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Georgia Tech’s defense enjoying big jump in takeaways

November 6, 2018

FILE - In this Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, file photo, North Carolina quarterback Nathan Elliott (11) has a pass blocked by Georgia Tech's Anree Saint-Amour (94) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C. Saint-Amour, coming off a big game in a win over North Carolina, is a big reason the Yellow Jackets rank among the nation's leaders in turnovers forced as they prepare to play Miami on Saturday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Tech’s spread-option offense has had more help this season in posting big scoring totals.

The Yellow Jackets’ defense has set up a lot of those points with a dramatic jump in takeaways.

Georgia Tech (5-4, 3-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) has won four of five games, including two straight, as it prepares to host Miami (5-4, 2-3) on Saturday night.

Led by senior defensive end Anree Saint-Amour, the Yellow Jackets’ defense has forced 10 turnovers in those four wins, leading to 59 points.

“When you’re more aggressive, you probably get more takeaways,” coach Paul Johnson said Tuesday.

The more aggressive defense is result of changes made by first-year defensive coordinator Nate Woody and his 3-4 scheme .

In 2017, Georgia Tech had only 10 takeaways on defense. Only four of 128 FBS teams forced fewer turnovers.

This season, the Yellow Jackets have forced 20 turnovers, tied for the eighth-highest total in the nation.

The sudden jump in big plays caught the attention of Miami coach Mark Richt.

“Their defense has done a good job with turnovers,” Richt said, noting the Yellow Jackets “doubled their number. And in this last game, they picked off three passes and scored 17 points off those turnovers. So they did a great job there.”

Last week’s 38-28 win at North Carolina marked the fifth time this season the Yellow Jackets have forced three turnovers. The takeaways have helped Johnson’s offense score 38.3 points per game to rank third in the ACC.

Saint-Amour has three forced fumbles and two interceptions, including one of the three thefts in last week’s win. He also has four sacks and 10 ½ tackles for loss.

“I thought he would be a really good player,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if you ever know he’s going to have those kinds of sacks and tackles for negative plays. I think he’s a good fit for what we do defensively.”

Saint-Amour set career highs with nine tackles and three quarterback hurries against the Tar Heels.

Georgia Tech led 35-28 with less than three minutes remaining when Saint-Amour’s leaping interception set up a clinching field goal. On Monday, he was named the ACC’s defensive lineman of the week.

Saint-Amour said Georgia Tech has added more emphasis to forcing turnovers this season.

“In practice we always emphasize takeaways,” he said. “Thursday we’re always trying to get picks, working on ball skills. Just practicing every day, every week and getting better at it.”

Still, Johnson is reluctant to heap praise on a defense that has been the Yellow Jackets’ chronic weakness. Despite the big plays, the Yellow Jackets rank 78th nationally with their average of 28.2 points allowed. The unit faltered late even in last week’s win.

One weak spot is the team’s 13 sacks, good for only 13th among 14 ACC teams.

“I think Nate has had a pretty good history of creating some turnovers with what they do,” Johnson said. “So I certainly don’t want to diminish that, but at the same time it’s like I can promise you we’re not doing anything in practice that we didn’t do before. I think it could be a function of maybe we get a little more pressure, but still our sacks numbers are not very good. We do have way more tackles for loss.”

Johnson also is looking for better results on third down.

There is room for improvement, but the leap in takeaways is a good start.

“We know if we want to be a top defense, if we want to be a good defense and we want to win games we have to win the turnover battle,” Saint-Amour said. “That’s what we try and do.”

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