North Carolina State and Georgia Tech are proving it's possible to find positive results in a season made difficult by the coronavirus pandemic.
Each team enters Saturday's game at N.C. State far removed from its respective last-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season.
N.C. State (7-3, 6-3 ACC) brings its second three-game winning streak of the season into the game. Georgia Tech (3-5, 3-4) is looking for its first back-to-back wins of the season following last week's 56-33 win over Duke.
The Wolfpack won only one conference game in 2019. N.C. State's winning streak includes a win over then-No. 21 Liberty on Nov. 22 and last week's 36-29 win at Syracuse.
It has been a rewarding season for eighth-year N.C. State coach Dave Doeren.
Doeren says the Wolfpack learned from last year's overall 4-8 season. The last-place finish in the ACC's Atlantic Division at 1-7 raised questions about the direction of Doeren's program.
“To go from one ACC win to wherever we end up ... that’s pretty damn good,” Doeren said.
An offense installed by new coordinator Tim Beck has provided a jolt even after losing starting quarterback Devin Leary to a leg injury.
“It’s a been a fun year,” Doeren said. “It’s a special group. And obviously if we can get this next one and put us at eight (wins), that would make it even better.
“But going into the year, had you told me we were going to deal with not only the COVID but the number of injuries that we had, and that we would win this many games, I’d probably laugh at you.”
N.C. State left guard Joe Sculthorpe said overcoming the pandemic adds another reason to take pride in the comeback season.
“Being able to tackle that and being able to play as well as we did, I’m really proud of myself and I’m really proud of my fellow teammates to put together the season that we do have so far,” Sculthorpe said, adding it was satisfying to overcome low expectations from “everybody that put us down and out in the preseason.”
“We’re a legitimate football team,” Sculthorpe said. “We might have had a bad season last year, but that’s not who we are as a program, that’s not who we are as a team.”
Georgia Tech, in its second season with coach Geoff Collins, has been led by freshman quarterback Jeff Sims, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for 108 yards in the win over Duke.
A win over N.C. State would add more momentum to Collins' plan to build a winner in Atlanta.
“The things we’ve gone through, ups and downs, games canceled ... I'm just really proud of how this team has stayed together, how they’ve continued to improve, how they’ve continued to bond through adversity,” Collins said.
The win over Duke followed a four-week layoff that included postponed games against Pittsburgh and Miami.
GOING FOR SEVEN
The Wolfpack has never won more than six ACC games in a regular-season schedule. A win Saturday would mark the first time with seven, though it comes as the league moved to a 10-game schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic instead of its more traditional eight-game set.
“The bottom line is we didn’t choose how they set this thing up this year,” Doeren said. “We didn’t pick who we play. We didn’t get to pick any of it."
Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude worked on the sideline instead of from a coach's booth against Duke for the first time this season. He said he liked having the more direct communication with Sims and will work on the field again this week.
“It's a different game when you're on the field,” Patenaude said. “For me, I personally like being on the field. I like being in the mix. ... I think it's easier to be impactful, certainly on the quarterback, but able to impact all the groups.”
N.C. State has won five games this year when trailing in the second half, including the win over Liberty and a rally from nine down in the third at Syracuse.
In the team’s seven wins, N.C. State has outscored opponents 114-84 after halftime.
The Yellow Jackets already have topped their ACC win total from 2019, when they were 3-9 overall and 2-6 in conference games to finish last in the Coastal Division.
Georgia Tech's 28-26 home win over the Wolfpack last season ended a streak of six straight wins by visiting teams in the series. Georgia Tech has won in each of its last five visits to Raleigh.