5 things to know before Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech game

BLACKSBURG, VA - NOVEMBER 12: Quarterback Matthew Jordan #11 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets carries the ball against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the first half at Lane Stadium on November 12, 2016 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)
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BLACKSBURG, VA - NOVEMBER 12: Quarterback Matthew Jordan #11 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets carries the ball against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the first half at Lane Stadium on November 12, 2016 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

After nearly two weeks to stew over its loss to Duke, Georgia Tech will play Virginia Tech on Thursday night with the chance to get back to .500 and keep after a bowl bid. In what has been a disappointing season through seven games, the Yellow Jackets have the opportunity to claim a third consecutive win in one of college football’s signature venues while playing before a national-television audience.

» Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech: Where to watch, stream, listen

Five thing to watch in the game:

1. Jackets wary of Hokies quarterback

Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis took over the starting job in the fourth game of the season after returning starter Josh Jackson fractured his fibula. Willis, a transfer from Kansas, is 2-1 as a starter, with wins over Duke and North Carolina and a loss to Notre Dame.

Against the Tar Heels, he led a 98-yard, game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to rally the Hokies. He has twice thrown for 300 yards and once ran for 88 yards. The Hokies have a near-even run/pass ratio in his three starts, but Georgia Tech seems particularly concerned by his running ability.

“I think a huge part of the game, in my opinion, is him scrambling,” said inside linebacker David Curry, who will return to play after leaving the Duke game with a concussion.

The Hokies also like to spread the field and use a lot of misdirection plays, which has given Georgia Tech problems thus far. It also can make defending quarterback scrambles and keepers more difficult.

“You’ve got to get off blocks, and when you get spread out like that, it’s tough,” Curry said. “He gets one open window, he can shoot it.”

2. Thursday woes

In the tenure of coach Paul Johnson, the Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech series has been hard-fought and often decided the Coastal Division championship. Eight of the 10 meetings have been decided by one possession.

The outcomes of the games have fallen along an odd split. Georgia Tech is 4-1 on games played on Saturdays and 0-5 on four Thursdays and one Monday. The home/road split has been identical – Georgia Tech is 2-3 in Lane Stadium (including wins in the past two trips) and 2-3 in Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“I wish we could play on Saturday,” Johnson said dryly.

The Jackets are 3-8 in ESPN weeknight games in Johnson’s 11 seasons, which included an eight-game losing streak that was ended with the win over Louisville earlier this season in a Friday night game.

3. Turnovers pivotal 

Georgia Tech has been highly successful in procuring takeaways thus far, with a total of 16 fumble recoveries and interceptions, tied for 15th in the country. The turnovers have often created advantageous field position and have generated 79 points.

Virginia Tech, however, has been particularly effective at retaining possession of the ball. The Hokies have committed six turnovers, tied for fifth fewest in the country.

Conversely, Johnson has continued to stress the Jackets’ efforts to hold onto the ball, but his team’s 22 fumbles are the most in FBS. The Jackets fumbled on three consecutive plays in the team’s most recent game, a 28-14 loss to Duke, a sequence that changed the game.

“We work on ball security every single day,” Johnson said. “And, having said that, we’ve got to do a better job coaching it. If it’s a problem, you’ve got to do a better job coaching it.”

4. Walker a problem causer

Johnson paid respect this week to Hokies defensive tackle Ricky Walker, who is the lone starter on the defensive line with significant experience facing the Jackets’ offense.

Johnson said that Walker is “as good as anybody in our league. He’s played for a long time, and he’s really a good defensive lineman.”

The 300-pound tackle will play an important role for the Hokies in trying to plug the middle against the triple option and designed run plays between the tackles.

Walker had four tackles against the Jackets in 2016 and two in last season's game. He may often match up with Georgia Tech left guard Parker Braun, who has earned Walker's respect. In the preseason, Walker said that Braun is "perfect for that offense, perfect size, not too big, not too little. Each play he does his job."

5. Big job ahead

Lane Stadium (capacity: 65,632) should sell out, or be close to it. The environment, often touted as the toughest home-field advantage in college football, figures to be typically boisterous. Georgia Tech won there in 2014 and 2016, the latter win achieved despite missing its starting quarterback, B-back and center.

“Those are the games you look forward to the most, especially going in a hostile environment,” A-back Nathan Cottrell said. “Their fans are going to be loud; we know that. We’ve played up there before, so I do know it’s exciting.”

Georgia Tech will have plenty on the line. At 3-4 with five games remaining, the Jackets need to win three to earn bowl eligibility. With a loss Thursday, the climb to six wins would only become more difficult. After Virginia Tech, the Jackets play at North Carolina, Miami, Virginia and at No. 7 Georgia.

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