There are many words to describe the first half of Georgia Tech’s season, but “carefree joyride” is not among them.
The Yellow Jackets once were cruising with a 3-0 record and on the verge of joining the Top 25. Two potholes later, they’re 3-2 and facing another critical juncture. Tech plays BYU on Saturday evening in Provo, Utah, and, while it’s a nonconference game, it’s endowed with plenty of meaning.
“We’ve got a huge challenge this week,” coach Paul Johnson said.
With a win, Tech can regain some of the momentum and good feeling it was stripped of with consecutive ACC Coastal Division losses to Virginia Tech and Miami, defeats that have all but knocked the Jackets out of the ACC derby. Tech can claim a victory in one of the tougher stadiums in the country and give the senior class a noteworthy road win.
“Those types of environments are fun,” defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu said. “It brings out true character.”
The Cougars have a 43-9 home record in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s 8 1/2 seasons at the helm and in team history have notched home wins over Texas, Arizona, Penn State, Notre Dame and, most memorably, top-ranked Miami in 1990. (Not to mention Tech in 2003, heretofore the Jackets’ only visit to Provo.)
The Jackets can head into a stretch of its final four ACC games with a 4-2 overall record and the confidence of winning in a tough environment and presumably having rid itself of the raging inconsistency that accompanied them in losses to the Hokies and Hurricanes.
“We’re going to have everything against us, but adversity makes you stronger,” B-back David Sims said. “Hopefully we can come out focused, intense and we can pull out the (win).”
With a loss, though, the Jackets would cross two time zones simmering over their third three-game losing streak in the past four seasons. The encouragement of team leaders that, despite the disappointment of the two division losses, the Jackets can finish the first half of the season 4-2 and still have a great season would be an aggravating echo.
And one of Tech’s more noteworthy accomplishments — its 16-year bowl streak — could be in jeopardy. When the ACC decided last October to revert from a nine-game league schedule to an eight-game model, Tech scrambled to find an FBS opponent to fill its non-conference schedule, but in the end had to settle for a Nov. 23 matchup with FCS Alabama A&M.
By NCAA rules, a team must ordinarily win at least six games to be bowl-eligible, but can count only one win against an FCS team, and Tech defeated Elon in the season opener. As a result, should the Jackets lose to BYU, they could still be eligible with six wins, but one of them couldn’t be over Alabama A&M. They would need three from among Syracuse, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Clemson and Georgia.
(If there are not enough bowl-eligible teams, a team finishing 6-6 with two wins over FCS teams could be considered eligible.)
Likely, the Jackets will need to scratch and claw more than they have in any game this season. BYU manhandled Tech last season at Bobby Dodd Stadium, perhaps the most thorough defeats administered to the Jackets since Johnson’s hire. On the Salt Lake Tribune’s website, Mendenhall’s ability for stopping spread-option offenses was touted as nothing less than “wizardry.”
Mendenhall’s reputation stems from, among other things, his success against Air Force, which runs a scheme similar to Tech’s. BYU is 5-1 against Air Force, with a string of routs, during Mendenhall’s tenure as coach.
“(BYU inside linebackers coach Paul Tidwell) told us this week, ‘This is kind of his baby, playing against the option offense,’” BYU linebacker Austen Jorgensen told the Salt Lake Tribune.
The Tech offense will need to run at a much higher level of efficiency than it has in the past two weeks, requiring both big plays and long drives unbroken by turnovers or penalties. It may have to do so without left tackle Ray Beno, who is a three-year starter and one of the line’s dependable pillars, but is nursing a foot injury.
And this from the Bureau of Things That Seem To Happen To Tech Often: There is one team that has played three of the top 18 teams in scoring defense. That team would be the Jackets, and they’ve played Miami, Virginia Tech (tied with Miami at No. 11) and BYU (tied at No. 17) in succession.
The Jackets defense, after getting scalded by Miami last week with an ACC record 10.4 yards-per-play average, will have to contain quarterback Taysom Hill, who gashed Texas for 259 rushing yards and in the past two games has demonstrated increasing passing accuracy. Tech will have to tackle better, communicate better and avoid fatigue against a high-tempo option scheme playing at about 4,500 feet above sea level.
“Those are all things we’ve got to do and do a great job in order to have a chance to win,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.
The greatness that will be imperative Saturday has largely eluded the Jackets for five games. As Roof’s boss noted, a huge challenge awaits.