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Scouting the opponent: Georgia Tech also hopes to find footing in ACC play Saturday

<p>Quarterback Justin Thomas and Georgia Tech's dangerous triple-option offense have not been able to figure out Duke's defense in the teams' last two matchups.&nbsp;</p>

Quarterback Justin Thomas and Georgia Tech's dangerous triple-option offense have not been able to figure out Duke's defense in the teams' last two matchups. 

Before the Yellow Jackets’ 2014 loss to the Blue Devils in Atlanta, Georgia Tech had ripped off 10 straight victories against Duke and had not lost at home to its Coastal Division foe since 1994.

Now, after consecutive losses to the Blue Devils—including a two-touchdown defeat in Durham last September—the Yellow Jackets will be looking to get back on track and pull within one win of bowl eligibility Saturday afternoon.

Georgia Tech and its dangerous triple-option offense will challenge a Duke team that is still in search of its first conference win when the two sides meet at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta this weekend. Like the Blue Devils, Georgia Tech has lost three straight ACC games and needs a win to get back into the race for the Coastal Division title.

The Yellow Jackets will turn to their physical offensive line to accomplish that feat—they currently stand third in rushing among ACC teams with 234.3 yards per game and boast a trio of talented backs that have combined for nearly 1,000 yards on the ground.

“This is a really good Georgia Tech team,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They’re better than they’ve been, playing well at quarterback, which in that offense—any offense—makes it difficult.”

Although redshirt senior quarterback Justin Thomas led the team to a 3-0 start, the 2014 second-team All-ACC signal-caller has been inconsistent since. The Yellow Jackets could not dictate the pace of play in losses to Clemson, Miami and Pittsburgh, but bounced back last week with a 35-24 win against Georgia Southern.

Thomas had 26 total touchdowns in 2014 before a disappointing 2015 campaign, and so far has mostly facilitated for Georgia Tech’s other backs in the triple option. And after reaching the century mark in rushing on five occasions during the 2014 season, the Prattville, Ala., has failed to do so once in the Yellow Jackets’ last 19 games—a streak that Duke hopes to extend.

In their last three games against triple-option offenses, the Blue Devils defense has stayed disciplined and led the way in three decisive Duke wins.

“They’re well-coached. They’ve played very well against option teams the last two or three years,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said at his weekly press conference. “From Navy, to Army, to us, they’ve got a good scheme and they execute it.”

Despite the Blue Devils’ past success against the option, Duke has been susceptible to giving up chunk plays. Last season, even though the Blue Devils held the Yellow Jackets to fewer than three yards per carry on 60 rushes and Thomas struggled through the air, all six of his completions went for at least 10 yards.

Georgia Tech does not throw often, but its tendency to go for big plays through the air is still a staple of Johnson’s offense. This season, five Georgia Tech wide receivers average at least 14 yards per reception—putting the Yellow Jackets first among ACC teams in yards per completion.

“If it’s not complicated enough to stop the run game, they have play-action passes, and good ones, almost off every run action,” Cutcliffe said. “Hopefully we maintain right positions on the ball...and we don’t give up as many explosives as a lot of people do to this type of offense.”

Like its offense, Georgia Tech’s defense started the season well but has sputtered in conference play. The Yellow Jackets surrender about 350 yards per game—good for 27th in the nation—but allowed 32.7 points per game in their three ACC losses.

Facing a Duke offense that has been just as inconsistent, the Yellow Jackets will turn to redshirt junior cornerback Corey Griffin and senior linebacker P.J. Davis to get the ball back to Thomas and the offense. Griffin has 38 solo tackles along with an interception and Davis has 34 total tackles.

“Their defense has some special components,” Blue Devil center Austin Davis said. “Their defense doesn’t get as much credit as it should.... They typically have good players up front. They’re unique in how they’re coached. They’re very disciplined, they work well together and they move gaps.”

On the defensive line, redshirt senior Patrick Gamble leads the Yellow Jackets with three sacks, and along with junior Antonio Simmons, is tied for the Georgia Tech lead in tackles for loss with five.

Although the Yellow Jacket front struggled against Pittsburgh’s physical offensive line, it could have the upper hand against a Duke offense that ranks near the bottom of the ACC in nearly every offensive category but is coming off one of its cleanest performances at then-No. 7 Louisville.

Georgia Tech could also have an advantage in the kicking game, as Harrison Butker is one of the most reliable kickers in the nation. The senior is a perfect 25-for-25 on extra points this season and has missed just one field goal.

If the Blue Devil defense can continue its strong play against the triple option, the Yellow Jackets could look to Butker to get points on the board. He kicked two field goals from outside 45 yards last year against Duke to keep Georgia Tech within striking distance, so the Blue Devils will try to keep the Yellow Jackets off their side of the field.

“As a defense, we’re on a high horse right now,” Duke redshirt junior defensive end Dominic McDonald said. “We feel great, very confident and we play the triple-option very well.”

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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