North Carolina State (3-0, 0-0 ACC) at Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-0)
Time: Noon/Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta
Last meeting: Georgia Tech won 31-23 in 2006
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Can the Yellow Jackets contain Russell Wilson (16)? This QB with a rifle of a shortstop's baseball arm has been tough to defend throughout his career. If Tech can stop him, the Jackets ought to roll to victory. Photo Credit: TheState.com/McClatchy News
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets finally seem to be clicking on all cylinders offensively, as they went into Chapel Hill, N.C. last week and got a strong combined effort from their receivers, B-backs, A-backs and quarterback Joshua Nesbitt. With B-back Anthony Allen finally getting involved with a 100-yard rushing afternoon, and Lucas Cox being switched around the backfield and Nesbitt rushing for another 100-yard outing, the Yellow Jackets gave the Tar Heels a number of looks that previous teams hadn’t seen. Georgia Tech is averaging 413 yards of total offense, and much of that will be predicated upon how much the pass blocking and run blocking downfield has continued improve.
North Carolina State: N.C. State’s offense begins and ends with quarterback Russell Wilson. The strong-armed signal-caller, who was selected in the fourth round of June’s major league baseball draft, has the athleticism to roll out of the pocket and connect with receivers and running backs on the run. One of his favorite passing patterns are short screens and tosses into the flats where blocking patterns can open up holes downfield for his ballcarriers. What is one route that has caused the Yellow Jackets’ defense problems all season? Bubble screens; the Yellow Jackets cornerbacks and safeties have overcommitted on them with regularity this year. Watch to see if Wilson tries to exploit that, and see if he tries to exploit his occasional long passing ability, as well.
EDGE: Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech: Defensively, the Yellow Jackets have been a work-in-progress all season, but they believe they may be finally taking steps into a positive direction. In the second half against the Tar Heels, the defenders held firm, stopping North Carolina on several crucial stands and forcing two key turnovers down the stretch. If they can tap into the emotion with which they played in those final two quarters, they should be able to rush Wilson in ways they hadn’t previously done to a quarterback. The important thing, however, is that when they get to Wilson, they will need to wrap up. Too many sack opportunities were missed last week, head coach Paul Johnson said, because of poor tackling techniques.
North Carolina State: The Wolfpack’s defense hinges on three players in the middle of the field: linebackers Audie Cole, Terrell Manning and Nate Irving. Elected team captain at the start of the season, Irving is the heart and soul of the unit, but has not quite been the player he was two years ago. The senior missed all of last season after a preseason car accident left him with several injuries. Amazingly, however, after spending time to rehab, he has been on the field and an active contributor. Cole is the team tackles leader and will be linebacker most likely to come away with hits Saturday. Also, pay attention to defensive lineman Michael Lemon. The Macon native who has had his own personal trials to overcome, is an oft-used defensive end who has seven tackles, including 3.5 for loss this season.
Georgia Tech: Scott Blair was the difference-maker for the Yellow Jackets last Saturday, as his three field goals keyed Georgia Tech’s scoring following a few stalled drives. His 46-yarder in the first half seemed to put the team at ease, and showed just how comfortable the once-troubled place-kicker has become. He’s also booting the ball deeper downfield on kickoffs, setting up better opportunities for the coverage team to force poor field position for the opposing offense. The only area still of concern for the Yellow Jackets on special teams is its punt return unit. Returner Jerrard Tarrant has had trouble getting going, and has been nailed at least once in each game on balls that were either fair caught, or should have been fair caught. The Yellow Jackets switched some punt team personnel this week to give him better chances at finding lanes.
North Carolina State: In three games, the Wolfpack special teams units really haven’t been challenged as place-kicker Josh Czajkowski has attempted just three field goals, none further than 28 yards. He has made each. In the punting game, the team is averaging just 33.9 yards per kick, while opponents are punting for 38.1 yards against it. Aside from kick returner T.J. Graham’s lone 50-yard return, there haven’t been too many returns to fawn over on either special teams unit.
EDGE: Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson claims he isn’t a chess player, but has been a master manipulator on the football field, nonetheless. Against North Carolina last week, the Yellow Jackets had gotten involved in an early shootout, in which the Tar Heels commanded the ball more than 11 of the first 15 game minutes. Seeing that he needed to change the game’s pace some, and give his defense time to rest, Johnson had Nesbitt engineer a drive that lasted 10:32 and took the teams into halftime with a 17-17 tie. The lone second-quarter series touched the Georgia Tech record books and helped give the Yellow Jackets control of the momentum. Watch for Johnson’s ability to do the same against the Tar Heels.
North Carolina State: Tom O’Brien does not have the head-coaching tenure nor legacy of Johnson, who won two national titles at Georgia Southern. But what O’Brien does have is a strong nose for recruiting. The former Boston College assistant brought former Eagles quarterback Matt Ryan to Beantown, and helped mold one of the ACC’s best all-time quarterbacks. Ryan, of course, now leads the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Current Georgia Tech assistant Andy McCollum, who was O’Brien’s recruiting coordinator at North Carolina State before arriving to Georgia Tech this offseason, credited O’Brien’s nose for recruits as the primary reason the Wolfpack have returned to relevance in the conference this season. This ACC opener will be a good test to see just how far O’Brien has brought his team.
EDGE: Georgia Tech
Offense: Georgia Tech’s A-backs vs. N.C. State’s linebackers. The A-backs did a great job getting defenders to the ground last week. Against a weaker — weaker than North Carolina’s very tough unit — but still extremely strong N.C. State linebacker corps, however, look to see if any of that transferred into this week.
Defense: Georgia Tech’s outside linebackers vs. Wilson. If the outside linebackers can create containment and occasionally rush Wilson in the backfield, the Yellow Jackets could be in for an enjoyable afternoon defensively.