There’s much at stake for Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech

The win over North Carolina – the high point of the season – grows increasingly distant. Frustration heightens over the dismal 3-4 record and the regret from the three one-possession losses. And Saturday’s defensive meltdown cannot be tolerated.

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Let’s face it – Virginia Tech has some irritation that could use a healthy outlet. And, of course, so does Georgia Tech, for whom the same irritations apply.

When Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech meet Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium for the 18th time, in some ways the stakes have never been lower. Since the Hokies joined the ACC in 2004, the Tech-Tech matchup often has decided the Coastal Division, tangles that for years were the stage for tactical contests between Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson and Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster.

Saturday’s game will be only the second time in the history of the series in which both teams drag a losing record into the ring. (The first instance carried a different significance – in 2015, the Hokies and Jackets met in the first game after coach Frank Beamer had announced his retirement in what proved a 23-21 win for Virginia Tech on a Thursday night ESPN game.)

But, in a different way, Saturday’s homecoming game at Bobby Dodd Stadium carries heavier weight – desperation as both teams try to keep afloat seasons that have veered off course.

As much as urgency as the Jackets feel to negotiate a path to a win Saturday, Georgia Tech fans might be advised against believing that their team can redeem the “we want it more” card for a win that would elevate the Jackets to .500 (for the fourth time this season).

The Hokies likely are feeling the same burden, their season having played out in a fashion not unlike Georgia Tech’s. Further, if the Jackets are qualitatively better, it likely isn’t by much, hence the Jackets’ being favored at home by a modest four points.

When asked how badly his team needed to win Saturday, Hokies defensive tackle Norell Pollard didn’t need to dig too deeply.

“Bad,” he told Virginia media this week. “We’re going to get it, too.”

There are scars to compare. On Saturday, as Georgia Tech prepared to play at Virginia, the Hokies were busy handing over a nine-point lead to Syracuse in the final three minutes, the final blow a 45-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds remaining in a 41-36 loss in Blacksburg, Va.

In giving up 314 rushing yards after not having given up more than 208 this season, Hokies coach Justin Fuente called it “our worst game defensively.” The performance served only to raise the volume on Hokies fans’ calls for Fuente’s firing. (Fuente was 19-8 in his first two seasons, but 22-22 in the past four.)

Several hours later and about 200 miles to the northeast in Charlottesville Va., the Jackets were not to be outdone, as Virginia and quarterback Brennan Armstrong throttled Georgia Tech, which gave up defensive season highs for yards (636), yards per play (8.7) and first downs (32), among other categories. This week, coach Geoff Collins spoke of the need to mend trust within his experienced secondary in a low point in his three-year tenure.

“We’re channeling a lot of energy, a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, a lot of resentment, and we’re channeling that energy into what’s next, and that’s Virginia Tech,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. “We’ve been here before where we’ve had a performance that we knew was unacceptable. We’ve responded and don’t expect anything less.”

Both teams are similarly clutching “our record should be better” grievances. Georgia Tech lost to Northern Illinois, Clemson and Virginia by a total of 15 points. Virginia Tech has its own agonizing trio of one-possession defeats – West Virginia, No. 11 Notre Dame and Syracuse by a combined 14 points.

For good measure, both teams also upset North Carolina when the Tar Heels were ranked and both were routed by No. 17 Pittsburgh.

“We should be – I won’t say ‘We should be’ – but we had a good chance to go 6-1, really,” running back Jahmyr Gibbs said. “Three games we lost, we were only one score away from either winning or tying the game. That’s the frustrating part, that we could be 6-1.”

Virginia Tech center Brock Hoffman read from the same script.

“Having three close games, where four or five plays (turn out) differently, this season looks a little differently for us at that point,” he said this week to Virginia media.

It is part of the annual drama of college football, that seasons often hinge on a handful of plays, that a couple of catches made or blocks missed can completely recast a team’s record and the course of a season. Collins’ message to his team this week addressed that reality, telling players that “there’s zero throwaway plays” in a game. He also acknowledged that players are “kind of picking and choosing” processes to adhere to in their preparation to play.

After Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech will conclude its ACC schedule with a road game at Miami and a home matchup with Boston College, followed by the brutal closing lap of No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 1 Georgia. The three remaining ACC games are entirely winnable for the Jackets as they make their bid for bowl eligibility. It’s not an unreasonable expectation for Georgia Tech to win at least two of the next three.

“I feel confident about the games we’ve got going forward, and the way we learn from every win and every loss,” Gibbs said.

The trouble for Georgia Tech is that the Hurricanes and Eagles are surely viewing those games through the same lens as the Jackets, just as Virginia Tech is.

It will be no surprise if Saturday’s game boils down to a couple of plays made or not made. Can Georgia Tech get better play from its secondary and, after one turnover its past three games, create more takeaways? Will Virginia Tech have answers for Gibbs and the Jackets run game? Who can avoid a costly fourth-quarter mistake?

For the loser, bowl hopes will slip more out of grasp. For the winner, hope is restored for another seven days.

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