5 things to know before Georgia Tech-Pittsburgh

October 9, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's running back Jamious Griffin (22) dives into the endzone for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Friday, October 9, 2020. Georgia Tech's won 46-27 over the Louisville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
October 9, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's running back Jamious Griffin (22) dives into the endzone for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Friday, October 9, 2020. Georgia Tech's won 46-27 over the Louisville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Coming off its second open date, Georgia Tech has a fair task in front of it Saturday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium. In a season in which the Yellow Jackets have played a number of solid defenses, Pittsburgh’s might be the most unyielding.

The Panthers, a 6 1/2-point favorite, lead the ACC in total defense, sacks and tackles for loss. Tech (2-5, 2-4 ACC) to break a three-game losing streak after decisive losses to Boston College, No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 4 Clemson.

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1. Big test on the edges

Tech offensive tackles Zach Quinney and Jordan Williams probably will face their biggest test of the season in lining up against Pittsburgh defensive ends Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones, who rank among the top sets of ends in the country. They have a combined 13.5 sacks – a half more than Tech has as a defense – and 22.5 tackles for loss. (To Tech’s chagrin, Pitt linebacker SirVocea Dennis has even more TFL’s – 13.5.) Pitt leads FBS with 38 sacks.

Tech offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude raved about their size (Weaver is 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds and Jones is 6-5, 260), wingspans, understanding of the Pitt scheme and effort.

They can rush with power moves, but they also are, “athletic off the edge of the defense, and they play relentlessly hard,” Patenaude said. “Their motors are really, really good.”

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Quinney and Williams get help from running backs or tight ends in pass protection. The puzzle for Patenaude is that, with Pitt often creating pressure without blitz help, the more players that he commits to protection, the fewer targets that quarterback Jeff Sims will have to throw to against a seven-man coverage.

2. Stay in your lane

The success that Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book had against Tech slipping out of the pocket for gains (nine carries, 46 yards) was the same that Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec enjoyed against the Jackets (seven carries for a career-high 94 yards).

Tech’s defensive linemen have learned the lesson repeatedly of the importance of not straying out of their rush lanes, lest they create gaps in the pockets for quarterbacks to escape through and pick up yards.

“It’s a big priority, especially on third down,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. “That’s where it’s shown up – and finishing plays.”

While Tech’s linemen recognize the value of not getting out of their lanes, it’s not always easy.

“The (offensive linemen) are moving targets,” defensive lineman Antwan Owens said. “They’re not going to let you stand there and let you get to your zone.”

The line has to find the balance between being aggressive in getting to the quarterback, but also keeping the pocket secure. It is perhaps a challenge of a group that depends heavily on freshmen and sophomores. Speaking Tuesday after practice, Thacker said that the line had worked a pass-rush drill that morning where, rather than one linemen rushing at a time, either two or four were rushing together “to be able to have better consciousness of rush lanes.”

3. Saturday night fever

Tech will be protecting an unusual streak at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday. The Jackets have won seven consecutive games on Saturday nights on Grant Field.

The seven wins include two of the more memorable conquests of former coach Paul Johnson’s tenure. The first in the streak was Jackets' 31-17 win over No. 5 Clemson in 2011 and the fifth was the “Miracle on Techwood Drive” win over No. 9 Florida State in 2015. Both the Tigers and Seminoles were undefeated and in the national-championship hunt at the time.

Other than a 2012 win over FCS-program Presbyterian, the list contains no cheapies — wins over Miami in 2014 and 2018, Pitt in 2013 and Wake Forest in 2017. The 2014 win over Miami lifted the Jackets to 5-0 and broke a five-game losing streak to the Hurricanes. Aside from Presbyterian, the other six teams went to bowl games in the seasons they lost to the Jackets on Saturday nights.

4. Jackets hunting interceptions

Pitt’s second visit to Tech in as many years – because of the modification of the ACC schedule; it’s the same reason why the Jackets will go to Miami next week for the second year in a row – brings to mind the shortage of interceptions by Tech’s experienced secondary.

After seven games, the Jackets have four interceptions, none in the past two games. A year ago, going into the Pitt game, Tech had five after seven games, including none in the prior two games. But against Pitt, safeties Tariq Carpenter and Juanyeh Thomas picked off Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett in what proved to be a 20-10 win for the Panthers.

Part of the challenge is facing quarterbacks who don’t give it away much, although Tech’s last interception belongs to cornerback Zamari Walton, who ended Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s streak of 366 consecutive passes without an interception.

Another is shortcomings in pass-rush pressure, simply in getting to the quarterback and sometimes, as mentioned above, in letting quarterbacks out of the pocket and reducing the chance for a throw made under pressure. Another is simply not being in place to make the play.

Tech has been far better at creating turnovers via fumble. Pickett has three interceptions in 207 attempts. Carpenter and Thomas would be eager to add to his total.

5. Spotlight on freshmen

Saturday’s game will feature perhaps the two leading candidates for ACC offensive rookie of the year. Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs ranks fifth in the ACC and first among freshmen in all-purpose yards per game (138.2). Pitt slot receiver Jordan Addison is fourth in the conference and first among freshmen in receiving yards per game (76.4) and second in catches per game (6.5).

Addison caught 11 passes for 127 yards Saturday in the Panthers' win over Florida State. He leads all FBS freshmen in catches (52) and receiving yards (611). Like Gibbs, Addison is a 2020 signee.

Addison has savviness as a route runner that most freshmen lack, Thacker said. Pitt moves him around and uses him on jet sweeps to get him more touches, not unlike Tech’s growing reliance on Gibbs.

“It sounds very simple, but he is good at getting open,” Thacker said.

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