The last time Georgia Tech played Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, the Yellow Jackets tied a school record by recovering six fumbles in a 56-28 win in 2014. Five came in the first quarter and tied for the most in a quarter in FBS history.
Coach Paul Johnson and defensive coordinator Ted Roof might settle for just one considering the dearth of takeaways the team has this season.
“I can’t remember the last one,” Johnson said. “I guess it was against Vandy at the end of the game.”
Actually, it was an interception of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson in the next game, but that led to a fumble that was recovered in the end zone and two points for the Tigers. It’s easy to see why it’s not bookmarked in Johnson’s memory bank.
After struggling to create turnovers last season with 17 in 12 games (tied for 91st in FBS), the Yellow Jackets have three interceptions and two fumble recoveries through five games this season. This season they are tied for 89th out of 127 FBS teams. At least they aren’t Texas, which has just one.
“It’s been an issue,” Johnson said.
And there’s no easy solution.
Roof can’t just call a play that will increase the chances of Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman throwing an interception, or of running back James Conner fumbling the ball.
“It’s odd because like every defensive staff in America you drill it every day, you talk about it every day,” Roof said.
The key to increasing the probability is to get more defensive players around whoever has the ball, whether it’s the quarterback, a running back or wide receiver.
Roof said the team was 0.5 seconds away a few times from strip-sacking Miami’s Brad Kaaya in last week’s loss. But that difference in time made all the difference in possibly forcing a turnover.
Linebacker P.J. Davis said it’s on the players to do what they are being taught: the first tackler needs to hold up the ball-carrier and allow his teammates to come and try to hack it away.
“You can’t tell when a fumble is going to happen,” he said. “It’s just all about effort.”
The fumbles two years ago against Pittsburgh are an example. On the first, quarterback Chad Voytik fumbled as he was being spun to the ground. On the next, Conner was about to cross the goal line for a touchdown when D.J. White caught up to him inside the 5-yard line and pulled the ball out. The ball rolled through the end zone for a Tech touchback. The next fumble happened when the ball was punched out of Isaac Bennett’s hand. The next came when the ball was again punched out – it appeared accidentally – of receiver Tyler Boyd’s hands. The next lost fumble came on a bad snap.
Really, the only play made by Tech that would be considered exceptional was White’s. The rest were techniques that are taught, but don’t often result in possible turnovers.
Illustrating the difficulty in recovering fumbles, Tech had just one in its seven previous games before facing the Panthers.
“Sometimes it’s like that,” Roof said. “Sometimes it’s like going through the desert. Sometimes it’s bouncing off wide receiver’s feet and we’re catching it and running it back.”