It’s November, and Virginia is atop the ACC Coastal. The Cavaliers (6-3, 4-2 ACC) control their destiny the rest of the way to win the conference. They have just two ACC games left and just two more games overall before meeting Virginia Tech in their final game of the season.
The Cavaliers cannot overlook their next opponent, however — Georgia Tech. While Virginia leads the ACC Coastal, the Yellow Jackets (2-6, 1-4 ACC) are in last place. That said, Georgia Tech is no pushover. In their first year under new coach Geoff Collins, the Yellow Jackets have overhauled former coach Paul Johnson’s spread option offense and replaced it with a more traditional, pro-style scheme. The team has faced inevitable growing pains but has been competitive in conference games, especially recently.
Virginia must take care of business against Georgia Tech going into the bye week, building on a dominant offensive performance against North Carolina and reviving a defense that has been strong for much of this year.
Players to watch:
Redshirt freshman cornerback Jaylon Baker
Virginia’s secondary was projected to be one of the strongest parts of the Cavaliers’ defense this season, and it looked that way, at least through the first eight games. Then North Carolina freshman quarterback Sam Howell shredded Virginia for 353 yards, 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.
It’s possible this is an aberration from Virginia’s normally stellar play, but it’s also possible injuries are catching up with the Cavaliers. Already, Bryce Hall,an AP Midseason-All American senior cornerback, and junior safety Brenton Nelson are out for the season. Both were starters and leaders. Depth is dwindling, and freshmen are having to step up to give starters rest.
Against North Carolina, one of these players was redshirt freshman cornerback Jaylon Baker. Baker first saw reps when Hall went down against Miami and has since featured even more, particularly with Nelson going down. Baker started against the Tar Heels and was targeted multiple times — just like many of the other defensive backs. On the last drive, however, Baker’s end zone coverage helped force a fourth-down incompletion.
"Everybody gets beat deep," co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said. "Bryce Hall got beat deep when he was a freshman. I think those reps for Jaylon are invaluable for us going down the stretch, and it's only going to help us, and we have confidence that we're going to finish this thing strong."
Baker will not be facing the strongest passing offense against Georgia Tech, but regardless, it will be additional experience for the young corner. His solid play and the performances of other young defensive backs down the stretch will be crucial for Virginia.
Junior wide receiver Terrell Jana
Virginia has a wide receiver corps that is loaded with talent. With two receivers over 500 yards who display jaw-dropping athleticism — senior wide receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois — it’s easy to overlook Jana. No longer. Jana exploded for a career-high 13 receptions for 146 yards against North Carolina and showed just how crucial he is for the Cavaliers’ offense.
Virginia’s offense relies on a number of short routes to get the ball out of senior quarterback Bryce Perkins’ hands quickly. Jana, who has great hands and is a solid route runner, is perfect for catching the passes that move the chains for the Cavaliers.
“[Jana] just knows his assignment so well, and he creates separation, and he’s so easy to work with,” Perkins said.
Look for Jana to have another big game against Georgia Tech, as the Cavaliers stick to a dynamic passing attack.
Keys to the game:
Keep Perkins rolling
After two consecutive games in which he threw an interception and struggled to get his rhythm going, Perkins got back on track in a big way against North Carolina. He was 30-39 passing for 378 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. In addition to that, he rushed 24 times for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. In total, he accounted for 490 yards — a program record — and all five of Virginia’s touchdowns. Perkins was named ACC Quarterback of the Week for his performance, in addition to other national accolades.
One of the reasons for Perkins’ resurgence was Virginia’s game plan against North Carolina, which moved away from designed runs to let Perkins’ arm lead the offense. With a combination of out routes, slants and curls to open up the Tar Heels’ defense, combined with a few deeper patterns, Perkins was able to shred North Carolina.
Doing the same against Georgia Tech will not be as easy. While North Carolina allows passing 234.9 yards per game, the Yellow Jackets allow just 187.9 passing yards per game, now better than Virginia for second-best in the ACC.
That said, Virginia needs to stick with the same game plan against Georgia Tech and maximize Perkins’ skills as a passer. Once he gets into a rhythm, he is hard to stop.
Shut down the Yellow Jackets’ running game
Georgia Tech’s offense — not the team’s strong suit — has struggled this year in its first year with an entirely new identity. When the Yellow Jackets have succeeded, however, it has been in the running game. While Georgia Tech is ranked No. 124 in the country in passing yards per game — averaging just 141 yards per game — the Yellow Jackets are No. 75 in the country in rushing yards per game.
Their leading rusher is sophomore running back Jordan Mason, who is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and exploded for a season-high 141 yards and a touchdown in the Yellow Jackets’ lone conference win against Miami. Shutting down Mason and the run-pass option will be key in limiting Georgia Tech’s offense. Because of personnel, the Yellow Jackets have found the most offensive success in a dynamic running game.
Virginia returns home to face Georgia Tech after two conference games on the road. With some inconsistency so far in conference play, this game presents an opportunity for the Cavaliers to put all three phases together and make a statement before the bye week.
Kickoff is slated for 12:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium. The game will be broadcasted on ACC Network.