Virginia Tech enters Saturday's road tilt against Georgia Tech looking to become bowl eligible for an NCAA-leading 26th-consecutive season. After a rocky start to 2019, the Hokies have won four out of their last five games and are looking to continue to streak towards a potential chance to win the ACC Coastal.
Enter Georgia Tech, who has given Justin Fuente and his staff fits since he arrived in Blacksburg. The Yellow Jackets have not lost to Virginia Tech since the 2015 season, which was the final year of the Frank Beamer era.
While Georgia Tech comes into Saturday sitting at 2-7 overall with a 1-5 record in the ACC, the Yellow Jackets are certainly no pushover. While the offense leaves something to be desired, the defense has played pretty well all season, and has done enough in many cases to win if the offense were to convert a bit more consistently.
The Hokies can't roll over or look ahead to two potentially tough games down the stretch against Pittsburgh and Virginia. Georgia Tech will present plenty of challenges on Saturday, and Justin Fuente and his staff must have the team ready to play.
Here are three keys for the Hokies to defeat Georgia Tech on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
1) Converting on 3rd Down
Despite all the success that the Hokies had offensively last Saturday against Wake Forest, Tech was still a puzzling 3-for-14 on 3rd down conversions. Despite the poor performance in that category a week ago, Tech still ranks inside the nation's top 50 in 3rd down offense. At 42.0%, the Hokies sit at 49th nationally.
Saturday's road tilt at Georgia Tech provides the Hokies with an excellent chance to bounce back. Sure, Georgia Tech's defense has been pretty solid overall, but when it comes to holding opponents down and getting the defense off the field, the Yellow Jackets have struggled. Georgia Tech is tied for 110th in the nation in 3rd down defense, with opponents converting 45.3% of the time.
For as well as the Hokies played last weekend on offense, there is always room for improvement. Against a bad team like Georgia Tech, converting on 3rd downs and imposing their will on offense will be crucial in ensuring that the Yellow Jackets aren't gaining too much confidence.
2) Converting in the Red Zone
Despite the trials and tribulations of the Virginia Tech offense in the first part of the 2019 season, the vast improvement has been evident in a number of areas since Hendon Hooker has taken over at quarterback. One area where the improvement has been significant is in the red zone, where the Hokies have operated one of the nation's most efficient offenses inside of the opponent's 20 yard line. Virginia Tech enters Saturday ranked 3rd nationally in red zone offense, scoring on 37 out of 38 possessions (.974) this season. Of those 38 possessions, Virginia Tech has scored 26 touchdowns. The offense can't get much more efficient than that.
Here's why it matters.
Georgia Tech's defense has been average to slightly above average in most defensive categories, save for the rushing defense (more on that in a second). One area where the Yellow Jackets' defense has excelled behind first-year head coach Geoff Collins is in the red zone, where the Yellow Jackets rank 21st nationally, allowing scores on 74.4% of drives.
The Yellow Jackets offense may not be all that good, but the defense is more than capable of holding its own when its back is against the wall. Virginia Tech's ability to separate itself on Saturday will reside in the ability of the offense to run at peak efficiency, especially when scoring opportunities are presented deep in opposing territory.
3) Continuing to Run the Football at a High Level
Remember all the times I told you all that Virginia Tech's rushing offense wasn't any good?
Those days are long gone, thanks to the hiring of Jerry Kill to the coaching staff as an analyst and the improvement of the offensive line up front. The insertion of Hendon Hooker at quarterback and his ability to run the football as the signal caller is another major piece to the puzzle when it comes to the Virginia Tech rushing attack, one that has gone over 200 yards in three out of the last four games.
As a result of the added efficiency in the running game, the Hokies now rank a modest 53rd in the FBS in rushing offense, averaging 172.2 yards per game. This is important, because Georgia Tech enters Saturday as one of the nation's worst rushing defenses, allowing 210.7 yards per game this season (119th in the FBS).
After a couple of early season outings against Clemson (411 rushing yards allowed) and The Citadel (320 yards allowed), Georgia Tech's rushing defense has steadily improved. In the last three games against Miami, Pittsburgh, and UVA, the Yellow Jackets have yielded totals of 157, 158, and 155 on the ground respectively.
It is getting better as the season goes on for Georgia Tech, but the opportunity will still be there for the Hokies to exert their will on the ground and take another step in the right direction when it comes to running the football.