5 things Georgia Tech needs to do against Duke

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins isn’t dwelling on the Yellow Jackets’ 1-4 record.

“We just focus on the improvement, and the results will take care of themselves,” Collins said this week. “Can’t look in the past. All you can do is learn from it.”

On Saturday, Tech will see if its improvement can take care of Duke, a team that has won four of its past five meetings against the Jackets.

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Here are five things Tech will need to do upset the Blue Devils in Durham, N.C.

1. Get first-quarter points 

Tech’s next points scored in the first quarter will be its first. The Jackets are the only team in FBS that has not scored in the first quarter, according to teamrankings.com, and are the only power-conference team that has been held scoreless in any quarter thus far. The Jackets ranked 19th in FBS last season in first-quarter, averaging 8.9 points.

The Jackets are averaging 4.5 yards per play in the first quarter and 5.0 in the final three quarters and overtime.

Against North Carolina, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude made a deliberate attempt at a fast start, running plays that he had never used in his history, to no effect.

“That’s something that, we can’t just always have to come from behind, so we have to get out and establish ourselves, play with a lead,” Patenaude said. “And once you do that, you start to get in a little bit of a rhythm and feel good about yourself.”

2. Get the ball

To that end, the Jackets offense would be immensely helped with a turnover or special-teams play that would put Tech in advantageous field position. In 14 first-quarter possessions, 11 have started behind the Tech 30-yard line. The defense did help last week, when defensive end Antwan Owens’ interception gave the offense the ball at the North Carolina 45, but the Jackets punted after four plays.

Regardless, Collins has stressed causing and recovering fumbles. The Jackets have procured one takeaway in each of the past two games, both interceptions, but have not forced a fumble. (North Carolina had two fumbles, both on snaps.)

“We have not gotten as many turnovers as we would like the past three games, and that is a huge point of emphasis for me,” linebacker David Curry said. Against North Carolina, “I was trying to rip everything out. It so happened I didn’t get one, but this week, we’ve made a huge emphasis on it.”

Duke has lost 11 turnovers this season, the same as Tech.

3. Stop Duke on third down

Against The Citadel, penalties did in the Jackets. Against Temple, it was two costly fumbles and getting overpowered by the Owls’ run game. In the loss to North Carolina, the glaring deficiency was third-down defense, as the Tar Heels converted 11 of 19 third downs, including nine that were third-and-6 or longer.

“It starts with me,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. “As the defensive coordinator, I’m responsible for them and we did not get it done. It was the story of the game.”

On Tuesday, Thacker vowed to spend “an excessive amount of time” working to solve the third-down puzzle, but acknowledged it’s a multi-pronged issue. Tech needs a better pass rush, tighter and different coverages and more effective play-calls. Not facing the quick trigger of UNC quarterback Sam Howell might help, too.

4. Keep James Graham secure

On the flipside, keeping the quarterback protected has also been a challenge for the Jackets. Against North Carolina, Tech often did not hold up well against the Tar Heels’ array of blitzes and also against standard four-man pass rushes.

In the first career start for quarterback James Graham and also walk-on center William Lay, Graham completed 11 of 24 passes for 171 yards, was sacked twice and was flushed out of the pocket other times.

Both are having to learn to identify different alignments, recognize possible blitzes and set the appropriate pass protection.

“You’ve got to be on the same page,” offensive tackle Zach Quinney said. “If Will sees something that James doesn’t, then he’ll point it out and tell him to make a call, and same thing the other way. The quarterback will, of course, make the final call. As the other offensive linemen, you’ve got to point some things out and just listen to the call and know what the final call is and be ready to execute it.”

5. Build on strong finish

One reality of Saturday’s 38-22 loss to North Carolina is that the margin could have been far wider had the Tar Heels executed a little better in their passing game. Regardless, Tech players and coaches took some hope from the way the offense shook loose in the second half, scoring 22 points and amassing 229 yards of offense on 26 plays after halftime.

Out of the 26 snaps, eight went for 10 yards or longer, including Graham’s scoring passes of 28- and 32-yard passes to wide receivers Malachi Carter and Ahmarean Brown, respectively, and running back Jordan Mason’s 43-yard run.

“I feel like, throughout the game, his command and his leadership role just kept getting better and better,” Quinney said.

Given Tech’s difficulties in maintaining play-to-play consistency, the Jackets will likely need more explosive plays to goose the offense. Look for Graham to continue get away from the pass rush with sprint-outs, which is how he connected on the touchdown throws to Carter and Brown.