After breaking a three-game losing streak against Bowling Green on Saturday, Georgia Tech will play at Louisville Friday night to attempt to win consecutive games for the first time since beating Jacksonville State, Pittsburgh and North Carolina last season in the second, third and fourth games of last season. At 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the ACC, Tech has plenty riding on the outcome of its first-ever matchup with the Cardinals.
What’s at stake
This is a crucial game for Tech for a variety of reasons. First, the Yellow Jackets still hold hope that they can win their remaining ACC games to finish at 6-2 in league play and have a shot at representing the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship game. Second, Tech is trying to build on the momentum of its win over Bowling Green as it heads into the second half of the season.
Also, it’s significant for the Jackets’ bowl chances. With a loss Friday, even assuming wins over North Carolina and Virginia, the Jackets would need to take two from Duke, No. 24 Virginia Tech, No. 17 Miami and No. 2 Georgia. Further, Tech has a six-game road losing streak and would love to bring that to an end.
And, not least, the more Tech can win, the more that fan unrest over coach Paul Johnson can be quieted.
Continue clean play
After penalties, missed assignments and fumbles cluttered the Jackets’ play in their three-game losing streak, Tech was much more effective against Bowling Green – one fumble, three penalties and fewer mental errors. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall also was better in executing the option and was 5-for-6 passing for 160 yards.
However, that was against a Falcons team that was clearly inferior to Tech. Louisville is not the team it was when Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson was the quarterback, but it’s likely a significant upgrade from Bowling Green.
Limiting turnovers will, per usual, a key. Tech had nine giveaways in its first four games and none against the Falcons. If Tech can go the entire Louisville game without a turnover, it would be just the third time in Johnson’s tenure that the Jackets have played back-to-back games without a fumble or interception, according to sports-reference.com. Since Johnson’s hire, Tech is an unsurprising 13-4 against FBS teams when it doesn’t give the ball away.
Eyes on pass defense
Likely in part because of the level competition and in part because of better execution, Tech has secured 10 takeaways in its first five games, as many as the Jackets had all of last season.
Louisville, which has thrown eight interceptions (tied for fifth most in FBS), should give the Jackets some opportunities. The Cardinals don’t mind throwing it, with 45 attempts in their narrow loss to Florida State last Saturday.
However, Louisville may be anticipating its own chances against Tech. The Jackets’ pass rush has generated a meager six sacks and permitted opponents to complete 64.1 percent of their pass attempts. They’ve been particularly egregious on second down, when the opposition has a 76.5 percent completion rate.
Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass, from Carver High in Columbus, can make accurate downfield throws and escape the pocket when there’s room.
Louisville defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Johnson have a bit of a history. First, before the 2006 season, VanGorder was hired at Georgia Southern (where Johnson had won two Division I-AA (now FCS) national championships) and ditched Johnson’s prized option offense, allegedly disparaging it in the process. It was a slight that did not escape Johnson’s attention.
The two faced off in 2015, when Johnson brought the No. 14 Jackets to Notre Dame to face the No. 8 Fighting Irish, for whom VanGorder was the defensive coordinator. Notre Dame prevailed, 30-22, holding Tech to 216 rushing yards.
They had another meeting of sorts in 2016. Georgia coach Kirby Smart hired VanGorder – who earlier in the season was fired from Notre Dame – as a consultant, specifically to assist in preparation for Tech. The Jackets were held to a modest 226 rushing yards, but won 28-27, rallying from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit.
Tech is 14-1 in the rotational crossover game against the Atlantic Division in Johnson’s tenure, including wins in the past 10 matchups. The next best record for an ACC team in its rotational crossover games in that time is Clemson, which is 12-3. Against the Coastal Division and Clemson, Johnson is 32-35.
Timing often has been to Tech’s benefit in this instance. Of the 15 teams that Tech has played in the rotating game, 11 finished that season with league records of 4-4 or worse. At 0-2 in ACC play, Louisville may well be the 12th.
Tech will play Louisville for the first time in school history. By playing at Cardinal Stadium, Syracuse’s Carrier Dome will be the lone ACC stadium that the Jackets have not visited. Tech is to play there in 2020. Louisville will come to Atlanta in 2023. It will also be Tech’s first game in Kentucky since 1959, when the Jackets played at Kentucky in an SEC game.
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