Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins spoke this week of being on a mission with his team, and that “I’m either going to find a way or I’m going to make one.”
If the Yellow Jackets can make a way Saturday, it would be significant. Tech is a 10.5-point underdog at home to North Carolina, and ESPN’s metrics assign the Jackets a 16 percent chance of upsetting the Tar Heels.
Five things to watch in Saturday’s game at Bobby Dodd Stadium:
1. New starter at quarterback?
After playing the final two-plus quarters of the Temple game and then earning praise from offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, quarterback James Graham may see expanded playing time against North Carolina.
If he were to start, he would be the Jackets’ third starter of the season, following Tobias Oliver and Lucas Johnson. Graham has shown a big arm and an eagerness to throw deep, but needs to be more consistent. He was 10-for-24 passing for 100 yards against Temple.
He led three drives inside the Temple 30 (two on the final two possessions of the game), but the offense came away with no points because of a fumble, interception and a turnover on downs.
“I saw a lot of positives,” wide receiver Malachi Carter said of Graham. “I saw a lot of confidence in him, a lot of arm talent, and someone who just wants to take over the game, take over the offense.”
2. More changes on offensive line
With center Kenny Cooper out for the season, walk-on William Lay likely is the replacement in the starting lineup. Whoever it is, it will be the Jackets’ fifth different starting five in as many games. Only one player – left tackle Zach Quinney – is in the same spot that he was in for the season opener against Clemson.
The Jackets will be up against a defense that last week held Clemson to 125 rushing yards on 31 carries, well below the 247 yards that the Tigers had averaged in their first four games.
Further, they’ll face a blitz-heavy scheme from defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. With pressure coming from across the field, the Jackets will need to be on their game to handle blitzes. One player to watch is linebacker (and former quarterback) Chazz Surratt, who has 34 tackles, five tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries. Surratt may also double as a wildcat quarterback.
3. UNC’s deep passing game
Tech is wary of North Carolina freshman quarterback Sam Howell’s big arm.
“At some point in every game, he has thrown it over the secondary’s head,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. “So they’ve been able to establish the run, establish the run, go fast, max protect and then Howell’s had a chance to take shots.”
In the Tar Heels’ 21-20 loss to No. 2 Clemson on Saturday, Howell put North Carolina up 7-0 less than two minutes in with a 40-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dyami Brown.
“I know this week, we’re probably going to be getting a lot of double moves, so you just want to make sure you stay disciplined with the routes,” cornerback Zamari Walton said.
Tech’s defense has given quarterbacks reason for concern, also. With a mix of blitzes up front and tight one-on-one coverage on the outside, the Jackets go into the game ranked 33rd nationally in passing efficiency defense. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence had the lowest passing efficiency game of his career against the Jackets.
4. Get confidence going
With the offense struggling, Tech could help itself by getting an early score. The Jackets have yet to score a first-quarter point this season and didn’t get on the scoreboard until the third quarter against both Clemson and Temple.
Against the Owls, Tech had a chance on its third drive, but Oliver’s fumble just shy of the goal line deprived the Jackets of an opportunity to take a 7-0 second-quarter lead.
“I think if we get that first one in there, I think it’s a different game,” Patenaude said.
Carter acknowledged the same idea, that scoring early can relieve pressure.
“Being a new team with a new scheme, when you don’t execute, it makes it a little more difficult to be able to just go out there and go get a quick touchdown,” he said.
On Wednesday, UNC coach Mack Brown predicted that “they’re going to try to onside kick and they’re going to throw a double-reverse pass early in the game to get all their kids excited.”
5. Strong at home
A new chapter of the long rivalry between the two ACC Coastal teams is beginning, as Brown also is a first-year coach, having returned to the field after working five years for ESPN as an analyst following a 16-year run at Texas.
Tech hopes one facet of the series continues, namely its domination of the Tar Heels at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Since Brown himself led UNC to a 16-13 win over Tech in 1997, the final year of his first stint with the Tar Heels, North Carolina lost nine of the next 10 games against Tech at Grant Field.
Brown acknowledged this week that energy at practice was not as high as it had been last week when the Tar Heels were preparing for the defending national champions.
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