Virginia Tech’s path to the Atlantic Coast Conference title game is now clear.
After Duke beat No. 15 North Carolina 28-27 on Thursday night, the No. 18 Hokies (7-2, 5-1) can clinch a berth in the league championship game on Dec. 3 with win Saturday against Georgia Tech (5-4, 2-4).
It would be the first title shot for the Hokies since 2011, but it’s not likely to come easily against a Yellow Jackets team chasing bowl eligibility. Georgia Tech has averaged 358 rushing yards in its past two games, against Duke and North Carolina.
“I think they do a lot of just things to mess with your eyes. You know, fake handoffs, pitches,” Hokies middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka said of coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense. “You’ve just got to be fundamentally sound and you’ve got to make sure you’re doing your job and you’re not trying to do too much.”
The Yellow Jackets will be without leading rusher Dedrick Mills, who has been suspended, but are likely to have quarterback Justin Thomas.
Thomas is Georgia Tech’s second-leading rusher, and while he throws sparingly compared to other quarterbacks, he has been very efficient. Thomas has completed better than 64 percent of his passes over the last four games with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He has completed two passes of 80 or more yards, and has an 82-yard run.
Defensively, however, the Yellow Jackets have struggled, allowing more than 400 yards per game.
“We just haven’t made very many plays,” Johnson said. “We’ve had a hard time getting pressure on the quarterback and we had a hard time covering. That’s a daily combination. You know, we just haven’t played well there.”
North Carolina’s 636 yards last week was the second-highest total allowed in program history.
Some other things to watch when Georgia Tech visits Virginia Tech:
DISTRACTIONS: First-year coach Justin Fuente appears to have been able to use the Hokies’ surprise loss at Syracuse last month as a steady reminder of the dangers of getting too high on themselves, and that resolve could be tested this week with the preseason goal of playing for the ACC title within reach with a victory. “There’s definitely reminders to stay focused on this week because at the end of the day, we put ourselves in a good position and we know what could happen, but that means nothing if we aren’t going to be able to make it happen,” fullback Sam Rogers said.
EFFICIENT EVANS: First-year quarterback Jerod Evans remains the key to the Hokies on offense not only for his efficiency in the passing game — he’s second in the ACC to Louisville’s Lamar Jackson — but also his running ability. Evans has 21 touchdown passes and just two interceptions, and he’s run for 533 yards.
RAISE THE ROOF: Yellow Jackets’ defensive coordinator Ted Roof received a vote of confidence from Johnson this week. The Yellow Jackets rank last among the nation’s 128 FBS teams in third-down defense, allowing conversions 52 percent of the time. Georgia Tech also is last in the ACC with only eight sacks.
BUD’S BOYS: Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster has been at the helm of Virginia Tech’s defense for the entirety of Johnson’s time as Georgia Tech, and has had some success in slowing the triple-option. The Yellow Jackets ran for just 161 yards last year in a 23-21 home loss in the series, the third time Foster’s defense has held them to below 200 yards. The Yellow Jackets are 1-16 under Johnson when rushing for fewer than 200 yards.
RED ZONE: Georgia Tech made five trips inside North Carolina’s 20 yard-line last week and had only one touchdown to show for it. The other four trips yielded a field goal, a blocked field goal, a fumble and turnover on downs. They will have to make more of those opportunities to have success on Saturday.