With eyes on offense, Tech's defense shines

ATLANTA - Through the whole offseason, all anyone wanted to talk about was that Georgia Tech offense.

Would the spread option really work? Would the Yellow Jackets be able to win games without much of a passing game?

Scant attention was paid to the other side of the line.

'You know,' defensive tackle Darryl Richard said, breaking into a sly grin, 'it's not too bad to operate in the shadows.'

While the new offense has endured its ups and downs, the defense has been a steadying force in a season that's already exceeded most expectations. The No. 21 Yellow Jackets (6-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) are leading their division heading into Saturday's homecoming game against Virginia, having worked their way into the national rankings for the first time this year.

'We just try to play hard and play together and play fast,' star defensive end Michael Johnson said. 'If you mess up, mess up going 100 percent, mess up going full speed, and move on to the next play.'

Under new coordinator Dave Wommack, Georgia Tech has allowed the fewest points in the ACC (11.6 a game) and trails only four teams nationally in the most important category of all. The Yellow Jackets are equally stout against the run and the pass, ranking second in the conference in both categories.

Johnson and his teammates are still kicking themselves for giving up two third-quarter touchdowns to Clemson last Saturday, turning a 14-3 lead into a 17-14 deficit. But the Yellow Jackets buckled down in the final period, and Josh Nesbitt threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas with just under 51/2 minutes remaining for a 21-17 victory.

'You want to keep people out of the end zone,' Johnson said, repeating the most basic tenet of any defense. 'When you do that, you give yourself good chance to win. We're very disappointed that we gave up 14 third-quarter points to Clemson. We look forward to the opportunity Saturday to go back and improve on that.'

SideBar: Virginia at Ga. Tech

· When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

· Where: Atlanta

· TV/Radio: ESPNU/790-AM