5 things to know before Georgia Tech-Duke

November 28, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's running back Jahmyr Gibbs (21) runs for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 28, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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November 28, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's running back Jahmyr Gibbs (21) runs for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 28, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

After a frustrating loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday, Georgia Tech has the opportunity Saturday to gain a measure of redemption. The Yellow Jackets will play at Duke, seeking to even their record at 3-3 and show better form that they did in a 52-21 defeat to the Panthers in which turnovers, penalties and an inability to handle adversity fueled the runaway loss.

“What happened on Saturday was simply unacceptable,” linebacker Quez Jackson said. “We know that. That’s the good thing about college football. You get to prove yourself week in and week out. We have this week to give ourselves the opportunity to put ourselves back in a good position.”

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Duke is similarly minded, having lost 38-7 on Saturday to archrival North Carolina. Tech is favored by four points at Wallace Wade Stadium and given a 67% probability of winning by ESPN.

Five things to know before the game:

1. Blue Devils play quickly

One facet of the Duke offense that defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker wanted to drive home to his unit is the pace at which the Blue Devils generally go from one play to the next. Duke can take less than 20 seconds from the end of one play to snap the ball for the next, whereas Tech’s offense can use 30 seconds or more (though they also can get plays off as quickly as Duke, particularly in the red zone).

“They’re going to push the tempo after any earned first down,” Thacker said. “They’ll get back on the football and play fast, so we’ve got to be ready to execute at a high level.”

In those situations, Jackson said, the critical action after the play ends is to get eyes on the sideline to receive the next play call and then understand the assignment, get lined up properly for the formation and adjust to pre-snap motion.

“We’re definitely going to have to be in shape, locked in and making sure we’re very detailed in our assignments,” Jackson said.

2. Watch out for Mataeo Durant

Thacker and Tech coach Geoff Collins probably could not have paid Duke running back Mataeo Durant a better compliment than both did by comparing him with Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs.

“The running back, 21 (Durant’s jersey number), reminds me a lot of Jahmyr, and I think everybody in this room understands how highly I think of Jahmyr, how we think of Jahmyr as an organization, and I think that kid’s a really good player,” Collins said. “He’s dynamic with the ball in his hands, he reads it very well.”

Durant’s 127.2 rushing yards per game ranks fifth in FBS. A year ago, he ran 120 times for 817 yards, a stout 6.8 yards-per-carry average. Against Tech, he ran for 50 yards and caught passes for 48 more, scoring rushing and receiving touchdowns. Tech ranks 10th in the ACC in rushing defense at 145.4 yards per game, although its 3.6 yards-per-carry rate is a significant improvement from last season.

“He’s one of the premier backs in the ACC,” Thacker said. “They make no bones about it. That’s who they want to get the ball to.”

3. Seeking red-zone improvement

Tech will attempt again to improve its performance in the red zone. The Jackets have scored touchdowns on half of their 22 red-zone possessions (50%), the lowest rate in the ACC. Against Pitt, Tech scored two touchdowns on four red-zone trips, missing on two possessions when the Jackets had first-and-goal.

To offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, the challenge is less about formation or personnel package as it is the work of the offensive line.

“You have to be able to run the ball between the tackles,” Patenaude said. “You have to be able to move people out of the way against their will when you get down in there. And you have to have complements to those plays.”

Tech’s two red-zone touchdowns against Pitt, Patenaude noted, were running back Dontae Smith’s 3-yard run behind left tackle Devin Cochran and then quarterback Jeff Sims’ throw to wide receiver Adonicas Sanders off a play-action fake, a complement play.

Tech will be more capable of running between the tackles if they are healthier on the line, particularly left guard Kenny Cooper (out against Pitt) and right guard Ryan Johnson, who was limited in the Pitt game.

4. Possibilities for run game

Gibbs’ most dominant performance from the 2020 season may have been his game against Duke, when he stacked up 139 yards on 10 touches in less than a half before leaving the game with a leg injury.

Gibbs had touchdown runs of 61 (his career-long run) and 26 yards and his final touch was a 42-yard reception in which he fell to the turf with his injury as he sped to the goal line.

Overall, Tech trampled a worn-out Duke defense for 377 rushing yards (a high for Collins’ tenure) as Sims and running back Jordan Mason both cleared 100 yards.

Duke ranks 12th in the ACC in rushing defense at 172.2 yards per game. Particularly after such a subpar rushing effort Saturday against Pitt, when the Jackets ran for a season-low 73 yards (Gibbs did catch six passes for a career-high 125 yards, the most by a Tech back since 1970), it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tech was especially determined to run the ball against the Blue Devils.

5. Scoring first important

Tech’s mangled start against Pitt – when two early interceptions by quarterback Jeff Sims led directly to the Panthers’ 14-0 lead – kept with a pattern of the season and much of Collins’ tenure.

In four of the Jackets’ five games this season and in 19 of Collins’ 27 games, the opposition has scored first. It generally has not turned out well for Tech after that. Since 2019, the Jackets are 3-16 when the opponent scores first.

In many of those 19 instances, Tech has been clearly inferior and whether the opponent scored first or not likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome. But allowing the opponent to take the first lead this season likely factored in losses to Northern Illinois, Clemson and arguably Pittsburgh (particularly that the lead was 14-0 in that case). Tech did rally from a 7-0 deficit against North Carolina to win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the Jackets’ defense has started well this season, not allowing a score in any of the five opening possessions.

With Collins, Tech is 5-3 when scoring first, including this season’s win over Kennesaw State. The win over the Owls was the only instance this season when the Jackets scored on their opening possession.

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