Georgia Tech’s football season has been messed up from the very start. The Yellow Jackets’ best running back was kicked off the team before the opening game, their game with Central Florida was canceled because of a hurricane and they lost three times in the final minutes.
But they’ll receive absolutely no sympathy from Duke, this week’s opponent in the ACC finale. The Blue Devils (4-6, 1-5 ACC), aside from a hurricane, have suffered similar travails this season. Now in the throes of a six-game losing streak, the Blue Devils still have a chance to become bowl eligible, a process that must include a win over Georgia Tech.
That’s why Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson sees a dangerous team awaiting them in Durham for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game (Fox Sports South), not a typical team struggling to win a game for the first time since late September.
“The last few years have been some hard-fought, close games and we expect nothing different this time,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we can put together a good game plan and go up and play well in Durham.”
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Georgia Tech (5-4, 4-3 ACC) needs one win to become eligible to play in a bowl game.
Georgia Tech stopped a two-game losing streak to the Blue Devils a year ago, winning 38-35 in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets led 28-7 at halftime, but tried to give the game away. They won it when Clinton Lynch scored on a 21-yard reception late in the fourth quarter in one of quarterback Justin Thomas’ finest games.
Thomas is gone, but Duke quarterback Daniel Jones returns. He threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 73 yards against the Yellow Jackets a year ago as a redshirt freshman. Thomas has struggled at times this season, but remains a two-way threat. He has thrown for 1,916 yards and eight touchdowns and rushed for 304 yards and four touchdowns.
“Last year when we played down here, we were fortunate to win the game,” Johnson said. “They had over 500 yards against us and he put on quite a show with pretty much the same cast. So, it will be a challenge for our defense to see if we’ve improved any and to go up and play better against him.”
The Georgia Tech offense will be challenged again. Duke coach David Cutcliffe has seen the Georgia Tech option more than any other coach. The Blue Devils got a preview of it last week against Army – coached by Johnson disciple Jeff Monken – which runs 90 percent of the time. Duke limited Army to 226 rushing yards – 125 yards below its season average – but lost when the Cadets blocked a punt for a touchdown, blocked a field goal and completed their only pass attempt to set up a touchdown.
“I think Georgia Tech is harder to defend because they have more talent, just overall,” Cutcliffe said. “When you are efficient throwing the play-action pass, even drop-back, then it’s very difficult to defend that team.”
Cutcliffe has developed a reputation for being a quarterback guru – helping Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Thaddeus Lewis. He has been impressed by Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall’s ability to grasp and execute the offense. Marshall leads the team with 934 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns and has thrown for 807 yards and eight touchdowns.
“TaQuon is a kid that can execute,” Cutcliffe said.
Marshall and B-back KirVonte Benson (930 rushing yards) are looking to become the second set of teammates to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Jonathan Dwyer (1,395 yards) and Joshua Nesbitt (1,037 yards) did it in 2009.
The offense will get a boost from the return of starting left tackle Jahaziel Lee. The sophomore missed last week’s game with an upper body injury. His presence gives the Yellow Jackets seven offensive lineman for one of the rare times this season.
Georgia Tech is looking for its first road win of the season. The Yellow Jackets have lost games at Miami, Clemson and Virginia and against Tennessee at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In those three ACC contests, the games were played in rainy conditions. The weather is expected to be in the mid-60s and cloudy on Saturday in Durham.