ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech and Duke are in the midst of similar seasons.
They have each beaten Tulane. They have each throttled a lesser opponent from the FCS ranks. And they have each gotten bounced around pretty good by a team from the Midwest.
So there’s a pretty good chance that both Georgia Tech and Duke will head into Saturday’s game in a foul mood. There’s even a better chance that one of them is going to walk away feeling even worse.
The two old rivals, who have been playing since 1933, enter the ACC opener with a chip on their shoulder. No. 20 Georgia Tech was taken down last week by Notre Dame. Duke was stymied by Northwestern.
The loser instantly will be placed in a difficult situation, while the winner will have a leg up against one of the three most talked-about contenders in the Coastal Division.
“It’s a division game, and it’s real important,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “We try to stress to our guys it counts like two, because you want to have the tiebreakers if anything happens at the end. Even with the opening game, you’re not going to win this league this week or probably not going to lose it, but it certainly puts you in a better shape if you can win the division games.”
A year ago, Duke went to Atlanta and beat the Yellow Jackets 31-25. The game was marked by a 77-minute weather delay at the end of halftime. The win allowed Duke to break a 10-game losing streak against Georgia Tech and served as a wake-up call to the Yellow Jackets’ defense.
“We had a pretty good run going against them until last year,” Johnson said. “And they came in here and kicked our tails.”
The two teams are best known for their offenses. Georgia Tech’s option attack is currently No. 2 in the nation with 377 rushing yards per game, as well as 52 points per game. Duke and head coach David Cutcliffe, known as a man who produces great quarterbacks, showcase an offense that is averaging 504 yards and 34 points per game.
But both coaches want to see the consistency that was lacking a week ago. Georgia Tech was 3-for-15 on third-down conversions, while Duke was just 3-for-17.
“Inconsistencies were awful for us,” Cutcliffe said. “A good play, two good plays, then a horrific play, which is not typical of what we do.”
Johnson cited more than 70 missed assignments by his offense.
“It’s the most I believe I’ve ever seen in a coaching career,” he said. “That would be a part of what we’ve got to get better at.”
Georgia Tech likely will focus much of its energy on stopping Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk, who played a supporting role a year ago. The junior leads the ACC in total offense (323 yards per game), throwing for 754 yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s a threat when he’s got the ball in his hands,” Johnson said.
Sirk threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns against Tulane and 315 against North Carolina Central. But he was stuck settling for dump-off passes last week against Northwestern and threw for 150 yards, even though he completed 24-of-39 passes.
The Northwestern defense was able to get good pressure on Sirk, a tactic that Georgia Tech might try to emulate. The Wildcats forced Sirk to throw two interceptions and had two hurries.
“They’re really balanced,” Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They’ve got a good scheme, they play hard, and they don’t beat themselves.”
But the Yellow Jackets will be shorthanded on the defensive line. Pat Gamble, who starts at nose tackle and can also slide to the end, will miss the game because of a head injury. Defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong is listed as questionable. That means an increased role for the much-improved Antonio Simmons, a sophomore who played about 50 snaps last week.
It will be interesting for fans to see exactly who will be able to play for Georgia Tech this week on offense. With injuries piling up at A-back, there’s a chance that Mikell Lands-Davis could get a shot. The coaching staff had been trying to preserve his redshirt, much as it did a year ago with C.J. Leggett. Johnson did confirm this week that center Freddie Burden, shaken up last week, will play.
At least the Yellow Jackets have a healthy Justin Thomas at quarterback. The junior has rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns and thrown for 272 and five touchdowns. He needs 31 yards to catch Reggie Ball on the program’s career rushing list for quarterbacks. Thomas understands the importance of this ACC opener.
“We just have to go out there and correct our mistakes and get better,” Thomas said. “They came in here last year with good athletes, and we didn’t play up to our potential so they know they can beat us. We’ve got to go in there with the mindset to start fast like we did the first two games. Our goals are still in front of us. This will be big starting conference play.”