With wins in five of the past six games, Georgia Tech seems fully ready for a matchup that should test them on offense and defense. Virginia has a star at quarterback, playmakers on defense and a coach who has tangled plenty with option offenses, including the one operated by coach Paul Johnson. The Yellow Jackets are eager to get payback for the Cavaliers’ last-minute win last season in Charlottesville, Va., and send out their seniors with a win in their final home game.
Five things to watch in Saturday’s game:
Possible matchup advantage
Injuries have taken a bite out of Virginia’s defensive line. The Cavaliers have four linemen – three freshmen and a grad transfer – that coach Bronco Mendenhall relies on heavily in their 3-4 defense who will be seeing Tech’s option offense for the first time, obviously not the ideal situation for Virginia. Mendenhall described Saturday’s game as a “trial by fire” for those four, particularly given that the Jackets are healthy on the offensive line and playing well there.
The Cavaliers also aren’t terribly experienced at linebacker, either. Two of the four linebackers at the top of the depth chart didn’t start against the Jackets last season. That said, Jordan Mack is a playmaker on the inside, as is Chris Peace on the outside, and safety Juan Thornhill in the back.
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The option is nothing new to Mendenhall, who said he has faced an option team every year since becoming a head coach with his hire at BYU before the 2005 season, including Tech in 2012 and 2013, both Jackets defeats.
What’s at stake
Tech secured its bowl berth Saturday with its 27-21 win over Miami to check off the team’s primary goal after it had fallen back in the ACC Coastal race.
“We know if we can win the next one, we get in a better bowl game,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. “So I think that’s the motivation right now. We’re on a pretty hot streak so I don’t think we want to lose at this point.’
A seventh win would improve Tech’s record to 7-4 and ensure a winning season even with losses to Georgia and in a bowl game. A win would also enable the Jackets to finish at 5-3 in league play. Tech still has an outside chance to finish in a tie for first in the Coastal, though the Jackets would need Pitt to lose its final two league games. A win would ensure that Tech would do no worse than second, which would be the seventh time in coach Paul Johnson’s 11 seasons that the Jackets finished first or second in the Coastal. Only Clemson (eight times), Florida State and Virginia Tech (seven) have finished in the top two of their division more than Georgia Tech has in that span.
Virginia, at 4-2 in league play (7-3 overall), is still alive for the Coastal title, but needs Pitt to lose Saturday to Wake Forest to have a chance.
Problem to solve at quarterback
Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins “is as good as anybody in our league,” Johnson said this week. Perkins is a dual-threat quarterback who ranks third in the ACC in passing efficiency rating and also has run for 657 yards, fourth among quarterbacks in the league (behind both Marshall and Tobias Oliver).
Tech’s defensive line will have chances to bring Perkins down – the Cavaliers have given up 2.7 sacks per game – but perhaps equally important will be fencing him in on the outside and not allowing him gaps to slip upfield and scramble for yards.
Perkins is especially effective on third down – his efficiency rating is 177.7 on third down, compared with 143.4 on all downs. That could be a problem for the Jackets, who have permitted opponents to convert 49.6 percent of their third downs, 127th of 129 FBS teams.
UVA wary of Tech ends
Mendenhall has been impressed by Tech’s defensive front, notably ends Anree Saint-Amour and Desmond Branch and the nose tackle rotation of Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Brandon Adams.
“I think their defensive ends are especially active,” he said. “I like the way they play, and I think they're solid and stout at nose tackle. So I like the defensive line as kind of the beginning of what they do on defense. I think it's driven by those three. My eyes are drawn to those guys when I watch them play.”
Saint-Amour is tied for 10th in the ACC in tackles for loss with 10.5 to go with four sacks and eight quarterback hurries. Branch has three tackles for loss and three hurries. Cerge-Henderson has four tackles for loss, while Adams has 3.5.
Possible playing time for freshmen
With only three games remaining – Virginia, Georgia and a bowl game – Tech coaches may be looking for playing opportunities for freshmen, who can play up to four games and retain their redshirt status. Johnson said Wednesday that he would like to play B-back Christian Malloy against the Cavaliers. Malloy has played one game this season, rushing four times for 27 yards against Virginia Tech.
Other freshmen who are under four games: defensive lineman T.K. Chimedza, linebacker Jordan Domineck and cornerback Jaylon King (three games), quarterback James Graham and defensive lineman Quon Griffin (two) and defensive lineman Luke Johns (one). Defensive end Justice Dingle and cornerback Zamari Walton are at four games.
Five freshmen have exceeded the four-game limit and burned their redshirts – wide receiver Malachi Carter, linebackers Quez Jackson and Charlie Thomas, safety Juanyeh Thomas and kicker Wesley Wells. In 2017, nine freshmen played in their first season on campus. Jackson and Charlie Thomas both were early enrollees.
Eight freshmen have yet to play this season.