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Defense keeps Georgia Tech on championship course
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    ATLANTA — Don’t blame the defense for Georgia Tech’s scares in taking narrow victories over North Carolina State and North Carolina the last two weeks.
    Tech’s defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in two straight weeks, the major reason the 18th-ranked Yellow Jackets have wrapped up the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title as they prepare for Saturday’s home game against Duke.
    While such offensive players as receiver Calvin Johnson, quarterback Reggie Ball and tailback Tashard Choice are better known by fans, the defense lacks superstar names or even attention-grabbing statistics. Even so, the unit has been the steadying force on the team, especially in recent weeks when Ball’s numbers have declined.
    The defense ranks only 28th with its average of 294 yards allowed per game, and 24th with 17.4 points allowed per game. But the defense may be playing its best late in the year.
    Linebacker KaMichael Hall, who has 67 tackles to share the team lead with Philip Wheeler, says he wasn’t aware of the two-game streak of not allowing a touchdown.
    ‘‘It’s a goal, but I don’t really pay much attention to it,’’ Hall said. ‘‘I try to stay out of the stats.’’
    Perhaps the most revealing statistic about this year’s unit is its No. 2 ranking in the league in third-down conversions allowed.
    Coach Chan Gailey said the defense is building momentum on the foundation of the third-down stops.
    ‘‘There’s a confidence level,’’ Gailey said. ‘‘You always hope for that, and I think our guys are starting to get that now. That seems to really gear up the closer to the end zone somebody gets.’’
    Tech shut out North Carolina 7-0 last week, holding the Tar Heels to two successful third-down conversions in 13 attempts.
    ‘‘When you can keep somebody from continuing drives like that, it really helps you,’’ Gailey said.
    ‘‘We only had one sack last week, so it wasn’t like we were creating third-and-longs like we did in previous games. They’ve just been good on third downs.’’
    Tech beat North Carolina State 31-23 on Nov. 4. The Wolfpack’s two touchdowns came on interception and kickoff returns. N.C. State converted only 5 of 19 third-down plays.
    The strong defense allowed Tech to take important, if unimpressive, wins the last two weeks while protecting Ball’s limitations due to injuries.
    Ball lost three yards on only four carries last week while completing only 10 of 24 passes for 78 yards. Gailey hasn’t revealed details of Ball’s health, saying this week only that the senior is battling more than one injury.
    Ball has not appeared to be at full speed since taking some big hits in a 27-23 win over Maryland on Oct. 7. He had ice packs on a knee and an ankle after the game.
    ‘‘I would not say it’s just one thing,’’ Gailey said of Ball’s ailments. ‘‘He’s beat up more than just one leg, that’s for sure.’’
    When asked if Ball’s injuries have affected his play, Gailey said ‘‘No, not significantly. I think it has had an impact, but I don’t think it’s significant.’’
    Gailey said Ball is running better this week and will start against Duke Saturday, even though the Yellow Jackets already have clinched their spot in the Dec. 2 ACC championship game in Jacksonville.
    Gailey had a terse response when asked why he didn’t replace Ball against North Carolina.
    ‘‘Because he’s our quarterback,’’ Gailey said. ‘‘I don’t believe in that.’’
    Another answer is that even with Ball struggling to complete passes, Tech (8-2 overall, 6-1 ACC) keeps winning, thanks in large part to the defense.
    ‘‘It’s just like a family,’’ said safety Jamal Lewis. ‘‘We try and pick them up and encourage them in every step that we can. It’s just like a family, if one part of the family goes down, the other part helps and picks up the slack.’’
    Hall said no one on defense complained when Tech’s offense was held to seven points last week. It was the second time in four games the Yellow Jackets scored only one touchdown, following a 31-7 loss to Clemson on Oct. 21.
    ‘‘All we do is try our best to keep people off the scoreboard,’’ Hall said.
    ‘‘The most important thing is regardless if we score seven, six or three points, as long as we keep people from scoring then we will win the game.’’