Football travels to face Georgia Tech and the option offense

The Cavaliers are set for another marquee ACC matchup against the surging Yellow Jackets --


Junior linebacker Jordan Mack came back in the lineup against Georgia Tech after his injury, recording a team-high 12 tackles.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

After cruising past Liberty Saturday, Virginia football has a challenging matchup this Saturday in a return to conference play.

The Cavaliers (7-3, 4-2 ACC) will travel to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech (6-4, 4-3 ACC) in a bid to keep their hopes alive for the ACC Coastal Division title.

Last year, the matchup between the two conference foes ended in spectacular fashion for Virginia. On a cold, rainy day at Scott Stadium, the Cavaliers came out on top in a shootout, 40-36. The win made them bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, a big milestone for Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s “New Standard” mantra.

This year, Virginia is already bowl-eligible and clinched a winning season with its victory over Liberty Saturday, another program milestone.

That said, the Cavaliers are hungry for more. The ACC Coastal Division title still remains a possibility, and Virginia will have to win against Georgia Tech to remain in contention.

“Yes we want to win the Coastal,” Mendenhall said at a press conference this week. “We're part of the ACC and we want to win the conference championship. You don't win that unless you win the Coastal.”

Virginia showed why it has had such a strong season in its victory over Liberty. The Cavaliers epitomized complementary football in their win over the Flames, despite an inconsistent first half.

The Cavaliers have had success this year when they’ve run the football well, and they did that against Liberty. Senior running back Jordan Ellis finished with 106 yards and a touchdown, and junior transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins ran for 89 yards and two scores.

This opened up the passing game for Virginia. The leading receiver was senior Olamide Zaccheaus, who finished with seven receptions for 86 yards.

It was explosive junior wide receiver Joe Reed, however, who was the star of the game. Reed equaled the number of receiving touchdowns he’s had in all prior games this season with two against Liberty Saturday, and added another 90-yard kickoff return touchdown on the first play of the second half.

In addition to Reed’s touchdown, special teams played outstanding against Liberty, winning the field position battle by a significant amount.

“Field position [was good] especially … Us pinning Liberty the number of times we did [created] long fields for them, in addition to our kick returns,” Mendenhall said. “Certainly the field position was won through special teams.”

Virginia’s defense took a bit of time to settle in, but had a strong second half. Virginia’s secondary stood out, as usual, with three interceptions on the day. Senior safety Juan Thornhill was most impressive, with 13 tackles and an interception.

The Cavaliers will look to continue to play complementary football against the red-hot Yellow Jackets.

Georgia Tech comes into this game riding a wave of momentum. The Yellow Jackets are now officially bowl-eligible after beating Miami 27-21 last weekend, and have won three consecutive ACC games.

Georgia Tech always presents a unique challenge because of its triple option offense.

“I love playing option football just because … it's an occasion to rise to; it's a challenge; it stresses you in about every way,” Mendenhall said. “That's where growth happens, not only for individuals but teams.”

In order to beat the Yellow Jackets, the Cavaliers’ defense will have to contain the run game, an area where Virginia has been inconsistent this season. In particular, the Cavaliers’ front seven will have to stop senior quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who leads the offense. Against Miami, Marshall rushed for 92 yards and two touchdowns.

Especially in the last two weeks, Virginia’s run defense has struggled as injuries continue to pile up.

Against Liberty, the Cavaliers allowed sophomore running back Peyton Pickett to pick up 117 yards and a touchdown, and allowed Pittsburgh senior running back Darrin Hall to rush for 229 yards and three scores two weeks ago.

Virginia’s run defense, however, has the potential to slow down Georgia Tech’s potent rushing offense, with a strong defensive line and experienced linebacking core. Junior defensive end Eli Hanback will be a key player for the Cavaliers’ defensive front, as well as junior linebacker Jordan Mack, a Georgia native who is making a homecoming of sorts.

Of course, Virginia will have to continue to play complementary football in order to win. Good defense needs to be paired with good, patient offense, especially with a defense on the field for long possessions.

“When you play an option team you certainly have to score,” Mendenhall said. “It's better if you're able to maintain possession of the ball and score.”

Saturday afternoon’s contest is set to be a high-scoring battle between two bowl-eligible ACC teams that want more.

Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. from Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.

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