Another week, another loss. The Hoos lost for the fifth time in a row, and the eighth time in ten games. With only two games remaining, the Hoos would need to win out to match last year’s four wins. That quest would be difficult no matter what, but facing two tough teams on the road to finish the season does Virginia no favors. This week, the Hoos get the Georgia Tech in Atlanta, a place where the Hoos haven’t won since 2008. Since then, the games really haven't been close.
Speaking of not close, Miami dominated the stats across the board over Virginia last week. The Hoos managed just 289 total yards, while giving up 450 yards, which means that on the season, the Hoos are now ranked 108th in total offense and 98th in total defense. The scoring numbers are only marginally better: 95th in scoring offense and 94th in scoring defense.
There is really no way to break down the numbers and make it look any better. The Hoos are 123rd in rushing offense, and 45th in passing offense, which means that at first blush, they’re decent at passing. But to drill down, Virginia actually ranks only 97th in passing efficiency. Defense doesn’t look great either. The Hoos are 73rd in rushing defense and 110th in passing defense (109th in passing efficiency defense). The Hoos are also 102nd in turnover margin, and 103rd in penalty yards.
This team’s performance has been bad this year. Everything across the stats line has been bad this year. Except for the punter.
We knew this was going to be a rebuild. We knew there were going to be growing pains. What remains to be seen is if Virginia is on the right track. At times, It is as though the team has actually regressed over the course of the season.
OK, let’s take a look at Georgia Tech. First, the game information:
Who: Georgia Tech
Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium
When: 12:30 PM ET
TV: ACC Network (MyTV WDCA in the Washington DC Area)
And now, the matchups:
Georgia Tech on Offense
QB: #5 Justin Thomas
BB: #34 Marcus Marshall
AB: #1 Qua Searcy, #28 J.J. Green, #22 Clinton Lynch
WR: #2 Ricky Jeune
By now, we’re all pretty familiar with Paul Johnson and his triple option. The Jackets rank 11th in the nation in rushing offense, their lowest ranking since Paul Johnson took over in 2008. They’ve led the nation in rushing twice and finished second twice more. Last year, they were eighth.
The QB is Justin Thomas, who’s in his third year leading the Jackets. He’s completing more of his passes, and putting together a much better passing year, but his rushing has fallen off. In 2014, the Jackets led the nation in rushing, with Thomas leading the way. He rushed 190 times (about 14 times per game) for 1,086 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and eight TDs. Last year, he rushed just 145 times (about 12 per game) for just 488 yards (3.4 ypc) and six TDs. This year, he’s carried it 112 times (about 12 per game again) for 561 yards (5 yards per carry) and five TDs. Two carries per game doesn’t seem like much, but it may be making the option more predictable.
It seems as though the number of carries by the B-backs aren’t changing, which means that the only thing changing is Thomas pitching the ball more often. They also seem to be throwing it a bit more. Though Thomas has been successful throwing it, the extra passes may be taking away from the triple option.
The hypothesis fits the storyline for last week’s upset of the Hokies in Blacksburg. With Justin Thomas out, sophomore Matthew Jordan rushed 32 times and threw just 7 passes. The Jackets rushed for 309 yards, ahead of their season pace and more in line with their season averages in years past. (Keep in mind that the Hokies have one of the best defenses in the nation.)
Against the Hoos, Thomas returns. Will Paul Johnson go back to the offense that was struggling under Thomas, with more passes? Or will we see more of the option plays? And how much will Thomas be running the ball versus pitching it, especially considering he’s coming off an injury?
The Hoos’ 3-4 defense is well-equipped to handle the triple option. For one thing, the top priority is shutting down the dive play from the B-back. This is the strength of the Hoos defense, with nose tackles Donte Wilkins and Micah Kiser (and Zach Bradshaw) behind him. But that’s just step one. Step two is getting outside and keeping the ball from getting the edge. The Hoos, with Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall, are inexperienced at CB, but have two big guys who do not shy from contact.
The OLBs are also well suited to handle the option. Chris Peace is powerful enough to set the edge against GT’s blockers, and he’s also quick enough to track the RB. On the other side, Jordan Mack is a converted safety. He’s not particularly big, but he’s much quicker than most LBs, so he’ll need to get penetration on the edge, which will force Thomas inside, into the teeth of the defense.
The other powerful tool the Hoos have is Andrew Brown. As we know, Brown has really come on this year. He’s proven to be very good at getting penetration into the backfield. If he can do that consistently against the Jackets, that will disrupt the triple option. Thomas needs to be able to go either direction with the option in order to keep it unpredictable. If Brown is in the backfield, Thomas is going to have to go the other way over and over again, which helps the Hoos.
Obviously, stopping the triple option is not as simple as I’ve made it out to be. The Jackets are very good at using misdirection to confuse the defense. They also use a lot of cut blocks, to keep the defensive players from getting upfield. The Hoos know this, but knowing it and avoiding it are different things. It is such a different look from what is normal, that sometimes defensive players have trouble adjusting.
With Paul Johnson, nothing is truly a “passing down”. But on 3rd and long, you’ll sometimes see the Jackets line up in a more tradition offensive set. Still, since they don’t practice passing nearly as much, they don’t generally use the most complex routes. The passing game is a big play weapon though. Thomas averages nearly 19 yards per completion. Though the two starting WRs lead the team in receptions, Thomas will throw underneath to the A-backs as well. The Jackets will send the WRs deep, and then hit an underneath receiver, who often has just one man (often a LB) to beat for a long gain. Clinton Lynch leads the team with 389 yards on just 12 catches (32 yards per reception) and 5 TDs.
Though the Jackets run one of the least balanced offenses in the nation, they rank 44th in total offense. That’s pretty good, though not as good as they’ve been in years past. But they’ve been coming on of late, averaging 475 yards per game over their past four. Stopping the Jackets is going to be tough.
Georgia Tech on Defense
DL: #42 DE KeShun Freeman, #91 DT Patrick Gamble
LB: #51 MLB Brant Mitchell, #40 SLB P.J. Davis
DB: #17 CB Lance Austin, #14 SS Corey Griffin
As unconventional as the Jackets are offensively, that’s pretty much how normal their defense is. They run a pretty basic 4-3 defense. They don’t blitz a lot. They play a lot of cover-2. They don’t run much press coverage. Essentially, it is a “bend-but-don’t-break” defense . This explains why they are 64th in the nation in total defense, but 48th in scoring defense.
That changed last week. Against the Hokies, the Jackets gave up 437 yards (not great, but fewer than the Hokies average), but had 5 sacks and forced 4 turnovers (one of which came on special teams). Prior to that game, the Jackets had posted 8 sacks and forced 13 turnovers all season. Was this a change in scheme or simply a change in execution?
It seems like mostly a change in execution. The Yellow Jackets are not a blitzing team. They generally get their pass rush from the front 4. The team leader in sacks is Gamble, with 4.5 sacks. He had 1.5 last week. Second on the team in sacks is DE Anree Saint-Amour, a sophomore who comes in for passing situations. He has 4 sacks on the season, and 2 came last week.
As you probably know by now, there is a big change coming for the Hoos’ offense. Kurt Benkert, with 2,400 yards and 20 TDs, will be on the bench. Matt Johns, with 77 yards and one TD, takes over. Of course, that comparison is unfair. Johns threw for 2,810 yards and 20 TDs last season, and is 11th in yards and sixth in TDs all-time at Virginia. He’s also a senior leader who has continued to work hard all season despite losing the starting gig.
With a new QB, you might expect a change in the offense. And though we won’t know for sure until game time, don’t expect a dramatic change. That may not be a good thing, as the Hoos have the 108th ranked offense in the country. They rank 45th in passing, but 122nd in rushing. And despite that high ranking passing offense, as stated earlier, they rank just 97th in passing efficiency.
There is a reason why Benkert won the starting job over Johns. While Benkert has struggled recently, putting up poor numbers in three of the last four games (with Louisville being the exception), he was lighting it up before that. Benkert is averaging about 6.4 yards per attempt, which is tied for 106th in the nation. Prior to the Pitt game, when things began to go off the rails for the Hoos offense, Benkert was averaging over 7.3 ypa, which would rank 67th in the nation. Johns, last year, averaged about 6.9 ypa, which would rank around 80th. Benkert has elite arm strength and the ability to make any throw on the field. Johns does not. However, Johns has more mobility than Benkert. Though Benkert has proven capable of extending plays and making plays outside of the pocket, Johns is actually capable of picking up yards with his feet. In his career, he has rushed for 193 yards (keep in mind that sacks count as negative rush yards for college QBs), which includes a career long 42 yard rush. Benkert has a negative 94 yards rushing.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Benkert’s mobility was used as a reason for him winning the starting job out of camp. It may be that he was more mobile prior to the knee injury he suffered at ECU last year. It may also be a function of Robert Anae’s offense that has kept his running to a minimum. But, whatever the reason, Benkert has not shown as much mobility this season as we expected.
The Yellow Jackets picked off Jerod Evans twice last week, accounting for as many INTs as he had prior to that game. Both of those interceptions came from safety Lawrence Austin. Austin doesn’t even start, he’s the backup SS, but often comes in for nickel situations. The safeties are really the strength of this defense. The two starting safeties are the top two tacklers, and Austin leads the team with 3 INT. Lawrence’s twin brother Lance is the team’s top cover CB, and leads the team with 10 passes defended.
As I mentioned, the Jackets don’t play much press coverage. They play cover-2 and they tend to play short zones as well. What they do well is flow to the football. It isn’t a very big defense, which is why they can be run up, particularly between the tackles. This isn’t exactly a strength of the Hoos, but Albert Reid and Jordan Ellis have both had their moments this year running inside. Running to the perimeter though, doesn’t often work against this defense.
They’ve also struggled to contain running QBs, so Johns may have some success running the ball up the middle. This is often a weakness of cover-2 teams. Against the pass, the key is taking what they give you. We’ve seen Johns force passes in the past, which explains why he threw 17 INTs last year. But if Georgia Tech is going to play soft coverage, Johns (and Robert Anae) need to be comfortable taking the underneath passes and being happy with 6-8 yard gains. Of course, with those short passes, especially to Smoke Mizzell or Olamide Zaccheaus, a broken tackle or two can lead to a big play.
The Hoos match up reasonably well with the Ramblin’ Wreck. And coming off such a strong performance last week, you would expect a bit of a drop-off for the Jackets. The Hoos, though, are not playing good football right now.
If this game were at Scott Stadium, I would probably pick the Hoos. They’ve played well against the Jackets at home over the past decade or so. However, this game is in Atlanta, and that gives the advantage to Georgia Tech.
Prediction: Yellow Jackets 37, Hoos 24