ATLANTA — Georgia Tech has had time to stew during its bye week, but the Yellow Jackets are neither lamenting their tough schedule, ruing a few dreadful losses nor contemplating the complexities required to save their season.
The Yellow Jackets (3-4, 1-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) have been working on a seemingly simple skill — hanging onto the football. They will see how much the time off has helped them Thursday at Virginia Tech (4-2, 3-0).
The Jackets have fumbled 22 times, leading the nation with 3.1 per game. Georgia Tech has lost eight of those, which is tied for 117th worst.
“I want to beat Virginia Tech. That’s my goal. If we pull ourselves back even, then we’ll worry about going to North Carolina,” coach Paul Johnson said. “What I want to accomplish is to go up there and not lay the ball on the ground on three consecutive plays and not beat ourselves.”
Georgia Tech won the last two times in Blacksburg and beat No. 17 Virginia Tech 28-22 last season in Atlanta, the highlight of a 5-6 campaign that left them out of bowl for the second time in three years.
Johnson said the Jackets are not thinking about what they need to do to avoid missing a bowl again. He just knows they need to hang onto the ball to have any success.
A fumble by wingback Qua Searcy was critical when Georgia Tech blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead at South Florida on Sept. 8. There were eight fumbles, one lost, in a 49-21 loss to second-ranked Clemson on Sept. 22.
The Jackets didn’t turn the ball over in lopsided wins over Bowling Green and Louisville, but fumble-itis struck again in a 28-14 home loss to Duke on Oct. 13 that all but knocked the Jackets out of contention in the ACC’s Coastal division.
Georgia Tech inflicted most damage upon itself and Duke scored a touchdown each time after sophomore fullback Jerry Howard, senior quarterback TaQuon Marshall and freshman kickoff returner Juanyeh Thomas coughed the ball up on back-to-back-to-back third-quarter touches.
“I look at those three fumbles and none of them had anything to do with the option offense. They were ball security issues,” Johnson lamented. “The first one an offensive lineman knocked out from the side. Now, you’ve got to have the ball high and tight. We preach that all the time. We’ve got to do a better job teaching it.
“The second one, we did not have the ball secured, and that comes back to coaching. And the third one was a really young guy trying to make something happen, and their guy made a really good play and punched the ball.”
Georgia Tech needs to address its ball-security issues immediately to become bowl eligible by winning three of five games.
After playing Thursday at Virginia Tech, against whom Johnson’s Georgia Tech teams are 4-1 in Saturday games and 0-5 on other days, the Yellow Jackets will travel to North Carolina, play hosts to Virginia and Miami, then travel to Georgia.
Virginia Tech has been erratic, although fourth-year junior transfer quarterback Ryan Willis has twice passed for more than 300 yards.
The Hokies are stout against Georgia Tech’s beloved run, but a young secondary that includes redshirt freshman quarterback Caleb Farley and sophomores Bryce Watts has been strafed. Virginia Tech is allowing 295.7 passing yards per game, ranked No. 125 in the nation.
“They’re not as experienced as they’ve been in the past (on defense), but they’ve got some good athletes and they run well,” Johnson said. “They’ve got (fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ricky Walker), who’s probably as good as anybody in our league.”