Georgia Tech’s win over Wake Forest crucial for bowl hopes

Georgia Tech wide receiver Eric Singleton Jr. (13) celebrates his touchdown catch against Wake Forest with Jamal Haynes (11) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech wide receiver Eric Singleton Jr. (13) celebrates his touchdown catch against Wake Forest with Jamal Haynes (11) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — When scanning a team’s schedule, you’ll often identify “swing games.” Those are the could-go-either-way contests that feel like they’ll heavily influence a season’s outlook, whether that’s winning a conference or – in this case – simply obtaining bowl eligibility.

Georgia Tech already lost one of its swing games, blowing a 15-point advantage against Louisville in the opener. That made Saturday even more meaningful. The Yellow Jackets, fresh off getting blasted in Mississippi last weekend, rebounded with a 30-16 road victory over previously unbeaten Wake Forest.

If Tech plans to reach a bowl for the first time since 2018 – and that’s the obvious goal in coach Brent Key’s first full season – it needed to win this game. Wake Forest was a manageable foe despite its record.

Undefeated is undefeated, but Wake Forest’s 3-0 start was covered in makeup. It defeated Elon, Vanderbilt and required a 17-point rally to topple Old Dominion. Not that the Demon Deacons were concerned about style points, but those wins didn’t warrant any. Three weeks in, the Deacons essentially were an unknown.

Tech, meanwhile, had lost two of three but showed some promise while doing so. Its passing attack has taken a sizable step forward. Quarterback Haynes King has stabilized the position while new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner has shined. The defense was getting some pressure but failing to finish. That changed Saturday.

The Jackets’ defense forced five turnovers. Wake Forest, averaging 33.3 points per game coming in, reached the end zone only twice. Most notably, Tech produced eight sacks after recording only one over three games.

“I feel like we just go back to work and try to do this every week,” defensive tackle Zeek Biggers said. “This (eight sacks) wasn’t really a milestone. I feel like we can get more than that.” (We’ll keep the bar a bit under eight sacks, but we appreciate Biggers’ enthusiasm.)

The sharps sniffed this one out. Tech opened as a 6-1/2-point underdog but that number shrank to 3-1/2 by kickoff. After the first half, one had to wonder how Tech was an underdog at all. By game’s end, Tech bettors had sweated it out thanks to some second-half sloppiness that stopped the Jackets from pulling away until the final minutes. More on that later.

Credit: Chad Bishop

Georgia Tech coach Brent Key on the win at Wake Forest

Tech led 20-3 at halftime, galvanized by its defense and quarterback Haynes King’s Texas gunslinger ways. King had his 300-yard passing streak snapped at three games, but nonetheless he generally was in command (16-for-27 for 222). Tech ran the ball efficiently (4.9 yards per rush). It reached 30 points for the third time in four games.

For the first time in 2023, though, the offense wasn’t the headline. It was the defense. The same one that was gashed the first three weeks. Its performance was why Tech won a game in which Wake Forest ran 23 more plays and had 29 first downs compared with the Jackets’ 13.

Like the last time Tech was in North Carolina – when it upset the Tar Heels in November thanks to six sacks and six more tackles for loss – the defense created those oh-so-coveted splash plays. It had eight sacks, 10 tackles for loss, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries (one on a muffed punt) and twice stopped the Deacons on fourth-and-short. Tech fans thank the Lord for Kenan Johnson, who snagged a pick that spoiled Wake Forest’s comeback march in the waning minutes.

There are plenty of areas for improvement. The Jackets committed 14 penalties for 142 yards after they were called for only five for 65 yards over three games. Their defensive numbers would’ve been better without so many uncharacteristic infractions that continued Deacons drives. Asked how he’ll address the penalties, Key said, “I’ll leave that between the walls.” The Jackets scored only three points off four turnovers before converting the final pick into a game-icing touchdown in the final minutes. Still, they’ll take the imperfect road conference win.

As for the bigger picture, Tech should be above .500 after next weekend’s home game against generic small school X (it’s Bowling Green this time, which at least intercepted Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy three times last weekend in a 31-6 loss). The remaining schedule is less forgiving: at Miami, versus Boston College, versus North Carolina, at Virginia, at Clemson, versus Syracuse and versus Georgia.

Projecting wins and losses typically is a fool’s errand, but let’s acknowledge the Jackets will be heavy underdogs against Miami, North Carolina, Clemson (even in its current form) and Georgia. Lose them all, the best achievable record is 6-6, reaching the minimum for bowl eligibility.

Tech could surprise – they beat North Carolina last year, after all – but the glance ahead accentuates why Saturday was so crucial. The Jackets’ next true “swing game” might be Nov. 18 against Syracuse, given they should beat lowly Bowling Green, Boston College and Virginia, and they won’t be expected to defeat their four other Power Five opponents.

For now, Tech is back on track. And it doesn’t require mental gymnastics to see this program reaching bowl eligibility. This time next week, they should be halfway there.

“We have potential,” King said. “But the thing about potential is if you don’t put it into effect, how good are you really going to be? Right now, I feel like we’ve been putting it into effect. Our potential, our talent, everything is about finally getting over that hump where everything is working out right now (Saturday). We’re just hoping to ride this wave and keep it going.”