ATLANTA -- Turnovers -- forcing them on defense and avoiding them on offense -- have been a key part of Georgia Tech’s success during the past five weeks. Being able to win the takeaway battle could be the deciding factor against Florida State on Saturday in the ACC championship game.
“Honestly, creating havoc, having the right guys in the right place at the right time. We practice week-in and week-out with takeaway drills,” senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said. “We’ve been doing that all the years I’ve been here. Guys want to get the ball out, do better for our team, get the ball back in our offense’s hands.”
No one has been better than Nealy, who has become a takeaway machine. He has eight career interceptions, best in the nation for any non-defensive back. He has four career defensive touchdowns, two of them this season. He ranks eighth in the nation with three fumble recoveries. Last week, he forced a critical fumble against Georgia.
“I give credit to everybody on defense that keeps fighting, hacking at the ball, being ball hogs,” Nealy said.
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The success of the Georgia Tech season has turned on takeaways. Since losing back-to-back games in the middle of the season, the Yellow Jackets have caused 14 fumbles and recovered nine and have come away with six interceptions in their five-game winning streak.
Georgia Tech has turned it over just eight times during that same stretch.
“It builds confidence every week,” Nealy said. “We’re getting takeaways, putting our offense back on the field. It gives you a great feeling to go out there and do great things on defense, put your team in a better position to win.”
Florida State has turned the ball over 27 times, eight by fumbles and 19 times on interceptions. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston has thrown 17 interceptions, but 14 have come in the first half of games. Winston simply commits fewer errors when the game is on the line, a fact that’s reflected in FSU’s ability to win close games.
“Sometimes it’s him; sometimes it’s guys around him,” FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “At times, we’ve just been out of sync at different times. His interceptions came from his poor decisions, came from dropped balls, came from a route not being where it’s supposed to be or a blitz not being picked up. I don’t think there’s any one thing that you can say.”
Florida State had four turnovers (all interceptions) last week against Florida, but only one in the nail-biting win the previous week over Boston College.
Georgia Tech’s ability to produce turnovers has helped limit the opposition’s offensive numbers. None of the past four opponents have tallied more than 400 total yards; Georgia and N.C. State each had 388. And the Yellow Jackets have controlled the ball for at least 35 minutes in each of those contests. During the past four weeks, opponents have converted 12-of-48 third-down opportunities.
“Any time you can keep your defense fresh, it’s huge in any type of game,” Nealy said. “With our offense eating up that much clock, it keeps us fresh. We get out there, get a three-and-out; that’s like a turnover in itself.
Any time we can get a turnover, get those guys back on the field, it gets them going, and it wears and tears on our opponent’s defense. Just keeps us fresh.”