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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs. Georgia Tech

Virginia hosts the Yellow Jackets as they try to stuff the triple option.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The triple option comes back to Charlottesville as the Hoos take on the Yellow Jackets in their penultimate home game. Coming off back-to-back losses to mid-tier ACC teams and needing to win to become bowl eligible, the Hoos really need a strong performance. The fact the next three games are Louisville, Miami, and Virginia Tech means that this probably the best chance to get that sixth win.

The Jackets have won four of the past five meetings, but the Wahoos did win the last game in Scott Stadium, a 27-21 win in 2015. Georgia Tech is 4-3, coming off a 24-10 road loss to Clemson. Their three losses are all to teams that were ranked at the time. They’ve looked unbeatable at times, and they’ve looked bad at times. They also crushed a Pitt team that just made Virginia look bad.

Let’s get to the matchups.

Hoos on Defense

Preparing for the triple-option is different than preparing for any other offense. That said, the spread offenses that are so in right now are based in the same tenets as the triple option. The idea is to get the defense spread thin and force defenders into a difficult decision.

The Georgia Tech offense is built on big plays. Mistakes are the trade-off though. The Jackets are perennially one of the nation’s leaders in fumbles. But they are also one of the nation’s leaders in long runs. This year, the Jackets have scored on runs of 70, 65, and 63 yards. There have been plenty of other big plays. Here’s QB TaQuan Marshall scoring on a 70 yard TD run to ice the win over Wake Forest. Marshall has elite speed.

Wikipedia has a decent explanation of what the triple option is. Paul Johnson’s version of the triple option is closest to the “flexbone” version of the wishbone triple option. The “B-back”, KerVonte Benson, is the first “option”. QB TaQuon Marshall, takes the snap from under center and turns. Benson runs a dive play and Marshall decides whether or not to give him the ball. (The gif below shows a dive play, Benson takes it to the house against UNC.) If Benson doesn’t get the ball, Marshall turns (usually to the opposite side from where Benson is going) and runs a more traditional looking option play with one of the two “A-backs”. The starting A-backs are Qua Sercy and J.J. Green, but there are a few other guys who will get shots there as well.

This is the basic triple-option. There are tons of variations. An A-back can come in motion before the snap, giving an extra blocker on one side. They may skip the dive play and run a traditional option with the B-back. The WRs can motion back behind the formation and act as the pitch-man instead of the A-back, which again gives an extra blocker. These are just a few examples.

The WRs are big, in part because they need to be able to block well on the edge. (Check out the downfield blocking on Benson’s long TD run above.) The option works best when the offensive players on the edge outnumber the defensive players. That means good blocking. Force a defender to make a decision on attacking the QB or the RB, and the play is going to work more often than not. But if the DB can beat the WRs block, then it’s a 2-on-2 situation, and those plays rarely work.

Of course, if GT just wanted blockers, they could use TEs or even OLs outside. They also need guys who can run and catch the ball. That is certainly the case with Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart. Jeune has 17 out of the team’s 30 receptions this year. Stewart has just three. Last year, though, Stewart had 19 and Jeune 25. Stewart is also the team’s punt returner. Marshall has attempted only 64 passes in seven games, and he’s completing just 47% of them. But he averages over 16 yards per completion. As I said, big play offense. Also, Marshall has not thrown an INT. Georgia Tech is the only school in DI that has not thrown an INT this season. DIII Mount Union is the only other NCAA team that has not thrown a pick this year.

One of the more, uh, infamous aspects of Paul Johnson’s teams is the cut-block. Fans and opponents have long complained about this. The GT linemen are generally on the small side, but they run well. That, of course, cannot be said about RG Shamire Devince, at 6-7, 380 pounds. The other four linemen average well under 300 pounds. At the snap, they’ll often block low. They are essentially trying to bring the defender to the ground. That’s the ideal, but the alternative is often the defender having to leap over the lineman. If you’re jumping, you aren’t running. And by the time you’re back on the ground, the play is past you. Though this type of blocking is legal, it is often considered dirty. At least with Georgia Tech, you know it’s coming.

For the defense, the first step is to shut down the dive play. Benson leads the team in rushing with 781 yards. Marshall leads the team in attempts and TDs, and isn’t far behind in yards (727). If you shut down the dive, you essentially remove the “triple” from the triple-option. Stopping the dive comes largely from the NT and the ILBs. That’s good news for the Cavs, since Micah Kiser is one of the best ILBs in the nation.

So, if you shut down the dive, you’ve won? No. The edge option is not trivial to stop either. But, it’s easier if you know it’s coming. The key here is to keep edge contain. Marshall is a dangerous runner, but you still want to funnel him to the inside. If Marshall or one of the A-backs get clean to the edge, it’s probably a TD. But if you can force the ball back inside, it can be cleaned up by the interior defenders.

Ideally, you end up with two defenders (usually a DB and an OLB) against the option. The DB takes the pitch-man and the OLB takes the QB. The final step is to make the tackle. Easier said than done. All of these guys are very good RBs and are tough to bring down. Marshall perhaps most of all.

Hoos on Offense

The Wreck are widely known for their offensive scheme. That’s what sets them apart. But over the past couple of years, it’s actually been the defense that’s made them go. This year, for example, their defense is ranked 26th in the nation.

They don’t do it with sacks, as they average just two sacks per game. They don’t do it with turnovers, as they’ve forced just eight in seven games. They do it with sound assignment football. They are eighth in the nation in yards allowed on first down and are 10th in the nation in third down defense. Those two often go hand in hand. If you shut the offense down in first down, they are going to have a more difficult third down.

This is a fairly standard 4-3 defense, though they will probably show a lot of nickel against Virginia’s passing attack. The defense is undersized, though they all run very well. The pass rush comes mostly from the DEs, especially Antonio Simmons, who leads the team with 4.5 sacks and 6.5 TFLs. Fellow DE KeShun Freeman had 4.5 sacks and 9.5 TFLs as a true freshman in 2014. In 2.5 seasons since then, he hasn’t yet matched those totals. The DTs are all around 280ish and though they are decent at stopping the run, none of them provide much pass rush.

The strength of this unit is the secondary. Although the team is 35th in rushing defense, they are 61st in yards per rush allowed. They are 33rd in pass yards per attempt. The two safeties, A.J. Gray and Corey Griffin are both big and are both solid tacklers. Both are likely to play on Sundays. The CBs, on the other hand, are smaller and neither are really on the NFL’s radar.

The Jackets play a lot of cover-two, often with man coverage underneath. They don’t blitz a lot, but they will bring a LB at times. Because they don’t blitz much, the blitzes tend to be fairly effective.

Georgia Tech is third in the nation in time of possession. That means the defense is on the field less than most teams. That means everybody stays fresh. This is also a veteran unit, with five seniors and five juniors.

The Hoos WRs, once again, have an advantage on the outside against a pair of smaller CBs. If the OL can keep Benkert upright, he may some chances for big plays. GT has been beaten a lot this year on slants and posts. The slants have been effective for the Hoos this year, at times. A guy like Doni Dowling should be able to get a clean release off the line. The slant is a throw that Benkert makes pretty well. Then Dowling needs to break a tackle and he could run a long way.

The teams that have beaten the Wramblin’ Wreck have all run the ball effectively. This has been a problem during the Cavs two-game losing streak. Jack English’s injury certainly doesn’t help. The past two weeks, the Hoos fell behind early and essentially abandoned the running game. That simply can’t happen. If the Hoos fall behind by double digits early again, it probably won’t matter, but abandoning the running game plays right into the hands of GT defensive coordinator Ted Roof (yeah the former Duke head coach, and also his son is a reserve DE).

Conclusion

For once, the Hoos are facing a team without a real weapon on special teams. Maybe that won’t matter, but giving up big returns has hurt the Hoos in their losses. Winning the field position battle might matter less against a team that comes up with big plays offensively, but it’s still important for the Wahoo offense.

Georgia Tech has looked really good at times this year, but they’ve also looked beatable. A lot is going to depend on which Virginia team shows up. If the team that blew out Boise State and totally shut down Duke and UNC shows up, Wahoo fans could very well be celebrating bowl eligibility by 6PM Saturday. But if the Hoos come out flat again, Georgia Tech is too good and too dangerous, and the game could get ugly.

I think we’re likely to see an improved Wahoo team, but I’m afraid the Jackets are too good on offense for a defense that has struggled against big plays.

Prediction: Jackets 28, Hoos 21