Georgia Tech renews its rivalry with Virginia Tech on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Yellow Jackets are trying to notch wins in their season-ending three-game homestand, while the Hokies are in the thick of the ACC Coastal Division race.
Five things to know about Saturday’s matchup:
1. James Graham a focal point
After playing the best game of his young career Saturday, quarterback James Graham will face an opponent that he knows particularly well. Graham committed to Virginia Tech as a senior at Fitzgerald High in the fall of 2017 before changing to Georgia Tech late in the recruiting process, signing with the Jackets that December.
A major part of Georgia Tech’s appeal was that then-coach Paul Johnson was recruiting him as a quarterback, while Virginia Tech wanted him as a wide receiver or defensive back.
“We had him in camp and loved him coming out of high school, so we know what he can do,” Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “He can run and is getting much better in the passing game.”
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The Hokies’ pass defense has played two effective games in the past two weeks. Notre Dame and Wake Forest completed 45 of 89 passes for 574 yards (6.4 yards per attempt) with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
2. This Bud’s for you
Saturday will be the final visit to Bobby Dodd Stadium of a well-respected Georgia Tech rival, Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who will retire after 33 seasons at Virginia Tech. He has served as coordinator since 1996.
Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins once paid Foster a visit during spring practice during his time as defensive coordinator at Division III Albright College in Reading, Pa., (1999-2001) “just trying to gain some insight on how to be a future big-time ball coach one day,” Collins said this week.
Jackets offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude had his own recollection as he was working his way up the ladder himself. With the success that Foster had with his 4-4 defense, Patenaude said, “everybody was running that defense, and I was cursing the defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech because we couldn’t figure out a way to beat it.”
The scheme has changed, but the tenets remain, Patenaude said. This season, the scheme features linebacker Rayshard Ashby, third in the ACC in tackles with 87. Patenaude described him as “a little fireplug.”
“We’re going to have to find him in the run game, put a body on him,” Patenaude said.
3. Hokies coming in hot
The Hokies have turned their season around since Duke obliterated them by a 45-10 score Sept. 27 at Lane Stadium. Virginia Tech was outgained in yardage 422-259. Fuente told reporters this week that he apologized to the team after the Duke game, saying that it was his fault that players were not physically, mentally or emotionally tough, and that it would not continue.
Since then, the Hokies have won four of five games, their only loss by one point at No. 16 Notre Dame. At 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the ACC, the Hokies will win the Coastal Division if they win their remaining games against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Virginia.
Their surge has coincided with quarterback Hendon Hooker’s elevation into the starting job. The run game has particularly ticked up, with three 200-yard rushing games in the past four games.
Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said that Hooker may not have the upper-body strength of Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins, but is efficient running the ball and “has the talent to make all the throws.”
4. Pass protection improving
Virginia Tech will bring the threat of an effective pass rush, and that is nothing new for Georgia Tech. All of the Jackets’ eight FBS opponents rank in the top 51 nationally in sacks – Pittsburgh (third), Miami (fourth), Virginia (sixth), Clemson (tie for eighth), Virginia Tech and Temple (tie for 14th), North Carolina (tie for 36th) and South Florida (tie for 44th). The Jackets’ next opponent, N.C. State, is tied with Virginia Tech and Temple at 14th, meaning that Georgia Tech will play five teams in a row in the top 20.
The Jackets had their strongest pass-protection game against Virginia, preventing the Cavaliers from recording a single sack while passing 22 times. Not coincidentally, Graham had his best passing day, completing 15 of the 22 throws for a career-high 229 yards.
The gains in experience, the stability of the line (four of the five starting line spots have been the same for the past four games) and the tutelage of line coach Brent Key have all factored. Patenaude said that the offensive linemen are “sponges” in absorbing Key’s teaching and are improving both individually and as a unit.
“I mean, we passed off a twist in the (Virginia) game that was three guys passing off a twist with linebackers running and defensive guys running out that we never would have picked up, even in camp,” Patenaude said.
5. A streak to protect
Johnson bequeathed to Collins a three-game winning streak against the Hokies, including last year’s 49-28 annihilation in Blacksburg, Va. Now in his fourth season, Fuente is 18-8 against the rest of the ACC and 0-3 against the Jackets.
Going for the 4-0 sweep doesn’t rate that highly with senior safety Christian Campbell.
“I haven’t put much thought into it,” Campbell said. “I try to go beat everybody we play every week. I couldn’t care less what it is.”
Fuente’s comments on Georgia Tech this week: “You turn on the game vs. Virginia last week and you know immediately that they’re there to go win the game. (Collins) deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that. Those guys are continuing to battle and they’ll be ready to play on Saturday.”
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