Three-List Preview: Virginia and Georgia Tech Set For Prime Time Matchup In Scott

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When the University of Virginia football program suffered consecutive 20-point losses to drop to 2-2 on the season and 0-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Cavaliers leaned on the culture instilled by head coach Bronco Mendenhall. They worked, fought, and worked some more. The resilient Hoos (5-2, 3-2) now find themselves on a three-game win streak, one game away from securing bowl eligibility and one game above .500 in conference play heading into Saturday’s prime time matchup (7:30 p.m. EST) with Georgia Tech.

Star sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks and the rest of the Virginia receiving corps should be too much for Georgia Tech to handle on Saturday. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

Virginia enters the Georgia Tech game coming off a dominant 48-0 victory over Duke. The Hoos owned the Blue Devils on both sides of the ball, and the game was all but over by halftime as the home team led 34-0. Maintaining the focus and determination the team needed to persevere during early season struggles will be important as the Hoos look to continue their recent success.

“So much of it has to do with the team, the stage of year, maybe the experience level of the team,” Mendenhall answered when asked about the challenges a coaching staff faces when things are going well. “I think probably I’ll just default to the basic idea that most of us with success have a tendency to become more comfortable, less urgent, and a little bit more self-important, and so I think that’s just kind of human nature. Really I work hard just to make sure as an antidote to that that things remain the same in terms of our routine, that there’s not a giant high or a giant low, and the focus is on improvement. If I am right, that’s what I choose to do about it.”

UVA has plenty of experienced, mature players to maintain the right mindset. Sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks is the only starting sophomore on an offense that features five senior starters on the offensive line, a redshirt junior grad-transfer tight end in Jelani Woods, a redshirt junior quarterback in Brennan Armstrong, and four more skill position seniors – Billy Kemp IV, Keytaon Thompson, Wayne Taulapapa and Ra’Shaun Henry – who are major parts of the offense. Defensively, the Hoos only have six seniors in the two-deep, but all six are “super seniors” taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19.

Virginia’s opponent, Georgia Tech, is on the young side. The Yellow Jackets feature only 13 seniors on its roster, the fourth fewest among schools in Power 5 conferences. Dynamic young dual-threat quarterback Jeff Sims leads a Georgia Tech offense that is averaging 28.5 points per game, which ranks 10th in the ACC and 64th in the nation. Tech ranks in the eight-to-10 range in the conference in all major offensive and defensive categories, including points per game (8th), rushing yards per game (166.8, 9th), passing yards per game (234, 9th), total offense per game (400.8, 10th), rushing defense (154 yards, per game, 8th), passing defense (228.3, 9th), points allowed (25.7, 9th) and total defense (382.3, 8th).

The Virginia defense, which has improved each week following blowout losses to UNC and Wake Forest, was excellent versus Duke, shutting out an offense averaging over 30 points per game. UVA still ranks at or near the bottom of the ACC in rushing yards allowed per game (188.1, 14th) and total defense (413.1 yards allowed per game, 11th). The Cavalier offense has been special. Brennan Armstrong and company are averaging 36.1 points per game (2nd in the ACC, 6th in the nation) and 526.1 yards per game, the bulk of which has come through the air, where the Hoos are averaging 405.9 yards per game (1st in the ACC, 2nd in the nation).

Entering Saturday’s matchup, Virginia is 3-2 in conference play, good for second place behind Pitt (2-0), while Georgia Tech stands at 2-2, which is tied for third in the standings. Given the Coastal’s history of chaos, both teams are in position to make a run at the division title. Georgia Tech, which is coming off its bye week, is looking to win back-to-back games for the first time under third-year head coach Geoff Collins. The Yellow Jackets snatched a thrilling 4-point victory at Duke their last time out, with Sims leading a game-winning drive in the final minutes. Scott Stadium figures to be a tough place for the Yellow Jackets to break through, though, as UVA holds a 13-5-1 record over Tech in Charlottesville. This includes a 33-28 Virginia victory in 2019, Collins’ first season as the Yellow Jackets’ head coach.

(Click here to read our ‘Game News’ page for all of the information you need on Saturday’s game.)

Three Yellow Jackets To Watch: Offense

Jeff Sims, Quarterback, #10

Slowing Jeff Sims will be the focus of the Virginia defense.

Sims, who measures in at 6’3”, 210 pounds, is a dynamic quarterback capable of making big plays through the air and on the ground. Following a breakout true freshman campaign in 2020, Sims suffered an injury in the first half of Georgia Tech’s 2021 season opener versus Northern Illinois. He missed the next two games – Kennesaw State and at Clemson – before returning late in the first half against North Carolina. In just over one half of playing time against the Tar Heels, Sims completed 10-of-13 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown and rushed 10 times for 128 yards and three scores. The 23-point victory over UNC provides a glimpse of what Sims can do.

On the season, Sims has completed 50-of-80 passes (62.5%) for 791 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions. He is averaging 15.82 yards per completion. Brennan Armstrong, by comparison, is averaging 13.44 yards per completion. All four interceptions have come in the last two games – two in a blowout loss to Pittsburgh and two more in a close win at Duke. Despite playing in the equivalent of three full games, Sims is 24 yards away from leading the Yellow Jackets in total rushing. He is averaging 63.8 yards rushing per game and 6.7 yards per carry.

Jahmyr Gibbs, Running Back, #1

Georgia Tech has another young, dynamic talent in its offensive backfield in 5’11”, 200-pound running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who earned 2020 Second-Team Freshman All-America Honors for his performance last season.

Geoff Collins wants to get the football in the hands of Gibbs, whose all-purpose ability is what stands out the most. In seven games in the 2020 season, he rushed 89 times for 460 yards and four touchdowns and hauled in 24 catches for 303 yards and three scores. Gibbs has continued to display his all-purpose ability in 2021. Through six games he is averaging 140.2 yards per game, totaling 279 yards rushing, 301 yards receiving, and 261 yards in kick returns combined.

Gibbs has not been as dynamic in the rushing game this season, averaging 46.5 yards per game and just 3.6 yards per carry. He is, however, averaging 16.7 yards per catch and 50.2 yards per game receiving. Gibbs has had back-to-back games with at least one catch for over 70 yards, an indication of his big-play ability.

Malachi Carter, Wide Receiver, #7

Carter has been Georgia Tech’s most productive receiver in the first half of 2021, hauling in 23 catches for 378 yards and a touchdown. The 6’3”, 195-pound junior leads the Yellow Jackets in receiving yards per game (63) and is third on the team in average yards per catch (16.4).

While Carter appears to be Sims’ go-to-target, two other Georgia Tech receivers have double-digit receptions in 2021, including Northwestern graduate transfer Kyric McGowan (19 catches, 283 yards) and Adonicas Sanders (10 catches, 150 yards). McGowan (#2) leads Georgia Tech in receiving touchdowns with four, while Sanders (#12) has a touchdown catch in each of the past two games. Sanders hauled in the 36-yard game-winning touchdown catch to defeat Duke.

All three top wide receivers are averaging 14.9 yards or more per catch.

Three Yellow Jackets To Watch: Defense

Quez Jackson, Linebacker, #4

The 6’1”, 215-pound junior headlines an impressive linebacking corps for Geoff Collins’ defense. Jackson finished second on Georgia Tech in tackles last season. Halfway through 2021, Jackson leads Georgia Tech in tackles with 61, including a team-high 30 solo tackles. He racked up double-digit tackles in four games this season, including a 14-tackle effort versus Pittsburgh and a 12-tackle performance the last game out against Duke. Jackson also has five tackles for loss including one sack, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble to his credit.

Charlie Thomas, Linebacker/Safety, #25

The 6’2”, 207-pound junior leads Georgia Tech in tackles for loss (6.5), sacks (2.5), and interceptions (2), and is third on the team in total tackles (47). Thomas has two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble on his 2021 resume as well. A versatile performer on the Yellow Jacket defense, Thomas lined up at nickel, at linebacker, and on the defensive line during the 2020 season. He has started one game as the Nickel linebacker and three games at linebacker this season.

Juanyeh Thomas, Safety, #1

Thomas combines impressive size at 6’3”, 217 pounds, with experience, having played in 41 career games. Thomas started 21 of 22 games at safety in the 2019 and 2020 seasons, and he has started all six games so far in 2021.

Thomas and Tech linebacker Ayinde Ele earned ACC Player of the Week honors at their respective positions in the Week 6 win over Duke. Against the Blue Devils, the standout safety racked up 11 tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass breakup, and had the game-clinching interception. Thomas leads Georgia Tech with four pass breakups and is fourth on the team in tackles with 42.

Three Keys

No Big Plays/Big Play Touchdowns

Georgia Tech has scored 20 offensive touchdowns this season. Of the 20, 10 are on plays of 15 or more yards. Prior to the Duke game, UVA had allowed at least one big-play touchdown in five straight games, including one versus Illinois, three versus North Carolina, one versus Wake Forest, three versus Miami, and two versus Louisville. The Hoos shutout Duke, preventing the big play touchdown and doing well in limiting big plays in general, allowing the Blue Devils only two plays over 20 yards and nine big plays (10+ yard rushes, 15+ yard passes).

Georgia Tech ranks 105 in the nation in third down conversion percentage, converting only 34.2% in third down situations, so UVA wants to make Sims and company earn their way into the end zone through long drives with no big plays. Georgia Tech has 31 offensive plays (rushing plus passing) of 20-or-more yards … with Sims’ ability on the ground and in the passing game, as well as Georgia Tech having a speedier receiving corps than Duke, the UVA defense will be tested in terms of big plays on Saturday.

Stay Turnover Free

One way Georgia Tech could make this a competitive game is if Virginia turns the ball over. The Yellow Jackets have forced nine turnovers through six games, including six fumble recoveries and three interceptions, and have 27 takeaways since the 2020 season, tied for 28 among all FBS schools. Of the seven offensive possessions following turnovers – one of the fumble recoveries was returned for a touchdown while an interception was on the final play of the Duke game – Georgia Tech has scored five times, including three touchdowns and two field goals, so the Yellow Jackets have been fairly opportunistic when they do get takeaways.

Virginia has surrendered the ball 10 times this season, including six interceptions and four fumbles lost. Georgia Tech is particularly active in terms of forced fumbles, forcing 12 and recovering six.

Red Zone Execution

The Virginia offense scored on 79.3% of its red zone attempts prior to the Duke game. That percentage currently would rank in the 90s among FBS schools. The Hoos converted on all eight red zone opportunities versus Duke, though, and now sit at 83.8%, which is no. 76 in the nation. Virginia has scored 31 times – 23 touchdowns, eight field goals – in 37 tries.

Through six games, Georgia Tech’s defense has surrendered 15 scores – 13 touchdowns and two field goals – in the 20 times opponents have reached the red zone. Seventy-five percent ranks no. 28 in the nation. If Georgia Tech keeps UVA from having big play touchdowns (Georgia Tech has allowed five big play scores of 20+ yards), the Hoos will need to continue the red zone execution they showed against Duke.

PICKS

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall chuckled recently when sharing that he often gets little media relations nuggets saying “the first time since …” for his football team. There’s an opportunity for another one of those this week. The Cavaliers have rattled off three straight ACC wins and they’ll have a chance for four in a row when Georgia Tech comes to town this weekend. If they can pull off a victory, it would be the first time since 2011 that the program won four conference games in a row.

So can the Hoos do it? The Yellow Jackets enter the game off a bye week so they had additional prep time, but they’re dealing with some injuries too. Several offensive linemen either missed or were injured in their Duke game before the bye and their status is unclear. Quarterback Jeff Sims is dynamic, but GT’s offense is generally a middle of the road attack that ranks in the 60’s in rushing, passing, and scoring. The defense is a little better than UVA against the run, but ranks lower in scoring and passing defense.

On paper, then, Virginia is the better team. Plus, this game is at Scott Stadium where the Cavaliers have been very good over the last 3+ seasons. It’s a night game too with bowl eligibility on the line and that should fire up the students and fan base. To me, it all adds up to a clear UVA advantage. I think the Hoos will avoid sweating it out for the second straight week. VIRGINIA 41, GEORGIA TECH 28. Season to date: 4-3.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

Georgia Tech has a solid defense that features three quality linebackers, a solid defensive line, and an experienced defensive backfield. The unit looks athletic, and with a week to prepare the Yellow Jackets could give the Hoos some trouble. Georgia Tech’s defense will have to play well against a red-hot Virginia offense that scored 69 points in the past five quarters.

The Georgia Tech offense has big play threats on offense but has not been able to score consistently. UVA’s defense has looked much better, and while I don’t expect a Duke-like performance, I think the defense will do what it needs to and keep the Tech offense between 20 and 30 points. That should be enough for Armstrong and his impressive group of receivers, who are a tough matchup for any opponent. I think a scrappy Tech team keeps it competitive, but ultimately the Hoos are too much at home. VIRGINIA 34, GEORGIA TECH 24. Season to date: 4-3.

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