson said Tuesday he wants the defense to snap its streak of allowing 100-yard rushers in six straight games in Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference game against North Carolina State.
Georgia Tech and N.C. State have not played since 2006, but Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Al Groh’s 3-4 scheme is not new to the Wolfpack. Groh was in the ACC for nine years as Virginia’s coach before joining Johnson’s staff.
N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said Groh’s scheme is a change after his offense faced Cincinnati’s four-man defensive front. The Wolfpack (3-0) beat Cincinnati 30-19 on Thursday.
“It does present different problems for you,” O’Brien said. “And I think that’s probably the most overlooked thing when you play Georgia Tech. Everybody worries about playing their offense, but now, because of their defense, and because of the possibilities of who’s rushing, who’s dropping, where are they coming from, it presents a lot of problems for you when you pass the ball.”
N.C. State, led by quarterback Russell Wilson, is best known for its passing game. Wilson has passed for 744 yards and eight touchdowns in three games. N.C. State’s leading rusher, freshman Mustafa “Moose” Greene, has 174 yards rushing and has yet to reach 100 yards in a game.
Johnny White had 113 yards rushing and a touchdown last week for North Carolina, but defensive end and Flowery Branch High graduate Izaan Cross led a late stand by the defense to preserve the Yellow Jackets’ 30-24 win. White was stopped on a fourth-down run past midfield with about a minute left to play.
Georgia Tech (2-1 overall, 1-0 ACC) ranks only seventh in the ACC with its average of 154 yards rushing allowed per game.
The problems for the run defense began in the opening game when South Carolina State’s Asheton Jordan had 125 yards rushing in Georgia Tech’s 41-10 win. Freshman James Sims had 101 yards rushing to lead Kansas to a 28-25 upset on Sept. 11 that knocked then-No. 15 Georgia Tech out of the AP Top 25.
After White extended the streak last week, Johnson issued the challenge for his run defense to make a stand against the Wolfpack.
“I think they’re getting better,” Johnson said Tuesday when asked about his defense’s adjustment to the 3-4 scheme. “You have to know what you’re doing and where you’re going to play fast. I think they’re still feeling their way some, but I think they’re getting better.”
Cross, a sophomore, was named the ACC’s defensive lineman of the week after he had five tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup against North Carolina.
Johnson said the defensive line is showing improvement “at times.”
“I think that they made some plays,” Johnson said. “Certainly Izaan had his moments. We’ve got to be more consistent and continue to get better. We’re not where we need to be by any stretch of the imagination.
“We’ve had six straight games where we’ve given up a 100-yard rusher. That would be a good point right there, to stop that trend.”
Georgia Tech’s streak of allowing 100-yard rushers in six straight games began when Georgia’s Washaun Ealey and Caleb King each had 100-yard games in a win over the Yellow Jackets in the final regular-season game last year. Ealey had 183 yards rushing and King added 166 yards with two touchdowns in Georgia’s 30-24 win.
Georgia Tech beat Clemson in last year’s ACC championship game despite allowing 233 yards rushing and four touchdowns to C.J. Spiller. Iowa’s Brandon Wegher added 113 yards rushing in the Orange Bowl win over the Yellow Jackets.
Johnson said he is encouraged by the defense’s second-half performance in last week’s win over the Tar Heels.
“I think we played harder,” Johnson said. “We still had double-digit missed tackles. It’s something we’ve got to continue to work on and get better at, but clearly we made some progress in the second half.
“They didn’t score every time they had it, so that’s some progress. When we had to have a stop in the game, we went out and got a stop. Hopefully that will help the confidence of the defense.”