Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech
When: 6 p.m. today
Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium
ATLANTA — Virginia Tech hopes this trip to Atlanta goes better than the last one.
Having played themselves back into the national championship race after losing their opener to Alabama, the fourth-ranked Hokies face what appears to be their last major hurdle of the regular season today when they head south again to take on No. 19 Georgia Tech.
Virginia Tech (5-1, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) already played once in Atlanta this season, losing to the second-ranked Crimson Tide 34-24 in a neutral-site game at the Georgia Dome.
Five straight wins have quickly pushed the Hokies back into contention for a national title.
“You’ve got to keep it simple,” coach Frank Beamer said. “I think everybody wants to get it big, but to me, the bigger it gets, the simpler you think. There’s a lot at stake, no question, but the way you attack that is have great preparation. Then you can go down there and hopefully play great. That’s the only way you can come out on the other end of this. All this talk about what it means all week, that’s not going to help us win.”
But this certainly appears to be the most challenging game left on Virginia Tech’s schedule.
Georgia Tech (5-1, 3-1) can cause major problems with its funky spread offense, which relies mostly on option-oriented runs with an occasional pass thrown in to keep defenses honest.
The Yellow Jackets rank fourth nationally in rushing yards (277 per game) and they’ve produced 91 points and 1,011 yards of total offense over the past two games.
“This week is a huge game for our team and program,” coach Paul Johnson said. “We set a goal of wanting to compete for the ACC championship and we’ve gotten ourselves to the point where this game is meaningful along those lines. If we can win the game, we may have a chance. If we lose the game, we probably have no chance.”
Virginia Tech will have a much clearer path to the ACC title game — and possibly a shot at competing for No. 1 — if it can get past Georgia Tech. The Hokies’ last five regular-season opponents have a combined record of 14-15.
If there are no stumbles along the way, Virginia Tech is assured of playing in the Dec. 5 ACC championship game at Tampa, Fla. — even if No. 9 Miami wins out. The Hokies hold a tiebreaker edge because of their 31-7 win over the Hurricanes three weeks ago.
Georgia Tech is still right in the mix, as well, giving the Coastal Division what appears to be the three strongest teams in the ACC. Of course, there’s only room for one of them in the title game.
“I think we’re right in stride,” Yellow Jackets quarterback Josh Nesbitt said. “Everybody is doing good, right on top of their game, and we’ve just got to carry on to the next game.”
Carry being the operative word. Nesbitt is the conference’s third-leading rusher (83.8-yard average) and he’s coming off a 140-yard, three-touchdown performance that powered a 49-44 shootout win over Florida State.
Defenses have focused much of their attention on running back Jonathan Dwyer, last year’s ACC offensive player of the year, and that’s opened things up for the junior quarterback.
“Since he likes to run it, we’ve got to treat him like a running back and stick him,” Virginia Tech linebacker Jake Johnson said. “He’s a tough guy. He runs a lot, so he’s used to it, but we’re going to treat him like a running back.”
Nesbitt can put the ball in the air, too. Last week, he passed for 131 yards and a touchdown against the shell-shocked Seminoles.
“I entered the season just thinking I need to do whatever I can to help the team win,” Nesbitt said. “I was willing to do anything.”
If there’s anything that makes the Yellow Jackets one-dimensional, it’s the defense. Not many teams would still be contending for a championship with a defense that’s allowing 385 yards each time out. But that’s just where Georgia Tech finds itself, ranking 82nd nationally and 10th in the ACC.
Johnson, who runs the offense, ordered the defensive coaches to cut back on the number of formations and plays they’re calling, hoping that will make it easier to contain quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the rest of a steadily improving Hokies offense.
“I see guys not playing fast and not flying to the ball,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to. I think there’s something holding them back to some degree. So what we’ve got to do, if we’ve got too much stuff that they’re having to think about, we’ve got to simplify and turn them loose and let them play.”
Virginia Tech, perennially one of the top defensive teams in the country, has struggled to a lesser extent. The Hokies rank 35th nationally — far below their normal top 10 perch — at 310 yards per game.
“We have some youth on the defensive side,” Beamer said. “Last year, we had a lot of youth on the offensive side. A lot of times with experience you become more consistent, and hopefully that is what we are going to see midway through the year.”