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PREVIEW: Georgia Tech defense showing growth heading into ACC game vs. Clemson

Georgia Tech defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu has four sacks in his past two games and 25 in his career, six from the school career record. (Reuters)

Georgia Tech defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu has four sacks in his past two games and 25 in his career, six from the school career record. (Reuters)

ATLANTA — Unlike last year when the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets spent all season chasing their tail on defense, this year’s group has re-established stability on that side of the ball. It’s created a nice balance with the school’s high-powered rushing attack.

“It’s great when you have a great defense,” Tech quarterback Vad Lee said. “It’s less pressure, because the defense is playing great now. I give them all the credit. Coach (Ted) Roof and our defense has been great.”

The Tech defense has shown steady growth this year. Other than a disappointing performance against Miami, a team that had the best athletes that Tech has faced this year, and a poor first half against BYU, the Yellow Jackets have been solid. The Tech defense is on pace to have its best statistical season in the ACC since 2009, when it played in the Orange Bowl.

Of course, that defense will be put to the test today against Clemson, which has thrashed opposing defenses since being held to 14 points in a blowout loss to Florida State on Oct. 19, scoring 99 points in its past two games.

The No. 6 Tigers are 15th nationally in scoring as senior quarterback Tajh Boyd continues rewriting the school and ACC record books. Georgia Tech leads the Coastal Division with a 5-2 mark after a three-game winning streak, but must beat Clemson and avoid tying Miami and Virginia Tech atop the division standings to return to the conference title game.

Boyd’s four touchdowns in Clemson’s 59-10 rout of Virginia on Nov. 2 gave him 116 career touchdowns, most in ACC history, and he needs three more passing touchdowns to snap the conference record. Georgia Tech’s Jemea Thomas has won two of the past three ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors.

The Yellow Jackets have improved defensively during their past three games, holding opponents to 35 points and recording a season-high five sacks in a 21-10 victory over Pittsburgh on Nov. 2.

It is no secret the Yellow Jackets want to run the football, averaging 311.2 yards on the ground, but 5-foot-7 A-back Robert Godhigh has established himself as Georgia Tech’s go-to back.

Godhigh is averaging 11.3 yards of total offense per play, and 55 percent of his offensive touches result in first downs or touchdowns. Senior defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu has four sacks in his past two games and 25 in his career, six from the school career record.

Clemson’s Sammy Watkins has benefited from Boyd’s strong season, needing just 18 yards to record his second career 1,000-yard receiving season and is 112 yards from the school’s career receiving yardage mark.

Boyd is 41 rushing yards away from becoming the first quarterback in ACC history with at least 10,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. Defensive lineman Vic Beasley has 10 sacks in nine games, helping fuel a Clemson defense that has allowed 14 points or less six times.

Tech currently ranks third in the ACC in scoring defense (18.8 points), third in total defense (329.6 yards), second in rushing defense (103.4) and ninth in passing defense.

Last week’s effort against Pitt was especially memorable against the run. Tech held Pitt to minus-5 yards rushing, the eighth-best effort since 1960 and the first time an opponent has finished with negative rushing yards since Notre Dame in 2007. Pitt’s longest run was for seven yards.

“Ted and those guys have done a good job trying to stop the run,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I’ve said all along, if you can run the ball and you can stop the run, you usually have a good chance of winning.”

Only one opponent has gained 100 yards against Tech. Miami’s Duke Johnson rushed for 184 in Tech’s 45-30 road loss. Pitt’s leading rusher last week was Isaac Bennett, who had 16 yards on six carries.

“We did a good job,” defensive tackle Euclid Cummings said. “We showed great tenacity and bowed our backs and came out on top. It was a great team effort.”

The Tech defense has become more comfortable with Roof’s system and has made a smart transition from the 3-4 to the more-traditional 4-3 scheme. Cummings is playing his best football of the season, tackle Adam Gostis has shown star-type ability and Attaochu has regained the aggressive style that he became known for as a sophomore.

“I just knew when coach Roof came in, he was a good guy and very easy to talk to and very down to earn from player to player,” Attaochu said. “I knew I was going to enjoy playing for him. I just knew my senior year I was going to be a leader. Coach Roof has made you want to get up and go to practice every day and I appreciate that.”

ETC.: Johnson said Monday that he expects offensive tackle Ray Beno, who has missed the past four games with a foot injury, to be available against Clemson, although he likely won’t start. … A-back Robert Godhigh was named to the list of candidates for the Burlsworth Trophy, awarded to the top former walk-on in the country. Godhigh has gained 708 yards from scrimmage this season on just 54 touches. Former Tech center Sean Bedford won the award in 2010. … Tech’s Nov. 23 game against Alabama A&M was given a 1:30 p.m. kickoff time. The game will be broadcast online on ESPN3.