Georgia Tech faces biggest test of season

Through three games the Georgia Tech offense has looked more like its old self. The option has been effective and the drives have been long and sustained.

But the question remains: How good are they really?

That will be answered this week when the Yellow Jackets face No. 5 Clemson, easily the best team it has played this year. If Georgia Tech can move the ball effectively against the Tigers, it could have something special.

“We’ve gotten better each game,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “We’ll have to get way better because this is the best team we’ve played by a mile.”

Kickoff for the Thursday night game is 7:30 p.m. It will be televised on ESPN.

Georgia Tech is averaging 397.7 yards per game, 257.3 of that on the ground. But the Clemson defense ranks eighth in the nation in total defense (250 yards per game) and gives up just 92 yards rushing. Something has to give.

Johnson said his team’s offense is better than what it showed in 2015, but hasn’t yet approached the high standards set in 2014. But he added, “I think we have the potential to get where we were in ’14.”

It’s more possible when quarterback Justin Thomas plays like he did in the 38-7 win over Vanderbilt. Thomas threw for 136 yards and one touchdown and rushed 11 times for 84 yards. Through three games he seems more like the Thomas of 2014 and less like the stress-ridden guy from a year ago.

“We still have some issues, but from Game 1 to this point we’re night and day a lot better,” Thomas said. “People are communicating more, coming off the ball better and as a whole we’re starting to click. Got to keep getting better each week and not have any setbacks.”

Thomas has been around long enough to know that Clemson will provide a reality check. This will be his third start against the Tigers — he led Tech to a victory in 2014, but got pommeled last season at Death Valley.

Last year under wet conditions, Thomas rushed 14 times for three yards, threw for 159 yards and two touchdowns, but was intercepted once and sacked twice. Clemson won 43-24 in Georgia Tech’s low point for the season.

“It’s going to be a huge week,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to dial it in. Got to come out and execute and do what we’ve been doing and not look at it as a bigger game than it is. Got to stay focused and play our game.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney understands the challenge presented by the Georgia Tech offense — and Thomas in particular.

“(Thomas) knows where all the crooks and crannies are,” Swinney said. “That’s what you get with a veteran player and he doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to throw the football. … We’re going to have to be disciplined to do a good job against these guys.”

Likewise, the Georgia Tech defense must continue to keep points off the board, but must find a way to get Clemson off the field via some three-and-outs or some turnovers. The Yellow Jackets are allowing 10.3 points (seventh-best in the nation) and have four takeaways, resulting in seven points.

The challenge will be to slow the Clemson offense that averages 166.7 yards rushing, 289.3 yards passing and 36 points per game. The offense revolves around quarterback Deshaun Watson (692 yards passing, 84 rushing), running back Wayne Gallman (197 yards rushing) and receivers Mike Williams (14 catches, 17.3 yards), Artavis Scott (13 catches, 9.9 yards) and Ray-Ray McCloud (13 catches, 11.8 yards, two TDs).

“They haven’t been as prolific as they were last year on offense but they started to play better last Saturday,” Johnson said. “I’m sure we’ll get their bet on Thursday.

Senior defensive lineman Pat Gamble said, “I feel we can play better. Thursday gives us a chance to showcase it on a national stage against one of the best teams in the nation.”