Death Valley has lived up to its name for the Georgia Tech football team during the past decade. Since Dabo Swinney arrived at Clemson, the stadium officially known as Memorial Stadium, has been a place where many dreams and aspirations have passed away.
On Saturday, the Yellow Jackets (4-2, 3-0 ACC) will attempt to end that trend against the No. 7 Tigers (6-1, 4-1) on what is expected to be a cold, possibly wet, evening.
A win will help Georgia Tech inch closer to bowl eligibility and keep its dreams of a Coastal Division title alive. A loss would put any aspirations of reaching the ACC championship game on life support.
The last time Georgia Tech won at Clemson was in 2006. Swinney had been named interim coach earlier that week when Tommy Bowden was let goa. The Yellow Jackets won that game 21-17 on a late touchdown pass from Joshua Nesbitt to Demaryius Thomas. Since then, the Yellow Jackets are 0-4 at Death Valley.
“Huge challenge this week,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “Night game in Death Valley against a team that’s got really good athletes and a team we’ve struggled with here the last couple years. It’s a challenge for us, but it’s an opportunity, and we’re looking forward to going up there and playing.”
Georgia Tech’s last visit in 2015 was memorable in a very bad way. Clemson smacked the Yellow Jackets early, had a 33-10 lead by halftime and went on to a 43-24 win. The Tigers had 537 yards in that game. The two previous visits were just as bad — a 55-31 loss in 2013 and a 47-31 drubbing in 2012, which led to the dismissal of defensive coordinator Al Groh.
“It’s a good home-field advantage,” Johnson said. “They pack 80,000 in there, and they’re loud. There’s no question that going in there on Saturday night on national TV, they’re going to be wound up.”
Georgia Tech can’t afford to have a bad offensive night. The Yellow Jackets must hold onto the ball and score, something it hasn’t done against the Tigers the past two years. The Clemson defense limited the Yellow Jackets to 71 yards rushing last year and 95 yards in 2015.
It won’t help that starting tackle Jake Stickler has been ruled out for the game with an upper-body injury, leaving the Yellow Jackets thinner than ever against a deep, physical defensive line.
“We plan to do what we do every year,” Johnson said. “That’s what we do. We’re not going to change what we do. We’ve just got to play a lot better than we’ve played against them, really last year especially.”
That likely means a heavy load for quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who leads the ACC in rushing at 117.3 yards per game, and B-back KirVonte Benson, who ranks second in the conference with 108.7 yards per game.
The Yellow Jackets’ defense also will be asked to contain a less-experienced Clemson offense that is statistically quite similar to Georgia Tech. The Tigers average 449 yards of offense per game, a little better than Georgia Tech at 448.8 yards.
But Clemson’s two tailbacks may have more breakaway ability. Travis Etienne has 446 yards and six touchdowns, including an 81-yarder, and Tavien Feaster has 396 yards and three touchdowns.
“They’re both really fast. They’re home-run guys,” Johnson said. “If you give them a crease they can go the distance.”
Quarterback Kelly Bryant, back after missing most of the Syracuse game with a concussion, has rushed for 393 yards and seven touchdowns.
Georgia Tech struggled against Wake Forest’s fast-pace offense last week for the first half before successfully making defensive adjustments at halftime. The Yellow Jackets won’t have that luxury against Clemson. A slow start on defense more than likely will put them in another deep hole.
“(Wake Forest) was the fastest up-tempo offense we faced all year,” Georgia Tech linebacker Victor Alexander said. “We’ve got to do better. Clemson does pretty much the same thing. It’s something we have to work on.”