5 things to know about Georgia Tech’s ACC finale against Syracuse

Georgia Tech running back Jamal Haynes (11) reacts during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Clemson, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Credit: AP

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Georgia Tech running back Jamal Haynes (11) reacts during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Clemson, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech’s final ACC game of 2023 comes at 8 p.m. Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium when Tech hosts Syracuse.

The Yellow Jackets (5-5, 4-3 ACC) can become bowl-eligible with a win and secure their first winning record in conference play since 2018. A loss would hand Tech its first consecutive defeats of the season. Tech is 4-0 this season in games following a loss.

Syracuse (5-5, 1-5 ACC) also is fighting to become bowl-eligible. The Orange, losers of five of their past six, are making their second trip to Atlanta and first since 2013.

Here are five more things to know about Saturday’s matchup, which will be televised by ACC Network:

1. Can King regain his crown?

Tech quarterback Haynes King had the worst game of his college career Saturday at Clemson. The sophomore threw four picks, one of them returned for a touchdown, and completed a season-low 41.9% of his throws for a season-low 129 yards.

King had a do-not-adjust-your-TV-screens one passing yard in the first half.

Of course, the onus for the poor performance didn’t rely entirely on King’s shoulders. According to Pro Football Focus, Tech receivers dropped five passes and King was pressured 14 times. The offensive line allowed four sacks and three quarterback hurries. It was a rough day all-around for the Jackets’ offense.

“We’ve gotta continue to grow from those things. We’ve got to continue the precision in it. The passing game is all 11 on the field,” Tech coach Brent Key said. “There’s not any one person — it could be a receiver to the right that might have run an incorrect route or not precise, or an offensive lineman giving up leakage on a twist or a running back late on protection. It’s not always just the person throwing or the person catching the football, it’s all-encompassing.”

The Jackets will need King and the entire passing operation to bounce back against Syracuse – and that matchup on paper favors Tech. The Orange rank last in the ACC, having surrendered 237.4 passing yards per game, and they have allowed a passing touchdown in eight consecutive contests.

King, meanwhile, has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in three games this season — Miami, Boston College and Clemson — and the Jackets lost two of those contests.

“He’s the quarterback, and he has the spotlight on him. That’s the nature of the position,” Key said. “He’s gonna continue to grow, he’s gonna continue to mature and he’s gonna continue to rebound like he has. I got full faith and confidence in Haynes King.”

2. Get turnt

Key figuratively shone the Batman symbol into the November sky Tuesday as a call to the Tech fan base. He implored fans to fill Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday and be difference-makers, especially when Syracuse is on offense.

“For the fans, and the student body in particular, this week, the way they were at (the) UNC (game Oct. 28), the way that these guys are starting to support their fellow students that are out there on the field playing, we really have an opportunity this week to make this a great, great, great home-field advantage, to truly be a 12th man out there for the defense and to help them with these things and to be as loud as possible as long as possible and be a part of this,” Key said. “I want everyone in this stadium to be a part of this game this weekend.”

Syracuse ranks 110th nationally in penalties, with seven per game. In recent weeks, many of the Orange’s infractions have been before the snap because of their revolving door at quarterback and a shift in offensive schemes. Thus, Key was in agreement that some added noise could set back Syracuse a few yards from time to time.

Through four home games this season, and with two remaining, Tech is averaging 33,287 fans per game. That would be the program’s lowest average since 1986, when it averaged 32,200.

“It truly does help us,” Tech tight end Dylan Leonard said of large and loud crowds. “We need all the fans and students to show out, and we’ll put on a show for ‘em.”

3. Keeping an eye on third down

Saturday’s matchup features the ACC’s two worst teams at defending third-down plays. Tech has allowed opponents to convert third downs 44.6% of the time, while Syracuse is giving up the yards to gain 41.7% of the time on third down. Only twice this season has either team held the opposition to less than a 30% conversion rate on third down.

On the flip side, the Jackets rank second among ACC teams in keeping drives alive, having converted 46.3% of their third-down opportunities on offense. Syracuse has been solid in that area as well, with a 41% clip.

Thus, it would appear whichever of the two defenses is able to make a few third-down stops Saturday will have the inside track to a sixth win and bowl eligibility.

4. Orange, Benson back together

Tech tight end Luke Benson will go up against his old friends and teammates Saturday. Benson played for Syracuse from 2019-21, when he made 19 catches for 261 yards and hauled in five touchdown receptions. He had a 1-yard catch in the Orange’s 2020 win over Tech.

A 6-foot-4, 233-pound senior from Pennsylvania, Benson has seven grabs for 74 yards for the Jackets this season.

5. Honors for the 1998 team

Tech will honor Saturday the 25th anniversary of its 1998 team that went 10-2 and won the Gator Bowl. ESPN’s “College GameDay” hosted the matchup with Florida State in October of that season. Tech lost that game, but didn’t lose again, reeling off five consecutive wins including a 35-28 triumph over Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl.

George O’Leary, the coach of Tech that season, is expected to be present as part of the recognition. Key was a junior offensive lineman on that squad.

“I won’t be able to enjoy the festivities,” Key said about his old team getting back together to celebrate. “I’ll be there in spirit.”

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