ATLANTA (AP) – The third Saturday in October is not too early for Georgia Tech to worry about extending its streak of 16 consecutive bowl seasons.
Three straight losses to Virginia Tech, Miami and BYU have raised the pressure for Georgia Tech (3-3, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) to end the skid against Syracuse on Saturday.
Syracuse (3-3, 1-1), coming off a win at N.C. State, is making its first trip to Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets play two Football Championship Subdivision teams this season. They opened with a 70-0 rout of Elon on Aug. 31 and will play Alabama A&M on Nov. 23. Only one win over a FCS team can count toward bowl eligibility, so Georgia Tech likely needs to win four of its last six games.
Georgia Tech also has games remaining against Virginia, Pittsburgh and two Top 25 teams, Clemson and Georgia.
A key for the Yellow Jackets is improved production from quarterback Vad Lee, who has no touchdown passes and four interceptions in the three straight losses.
Coach Paul Johnson has pulled Lee in the last two games but said he is sticking with the sophomore as his starter. Johnson said Lee needs better pass protection and few drops from his receivers.
“Is he perfect? No, but nobody is,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to protect him better in the passing game. That’s the bottom line.”
Lee has struggled making the right option reads in his first year as a starter. Johnson said that part of Lee’s play has improved.
“I think he’s actually getting better with his reads, his fundamentals and his technique on some of the option stuff,” Johnson said.
Syracuse coach Scott Shafer began preparing his team for Georgia Tech’s spread option offense during two-a-days in August preseason practice. He continued to spend time on Georgia Tech in the last 10 minutes of practice every Sunday during the season.
“The only way you can get ready is to spend a little bit of time,” Shafer said. “Hopefully, we’ll reap the benefit from that. We’ll see. They are very tough.”
Here are five things to watch as Georgia Tech and Syracuse each look to climb above .500.:
BALL CONTROL: Quarterback Terrel Hunt says the Orange must make the most of its scoring chances because Georgia Tech can dominate the clock with long drives. “You get a three-and-out, you might not see the ball for 10 minutes,” Hunt said. “Then you’re in the second half already. There’s a little bit of pressure.”
ORANGE CAN RUN THE BALL: Syracuse might not match Georgia Tech’s run-first offense in rushing yards, but the Orange also have a strong running game. Senior Jerome Smith leads Syracuse with 482 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, including at least one in each game. Prince-Tyson Gulley, also a senior, has 316 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Georgia Tech leads the ACC with its average of 290 yards rushing. David Sims leads the Yellow Jackets with 353 yards rushing and six touchdowns.
AVOID TURNOVERS: Lee won’t be the only quarterback in the game who has struggled with interceptions. Hunt and Drew Allen have combined to throw 12 interceptions. Allen, who started the first three games, has seven interceptions and only two touchdown passes. Hunt, a strong runner, has taken over the starting job and has five interceptions with seven touchdown passes.
AVOID MISTAKES: Georgia Tech’s offense was slowed by five false-start penalties and dropped passes in last week’s 38-20 loss at BYU. Johnson said the problem was “just lack of attention to detail.” Perhaps the biggest mistake was an interception thrown by Lee that was returned for a game-clinching touchdown. That was when Johnson brought in backup quarterback Justin Thomas. Lee will face a Syracuse defense that has 51 tackles for losses, the third-most in the conference.
TRIPLE THE FUN: Despite all the extra practice time in the summer and on Sundays, this will be the first time Syracuse has seen the spread-option attack with its triple-option plays. “I’ve seen it on TV and dreaded it,” said Syracuse senior defensive tackle Jay Bromley, who said the offense is difficult to prepare for because no players in practice can run the option like Georgia Tech.