Georgia Tech will seek its third win of the season and its second in ACC play Saturday in Scott Stadium, Virginia’s unforgiving abode.
To defeat the Cavaliers, in control of their pursuit of their first-ever Coastal Division championship, would take a heavy undertaking.
Here are five things to know about Tech’s attempt.
1. Major challenge at quarterback
Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker made his respect for Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins clear when he referred to him as “one of the best players in our conference, period” and compared him with Heisman Trophy winners Tim Tebow and Cam Newton because of his unorthodox throwing motion, the difficulty in tackling him because of his size (6-foot-3 and 215 pounds) and the fact that, “as the momentum of the game continues to go, he gets better and better and better. So, an unbelievably huge challenge.”
This season, Tech has not faced the likes of Perkins, who has gained 596 rushing yards (while losing 209 yards, much of it from sacks) and run for seven touchdowns and also averaged 241 passing yards per game with a 64.3 percent completion rate.
Tightly defending underneath routes, tackling well and not letting him find creases in the pass rush will be high priorities.
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2. Eyes on James Graham
Against Pittsburgh on Saturday, quarterback James Graham came into the game after an excellent set of practices, but never found his rhythm against the Panthers. His second throw would have gained a first down but was dropped. After that, he missed on a few throws and “kind of started playing on his heels,” offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said.
After completing two of nine passes, he was replaced by Lucas Johnson at halftime before Johnson was knocked out of the game and Graham returned.
Saturday will be a test of the redshirt freshman Graham’s resiliency. Patenaude said that Graham was “moping around” Sunday before Patenaude told him that nothing more could be done about the loss, “so let’s learn from what you didn’t do well and let’s move on.” Graham practiced well Tuesday, Patenaude said.
If Johnson isn’t available, the likely backup is freshman Jordan Yates.
3. Scott Stadium, den of terror
The results of Tech-Virginia games that took place before members of this year’s team were born have no bearing Saturday, but Scott Stadium has proved a strangely difficult place for the Jackets to win. Since they upset then-No. 1 Virginia in 1990 on their way to a share of the national championship, the Jackets are 2-11 at Scott Stadium. Tech has lost there five times when ranked.
It took Tech’s 2009 ACC championship team (a title since vacated) or one of Virginia’s least competitive teams in history (2013) for the Jackets to return from Charlottesville, Va. victorious.
In that same time span, Tech has won more at Georgia (five times), Clemson and Virginia Tech (four times) and Miami (three times), despite the Hokies and Hurricanes not having joined the ACC until 2004.
4. Looking to run game
While the passing game has provided some big plays – in 122 pass attempts, quarterback James Graham has completed 12 passes for 20 yards or more and seven for 30 yards or more, which is a fairly robust rate – that aspect of Tech’s attack has overall been inconsistent.
The run game has been better, but the Jackets could definitely use some pop to advance their drives. According to the website bcftoys.com, Tech averages 1.23 points per drive overall (122nd nationally), but a microscopic .15 points per drive on possessions that begin inside its 20 (125th). (Most teams’ rates were reduced on drives starting inside their 20, but mostly by less than half their overall rate.)
Finding a way to bust a big run – Tech has one run of 40 yards or more this season, tied with Virginia for last in the ACC – would take a lot of stress off the offense to crank out first downs.
Virginia may not be so compliant. The Cavaliers are ranked No. 21 in FBS in defensive yards-per-carry at 3.34 yards. Tech will have to dislodge, in the vivid phrasing of Patenaude, “girthy inside guys.”
5. Limit mistakes
A phrase that coach Geoff Collins invoked Saturday after the loss to Pittsburgh was one familiar to Tech basketball fans, as coach Josh Pastner repeated it endlessly in his first season – “margin for error.” Tech lost in part because it fumbled on the doorstep of the goal line, gave up a 61-yard touchdown because of correctable mistakes and missed a 34-yard field goal. The errors and red-zone shortcomings submarined a day in which Tech blocked a punt and forced three turnovers.
Ball security, red-zone efficiency (Tech is last in FBS in that category), limiting kick and punt returns (Virginia is No. 1 in kickoff return average in FBS) and avoiding penalties, among other things, will be necessary for Tech to have a chance Saturday. Blocking a punt or kick for a fourth game in a row wouldn’t hurt, either.
ESPN’s Football Power Index projects Tech to have a win probability of 8.7 percent against Virginia . An optimist might point out that that percentage is almost a third better than Tech’s pregame win probability against Miami.
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