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2014 Virginia Football Previews: Georgia Tech

The Hoos go back on the road to face another Coastal division rival. The Jackets have won 4 out of the 5 matchups during the London era, and just got finished scoring 56 points against Pitt. The Hoos badly need to get back to winning football games, because they have FSU coming up next week.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Does anybody even care anymore? Is anybody actually reading this? The Hoos squandered all their momentum by losing back to back close games to Duke and UNC. Both were games that the Hoos certainly could've won, and arguably should've won.

Now, they head to Atlanta to face a Georgia Tech team that is already bowl eligible with a 6-2 record, and just hung 56 points on Pitt last week. This is also the Wramblin Wreck's homecoming game.

Along with killing the momentum and the fan enthusiasm, the two lackluster efforts may have cost the Hoos a chance at a bowl game, and may possibly have cost Mike London his job. With just 3 games remaining after this one, including a game @FSU, the Hoos almost definitely need a win here for an over-.500 season. A loss would drop them to 4-5, with the upcoming FSU game looming.

London has lost 4 out of 5 to the Jackets over his UVA tenure. A win, however, reignites some passion, and puts the Hoos on the cusp of bowl eligibility, with a home game remaining against Miami. It isn't a stretch to say that this is the biggest game of Mike London's career. A loss here, and he should start packing his bags. (Assuming they aren't already packed.)

GT Offense

Players To Watch

#5 QB Justin Thomas - Originally an Alabama commit, switched to the Jackets because he could play QB. At Alabama, he would've been a slot WR probably, or maybe even a CB. He's certainly got the athleticism for either of those. He's fast, quick and dangerous with the ball in his hands. He averaging nearly 6 yards per carry. He's also a decent passer, with an 11:3 TD:INT ratio and a nearly 10 yards per attempt. He's completing just 48% of his passes, but that's the nature of the GT passing game.

#10 BB Synjyn Days - Big, strong, FB type. Not an elusive guy, but a good between the tackles runner. Just the type needed for the B-Back in the triple option. Averaging over 5 yards per carry, but with a long of just 15. Starting because of an injury to Zack Laskey, which is lingering.

#21 AB Charles Perkins - Tall, powerful running back. Good straight line speed. Not a guy who will juke and make people miss, but a tough guy to bring down once he gets going. Very north-south. Does a good job of getting his pad level low, despite his height. Averaging over 10 yards per carry, but has just 24 carries.

#9 AB Tony Zenon - Small, fast RB. One of the fastest guys on the team. Another big play guy, who is averaging nearly 8 yards per carry, on 29 carries. A bit on the small side for the triple option, which often requires its A-Backs to be lead blockers. Zenon is a willing blocker, but he just doesn't have the strength to stop a LB when he's giving up 80 pounds. Has a long of 57 yards, and has 4 TDs on the season. Has returned kicks in the past, but as a starting AB, has relinquished those duties.

#15 WR DeAndre Smelter - Came to Georgia Tech as a baseball player and only joined the football team last year. And almost immediately became the team's most dangerous WR. Big, tall and fast. Not a great route runner, basically just runs go routes over and over again. Has tremendous straight line speed, and a very long stride. Can get over top of the defense in a hurry and has good hands. Started 8 games and had 21 receptions (2nd on the team), averaging 16 yards per reception and scoring 4 TDs. This year, has 20 receptions for 465 yards already and 5 TDs. Also scored on a 75 yard TD run against North Carolina.

#88 WR Darren Waller - Another tall, fast WR. Seriously, how does GT get all these big, tall, fast WRs when they hardly ever throw the ball. Like Smelter, Waller has tremendous straight line speed, aided by his long stride. Again, not a great route runner, and not a guy who's going to juke defenders. But he gets downfield in a hurry and has good hands when the ball gets to him. Listed as a backup, at least in part due to a pre-season violation of team rules. Second on team with 10 catches for 205 yards and 2 TDs.

Offense Breakdown

By now, we've all seen the triple option. We know the basics. We know that the Jackets are very good at running it. They are third in the nation this year in rushing offense, averaging over 325 yards per game. They are also 116th in passing yards, averaging about 155 yards per game. That is quite a bit more than in past years, although they aren't throwing it more. This may also be due to the upgraded talent at WR. This is Georgia Tech's most potent passing game since Stephen Hill left.

Most of this is due to Thomas. He's simply a more efficient passer than Vad Lee was and he's a better runner than either Lee or Tevin Washington. Lee rushed for just 513 yards last year and just 2.8 yards per carry. He is one of the fastest and most athletic players the Hoos will face all year. If he wasn't playing QB, he would probably be returning kicks. That's how good a runner he is.

GT tends to use smaller, quicker linemen. They want their linemen to be able to get in front of the defenders and they use a lot of cut blocks. They want to take out the defender's legs and trust the runners to run to daylight. That said, this OL isn't that small. Two 300 lb guys, plus the backup LG is 365.

The first part of stopping the triple option is stopping the middle rush. The Hoos are likely to see Synjyn Days take most of those carries, because Zack Laskey isn't 100% healthy. He's a big strong back, but not as good a runner as Laskey. Stopping his is critical, because everything else they do comes from that. This will fall on Donte Wilkins and David Dean most of the time. We probably will not see nearly as much of the nickel defense with Mike Moore at DT as we have in other games.

If you can stop the middle run, you're doing pretty well. The rest of the offense is Thomas getting outside and either running or pitching. Thomas is small for a running QB. The Hoos need to get a couple of early hits on him. If he's getting hit, maybe he won't want to run as much. That would be a big boost to the Hoos defense.

The Jackets will use many different twists on the option. They'll use the WRs on end arounds and pitches. They'll run two pitch-men to the same side, so the defense doesn't know who to key on for the pitch.

This is a big play offense. They have 7 players with runs of over 25 yards and 4 players with catches of over 50 yards (plus another with a 47 yard TD). It is also a complex offense. And Justin Thomas is young. The Jackets have turned the ball over 24 times in 8 games. (The Hoos have turned it over 26 times.) That, generally, is how you stop the Jackets. Force turnovers. Negative plays also help. The Jackets are not comfortable in third and long situations. They don't want to be forced into passing situations.

The Hoos have the speed on defense to stop the triple option. But, that requires assignment football. Mostly, the Hoos have been pretty good at staying with their assignments this year. But there have been a few plays over the past 2 weeks when we've  seen one (or more) Wahoo defenders out of position. It seems like guys are trying to do too much. Sometimes that happens when a defense feels like they need to make big plays because the offense isn't scoring points.

Sticking with their assignments, taking advantage of the Yellow Jackets' mistakes and good tackling are the three most important things for the defense this week.

GT Defense

Players To Watch

#42 DE KeShun Freeman - Quick, undersized DE. Might be a better fit as a 3-4 OLB, but has performed well so far as a true freshman. Very quick off the snap and can run around an OT. Good tackler and plays well against the run on the edge. Can pursue to the sideline. Can get manhandled at the point of attack by OTs who may be 100 pounds heavier. Will get better as he develops more strength and better hand play. Leads team in TFLs (7) and tied for team lead in sacks (2.5).

#96 DT Adam Gotsis - Athletic, undersized DT. Came to Georgia Tech from Australia with little football experience and has developed very quickly. Finished 2nd on team in both TFLs and sacks last year. Quick off the snap, high motor. Good interior pass rusher. Tries to use quickness to get past blockers before they've had a chance to set up. Can get too aggressive and times, and run himself out of a play.

#40 WLB P.J. Davis - Basically a safety playing LB. Very quick for a LB, but undersized. Likes to play north-south and attack the backfield. Solid in zone coverages and can handle a little of man defense. Good pass rusher, especially on delayed rush. Played as a true freshman last year (using the name Paul Davis). Started once and had 41 tackles including 5 TFLs and a sack. Has already eclipsed those numbers this year, with 63 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, plus an INT and two forced fumbles.

#54 ILB Quayshawn Nealy - Finally, a defender who isn't undersized. Still very quick. Good as a run defender, both interior and to the perimeter. Can defeat blocks with good hand play. Also plays well in zone coverage, and has 7 career INTs, including 2 TDs. Top returning tackler from last year, and 2nd on team this year with 56 tackles, including 5.5 TFLs. May have to move to WLB to play in the NFL, but has enough athleticism to do it.

#1 SS Isaiah Johnson - Tall, heady safety. Returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Solid in run support, but excels in pass defense. Covers a lot of ground and uses height effectively to make plays on the ball. Has had at least one INT in each of his 4 seasons on the field. Fourth on team with 42 tackles and first with 4 passes defended. The missed time will likely hurt his NFL stock.

#28 CB D.J. White - Fast, aggressive CB. Works very well in GT's zone scheme, but can be beaten by bigger WRs. Good open field tackler, but struggles to get off blocks against the run. Good ball skills, but doesn't always do a good job of recognizing when the ball is in the air. Fifth on team with 40 tackles, after finishing 4th last year with 50 tackles.

Defense Breakdown

Georgia Tech plays a base 4-3 defense that includes P.J. Davis, could probably play safety, so it's not all that different from a 4-2-5. While the Hoos haven't seen a 4-3 defense in a while, they have spent the past 2 weeks playing against defenses that simply aren't very good. And, of course, struggling to score against defenses that aren't particularly good. Well, Georgia Tech ranks 85th total defense, 93rd in rushing defense, and 73rd in passing defense (92nd in passing efficiency). They are also 79th in scoring defense. So, it stands the reason that the Hoos will again struggle to score against a poor defense.

Like the past few weeks, the Jackets are better against the pass than against the run. So, based on previous weeks, we'll likely throw the ball all over the yard. Last year, the Hoos threw for 376 yards against the Yellow Jackets and ran for just 68. And lost by 10 points. Parks, of course, ran for 4.2 yards per carry, but that wasn't good enough for Steve Fairchild, who thought that throwing 61 passes was a good idea. Which makes sense, when you think about it. If you have the worst QB in Division I, and possible in the entire history of American football, nobody would expect 61 pass attempts. Georgia Tech never saw it coming. The 6.1 yards per attempts was terrible, but that was probably just bad luck.

The Jackets were better defensively than they were last year, having lost 6 of their top 7 tacklers. They were 11th in run defense last year, so perhaps it made sense to emphasize the pass. However, Kevin Parks is easily the best weapon on this offense, and giving him just 13 carries is criminal.

The Jackets have given up at least 17 points in every game this year. The 17 was against Miami, who ran just 44 plays due to over 40 minutes of possession by Georgia Tech's offense. Miami averaged 8 yards per play. (As an aside, it is awfully difficult to lose a football game in which you average 8 yards per play.) This is a good week for the Hoos' offense to break out. Touchdowns, not field goals, are going to win this game.

Game Breakdown

The Jackets have been very good offensively this year, and very bad defensively. Where have we heard that before. The Hoos defense has been solid, but not as good as they were early in the season. Perhaps teams are getting used to the pressure and working on ways to avoid it. Coach Tenuta doesn't seem to be able or willing to change up his schemes very much. And offenses are now taking advantage with big plays.

Offensively, the Hoos have regressed. They've struggled, despite some strong individual efforts. The playcalling has been a big problem, but there have also been far too many errors, including dropped passes, penalties and interceptions.

Special teams, of course, has also been an issue. Not just this year, or last year, but for at least a decade. Georgia Tech's special teams are nothing special, so maybe that doesn't hurt quite as much this week.

At this point in the season, I basically have zero confidence in the Hoos, especially on the road. The Jackets are favored by 3.5 which seems awfully low for a team that dropped 50 last week.

Prediction: Jackets 35, Hoos 20