ATLANTA — Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson and Virginia's Mike London are looking closely at third downs as a key to Saturday's ACC Coastal Division game.
Georgia Tech (3-2 overall, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) is averaging 29.6 points per game, down from about 33.8 per game last season, when it won the ACC. Johnson says that's not a significant dip, but he concedes his team's drop in third-down success is a problem.
Georgia Tech ranked fifth in the nation last season by making first downs on more than 52 percent of its third-down plays last season . That figure is down to 40.6 percent this year, only 61st in the nation.
Johnson said he doesn't like to "go back and dwell on the numbers" but he is looking for better third-down production. He said it would help if the Yellow Jackets could fare better on first and second downs.
"There is no question that we aren't as good on third down as we were a year ago, and I think the big culprit of that is we have had a lot more third and longs than we had a year ago," Johnson said.
Johnson said it was easier to convert more than half of the third-down conversions in 2009 "because we had a lot of third and shorts."
"This year, we haven't had as many and even when we have we have missed a couple of those," he said. "Some of it is inexperience and some of it is just not getting it done."
Virginia (2-2, 0-1) was 0-for-7 on third-down conversions as it fell behind 27-0 in the first half of last week's 34-14 loss at Florida State.
"You've got to make a third-down situation so you can hang on to the ball," London said.
Virginia also was held to two touchdowns in a 17-14 loss at Southern Cal on Sept. 11.
Cavaliers senior quarterback Marc Verica ranks fourth in the ACC with his average of 227 yards passing per game. Two Virginia receivers rank among the conference leaders. Kris Burd has 22 catches for 378 yards and four touchdowns. Dontrelle Inman has 18 catches for 254 yards and two touchdowns.
In its last home game on Sept. 25, Georgia Tech gave up 368 yards passing and three touchdowns to North Carolina State's Russell Wilson in a 45-28 loss.
"Last time we had an opportunity to play in our home stadium, we didn't play particularly well," Johnson said. "Anytime that happens you're always anxious to play in front of the home crowd again."
Georgia Tech ranks only 10th in the league in scoring defense, allowing 25.4 points per game in its first season with defensive coordinator Al Groh, who was Virginia's head coach the last nine years.
Groh hired London as a defensive assistant at Virginia in 2001.
"I recognize the opportunities that I was afforded here by coach Groh, and very appreciative," London said. "But now my job is to be the best head coach here at the University of Virginia."
Groh, 66, was 59-53 in nine years as Virginia's coach and was fired after a 3-9 record in 2009.
Groh said he knows the Virginia players and their strengths.
"But clearly the advantage is on the Virginia side," he said. "I say that because I taught our defense we're playing here to (London's staff). They have all my playbooks."
Groh, a Virginia graduate, said his only sentiments will be for his former players, not his alma mater. He said he received a three-word text message — "Good luck Saturday" — from one of his former Virginia staffers this week.
Quarterback Joshua Nesbitt leads the Yellow Jackets with 434 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Nesbitt rallied Georgia Tech to a 24-20 win at Wake Forest last week by throwing two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, including a 9-yarder to Correy Earls with 15 seconds remaining.
"I tell you, he is an outstanding football player," London said, noting Nesbitt's 31 rushing touchdowns are a record for ACC quarterbacks.
"Coach Johnson has him doing different things with the ball. You get an experienced guy that knows how to do it all, knows when to tuck it and run and when to pitch it. It makes him alone a triple threat. ... You can have a guy on him or two guys on him and he's good enough to make them miss."
Nesbitt has completed only 39.1 percent of his passes (25 of 64) for 446 yards.
Johnson continues to defend Nesbitt's passing.
"He is like everybody else, sometimes he plays well and sometimes he didn't play as well as he could play," Johnson said. "He is at a different standard.
"What is playing well for him? I am going to hold him to a higher standard than someone that hasn't played at all. And I think he holds himself to a higher standard."