I think that by now, most ACC fans are pretty well informed on the Paul Johnson triple option. So I will refrain from giving much of a breakdown of the formation of the plays. If you are interested, you can check out Wikipedia's triple option page, or any number of other blogs.
Last year, the Hoos came into this contest at 3-2 and coming off a disappointing one-point overtime win against Idaho. The Yellow Jackets were 6-0 and ranked #12 in the country. To put it mildly, expectations were low. The Hoos upset the Wreck 24-21 and ended up tied in the standings at the end of the season.
This year, the Hoos come in at 2-0, and again are coming off a disappointing one-point win at home. Georgia Tech comes in at 1-1, with a close loss in Blacksburg and a huge win over Presbyterian College.
The other difference this year is that the game is in Atlanta. Historically, the Hoos haven't had much success in Atlanta, although they have won 2 of the past 4 contests there.
So what should we look for this week? Can the Hoos continue their winning ways?
Virginia on Offense
Two weeks into the season, the Hoos are in the middle of the pack offensively, ranked 55th in total offense. Of course, that number is somewhat misleading, as the Hoos rank 20th in passing offense and 99th in rushing offense. The rushing offense is going to have to improve for the offense to continue to be successful.
As I'm sure most readers know, Georgia Tech's defense is led by former Virginia head coach Al Groh. That, of course, means the Yellow Jackets are a 3-4 team, although they've been using more 4 man fronts this year, largely due to some inexperience at LB.
As Virginia fans well know, those LBs are the key to the 3-4 defense. This unit is led by junior OLB Jeremiah Attaochu. Attaochu led the team last year with 6 sacks and 11.5 TFLs and was 3rd with 59 tackles. Attaochu's OLB partner is fellow junior Brandon Watts. Watts is the team's leading tackler so far this season, after being largely a situational pass rusher last year. Both LBs are downhill guys, who want to get into the backfield and make plays. This makes them both susceptible to play action, and neither is great in pass coverage.
Clearly, these guys aren't the problem. The problem is the ILBs. Julian Burnett, the Jackets' leading tackler a year ago, suffered a major neck injury in last year's bowl game and his career is over. The other projected starting ILB was Daniel Drummond, but he was suspended for "boating under the influence" and hasn't yet regained his starting spot. Drummond isn't listed on the depth chart at all, but he may still get in the game. The two starters are sophomore Quayshawn Nealy and redshirt freshman Jabari Hunt-Days. Nealy started 7 games last year and was 5th on the team in tackles. Hunt-Days is currently 2nd on the team in tackles, and at 6'3" 252 with good speed is pretty much a prototypical 3-4 ILB. Nealy is smaller, but quicker and is much better when dropped into coverage. Attaochu missed last year's Virginia game, so you can bet he'll be pumped for this one.
While the LBs are the key to the 3-4 defense, the best 3-4 defenses all have playmakers at the DE positions. For GT, that player is senior DE Izaan Cross, a 3 year starter. Cross is the only returning starter on the DL, but junior Emmanuel Dieke was the first DE off the bench last year and he has actually outplayed Cross this far this year. At 6'6" 270, Dieke is a more fluid athlete than the 300 pound Cross, and uses his quickness to beat blockers into the backfield. Cross is much more of a bruiser, a typical 3-4 DE who uses strength and bulk to fight off blocks. The Yellow Jackets' DT is T.J. Barnes, another bruiser. At 6'7" 345 Barnes is tough to move in the trenches, but isn't near as quick as the DTs we've faced so far this year. Barnes, at his best, is mostly going to occupy blockers and allow his ILBs to make the plays. Barnes isn't going to rack up the tackles, but he still needs to be neutralized on running plays. If we have to double team him, that means one of the ILBs is roaming free.
The final piece of the defense is the secondary. As usual, Al Groh likes to run a lot of Cover-2 zone. This usually means that short zones are open over the middle. We will have to prove we can run the ball though, to force the ILBs to play up far enough to open up those zones. If they can sit back, the WRs will have much less space. The safeties for GT are junior Isaiah Johnson and sophomore Jamal Golden. Johnson was second on the team in tackles last year, and first in interceptions. He is also the most experienced DB on the team, and the best playmaker. Golden, however, has the only Jacket interception this year and has forced a fumble.
The CBs are senior Rod Sweeting and junior Jemea Thomas. Sweeting has a team-leading 3 TFLs already this season, equaling his total from a year ago. He did finish 4th on the team in tackles last year and tied with Johnson for the team lead with 3 interceptions. Both players have been on the field for GT since 2009, so it feels like they've been there forever. A mid-career redshirt for Thomas makes him just a junior.
As we've seen with Al Groh defenses, they tend to be bend-but-don't-break defenses. We may be able to gain some yards, but the key will be putting points on the board. A year ago, we rushed for nearly 300 yards and managed to come away with a victory. The same type of effort will be required this year, although it doesn't need to come entirely on the ground. If we can get our talented TEs into the middle of the GT zones, we can pick up yards with the pass. That, along with some edge runs by Kevin Parks and Perry Jones, should help soften up the defense. If we can make the safeties focus on the TEs over the middle, and make the CBs focus on the ground game in front of them, we may be able to hit Tim Smith or Darius Jennings over the top for a big play.
The Yellow Jackets forced 21 turnovers last year and have forced 3 thus far. Considering we turned it over 4 times last week, this is a key for this week. We simply must hang on to the ball and keep possession as much as possible.
Virginia on Defense
The reason we need to keep possession of the ball as much as possible is that GT's offense is very good. Through 2 weeks, the Jackets are 27th in the nation, with 500 yards per game of offense. Of course, that includes 712 yards last week against Presbyterian and only 288 against the Hokies. Still, last year they finished 18rd in the nation with over 458 yards per game. That included #2 in the nation in rushing, with 316 yards per game on the ground. The passing offense was just 112th in the nation but they were 14th in passing efficiency. They do not throw the ball much, but when they do they tend to be successful.
The offense starts with QB Tevin Washington. On the season, Washington is 17/26 passing for 257 yards and 2 TDs along with a single INT. He also has 28 carries for 160 yards, a 5.7 yards per carry average. Again, those rushing numbers are skewed by the Presbyterian game. A year ago, Washington rushed for 987 yards on 243 carries, for 4.1 ypc. His passing numbers, on the other hand, are pretty much right on par with last year. His efficiency right now sits at 166.11, and last year he was at 155.4 and the yards per game are about the same as well. We may also see redshirt freshman sensation Vad Lee, who tore up Presbyterian last week for over 100 yards rushing. Lee isn't quite the passer that Washington is, at least not yet, but he's a very good runner. Barring injury, he won't play unless the game is out of reach, but he is the future for Georgia Tech's offense.
The starting B-back for our game is Zach Laskey, who is second behind Washington in rushing this year, with 144 yards on 19 carries (7.6 ypc). David Sims was the projected starter coming into the season, but he is out with a stress fracture in his shin. Sims rushed for over 700 yards at over 5 yards per carry last year, proving how valuable the B-back is to this offense. The interior of the Hoos DL needs to be able to shut down Laskey. If you can take away the dive play, you turn the triple option into a much simple offense to stop.
The two starting A-backs are senior Orwin Smith and junior Robert Godhigh, but we will likely see at least 4 guys play there. One of the key guys is B.J. Bostic, who leads the A-backs in carries and yards thus far this season. Smith is also a key guy who averaged over 10 ypc last year and scored 11 TDs. Godhigh is probably the quickest of the backs, but is also the smallest at 5'7" 188 pounds. Smith is the biggest at 6'0" 200, but he also has outstanding straight line speed. Sophomores Deon Hill and Tony Zenon are two others to watch for at A-back.
For a team that doesn't throw much, the Jackets have sure had some quality WRs. Two of them, Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill, had big games this past week in the NFL. This year is no different, as both Darren Waller and Jeremy Moore are big, fast guys who excel at going deep. This offense doesn't require its WRs to run complicated routes, so they are both raw WRs. But at 6'5" and 6'3", they just need to be able to run and catch, and they can both do that. With as much attention as the option takes, the WRs often find themselves in single coverage on deep balls. The other guy we'll see at WR is Jeff Greene, who actually leads the team with 3 receptions for 94 yards this season. Moore has 3 receptions for 64 yards, while Waller hasn't yet caught a pass. The A-backs are also highly used in the passing game, but they are used more on short routes. Orwin Smith actually leads the team with 4 receptions. As a team, the average almost 19 yards per reception. Like I said before, they do not throw much, but when they do, they tend to be successful.
Georgia Tech's OL isn't the biggest, nor the most mobile. But they are experienced. Senior RG Omoregie Uzzi, along with junior C Jay Finch, junior RT Ray Beno and junior LG Will Jackson all started at least 12 games last year. Only freshman LT Bryan Chamberlain is new in this group. The group averages 6'3" and 292 pounds, which is small for an FBS OL. They are known for using cut-blocks to take defenders out of the play. The easiest way to avoid this is to use the hands to keep the defender away from the lower legs. A cut block only works if the blocker can get right in on the knees and take the player out.
The most basic part of the option is the FB dive. That's the first thing that you need to stop, but you can't have 5 guys trying to stop that. The triangle of the two DTs and the MLB need to be able to cut that play down. The DEs need to get penetration into the backfield, this slows down the option because Washington will have to take extra steps to avoid his own OLs. That gives the OLBs and the safeties a chance to read the play and come up to stop the option. Ideally, one plays the pitchman and one plays the QB.
Last year, we held the Wreck to just 296 total yards, which is a large part of why we won. As we know, we lost a lot off of that defense. I do not foresee this young defense having as much success.
A year ago, our veteran defense shut down the Yellow Jackets offense, and our young offense did just enough to win. This year, the offense is the veteran group, while the defense is largely untested. So, the offense will need to be proficient and efficient in order to keep the Yellow Jackets offense off the field.
I think we can score points on Al Groh's defense. They are likely to focus on stopping the ground game, which is what Penn State and Richmond did. But, our offense can't help but play better than they did last week, so I think they'll be successful. However, I don't see us stopping the triple option. Not this year. There are too many inexperienced players on our defense, from DT all the way to S.
For much of the past decade, we have either won a close game over GT, or lost by double digits. I fear that this year will be the latter case.
Prediction: Wramblin Wreck 35, Hoos 20