In just a few short weeks, the optimism and excitement that engulfed the Virginia Cavaliers football team and their fans has waned considerably. It’s not just that they have lost, it’s that they haven’t even been competitive in their efforts. But this team is still 5-3. They are one win away from a monumental leap in the process to build this program. They have four chances to punch their ticket. It’s simple, win and they are in. First on the docket are the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The Ramblin’ Wreck employs the triple option rushing attack that is unique to anything teams see during the course of a season. But Bronco Mendenhall and his staff have had success against Georgia Tech and Air Force, so there shouldn’t be any surprises. Here’s what to watch come Saturday.
- Get Georgia Tech off the Field - It can’t be overstated, but Georgia Tech thrives on using all four downs to control possession and sustain drives down the field. They do this by staying ahead of the chains and on schedule. Their third downs are manageable and they’ve parlayed that into a 46.6% third down conversion rate, good for 17th in the country. Streaking the Lawn’s Danny Neckel gives a great statistical breakdown of their third down prowess here. As he points out, the early downs will be key. Third and long is not a desired situation for Georgia Tech. They’re looking for 3rd and three or four. Keep them out of these short, high percentage conversions, and Virginia will be successful.
- Get ahead - One of the calling cards for triple option teams, or any rushing team for that matter, is controlling the game and time of possession. If Georgia Tech could run the football version of the four corners offense, they would. They check in at third in the country in time of possession at almost 35 minutes per game. However, in their losses this season, that amount has fallen by over a minute and a half. The key then is to get the Yellow Jackets to play from behind and as much as possible take them out of their offensive rhythm. Ideally, build a lead early and force them to throw the ball more than they’d like to. To that end, on the season, Georgia Tech only throws the ball on 13% of their plays. However, when they are trailing by eight points or more, that percentage increases to 21%. If Kurt Benkert and company can put a few points on the board early, they can get Georgia Tech out of their comfort zone and make them pass to catch up. In that case, I like the Hoos’ chances.
- Discipline Outside - While stopping the triple option is often attributed to the play of linebackers and safeties, the key in this game will be the return of Juan Thornhill and his mates on the outside. Playing against the likes of Georgia Tech presents challenges unlike those these defenders face week in week out. Primarily it’s because Yellow Jacket wide receivers serve as blockers first and receivers second. The corner backs will have to fight through blocks on the edge so they can contribute to stopping the run on the sidelines. Fortunately for Virginia, Thornhill has the skill set to do this. Don’t forget he started the season at strong safety before the injury to Tim Harris moved him back outside. He’s physical enough to compete with the blocking receiver, but also good enough in coverage not to get beat. Speaking of coverage, that is the added challenge corner backs face against Georgia Tech. As soon as the defense is winning the outside or selling out to stop the run, the Yellow Jackets throw over the top in the passing game. On the year, Georgia Tech has completed only 30 passes on the season. Only Navy and Army have completed fewer. But when they do complete passes, they’re usually big plays. Georgia Tech ranks fourth behind the three Service Academies in yards per completion at 16.2. Their top receiver, Ricky Jeune has catches of 48, 44, and 23 yards on the year. So even though Virginia’s corners will be crucial to stopping the run, they must remain mindful of the pass.
The two teams square off Saturday at 3:00 P.M. from Scott Stadium. The game will be televised by RSN for those that can’t make it to Charlottesville. Stick with Streaking the Lawn for all your football needs.