In what was once a one-sided series, but now has become a competitive rivalry, Georgia Tech and Duke will meet Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium with plenty on the line.
From 1990 through 2013, the Yellow Jackets were 22-2 against the Blue Devils, but Duke’s emergence under coach David Cutcliffe has reversed the tide. Tech has won once in the past four meetings, which is worse than the Jackets have done in that span against Georgia and Virginia Tech, among others.
Here are five things to know about Saturday’s game:
1. Duke’s stout defense
After putting up a combined 129 points in the past two games, Tech likely will have a much stiffer defensive challenge Saturday. Duke ranks 23rd nationally in defensive yards per carry at 3.3 yards per rush. The Blue Devils held Army to 168 yards in their season opener, the Black Knights’ lowest total since the 2016 season.
“They’re really, really good defensively,” coach Paul Johnson said. “They run to the ball, play hard.”
Duke likely will line up in a 4-3, the same as the Blue Devils have done throughout Johnson’s tenure. Johnson is particularly wary of linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys. Giles-Harris had 14 tackles against Tech last season. Humphreys had 10 in the 2016 meeting.
For Tech, avoiding fumbles and penalties will be paramount again. The Jackets had 14 fumbles in their first four games, but just two in the wins over Bowling Green and Louisville. Tech also was penalized only once on offense in the two games, and that was a post-play flag.
“We’re not getting penalties and not turning the ball over,” Johnson said. “That’s what’s changed.”
2. Field position crucial
With Duke’s defense likely to give Tech problems, it will be incumbent upon the Jackets to help themselves with advantageous field position. That, however, is also a strength of the Blue Devils. Duke has turned the ball over only three times in five games. Further, the Blue Devils have given up only one punt return of 20 or more yards and two kickoffs of 30 yards or more. (The Blue Devils are not great on third down, however, possibly giving Tech opportunities to pin them deep with a Pressley Harvin punt and aim for a three-and-out.)
Johnson has mentioned needing to get more out of both the punt- and kickoff-return teams lately. It could turn out that punt returner Brad Stewart or kickoff returner Juanyeh Thomas could give the Jackets a lift.
“Trust me,” Thomas said. “There’s a hole there. It’s just me, personally, I have to make the right read to hit the hole and score.”
Thomas returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Bowling Green, but it was called back on a holding penalty.
If you’re wondering, Duke has given up just two kickoff returns for touchdowns since the start of the 2011 season.
3. Top-flight quarterback
Tech has seen its share of future NFL quarterbacks in recent seasons, a list including North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Miami’s Brad Kaaya. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones seems on his way to being another.
Jones has size (6-foot-5 and 220 pounds), mobility and a big arm. Jones has completed 52 of 74 passes thus far (70.3 percent), with five touchdowns against a single interception.
It stands as a particular challenge for the Jackets, who have permitted opponents to complete 63.5 percent of their passes (tied for 12th in the ACC) but compensated with eight interceptions (tied for third in the conference).
Duke also plays at an up-tempo pace, which has given the Jackets problems in recent weeks. And, last year, Tech permitted its season highs in points (43) and yards (500) to the Blue Devils in a 43-20 defeat.
“Let’s just say we’re looking forward to this week,” inside linebacker David Curry said.
4. Johnson-Cutcliffe, again
In a nine-day span in December 2007, Tech hired Paul Johnson and Duke named David Cutcliffe as its head coach. The two have been there ever since. Only seven coaches in ACC history have been at their respective schools for more than 11 seasons.
This will be their 11th meeting, with Johnson holding a 7-3 edge on Cutcliffe, although Duke has won three of the past four games. With their 11th head-to-head matchup, there will be only two sets of coaches who have faced each other in ACC play more frequently while at the same two schools. (N.C. State’s Earle Edwards and Duke’s Bill Murray, 13 games, and Edwards and Clemson’s Frank Howard, 12 games)
Johnson and Cutcliffe hold each other in high regard. This week, Cutcliffe said that “I think Paul’s one of the best football coaches that I have seen in my long career.” Johnson said that Duke has “made leaps and bounds (of progress) since I got here.”
5. Elimination game
Duke is 0-1 in ACC play, having lost at home two weeks ago to Virginia Tech. Georgia Tech is 1-2 in league play with losses to Pittsburgh and Clemson. A third ACC loss would put the Jackets in a situation where they would need a lot of help to win the Coastal. Since the ACC split into two divisions in 2005, a 5-3 record has won the Coastal only twice.
For Duke, starting league play with two division losses would not quite be fatal for their chances of winning the Coastal, but that plus coming road games at No. 16 Miami and No. 4 Clemson would make rallying to finish 6-2 a bit of a long shot.
In short, it’s a game neither team can afford to lose.
“If you want to stay alive in the conference race, it’s a huge game,” Johnson said.