Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech faces pivotal game against Wake Forest

Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall (16) and the Yellow Jackets host Wake Forest on Saturday.
Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall (16) and the Yellow Jackets host Wake Forest on Saturday. AP

It may be hard to believe, but Georgia Tech’s game Saturday with Wake Forest could determine how the rest of the season will go for the Yellow Jackets.

That’s right. Wake Forest.

The same Wake Forest that’s best known for its basketball program. The same Wake Forest that hasn’t been a contender in the ACC for a decade. The same Wake Forest that ended a seven-year streak of consecutive losing seasons in 2016.

That’s the one.

While Wake Forest is no pushover — the Demon Deacons are 4-2 — it is a game the Yellow Jackets can’t afford to lose. With Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech — and their combined record of 16-3 — waiting in the on-deck circle, Georgia Tech cannot afford to get this one slip away.

“You got a conference game at home this weekend with a really good Wake Forest team,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “You better get ready to play. Our goal this week is to get win No. 4. That’s all we care about. That’s all you can focus on. That’s all you can control.”

In other words, there’s no time for the Yellow Jackets (3-2) to lament last week’s heartbreaking 25-24 loss to Miami.

Wake Forest should present another challenge for the Georgia Tech offense. The Demon Deacons rank third in the ACC in scoring defense (16.7 points), rank eighth in rushing defense (142 yards) and rank fourth in passing defense (197.5 yards). They have nine takeaways (three fumbles and six interceptions) and lead the nation with 9.2 tackles for loss per game.

“They’ve been real good on defense for the last couple of years,” Johnson said. “It’s a big challenge. They’ve got a lot of guys that have played a lot of football.”

Wake Forest has plenty of experience. Defensive ends Duke Ejiofor and Wendell Dunn combined for 23 tackles for loss and 13 sacks last year and have 15 tackles for loss and five sacks between them this season. Linebacker Jaboree Williams, cornerback Amari Henderson and safety Jessie Bates are also two-year starters.

The Wake Forest defense has a new coordinator this season in Jay Sawvel, who came from Minnesota, and two other new defensive coaches. None have faced the Georgia Tech option. It will be interesting to see whether the Demons Deacons try to take away the inside game, as Miami did a week ago, and force the Yellow Jackets to attack the perimeter.

That may be tougher to do since KirVonte Benson is expected to play for Georgia Tech. The starting B-back left last week’s game in the second half with a lower body injury, but he was listed as probable on this week’s injury report. Benson has been tough to bring down; he has rushed for 516 yards and only has 6 negative yards.

The duo of Benson and quarterback TaQuon Marshall has been quite productive all season, particularly when the defense is soft in the middle. The A-back group has several dangerous players in Clinton Lynch, Qua Searcy, J.J. Green and Nathan Cottrell, although none have yet to experience a breakout game.

“The challenge of going against these guys is they have so many ways of attack,” Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson said. “How do you handle this formation? How do you handle this motion? (Georgia Tech) will try different things, and the one thing you aren’t sound against, they’ll run again and again and again. Whatever you do to adjust to it, coach Johnson has an answer.”

A bigger question may be how Georgia Tech will fare on defense, where middle linebacker Brant Mitchell, the team’s No. 2 tackler, will miss the game. His replacement is true freshman Bruce Jordan-Swilling, who has played in every game and came up with seven tackles last week.

But defense end Antonio Simmons, who was shaken up late in the Miami game, was cleared to play. He leads the team with 4.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and four hurries.