ATLANTA -- By almost every measure, the Georgia Tech defense has shown much improvement over a year ago.
The Jackets are 14th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (75.2), after allowing 183 per game in 1999. They have 14 sacks, just two shy of their total from last year. At least one Yellow Jacket player is in the top two in every individual defensive statistical category, and they're third in the ACC in turnover margin.
How to explain, then, their overall pass defense? Look at those numbers, and the red lights and alarms start going off.
"I think we're playing much better," Tech coach George O'Leary said. "(But) when it gets third down in critical situations, we're not making plays."
The Yellow Jackets are 111th nationally in passing defense, allowing 282 yards per game. More importantly, they're giving up big plays in situations when they have their opponent in a hole, which partly explains why they sacked North Carolina State quarterback Ron Rivers seven times and came away with a loss. It was the sacks they didn't get that proved costly.
"It should have been 11 times," O'Leary said.
One of those non-sacks went for a 58-yard State touchdown. In a move that would have made Peyton Manning proud, Rivers appeared surrounded but escaped to hit Koren Robinson with a 58-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. It was one of a handful of plays that, had the Jackets fended it off, they probably would have won.
"When they get out of it like that, it's like a crushing blow," said Tech defensive tackle Tony Robinson. "That hurts."
Another came in overtime. Facing second-and-9 from the 29-yard line, the 'Pack capitalized on a missed read by freshman cornerback Jonathan Cox on a play when Tech blitzed. Cox anticipated one route from Koren Robinson and got another. The receiver was left alone for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
"He came off and told me he'd guessed (Robinson) was going to run a slant," said O'Leary. "He was in the wrong alignment. But at least he was out there thinking. Jonathan's going to be a good player."
Overall, the Jackets' opponents have converted 39.3 percent of their third downs, placing them in the middle of the pack in the ACC. But in all four of their games, the Jackets have had their opponents pinned in third-and-long and given up a first down that led to a score.
"We're in the huddle screaming, 'Let's do it, we've got to get off the field," ' said Tony Robinson. "(But) those guys are on scholarship, too. They're going to make big plays."
Tech's susceptibility to the big play could cost the Jackets a fourth straight bowl appearance if allowed to continue unabated.
It has O'Leary's attention. Last week, he started Cox in place of senior Jamara Clark, who had been burned deep at least once in each of the Jackets' first three games.
"Jamara's played 27 or 28 games for us," said O'Leary, "We need to play more people in the secondary. I'm sure he's not happy about it. If he is, there's something wrong. I just told him he had to get back in there and fight."