Things to watch, as No. 17 Hokies face Georgia Tech

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By Jimmy Robertson

ATLANTA – For just the second time this season, the Virginia Tech football team will be playing a game following a loss, as the Hokies fell 28-10 last Saturday at Miami.

The good news is that the Hokies (7-2, 3-2 ACC), ranked No. 17 nationally in both major polls, are 5-0 under head coach Justin Fuente following a loss. The bad news is that they face a talented Georgia Tech team with a seven-game home winning streak, a unique spread-option offense and a back-against-the-wall mentality. The Yellow Jackets (4-4, 3-3 ACC) need to win two of their final three games to assure bowl eligibility.

Georgia Tech easily could be 7-1 at the moment. The Yellow Jackets have lost two games by one point and another by four points.

The game figures to be an interesting battle between Georgia Tech’s offense and Virginia Tech’s defense. The Hokies go into this one knowing that they need to be ready, probably more so mentally than physically.

Here are the things to watch, as the Hokies and Yellow Jackets kick off at noon:

Virginia Tech’s defense vs. TaQuon Marshall – Georgia Tech’s quarterback comes into the game with 1,537 yards of offense, including 870 rushing and 14 rushing touchdowns. He leads the ACC in scoring (10.5 ppg), rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns (14) and ranks second in rushing (108.8 ypg).

In short, Marshall makes Georgia Tech go, but the Yellow Jackets’ games at Clemson and at Miami really illustrate how important he is. The Tigers held him to just 23 yards rushing and Miami held him to 18 – and Georgia Tech subsequently lost both games.

Virginia Tech’s defense has been hurt by running quarterbacks in the past, but the Hokies haven’t allowed a quarterback to rush for 100 yards this season. If that trend continues, they stand a great chance of winning.

Virginia Tech’s defense on third down – The Yellow Jackets, as one might expect, lead the ACC in time of possession, averaging nearly 35 minutes per game. Most of that stems from their ability to get into third-and-short situations, which are obviously easier to convert than third-and-long situations.

As a result of that running game and their ability to get into third-and-short, they lead the ACC in third-down conversions at 45 percent. That offense has a way of wearing down a defense.

On the flip side, the Hokies’ defense has been outstanding on third down, ranking fourth nationally in third-down conversion percentage – allowing opponents to convert just 24.8 percent of the time. The Hokies have allowed the fewest first downs in the ACC.

Again, the Hokies need to continue this trend. If they do, then that certainly helps their chances of winning.

Improvement from Virginia Tech’s offense – Virginia Tech’s offense has been a little inconsistent of late, tallying a season-low 299 yards in the loss at Miami. In fact, the Hokies haven’t accumulated more than 400 yards of offense in four of the past five games.

In fairness, the Hokies faced two stout defenses in Clemson and Miami during that stretch. And the second half of their game with Duke was played in a downpour, which obviously limited production.

But the Hokies need to be a little more efficient, and today’s game against the Yellow Jackets offers them that opportunity. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the Hokies didn’t try to air it out somewhat against Georgia Tech.

Here’s why: Georgia Tech ranks tied for 14th out of 15 teams in sacks with just 14. The Yellow Jackets’ nine sacks in conference games are tied for worst in the league. Also, they are tied for 11th in interceptions with just six.

Despite some of Tech’s inconsistency, it continues to get solid play from quarterback Josh Jackson, whose 62.4 percent completion percentage and 17 touchdown passes are both fourth in the ACC. Today is an opportunity both for him and the offense to get back on track.

The Hokies’ special teams – As most know, Virginia Tech has played extremely well in nearly every phase of special teams – punting, kicking, returns, coverage units, etc. The Hokies’ special teams stand as a prime reason why the team sits at 7-2 with three games left in the regular season.

There could be opportunities for the Hokies against the Yellow Jackets’ special teams units. Georgia Tech features a freshman punter and a freshman kicker, and while both have been solid, in close games, one never knows how those guys react.

Plus, Georgia Tech has allowed a punt return and a kick return for a touchdown this season. Opponents are averaging 11.1 yards per punt return against the Yellow Jackets, who rank 105th nationally in punt return defense. And Virginia Tech punt returner Greg Stroman is one of just two players in the ACC to return two punts for touchdowns this season.

The Hokies probably need to make a big play on special teams to win. In close games, those big special teams plays are usually the difference.

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