Provo • When BYU defeated Utah State 31-14 last week in Logan to improve to 3-2, fans started breathing a bit easier, thinking that the victory most likely put the Cougars back on the path to bowl eligibility. It sort of made up for what is looking more and more like one of the worst losses in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s nine-year tenure, that season-opening 19-16 setback at Virginia.
But as ESPN football analyst Lee Corso is fond of saying, “Not so fast, my friend.”
The Cougars can’t start making reservations for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl just yet, as they prepare to play host to another team from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Georgia Tech, on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium (5 p.m., ESPNU). Clearly, the 3-2 Yellow Jackets are much better than 2-3 Virginia, which followed that upset win over BYU on Aug. 31 with a 59-10 loss to Oregon, a 49-0 win over VMI of the FCS, a 14-3 loss to Pittsburgh, and a shocking 48-27 loss at home to Ball State.
Suddenly, Saturday’s rematch of last year’s 41-17 win at historic Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta is looking like a must-win for the Cougars, rather than another easy romp. Georgia Tech comes in on a two-game losing skid, but those losses were to Virginia Tech and Miami, not exactly college football slouches. The wins came against Elon, Duke and North Carolina.
The Ramblin’ Wreck is a touchdown underdog, but after several days of film-watching the Cougars insist it has improved greatly since last year’s beatdown.
“Good football team all the way around,” BYU quarterback Taysom Hill said. “Big and physical defense. We’re going to have to play well to beat them.”
It is an important game for the independent Cougars because there is only one gimme left on the schedule — FCS doormat Idaho State.
Every other remaining team has a winning record, with the exception of 3-3 Nevada, and the Cougars have to travel to Reno to face the Wolf Pack in their regular-season finale.
Throw out Idaho State and Nevada, and the combined record of BYU’s remaining opponents is 17-8. They will likely be underdogs at 4-0 Houston, 3-2 Wisconsin and 4-2 Notre Dame. The Boise State game in two weeks is looking like a toss-up.
BYU is contracted to play in the KFH Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 27 if it wins six games or more.
“We are looking forward to, man, another really good opponent coming into our stadium, and playing well,” Mendenhall said of Tech’s arrival. “We have some momentum now, and we are making some progress. There are some things we still have to work on, but we are excited about the game.”
Mendenhall said how well each team plays on third down will be decide the game. The Cougars must convert on third down to give their defense time to rest, and not let the Yellow Jackets dominate time of possession. Last year, Tech’s triple-option spread offense went 0-for-10 on third down and was able to run just 48 plays.
“We know that points will be important, and that is going to end up driving the game, because Georgia Tech will try to hold onto the ball as much as possible,” Mendenhall said.
Stopping the Jackets on third down starts by limiting them on first down, defensive coordinator Nick Howell said.
“You gotta have a negative play,” Howell said. “I mean, if they chip at you three yards, three yards, three yards, they are going to go for it on fourth down. … You know, for them to go 0-for-10 last year on third down, that’s unheard of. If you get them in third-and-long, you have a chance. If you get them in third-and-2, they are going to get first downs.”
Offensively, Hill should have a full array of healthy weapons for really the first time this season. Senior receiver Cody Hoffman is at 100 percent after missing the Virginia game with a hamstring injury and the Middle Tennessee State game due to a suspension, while sophomore running back Jamaal Williams — who scored four touchdowns last year against Tech — is back from a concussion that limited him to just 14 carries last week against Utah State.
“We are really comfortable with where we are at as an offense, and looking forward to the challenge,” Hill said.
Georgia Tech at BYU
O At LaVell Edwards Stadium (Provo)
Kickoff • 5 p.m.
TV • ESPNU. Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 3-2, Georgia Tech 3-2
Series history • BYU leads, 2-1
Last meeting • BYU 41, Georgia Tech 17 (Oct. 27, 2012)
About the Yellow Jackets • They played at Miami last week, losing 45-30, and will have logged nearly 5,000 miles when the two-game road swing is completed. … They rank eighth national in third-down conversion percentage (.542), while BYU ranks 21st in third-down conversion defense. … Only Baylor ranks higher in yards per pass completion (17.94 ypc.). … Senior RB David Sims leads them in rushing, averaging 65.0 ypg.
About the Cougars • They are averaging 27.4 points a game and allowing 16.8 ppg. … They are No. 13 in the nation in rushing yards per game, 277.8. … Senior LB Kyle Van Noy has 23 career sacks, tied for second nationally among active players. He needs 10 more sacks this season to tie the career sack record at BYU. … LB Tyler Beck (hamstring) and KR Adam Hine (concussion) are expected to play after missing last week’s 31-14 win over Utah State with injuries.
Tough road ahead
Records of remaining teams on 3-2 BYU’s schedule:
Saturday — Georgia Tech: 3-2
Oct. 19 — at Houston: 4-0
Oct. 25 — Boise State: 3-2
Nov. 9 — at Wisconsin: 3-2
Nov. 16 — Idaho State: 2-3
Nov. 23 — at Notre Dame: 4-2
Nov. 30 — at Nevada: 3-3
Overall record: 22-14