By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Storylines abound as UVa’s football game with ACC rival Georgia Tech approaches. They include:
*The Yellow Jackets’ struggles at Scott Stadium. Georgia Tech has lost eight straight in this town since upsetting then-No. 1 Virginia here in 1990.
*Virginia’s October spree. The Cavaliers have won the past seven games (and 12 of the past 13) they’ve played in this month.
*The Coastal race. Virginia (2-0, 3-3) leads the division, and 11th-ranked Georgia Tech (4-1, 6-1) is second. A win would move the Jackets into first place.
*Recent trends. Georgia Tech has won four straight since a humbling loss to the Miami Hurricanes. Virginia has won three in a row after its first 0-3 start in 27 years.
The teams meet at noon Saturday at Scott Stadium in a game that Raycom will televise. The TV crew figures to dwell on the past, as media outlets in Virginia and Georgia have done all week, but the coaches are focused on the present.
“We are unconcerned and unimpressed with anything that happened that in 2007, ’08 or in the previous three weeks,” UVa’s Al Groh said.
Second-year coach Paul Johnson said his players are aware of the Jackets’ losing streak in Charlottesville, “because everybody else has mentioned it. So they know. They’re smart kids. They understand.”
Ultimately, Johnson said, “I don’t know how much motivation that is. These kids really could care less what happened in 1990. They’re worried about this year. It just serves to let our guys know that we’re in for a hard, tough-fought game, which we know already, because [the Wahoos] came and hit us in the mouth last year, so we know what we’re walking into.”
A season ago in Atlanta, UVa trailed 14-3 after one quarter but rallied to win 24-17. Each team turned the ball over three times, but the Jackets’ mistakes might have been more costly, especially a third-quarter fumble inside the Cavaliers’ 10.
The star of Johnson’s trademark triple-option offense in 2008 was running back Jonathan Dwyer, who was honored as the ACC player of the year after the regular season.
Dwyer, a junior, is the league’s fourth-leading rusher this season, but he’s been eclipsed by teammate Josh Nesbitt. A junior from Greensboro, Ga., Nesbitt has rushed for 262 yards and six touchdowns in his past two games — wins over Florida State and then-No. 4 Virginia Tech. In the ACC, he’s third in rushing (89.3 yards per game).
“It’s very, very evident that Josh is now a season-and-a-half into this offense,” Groh said, “as opposed to a half-season the last time that we saw him.”
Nesbitt has excellent speed, but that’s not all. At 6-1, 217 pounds, he’s a physical runner who can overwhelm defenders, and his decision-making has improved.
“I think he’s a lot better at running the option this year than he was a year ago,” Johnson said, partly because opponents are determined to shut down Dwyer.
“That’s opened some things up for Josh,” Johnson said. “He’s more comfortable, he’s embraced the role of running the ball, and he’s clearly a better runner than he was a year ago. I think he’s just more comfortable with where he’s going and what he’s doing.”
For Virginia, Jameel Sewell is more comfortable than he was last weekend in College Park, Md. Sewell, the Cavaliers’ No. 1 quarterback, left the game with a sprained right ankle late in the third quarter.
He returned to practice this week, though, and is expected to be near full strength against Georgia Tech, which ranks 11th among ACC teams in total defense.
Also back is Mikell Simpson, who leads Virginia in touchdowns with five. The senior tailback suffered a neck injury Oct. 10 in a 47-7 rout of Indiana. He was held out of the Maryland game before being cleared this week.
The outlook is not as promising for defensive end Matt Conrath, a 6-7, 275-pound sophomore who’s having a sensational season. Conrath severely sprained his right ankle, on a freak play in the final minute of the first half in College Park, and is likely to miss several games.
Conrath started against Georgia Tech last season, and the ‘Hoos could use his experience Saturday against a team averaging 32.4 points.
In junior wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, the Jackets have the ACC’s leader in receiving yards per game (95.9). But Thomas averages fewer than four catches per game. His talents aside, Tech is first and foremost a running team, and its average of 281.6 yards rushing ranks No. 2 nationally.
A year ago in Atlanta, Virginia struggled early with the pace of the Jackets’ attack and surrendered two first-quarter touchdowns. The Cavaliers didn’t panic.
“Coach Groh told us from the start of the game that things probably weren’t going to go the way we wanted them to right off the bat, because it’s an offense they’re used to, and it’s something that we’re not used to seeing at all,” recalled defensive end Nate Collins, who played nose tackle in 2008.
“You play that type of offense once, maybe twice a year, if that. It’s something that we have to practice and prepare for with a scout defense, whereas they’re doing this every day.
“So Coach Groh told everyone just to stay calm. The first couple drives probably weren’t going to go our way, and he was absolutely right. But once we got the hang of it and we saw what was going to happen and everyone made the adjustments, everything just followed together, and we ended up stopping them for the rest of the game.”
Much is made of the problems Georgia Tech poses for opposing defenses. Collins, the ACC defensive lineman of the week, says that challenge can be overstated.
“It’s just assignment football,” Collins said. “This week is going to be maybe a different set of jobs than you’re probably used to for each position, but if you think about it, the initial part for every person, just doing your job, is actually easier than any other week. Because you just have one specific thing to do.
“Like at D-end, wherever the quarterback goes, you’re keying on him. Don’t worry about anything else. Don’t worry about the pitch man, that’s someone else’s job. And in the middle, it’s just worry about the dive, from A gap to A gap. If you see the running back, you have to tackle him every single time, regardless of if he has the ball or not, because if not, he’s a blocker.”
To Collins, the issue is straightforward.
“If everyone does their job on the defense like they’re supposed to, then this offense won’t work, and we’ll force them to do other things,” he said.
A victory Saturday would put the Cavaliers over .500 for the first time in nearly a year, and they’d move ever closer to bowl-eligibility.
“We’re definitely looking at this game as a huge game as far as where we are as a team and where we can go in the future,” senior offensive tackle Will Barker said.
Outside linebacker Denzel Burrell said: “We’ve experienced some of the lowest of the lows early in the season, and I guess what people can say are some of the highest of highs, as of now. But we have to stay where we are and stay within ourselves. We’re 3-3, nothing to boast about, and we just have to keep working hard.
“We’re feeling good, but we’re feeling like the job isn’t done yet.”