Bowling Green and Louisville were a start for Georgia Tech. But as the Yellow Jackets push toward bowl eligibility and continue pursuit of the ACC Coastal title, their game Saturday against Duke is a rise in the level of competition.
By the metrics of ESPN’s Football Power Index, Bowling Green is No. 123, Louisville is No. 92 while Duke is No. 33, five spots ahead of the Jackets.
“Duke will be a really good team,” coach Paul Johnson said Sunday. “They’re always well-coached, they play hard. It’ll be a big challenge.”
Johnson did find fault with the notion that Duke is significantly better than Louisville. He pointed out that Florida State, which barely beat Louisville, also nearly upset No. 16 Miami on Saturday. “So it’s almost like, if we win a game, the other team sucks,” Jonson said.
A win would put Tech above .500 at 4-3, would move the Jackets a game closer to bowl eligibility and would keep them in the division race while earning the tiebreaker over Duke.
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The Blue Devils, who have won three of the past four meetings with Tech, will play the Jackets coming off their open date. They’ve undoubtedly spent the past week prepping for the Jackets’ spread-option offense and familiarizing themselves with defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s scheme.
Tech is burning hot offensively, having scored touchdowns on 16 of the 18 possessions in which it wasn’t running out the clock against Bowling Green and Louisville. The Jackets became just the fourth team in ACC history to score 60 or more points in back-to-back games.
The Blue Devils rank 29th nationally in rushing defense at 122.8 yards and 21st nationally in scoring defense at 18.4 points per game. While losing 31-14 to Virginia Tech in their last game, the Blue Devils gave up 81 rushing yards on 41 attempts. The rushing total is not obfuscated by sack yardage; the Hokies were sacked only once for 10 yards.
“They’re really good on defense,” Johnson said. “They’re real aggressive, they play a lot of man coverage against people and blitz a lot, create a lot of negative plays.”
In the season opener, the Blue Devils faced Army, which is coached by former Tech coach Jeff Monken and runs an option scheme similar to Tech’s, and won 34-14. Army gained 168 yards on the ground, 55 percent of the Cadets’ season average.
“I think we just got outclassed,” Monken said after the game. “Give credit to Duke, coach (David) Cutcliffe and that team, they just outplayed us.”
Sunday, Johnson said that when he spoke with Monken after Army nearly beat No. 11 Oklahoma. Monken told him that he thought that Duke’s defense was better than Oklahoma’s, “and it wasn’t even close.”
When Tech and Duke met last November in the Jackets’ penultimate game of the season, the Jackets were similarly humbled. Tech established a quick 14-3 lead, but then was outscored 40-6 in a 43-20 defeat. The Jackets tackled poorly, were blocked up easily, didn’t throw or execute the option well and didn’t block well. For good measure, a fake-punt try failed. Tech gave up a season-high 500 yards to Duke.
“They went through us like we weren’t even out there,” Johnson said after the game.
Duke is not explosive offensively – the Blue Devils have 20 plays of 20 yards or more, second fewest in the ACC. But the Blue Devils don’t turn the ball over (three giveaways, fewest in the ACC) or commit penalties (3.8 per game, second fewest in the ACC) and they play the field-position game well.
“They run their system,” Johnson said. “That’s what they do. They have a system and they run it. They do some (run/pass option), they’ve got some inside-zone stuff, try to run the ball and then they’ve got a pretty good quick game and screen game, screen and draw. They’re going to do what they do. That’s why they’re pretty good at it.”