Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Having been in a similar position before as a team, TaQuon Marshall came off the practice field on Tuesday with an especially good feeling about Georgia Tech's football team and Saturday's game against Virginia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets (4-4, 3-3 ACC) suffered their third heart-wrenching loss of the season at Virginia, but all is not lost as the Yellow Jackets prepare for the 17th-ranked Hokies (7-2, 3-2), who are about to coming calling at Bobby Dodd Stadium while surely in a foul mood.
"I saw a lot more focus from a lot of people today . . . everybody was really focused in and I could tell I really didn't have to say too much," Marshall said. "It was to me, by far, the best Tuesday practice we've had all season. I think everybody's going to be ready to go by Saturday."
Tech's season of near misses continued in Charlottesville, where, for the third time this year, the Jackets could not hang onto a lead in the last two minutes. Yet it wasn't so long ago that they turned around a similar situation.
They were 3-3 last season before winning six of their final seven games, including a victory over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl. And after their final loss of 2016, at No. 18/17 North Carolina, the Jackets closed with a four-game winning streak that began with a 30-20 upset of No. 18 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
That may well be on the minds of the Hokies, and they're probably not too happy either, after losing 28-10 last weekend at Miami.
"They won the Coastal last year. I'm pretty sure they will have chip on their shoulder, but we have a chip on our shoulders as well," said defensive back Lawrence Austin. "We've lost four games, and we're looking to get No. 5 and get bowl eligible.
"It's kind of similar to last year. We got beat pretty bad by North Carolina. We're just focused on winning game No. 5."
These Hokies look like many previous versions. The defense of Bud Foster is stout, special teams are keen and they have a new quarterback in redshirt freshman Josh Jackson who, at 6-feet-1, 215 pounds, is not unlike predecessor Jerod Evans as a big run-pass threat.
But anyone expecting the Jackets to be hanging their heads would be wrong, even after Tech has dropped late decisions to Tennessee, Miami and Virginia.
"We had a chance to win all three. I mean we should be -- and it's woulda, shoulda, coulda, nobody cares -- but you could make a case that we should be sitting here 7-1 and ranked. But we're not. We didn't make the plays," said head coach Paul Johnson.
"So, nobody feels sorry for you; you've got to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and play better."
That's exactly what they Jackets are doing in practice. It helps to know what's possible. They upset the Hokies last year with center Kenny Cooper and quarterback Matthew Jordan making their first-career starts as Freddie Burden and Justin Thomas were injured.
Cooper's looking for more of the same.
"It just seemed like a different team. We were focused," he said after Tuesday's practice. "I'm confident, and I feel like we're going to go out there and do the same thing we did last year."
This will be sophomore KirVonte Benson's first crack at Virginia Tech as a starter, and he already knows what it will take to win.
"We've got to limit the mental mistakes. We've got to focus on what we've got to do, and . . . hopefully this week we can turn everything around," he said. "They're coming into our house off a loss last year.
"I know they're going to be hungry, but . . . we're going to be more hungry than ever because this is kind of where we want to make our stand. I believe the season is going to end kind of the way we want it to end."
The Jackets are looking forward to challenge, and Austin is eager to match up with Virginia Tech wide receiver Cam Phillips, an NFL prospect who is the leading receiver in school history.
"He's an NFL guy. They have great athletes across the board," Lawrence said. "We know it's not going to be easy."
Virginia Tech looks like the right opponent at the right time, and the Jackets are confident that they can start another winning streak with the Hokies.
"Oh yeah, of course," said defensive end Anree Saint-Amour. "I feel like we have a team that is resilient, and we fight to the end. It's a new game, a new week, a new day."
Johnson agrees. Georgia Tech has what it needs to win out like last year.
"Sure, if we play well," the coach said. "Any team has the ability to win out. That's why you play the game."