The Hoos return home after last week's UNC loss to face the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who are coming off their upset of Florida State. That win for the Jackets was their first ACC win, versus 4 losses, and may help salvage a season that was spiraling out of control.
The Jackets were ranked in the pre-season and were expected to contend for the ACC Coastal division title. They won their first two games, both against cupcakes and both in dominating fashion. Then they lost a pair of road games to Notre Dame and Duke. Not bad losses at all. They returned home to face UNC, and opened the game with 21 straight points. That is when the season began to fall apart. They ended up losing to UNC 38-31. Two more losses (a blowout at Clemson and a last second home loss to Pitt on a 56 yard FG) gave them a 0-4 ACC record and put their bowl chances in jeopardy. That also put Paul Johnson's job in jeopardy. The win over the Seminoles may have saved both of those.
The Jackets still need to win 3 out of their remaining 4 games in order to make a bowl and likely save Johnson's job. They have home games against Virginia Tech and Georgia plus a road game @Miami remaining along with this week's contest.
The Hoos, similarly, are 2-5 and need to win 4 out of 5 in order to make a bowl game and likely save Mike London's job. With games remaining @Miami and @Louisville, plus home games against Duke and Virginia Tech, that seems unlikely.
Obviously, one of these teams is going to come away from this game with a big win and an improved shot at reaching postseason play. The other team is going to be in a lot of trouble.
Georgia Tech Offense
I think we all know the basics of the triple-option by now. We've seen it, after all, every year since 2008. Last year, the Hoos actually did a decent job of shutting down the triple option. They held the Jackets to just 4.3 yards per rush and 409 total yards, both well below the season averages for the Ramblin Wreck. But the offense couldn't get on track and the Hoos lost 35-10. In 2013, the Hoos offense kept up, piling up 444 yards as David Watford set a school record for both attempts and completions. But in that contest, the defense gave up over 500 yards to GT and the Hoos lost 35-25.
We know that last year's defense was pretty good and this year's defense isn't. However, since Paul Johnson's offense is so much different than anybody else the Hoos see, that doesn't really mean anything for this game. Rushing the passer, such a big part of Jon Tenuta's identity, is kind of useless against the triple option. Still, the basic tenets of defense don't change. The Hoos want to get penetration into the backfield as quickly as possible. That is the biggest thing that disrupts the triple-option. Of course, that leaves you susceptible to the dive play over the middle. The interior DLs need to win the battles against their counterparts on the OL. This is a week for Donte Wilkins to play a lot of snaps. He's the best the Hoos have in terms of winning that one-on-one battle at the line of scrimmage.
Justin Thomas is the Jackets QB for the 2nd year. He's a more established passer than most of the guys to run the triple option. Last year, he threw 187 passes, more than any other Yellow Jacket QB under Paul Johnson. He's on pace for slightly less than that, but still should throw more than most triple option QBs. He is also a very talented runner, as you would imagine. Last year against the Hoos, he rushed for just 4 yards. That was during a season in which he would break 1000 yards rushing and average nearly 6 yards per carry. This year, he's struggled running the ball, as he's accumulated just 400 yards and is averaging under 4 yards per carry.
I can't help but wonder if the lack of a strong B-back is what's causing Thomas' struggles. Last year, Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey were the B-backs and they combined to rush for nearly 1800 yards. This year, Patrick Skov began the season as the B-back and performed well against Alcorn State in the opener. But he struggled once ACC play began and he's lost his starting job to true freshman Marcus Marshall. Marshall rushed for 159 yards against Pitt and 69 last week against FSU. Though the two are listed as "OR" on the GT depth chart, I expect to see Marshall get a majority of the snaps this week. Marshall isn't a typical B-back because he's not very big. But he's fast and he's got a very solid frame that allows him to excel between the tackles. He is tough to bring down because he keeps his pads low and runs hard.
The A-backs aren't as devastating as they've been in years past either. The loss of Broderick Snoddy has hurt them immensely. Despite missing the past 4 games, he's still 5th on the team in rushing. The A-backs now are Clinton Lynch (redshirt freshman) and Mikell Lands-Davis (true freshman). Lynch has been good, averaging over 8 yards per carry with 2 TDs. Lands-Davis, in limited opportunities, has just 35 yards rushing. The Hoos will also see Isiah Willis and TaQuon Marshall at A-back. Marshall is a very quick runner who excels in the open field. He's a true freshman and is still learning the triple option, plus he's very small. But when he gets the ball, he can make plays.
As we've seen over the years, the Yellow Jackets don't throw the ball much. But when they do, they look for big plays. Justin Thomas is averaging over 17 yards per completion this year. Even with a 44% completion rate, he's averaging 7.7 yards per attempt. Matt Johns has completed over 60% of his passes, but is averaging just 7.1 yards per attempt (and just under 12 yards per completion). In last year's matchup, Thomas completed just 7 passes, but every one of them went for at least 10 yards. He also threw a 65 yard pass to DeAndre Smelter.
As always, GT has big WRs who are capable of making big plays. The problem is, while Ricky Jeune or Michael Summers are big, neither is as big or as fast as Smelter or Demaryius Thomas or Calvin Johnson, That may be why Thomas has thrown fewer passes to his WRs than GT QBs have in previous years. Could it be that many of the those top WRs are staying away from GT and the triple option? After all, why go to a school where you'll see 3 or 4 passes each game and spend most of your time blocking for the running backs when you could go to one of the many schools running a spread offense that throws 40+ times per game?
Last year, GT's top two WRs, Smelter and fellow senior Darren Waller, combined for 61 receptions, 1157 yards and 13 TDs. This year, the top duo has combined for 23 receptions, 439 yards and 5 TDs through 8 games. Not nearly the same level of production. Overall, the Jackets are 67th in the nation in offense, though 26th in scoring offense. The rushing offense is ranked 8th. Last year, the rushing offense was 1st and the total offense was 19th. While the passing offense remains about the same (122nd this year, versus 121st last year), the passing efficiency has plummeted (65th this year versus 12th last year). This is the biggest thing hampering the Jackets. Teams aren't as afraid of giving up the big play in the passing game. The Yellow Jacket WRs can be handled one-on-one more often than not, leaving more defenders to focus on the option. This bodes well for the Hoos, as their CBs are used to be in single coverage a lot.
It is the rest of the Hoos defense that is concerning. The Hoos haven't shown the ability to win many battles at the point of attack. Though they rank 66th in rushing defense (not too bad considering they rank 92nd in passing defense and 85th in total defense), they rank 87th in yards per attempt rushing. The fact is that they aren't facing as many rush attempts, simply because teams know they can throw the ball almost at will.
The Hoos also haven't performed very well against rushing QBs this year. Eric Dungey, Marquis Williams and Malik Zaire rushed for 85, 71 and 87 yards each respectively. Obviously, that isn't a great comp because the passing threat isn't the same, but Justin Thomas is a better runner than any of those QBs.
Especially considering the A-backs aren't the same threat they have been in years past, the Hoos need to focus on stopping Thomas. As we know, the first key to stopping the triple option is to shut down the dive play. Everything else comes from that. You simply have to be able to stop that play without needing support from the safeties. Quin Blanding and Kelvin Rainey have both been solid when coming up against the run this year. But far too often they've been making plays 5 and 6 yards downfield. They need to be able to focus on getting outside the tackles and making plays against the pitch-man in the option. The OLBs will focus on Thomas. Make him get rid of the ball. Then the safeties job is to clean up the A-back.
That is all easier said than done. Georgia Tech has always used the cut block as a key staple of their OL. They use the cut block to keep the DLs off their feet, which makes the job of Thomas easier. The Hoos DLs will know this and try their best to avoid the cut blocks. They have historically had smaller OLs who run well. This year is no different, as the OL features just 2 linemen over 300 pounds. Of course, one of those is sophomore RG Shamire Devine, who is 6'7" 366 pounds. For most schools, Devine would be an OT, but he isn't mobile enough to play outside for the triple option. The tackles need to be able to get outside to get a hat onto the OLBs. Devine, however, is a devastating blocker on the dive plays.
Georgia Tech's offense is still very good, despite their struggles. That's kind of the thing about the triple option. It's so rare in today's game that even when it's not doing very well, it is still very good. The easiest way to stop them is to force turnovers. And the easiest way to do that is to get into Thomas' face on the option. Stop the dive, make Thomas give up the ball, and you can stop the Ramblin Wreck. Let's see the Hoos do it.
Player to Watch
#5 QB Justin Thomas - This one is a no-brainer. The QB in the triple-option is the guy who makes all the decisions. He's also the guy who carries the ball more than anybody else. Thomas makes the read on whether or not to give the ball to the B-back for the dive. Then he makes the read on whether to run or pitch. And since Thomas is also an accomplished passer, he also does the normal things a QB does on a pass play. (Although many of GT's pass plays have only 1 or 2 reads.)
Thomas is smaller than Paul Johnson would prefer from his QB. At just 5'11" and 189, he can be roughed up. He isn't easy to hit because he's so shifty, but if you can get a good knock on him, you can fluster him. You want him thinking twice about running the ball. You want him to pitch the ball, and you want him to do it early.
Because of the nature of the triple option, if you stop Thomas, you stop the Jackets.
Georgia Tech Defense
The way that Georgia Tech upset the Seminoles was by stopping the Noles from scoring. Florida State scores 31 points per game, and GT held them to just 16. Other than the two cupcakes to open the season, the Jackets hadn't held anybody else under 30. And FSU's lone TD came on a 2 yard drive following an interception. The Jackets shut down FSU RB Dalvin Cook. Sure he rushed for 82 yards on 17 carries, which isn't bad. But considering he's rushed for nearly 150 yards per game (which includes 94 yards on just 2 carries against Wake Forest before leaving with an injury), that is pretty good. They also did a good job on Everett Golson. He threw for 210 yards, but was averaging about 230. They also picked off Golson, his first INT of the season.
The way that they slowed the FSU offense was by constantly pestering Golson. They were in the backfield continually and they made Golson uncomfortable. He was forced to throw more underneath passes, because he didn't have time to sit back in the pocket and wait for his WRs to get open downfield. In short, FSU is a big play offense and the Jackets stopped the Noles from getting any big plays.
So that seems promising for the Hoos, since they aren't a big play offense. Sure, we've had some big plays including an 80 yard pass to Smoke Mizzell, a 75 yard pass to T.J. Thorpe, a 71 yard run by Albert Reid and a 53 yard run from Daniel Hamm. But most of the time, the Hoos are a dink and dunk passing team and a 4-6 yard running team.
But the Jackets didn't get to Golson by blitzing. They got to him, for the most part, with just 4 pass rushers. And FSU's OL is better than the Hoos' OL, especially after all of the OL injuries the Hoos have suffered. GT played nickel almost exclusively against FSU, and figure to do so again this week. The Hoos were finally successful running the ball last week against UNC, and the previous week against Syracuse (to a lesser extent). If that success continues this week against the Yellow Jackets, they could have success. For one thing, obviously the running game takes some pressure of Matt Johns. For another thing, running the ball helps keep the GT offense off the field.
The Jackets defense is not big. Their DL averages just 260 pounds and they can be pushed around. They are all quick though, so the Hoos would do well to run between the tackles. This could actually be the game for Albert Reid to be a featured back. Smoke Mizzell, though he had a great game running the ball last week, doesn't seem like quite as good a matchup. Georgia Tech probably won't overcommit on the misdirection plays quite as much as UNC did, so Smoke won't have as much space.
MLB P.J. Davis leads the team in tackles, by a wide margin. He's a former safety and runs like it, even though he's up to 230 pounds. The SLB is Tyler Marcordes, who was recruited by some schools as a QB. He's bigger than Davis, but doesn't run nearly as well. The duo are tied for 2nd on the team in TFLs, behind DT Adam Gotsis.
Gotsis has been getting regular playing time since his freshman year, when he was playing NT for Al Groh's 3-4 defense. He was 2nd team all-ACC last year and he leads the team with 3 sacks. He's very quick for an inside DL, and though he's very strong, he can be pushed around by better interior OLs. Sophomore DE KeShun Freeman is 3rd on the team in tackles, 4th in sacks and has been getting better and better as the season has gone on. He was a beast last week against FSU. He's the guy the Hoos need to be careful of when dropping back, because he can beat the Hoos OTs off the snap and get to Johns very quickly.
The Jackets secondary is led by a pair of senior safeties, Jamal Golden and Demond Smith. Golden, in particular, has seemingly been around for a long time and has always been a thorn in the Hoos side. He was third team All-ACC last year and is second on the team in tackles. He also returns kicks and punts for the Jackets. The CBs are also both seniors, and both have been on the field regularly since their freshman years. Both are good cover guys, but both are also on the small side, so the Hoos may be able to take advantage of that with their bigger WRs. Of course, that would require some plays that target the WRs, something which has been lacking the past few weeks.
Georgia Tech plays a lot of zone, and they do not blitz much. So, once again, the screen passes aren't likely to be very successful this week. However, the flare passes to Smoke could be successful, because he may be able to pick up chunks of yards simply by making the initial defender miss after the catch. The TEs could be useful as well, on routes over the middle, especially if the Hoos can catch P.J. Davis on a blitz. But, Johns needs to be careful throwing over the middle, because those two safeties are opportunistic and will go after the ball. Johns was off on several of his passes last week, which led to the 4 INTs. He'll have to be better this week.
The Jackets defense played very well last week. If they are as good this week, the Hoos aren't going to be successful. But if the Hoos can get a bit of a down game from the Jackets, which has happened this year, especially on the road, they can be successful. Running the ball will be key, because if they become one dimensional again, Johns is going to struggle again.
That doesn't mean the Hoos should just run the ball every time on first down. And it doesn't mean they should simply line up in an I-formation and run dive plays all game long. There needs to be some variety on the running plays. Play action on first down can be successful, since GT will be looking to stop the run. The Hoos could use trap plays and things like that to spring the RBs. The OL isn't good enough to simply run over opponents, but there is enough talent between the OL and the RBs that they can be success with more finesse plays.
Notwithstanding the Jackets last second FG-block-return-touchdown to beat FSU, the Jackets special teams are nothing...er...special. Their coverage units are both poor (107th in kick coverage and 83rd in punt coverage, and their return units aren't much better (111th in KR and 41st in PR). But Harrison Butker is a very good PK. And the Jackets have blocked 3 kicks already this year, including the FSU game winner.
The Hoos' punt return unit has been, somewhat amazingly, the best in the nation. That's the high point for what are otherwise poor special teams. That said, a big punt return could very easily turn this game.
The Yellow Jackets are coming off an emotional win over FSU. It is possible that they suffer a letdown after that kind of finish. Especially going on the road, they could very well come out flat. If the Hoos can come out of the gate with a lot of energy and get something going early on, maybe the Jackets check out.
The Hoos aren't likely to shut down the Jackets offense, unless they can force a couple of TOs. But they haven't had much success forcing TOs this year, despite Jon Tenuta's hyper-aggressive play-calling. That will have to change, or the Jackets are going to run the Hoos into the ground.
The Hoos would have to play nearly flawless on offense to keep up with Jackets' offense. We haven't seen anything close to flawless from a Virginia offense in 10 years. I'm not betting on it this week.
Prediction: Jackets 35, Hoos 17