Another chapter in the annual chess match between the offensive skills of Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson and the defensive abilities of Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster will continue at 3:30 p.m. Saturday when the two sides meet in Blacksburg.
Johnson is the master of the option offense that (until this year) has produced one of the nation’s most productive running games. Foster, the Hokies’ associate head coach and defensive guru, has fielded a nationally ranked defense that emphasizes speed, athleticism and aggression since he joined the program in 1987.
“He’s been on the better end of it mostly,” Johnson said. “I think he does a great job coaching, and usually our games, if you find something, they’re going to adjust, so it’s kind of move, counter move. We have a great deal of respect for him and what he does defensively.”
No. 18 Virginia Tech (7-2, 5-1 ACC) can clinch the ACC Coastal Division title with a win. Georgia Tech (5-4, 2-4) needs a victory to become eligible for a bowl game.
Once again, the game will be determined by which team can impose its philosophy on the other. If Georgia Tech can move the ball, eat the clock and score points, the Yellow Jackets have a chance. If Virginia Tech applies the clamps on the Yellow Jackets, it will be a long day.
“They’re good at what they’re trying to do,” Johnson said. “And they’ve got pretty good players.”
Georgia Tech will have quarterback Justin Thomas in the lineup. He left last week’s game against North Carolina with an undisclosed injury. This will be the third time Thomas has started against the Hokies and has experienced both ends of the spectrum. Last year, Thomas rushed for 52 yards and was 4-for-13 passing for 97 yards. In 2014 he ran for 165 yards and threw for 125 yards.
But the Yellow Jackets won’t be at full strength on offense Saturday. They will be without starting B-back Dedrick Mills, who has been suspended for two games for violation of team rules, and A-back and kick returner J.J. Green, who was injured against Duke and missed last week’s game. Offensive linemen Freddie Burden and Andrew Marshall, both injured last week against North Carolina, have been cleared to play.
Although it seems like the two teams have been playing forever, they had played only once before Virginia Tech joined the conference in 2004. Virginia Tech leads the series 9-4 and is 4-2 in Blacksburg. While the Hokies lead the series, the games have been close. Only once since Johnson arrived at Georgia Tech has the margin of victory exceeded one touchdown.
“Hopefully, one thing we have is experience with guys who play,” Foster said. “It’s still a tremendous challenge. They understand their scheme, and we try to defend it.”
The game likely will be decided by valuing each possession. Georgia Tech wants to shorten the number of possessions in the game, a style that Virginia Tech doesn’t mind, either.
“We have to focus on every possession we get,” Virginia Tech quarterback Jerrod Evans said. “They’re going to be limited. It’s not going to be as many as we get with a regular game.”
The Yellow Jackets would like to shorten Virginia Tech’s possessions and even take the ball away, something they have managed only nine times this year, tied for last in the ACC. But Virginia Tech hasn’t committed a turnover during its current three-game winning streak, the first time the Hokies have gone three straight games without a giveaway since 1996.
And Georgia Tech’s pass rush has been negligible at best. The Yellow Jackets didn’t get a sack last week and have only eight this season, the second worst total among Power 5 conference teams. Johnson said it doesn’t simply boil down to sending more rushers to hurry the quarterback.
“Plenty of times (against North Carolina) we sent five; there were times we sent six,” he said. “Also, give the other team credit sometimes. If they’re pretty good, and you send six, they get it out fast. We’ve got to tie it all together.”