Georgia Tech is two wins away from clinching a second appearance in the ACC championship game, and its vaunted rushing attack is showing no signs of slowing down.
Its defense, however, could certainly use some work.
The 10th-ranked Yellow Jackets have looked shaky on that side of the ball while their offense continues to pile up points, and they’ll look for a more balanced effort Saturday at home in their first meeting with Wake Forest since the 2006 ACC title game.
Under second-year coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense, Georgia Tech has run an average of 57.8 times this season, gaining 304.1 yards per game to rank second nationally behind Nevada (319.1). The Yellow Jackets (8-1, 5-1) have been particularly dominant on the ground over the past four games, averaging 369.0 yards.
Jonathan Dwyer had a career-best 186 of Georgia Tech’s season-high 404 rushing yards Saturday and scored three touchdowns in a 56-31 win at Vanderbilt.
“We have a lot of weapons on the offense so each and every week somebody has a breakout game,” said Dwyer, who has keyed the Yellow Jackets’ best start since winning a national title in 1990.
Dwyer (904 yards) and quarterback Josh Nesbitt (763) have combined for 21 rushing touchdowns, carrying an offense which leads the ACC with 35.2 points per game despite having the nation’s 116th-ranked passing attack.
The concern for the Yellow Jackets, seeking their first seven-game win streak since 2000, is on the other side of the ball.
They gave up averages of 391.0 yards and 27.6 points during five October games. Their 14 sacks are the third-fewest in the ACC and they’re allowing opponents to convert on third down 41.4 percent of the time, second-worst in the league.
Georgia Tech gave up 28 first-half points - seven on a kick return - before its defense stepped up in the second half last weekend.
“We did a much better job in the second half of getting them off the field and we got some turnovers, which helped turn the game,” Johnson said. “I’m disappointed in the way we started. We missed some tackles that just killed us in the first half on big plays. They hit a ton of big plays.”
Georgia Tech is the only ACC team to have played six games, meaning it only needs wins over Wake Forest (4-5, 2-3) and Duke next week to reach the conference title game in Tampa for the first time since a 9-6 loss to the Demon Deacons in 2006.
While the Yellow Jackets lead the Coastal Division, Wake Forest is all but out of the race in the Atlantic after falling 28-27 at home to then-No. 18 Miami last Saturday.
It was the Demon Deacons’ fourth loss by three points or fewer and this one was particularly tough to take considering they had 555 yards of total offense - their most in more than four years - and led 27-14 heading into the fourth quarter. A turnover, two missed field goals and a concussion suffered by quarterback Riley Skinner doomed Wake Forest.
“We’re capable of winning. That’s the thing that we know,” coach Jim Grobe said. “We’ve got to have things go right and not much has gone right for this football team. … But this is just about the most unlucky football team I’ve coached.”
The Demon Deacons would need to win out - Florida State and Duke remain after this weekend - and have Clemson and Boston College lose twice in order to head to Tampa, but the first priority is trying to qualify for a fourth consecutive bowl game.
Skinner has been cleared to play and is expected to start his 33rd consecutive game as Wake Forest tries to avoid its first in-season four-game losing streak since a seven-game skid in 2000. The senior didn’t practice Monday, but eventually returned to his regular practice routine this week.
Defensively, the Demon Deacons are 63rd against the run (141.7 yards per game), and can at least say they’ll be prepared for Georgia Tech’s triple option. Wake Forest lost 13-10 to option-heavy Navy on Oct. 24 as Johnson’s former program ran for 338 yards and didn’t throw a single pass.
“Our players have a pretty good feel for what we are going to get on Saturday,” Grobe said. “Now we need to play better against Georgia Tech than we did against Navy and that remains to be seen whether we are able to do that.”
The Yellow Jackets have won 17 of 18 at home against unranked opponents.