ATLANTA — It's only mid-September, and already Georgia Tech is feeling pressure in the ACC's Coastal Division.
A season-opening loss to Virginia Tech has left Georgia Tech in a must-win scenario against Virginia on Saturday.
Virginia coach Mike London agreed it's an important game for Georgia Tech. He said he wants to make sure his players feel the same urgency.
"Sure, we are the same way," London said. "It's a division game. It's as important to us as it is them. It's very important to us, as well, because it's our first conference game."
Virginia (2-0) is entering its Atlantic Coast Conference opener after last week's 17-16 win over Penn State.
Georgia Tech (1-1 overall, 0-1 ACC) used last week's 59-3 rout of Presbyterian as a get-well game. The Yellow Jackets opened the season with a 20-17 overtime loss at Virginia Tech that coach Paul Johnson called "gut-wrenching."
The Yellow Jackets can't afford a 0-2 start in the ACC. For added incentive, the visit from Virginia gives Georgia Tech a chance to make up for its first loss of the 2011 season.
Georgia Tech was No. 12 in the nation and had won its first six games for the first time since 1966 before losing at Virginia 24-21 last year.
"I think you have to give Virginia credit," Johnson said this week. "Last year they played well. Last year we were 6-0 and went up there and weren't ready to play. I think we'll be ready this time."
Johnson's spread option offense usually gives Georgia Tech the dominant running game. That wasn't the case in Charlottesville last season, when the Cavaliers ran for 274 yards and held the ball 30 minutes.
Last year's loss provided Johnson with ample motivational material for this week.
There should be no danger of Georgia Tech players dwelling on their 712 total yards, the program's second-highest total, including 469 yards rushing, in the lopsided win over Presbyterian. Johnson has reminded his team that last year Virginia bullied the Yellow Jackets.
The end of last year's loss was especially frustrating for Georgia Tech. Virginia held the ball for the final 6 minutes, making five first downs. The Cavaliers had the ball inside the Yellow Jackets' 5 as the game ended.
"Our big problem last year was they ran flat over us," Johnson said. "They rushed for 270 yards and kept the ball. We're used to winning the time of possession pretty handily. They did a good job holding onto the ball last year and staying on the field, so that will be a challenge. It's a lot of the same guys up front, the same running backs. So we'll need to see if we can stop the run."
Perry Jones had 149 yards rushing against Georgia Tech last year, but the senior has been held to 66 yards in the Cavaliers' first two games this season. Kenny Parks leads the team with 75 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
"There is a renewed emphasis on being able to use what we thought was a strength, what we think is a strength of our team, by being able to run the ball more," London said.
London said three lost fumbles hurt Virginia's running game against Penn State. He said if the Cavaliers can avoid turnovers, they could have more opportunities for extended possessions to establish the running game.
Virginia had an extra week to prepare for last season's game against Georgia Tech. That's especially important for a defense which rarely sees the spread option offense.
The Cavaliers haven't had an extra week this year, but they spent time on the Georgia Tech attack in spring and summer workouts.
"I remember the first time we were here in the (2010) season playing them at their place trying to make the transition ... and they ran all over us," London said, remembering Georgia Tech's 33-21 victory the last time the teams played in Atlanta.
"I think last year was a better understanding of the offense. ... We feel a little better. We have more understanding of it going into this game than we have done in the past, for sure."
Virginia linebacker Steve Greer said the players worked on defending Georgia Tech's triple-option plays in informal practices without the coaches this summer.
"We had a couple of captain, player-held practices, walk-throughs where we did go through the triple option during the summer, kind of to get a head start and make sure everyone has a good understanding for it," Greer said.
"With not having that extra week or extra time, we're really going to have to up our focus and understand that to win, we're going to have to be really prepared and do our jobs."
Senior quarterback Tevin Washington leads the Yellow Jackets with 160 yards rushing. Sophomore running back Zach Laskey, who made his first start last week, has 144 yards rushing.
Washington may share time with Vad Lee, a redshirt freshman who made a dramatic debut against Presbyterian. He had a 1-yard scoring run, an 82-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Greene and a 79-yard run to set up a score.
Synjyn Days also played behind Washington at quarterback against Presbyterian, but Johnson said this week Days is working more at the "A-back" running back spot this week. That move could clear the path for Lee as the backup quarterback.