ATLANTA — Georgia Tech has already locked up its spot in a bowl game.
That’s not enough for the Yellow Jackets.
Coming off an upset at Virginia Tech, coach Paul Johnson’s team is eager to keep pushing toward a nine-win season. The Jackets (6-4, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) will need to win out to accomplish that goal, beginning with Saturday’s game against Virginia.
Johnson noted that Georgia Tech has reached nine wins only seven times in the last three decades.
“I don’t think anybody on our team wanted to be 6-6 when the season started,” he said. “You have goals and you try to play for them. My job as a coach is when it looks like those initial goals are gone, try to find a carrot to stick in front of them to say, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re trying to do now.’”
Virginia (2-8, 1-5) doesn’t have much left to play for except pride. The Cavaliers are mired in a five-game losing streak under first-year coach Bronco Mendenhall.
“These kids are resilient and they’re tough,” said Mendenhall, who is assured of his first losing season in 12 years as a head coach. “The outcome and the record at this point doesn’t show. But my internal day-to-day with these guys is really, really enjoyable. I think there’s a super foundation being laid at least in terms of expectation.”
Some other things to watch for when Georgia Tech hosts Virginia at Bobby Dodd Stadium:
NEW QUARTERBACK: Virginia is going back to a familiar name at quarterback. Fifth-year senior Matt Johns is getting a chance to close out his up-and-down career as the starter, taking over for struggling Kurt Benkert. Johns started 15 games the past two years but had not played any quarterback this season until he took over for Benkert in last week’s loss to Miami. “This is a little bit different experience, because I haven’t played all year,” Johns said. “But I think having the experience from the past couple years is beneficial going into this situation, in terms of knowing how to attack a game plan and move forward to be successful on Saturday.”
THOMAS RETURNS: Justin Thomas is set to return at quarterback for Georgia Tech after sitting out last week’s game with an injury. Thomas ranks second on the team in rushing with 561 yards and five touchdowns, and he’s thrown for 1,168 yards with seven TDs and only one interception. While backup Matthew Jordan did a brilliant job running the offense against Virginia Tech, rushing for 121 yards and two scores, Thomas is the team’s unquestioned offensive leaderand provides more of a threat in the passing game.
MENDENHALL VS. TRIPLE OPTION: The Virginia coach is familiar with Georgia Tech’s unique triple-option offense, having coached against it twice — and easily winning both meetings — in his previous post at Brigham Young. Also while at BYU, he had plenty of experience facing a similar scheme at Air Force, going 5-1 against the Falcons. “He’s proven that he knows what he’s doing stopping the option offense,” Cavaliers linebacker Zach Bradshaw said. “I’m sure whatever we do this week, if we execute it like we’re supposed to, will work.”
IMPROVED DEFENSE: After getting torched for 1,195 yards and 83 points in its two previous games, Georgia Tech came up with a stout defensive effort against Virginia Tech. The Yellow Jackets forced four turnovers and shut down the Hokies until giving up meaningless touchdowns on their final two possessions. “We got a little juice going. I hope we can carry it over,” Johnson said. “I’m sure they were tired of hearing” about their struggles.”
JOHNSON’S FUTURE: There has been speculation about Johnson’s future, especially with Georgia Tech bringing on a new athletic director, Todd Stansbury. The Yellow Jackets went 3-9 a year ago, and a three-game losing streak knocked them out of contention for the ACC title this season. Johnson said he’s proud of his record in nine years at Georgia Tech and doesn’t worry about his job security. “If they think they can get somebody better, they ought to go get ‘em,” he said. “That’s certainly their right.”