Following the 28-14 loss to Duke two Saturdays ago, the open date proved useful, though Tech coach Paul Johnson said that “we’re still somewhat beat up” and may be short players for the game against the Hokies.
The time did give the Jackets a chance to shift the lineup – center Kenny Cooper will return to the starting lineup and Jahaziel Lee, who had shifted from offensive tackle to center to play in his place, has moved back to right tackle, where he’ll likely share time with Andrew Marshall.
Johnson also has made personnel changes on the return teams for punt and kickoff, possibly including punt returner Brad Stewart, who has been the Jackets’ returner since the 2016 season.
The break also gives Georgia Tech a chance to get a new start on what has been a disappointing season through seven games.
“I think definitely at this point of the season, it hasn’t gone like we’d intended, but at the end of the day, there’s still a lot of football to be played,” Stewart said.
Stewart leads the team with 11 receptions, which have gone for 146 yards, but he isn’t taking much solace in that.
“It’s been a season where I think we could have done better to this point, personally,” he said. “But you can’t go backwards, so we’ve just got to move forward and get win No. 4 and get back to even.”
The Jackets are taking confidence in the wins the past two seasons against the Hokies, games in which they minimized turnovers (one in each game) and created a flurry of big plays in all three phases of the game. Georgia Tech may have trouble with Duke (four losses in the past five games), but the Jackets have won three of the past four against the Hokies.
Virginia Tech is not quite as effective defensively as it has been in past seasons. The Hokies are ranked 95th nationally in total defense after finishing in the top 25 in six of the past seven seasons.
“They’re not as experienced as they’ve been in the past, probably,” Johnson said. “They’ve got a lot of young guys. They’ve got some really good athletes and they run well. Where they’ve struggled the most is in the back against passing teams, really. Their run defense is still pretty good, but it’s still like any team with a bunch of young guys; they’ll play really good for three or four series and then they’ll give up a big play.”
The 2016 win in Lane Stadium ranks as one of the more unlikely wins in Johnson’s tenure. The Jackets were without quarterback Justin Thomas, B-back Dedrick Mills and center Freddie Burden and pulled out a 30-20 upset of the No. 14 Hokies. By point spread (the Jackets were 14-point underdogs), it was the largest upset of Johnson’s tenure.
Georgia Tech was a mere three-point underdog for Thursday’s game as of Tuesday. A win would get the Jackets back to .500 at 4-4, be the most noteworthy win of the season and keep bowl eligibility in clear sight.
“We know we’re good at playing ball,” defensive end Desmond Branch said. “We know we can play ball at a high level. It’s just being able to play ball on game day.”