ATLANTA -- This week, Georgia Tech is assuming the role that its opponents have played the past two weeks. On Saturday, when the Yellow Jackets go to Pittsburgh, they’re the ones that are painted into the corner. How they respond could determine the rest of this season.
“I’ve said all year our guys are pretty resilient,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “We’ve played two teams the last two weeks with their backs up against the wall, and now we’ve put ourselves in that position. We’ll see how we can react to it up in Pittsburgh.”
Georgia Tech finds itself 5-2, which two months ago would have been more than acceptable to most fans. But the fashion in which the Yellow Jackets ended up with that record, with losses the past two weeks, is less than palatable.
“It’s time to put up or shut up,” Johnson said. “We started the season with a chip on our shoulder, and nobody thinking we’re very good and nobody giving you any respect. And all of a sudden it went to everybody patting you on the back and telling you we’re good. And we didn’t handle it very well.”
Pitt (4-3), Duke (6-1) and Virginia (4-3) are tied for first in the ACC Coastal Division at 2-1 in the conference. Georgia Tech is next at 2-2, with Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina all standing at 1-2. With half the season left, the road to the ACC championship game is wide open.
But Georgia Tech can’t really afford another loss, not with Virginia, N.C. State and Clemson on the horizon.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position where if we want to win the Coastal Division, we’ve got to go to Pittsburgh and win the game,” Johnson said. “Two of three teams above us we get to play. If we can win out, I’ll take my chances at 6-2. But before you get there, you’ve got to get to 3-2. It’s a big game.”
This week’s game appears to match strength against strength, in this case the Georgia Tech offense against the Pittsburgh defense. The Georgia Tech offense is averaging 34.4 points and 463.3 yards of total offense, with 306.3 yards of that coming on the ground, ranking the Yellow Jackets fourth in the nation. The Pittsburgh defense allows 18.6 points, 280.4 yards of total offense (fourth in the nation) and 112.1 yards against the run (18th best).
“They play well as a team,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that they have an Aaron Donald (a first-round draft choice) like they did a year ago, but they have a bunch of really good players. They understand their scheme, and they understand what they’re doing, and they play extremely hard. They’ve played really good defensively all year.”
No team has scored more than 25 points against the Panthers this season. Last week they limited Virginia Tech to 16 points and 291 total yards. Defensive back Anthony Gonzalez leads the Panthers with 43 tackles, while Rori Blair and David Durham each have three sacks and three tackles for loss.
But Pittsburgh hasn’t seen an option team like Georgia Tech nor a quarterback like Justin Thomas, who has thrown for 959 yards and run for 625.
“You have to be disciplined, and that gives you a chance,” Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said. “I think their quarterback is doing a really nice job of running their offense. They’re not going to throw it a lot, but when they do, they’ve got some guys they can get it to and make plays. I think it’s discipline and it’s making sure you do your job to give yourself a chance.”
Pittsburgh also has a first-year starter at quarterback in Chad Voytik, who has thrown for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed for 287 yards.
“I think he’s like our team, far from where we want to be but have done some good things,” Chryst said. “The things we can get better at are correctable.”
The Panthers run a less-frenetic pro-style attack, which may be beneficial to the Georgia Tech defense, although James Conner leads the conference with 959 yards and 11 touchdowns. He rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns last week against Virginia Tech.
“They’re a power running team, and if you can stop the run, you go a long way toward stopping them,” Johnson said. “Our challenge is to go in and stop them from running the ball down our throat, which has happened the last two weeks.”