NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech

Oct 5, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets linebacker David Curry (6) tackles North Carolina Tar Heels running back Javonte Williams (25) in the second half at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Third downs were not kind to the Georgia Tech defense last week, leaving defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker another item to add to his checklist in preparation for the road game at Duke.

This week the Yellow Jackets spent a lot of time working on third-down defensive situations. In last week’s loss to North Carolina, Georgia Tech was able to put the Tar Heels in some difficult down-and-distance situations, but couldn’t close the deal with a stop on third down.

North Carolina was 11-for-19 on third down and 1-for-1 on fourth downs. Six times Georgia Tech was unable to stop the Heels when it was third-and-9 or more.

“I wish it was one thing. It was not,” Thacker said. “From play calling to the individual execution it wasn’t one thing. … We’re excited to get them in third-and-long. We had been good in third-and-long and that was disappointing. We hit the quarterback. We just couldn’t finish.”

Duke quarterback Quentin Harris will be a challenge for the defense this week. He has thrown for 1,007 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 342 yards and four touchdowns. He is the latest quarterback to benefit from the tutelage of Duke coach David Cutcliffe. Duke averages 32.8 points, fifth-best in the conference.

“It’s always a challenge,” Thacker said. “Even when the play breaks down, they can extend the play. We have to be very conscious of it.”

The Yellow Jackets (1-4, 0-2 ACC) will try to stop a three-game losing streak against Duke (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. This is the first of a two-game road swing. Georgia Tech plays four of its final five games at home.

This will be the 87th meeting between Duke and Georgia Tech. The two teams have played each year since 1933 and Georgia Tech has only had more games against Auburn (92) and Georgia (113). Duke has won four of the last five meetings.

One of the promises made by the new Georgia Tech regime when it was introduced last spring was the concept of creating turnovers. Picking off passes and knocking balls loose would become a calling card for the team. That’s why someone dubbed Geoff Collins as “The Minister of Mayhem” when he was coordinator at Florida.

But that hasn’t exactly been the case this year.

Through the first five game, Georgia Tech has created eight turnovers — five interceptions and three turnovers. Three of those came in the season opener against Clemson, when they had little impact on the outcome.

Collins understands the need for the turnovers. They not only stop the opposition, but can also flip the field and give the offense a better opportunity to score.

“That’s what we talk about every single day,” Collins said. “Coach (Andrew) Thacker and the defensive staff do a great job. It’s every single meeting and every single day, coach Thacker talks about it. He points out strip attempts. He points out things we need to do to create turnovers.”

Collins said the Temple team he coached a year ago was among the top three in the country at creating turnovers and was adept at defensive score.

“So that’s part of our DNA,” Collins said.

It’s just going to take some time before it becomes ingrained in the culture at Georgia Tech. The defense has had to make numerous adjustments and is working with a near-new set of defensive linemen. There have been growing pains, but Collins said the idea to stress turnovers has never changed.

“There’s been so many things that we’ve had to change and fix and adjust in this transformation and we don’t want anything that’s really important to get lost in the shuffle,” Collins said.