ATLANTA - After working so hard all season to build defensive momentum, only to watch it disappear in five disastrous minutes last week, Georgia Tech is scrambling to recover as it prepares for its final ACC road trip.
Georgia Tech led No. 22 Virginia Tech 20-12 with less than six minutes left in a home game last Thursday night and appeared to be on course for a third straight win.
Georgia Tech held Maryland and Duke to a combined 265 yards in back-to-back wins before the Virginia Tech game, but suddenly in the final minutes the Yellow Jackets gave up touchdown passes of 80 and 51 yards by quarterback Bryan Randall.
Adding to the pain was a 64-yard interception return for a touchdown by Virginia Tech's Roland Minor, sealing the 34-20 loss.
"It seemed like we had the momentum up until the last five minutes of the fourth quarter," linebacker Gerris Wilkinson said this week. "It was definitely surprising to me that we broke down then."
Before the collapse, defense had become the one dependable constant for an up-and-down Georgia Tech team.
Now the Yellow Jackets (4-3 overall, 3-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) are hoping to regain that defensive edge when they visit North Carolina State (4-4, 3-3) Saturday in a key game for both teams' bowl hopes.
Despite the late-game breakdowns, Georgia Tech still ranks 25th in the nation in total defense and 26th in passing defense. But last week's crushing loss may have left scars in the team's psyche.
"When we gave up that first long pass, you could kind of sense that it was uneasy," said Wilkinson of the shot to the defense's confidence. "We just never recovered from that."
This week, Georgia Tech can draw on its road success and its recent domination of the series with N.C. State.
Georgia Tech is 2-1 on the road this season with wins at Clemson and Maryland, and the Yellow Jackets have won three straight games against the Wolfpack and eight of the last nine games in the series. Georgia Tech took a 24-17 win in Raleigh, N.C., in 2002 when N.C. State was undefeated and No. 8 in the nation.
Also working in Georgia Tech's favor is N.C. State's injury problems on offense.
By the end of last week's loss to Clemson, N.C. State was without five starters on offense, including tailback T.A. McLendon (shoulder) and leading receiver Richard Washington (knee). Both are expected to miss this week's game.
"We don't really think that they're going to change up what they do," Wilkinson said. "We're preparing for the game just like everybody on the team is healthy."
Wilkinson leads Georgia Tech and ranks second in the ACC with 74 tackles. The junior from Oakland, Calif., has 2.5 sacks and an interception.
N.C. State has a productive offense that has been hurt by turnovers and penalties. Despite having only a.500 record, the Wolfpack has outgained each of its eight opponents. But N.C. State has drawn 10 penalties each of the last two weeks in losses to Clemson and Miami, and it ranks 113th in the nation with its average of 9.6 penalties per game.
Meanwhile, N.C. State has lost 18 turnovers in its four losses and 23 for the season, a trend Tech will be anxious to see continue.
"You work on stripping the ball in practice and you work on interception drills all the time," said Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey. "Everybody does that.
"I think the pressure you can put on a team to make plays to try to win the ballgame, that's when you can get turnovers. If a team knows they're going to have to fight to try to score and to win the ballgame, when they know every possession is pressure-packed, that's when you start getting turnovers."
N.C. State is last in the ACC in turnover margin - one spot behind Tech, which has been hurt by quarterback Reggie Ball's 12 interceptions.
There will be more pressure on Ball - and Georgia Tech's defense - because tailback P.J. Daniels, who ranks second in the ACC in rushing, will be held out with a bruised knee.
"We need to continue to force turnovers to help our offense out," Wilkinson said. "We try to force turnovers every week. It's not going to be much of a change in the defensive game plan, but it's definitely something we're aware of."