Photo by Katherine Shambaugh

By the end of what was ultimately a bowl-free 2017 season of Jackets football, it seemed as though every fan was calling for Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof’s head on a spike. After the Tennessee game, in which TaQuon Marshall had 369 all-purpose yards and five rushing touchdowns, it looked like Tech was primed for a breakout season offensively and opening night was just an unfortunate loss to a quality SEC opponent. In fact, after demolishing a middling FCS team and the bottom feeders of the ACC, some people went into the game against No. 13 Miami with a glimmer of optimism. Maybe, just maybe, if Tech picked up a win in Hard Rock Stadium, they could potentially contend for a spot against Clemson in the ACC title game.

As fans now know, the Jackets would close the second half of the season with a 2-5 stretch that featured 40-point offensive showcases from opponents not once but twice thanks to the perennial football also-rans Duke and Uniersity of Virginia.

There is no sugarcoating it: Roof’s tenure at Tech was pockmarked with signs of a middling to poor defense since the day he returned to his alma mater. With a 20-20 record in ACC play, Tech’s defense surrendered historically poor numbers under Roof’s leadership despite the offense holding a top ten time of possession every year he was the defensive coordinator. Even the miraculous 2014 season in which the Jackets ran up a 10-2 regular season record before falling to Florida State in the ACC title game (and defeating a rapidly descending Mississippi State team in the Orange Bowl), Roof’s defense gave up a Big XII-esque 25.7 points per game to opposing offenses, including five 30-point allowances. One of these ignominious performances was a whopping 38 points racked up by the Sun Belt Conference’s Georgia Southern, 28 of them unanswered once Tech’s defense shifted into an overly comfortable protect-the-lead mode. It seems as though the Jackets have won in spite of Roof more than they have because of him, and the 2017 season was the final nail in the coffin.

An 11-point third-quarter lead against Miami squandered with 12 straight points. A 15-point lead immediately out of the gates at halftime blown on a 27-8 run by UVA. A 20-20 tie at the half followed up by a 23-0 second half blowout at the hands of Duke.

Frustration and what-ifs were the name of the game this year, and for the most part, those what-ifs were on the defensive side of the ball. What if Tech was not rushing five men on a fourth and 10 that Miami completed to seal their victory? What if Tech did not give a 15-yard cushion to every UVA receiver for the entirety of the second half?

For a textbook-perfect argument against the use of prevent defense, look at the play-by-play from the scoring drives that made up that comeback: seven yard pass, six yard pass, run for no gain, seven yard pass, capped off with a 34 yard flag route when defensive back Christian Campbell was flat-out torched in coverage. The eye test will tell you that Roof’s defenses have categorically failed in short coverage, preventing the run and wrapping up for tackles, and as always, the numbers are here to back it up. They seldom lie.

In 2017, the 14 ACC teams (all stats exclude Notre Dame) averaged 878 tackles on the season, but that number was brought down significantly due to outliers on the lower end. Only five of the teams finished with a “below average” number of tackles, with most in the 900-1000 range and two reaching the four-digit mark. It will come as no surprise that Tech finished in dead last with a paltry 649 tackles, 68 less than the next-to-last Pitt who managed to accumulate 717 on the season.

The 17.0 total sacks were enough for Tech to crawl out of the bottom slot and into No. 13 in the conference, and despite having the third-best third-down defensive conversion rate in the ACC, Tech also boasted the third-worst fourth-down conversion rate. When the Jackets made stops in key situations, opponents could all too often use the final down to make the necessary progress.

One might argue that a lack of tackles could be correlated to the fact that there were simply fewer opportunities for tackles to be made. After all, Tech’s 33.5 minutes per game was No. 6 in the country, easily leading the conference. If the defense is on the field for less time than the other teams in the league, then it stands to reason that there should be
less tackles.

However, when comparing Roof’s 2017 numbers at Tech with those of new DC Nate Woody’s Appalachian State defense, despite having the 2nd most time of possession out of the 12 Sun Belt teams, Woody’s players managed over double the sacks with 38.0, good for No. 3 in the conference along with the least first downs allowed on defense and No. 5 in tackles with 891.

Not only was Woody’s defense better at tackling and pressuring the quarterback, Appalachian State was significantly superior against the run. Though the yards allowed per game statistics seem to be relatively close between Tech and App. State (153.6 vs. 137.5), this is seriously misconstrued due to the difference in volume. App. State’s 3.89 yards allowed per rush was good for No. 39 in the country and No. 2 in the Sun Belt, whereas Tech’s inability to set the edge led to 4.53 yards per rush allowed, No. 77 in the country and a dismal No. 10 in the ACC. The 153.6 yards per game allowed made Tech appear better than it was; in truth, there were over 30 teams with more yards allowed per game on less yards per attempt simply because Roof’s inability to properly scheme against the short pass made it more efficient than the already weak rush defense.

All that being said, now is not the time for wallowing in despair. Rather, it is a time for celebration. The shadows of Roof have ebbed, and a new era of Tech defense has been ushered in. In Woody’s first three seasons at the helm of an FBS defense after the Mountaineers moved up from the FCS in 2013, his teams averaged No. 15 in total scoring defense, No. 19 in net defensive yards allowed and No. 28 in both rushing and passing yards per game allowed.

Appalachian State won the conference title two out of its first three years in the Sun Belt, and to top it all off, after helping the Mountaineers to two bowl wins in his first two years, Woody’s final game there was another victory in his third straight bowl. This was not just any ordinary victory. App. State notched the third shutout in all bowl games this decade with a 34-0 walloping of Toledo, limiting the No. 8 total scoring offense to 146 yards of offense (as opposed to their season average of 510) while forcing four turnovers and earning a Gatorade bucket on his head.

The competition will increase, as will the quality of his athletes. But if Nate Woody can come close to replicating the results he achieved at Appalachian State, the Gatorade will keep flowing.