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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia at Georgia Tech

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Can the injury-depleted Hoos pick up a road win in Atlanta?

NCAA Football: Miami at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Cavaliers Football heads to Atlanta this week to take on the triple-option of Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets. This is always a fun week, because the triple-option is fun. After starting the season 1-3, it seemed like Paul Johnson’s job was in question. However, they’ve won five out of six since then and his job seems safe once again.

One of those wins was a blowout win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in which they gashed the Hokie defense for 465 yards rushing. That was a Thursday night game on national TV, so the entire nation was treated to that performance. It was certainly fun to watch for Virginia fans.

Now that Virginia has to go up against that same offense, it isn’t as much fun.

The game will kick off at 3:30 Eastern at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. It will be televised by ACC Network/ESPN.

Let’s get to the matchup.

Virginia on Offense

The Wahoo offense got back on track last week, but let’s not forget that Liberty’s defense is among the worst in FBS. Georgia Tech’s defense might be quite a bit better than Liberty’s. But then again, it might not be.

The Jacket defense ranks 41st nationally in total defense. They’re 69th in scoring defense. Both of those are a heck of a lot better than Liberty. But they’re 113th in sacks and 118th in TFLs. Both of those are well behind Liberty. They are, however, 6th in turnovers forced (and yet somehow 3rd in the ACC). Turnovers can be fluky, as evidenced by Georgia Tech’s 124th ranking last season. Still, perhaps the most important thing for the Virginia offense this week will be taking care of the football.

Like Virginia, the Jackets play a 3-4 base defense. This will be the first 3-4 defense the team has seen this year. Except, you know, every single day in practice. The Jackets list one defender as the “Jack” position, which is a hybrid DB/LB spot. In most situations, that’s a LB (senior Victor Alexander). But in some passing situations, freshman DB Charlie Thomas lines up as an extra DB instead.

Unlike Virginia’s 3-4 defense, the Jacket’s defense begins with the DL. The DL accounts for 6.5 out of 14 team sacks (46%) and 21 out of 43 team TFLs (49%). That may not seem like much, but for a 3-4 defense that’s a lot. Compare that to Virginia defense, where the DL has accounted for six out of 21 sacks (28%) and 10 out of 52 TFLs (19%).

A lot of that production comes from senior DE Anree Saint-Amour. He has 10.5 TFLs, four sacks, two INTs, three pass break-ups and three forced fumbles. He’s also the fourth leading tackler on the team. Safe to say that he’s a key read for Bryce Perkins on just about every play. Saint-Amour has been a solid contributor in his first three years, but he’s really broken out this year and has put himself on the NFL’s radar. At just 245 pounds, he’s very small for a 3-4 DE.

Actually, all the DLs are small. Virginia’s DLs are 280, 320 and 300. Georgia Tech’s are 270, 298 and 245. That’s very different.

Senior ILB Brant Mitchell is basically their Micah Kiser. He’s 6’2, 233, runs well, and is just always where he needs to be and does not miss tackles. He’s second on the team in tackles, tied for second in sacks and tied for third in TFLs. Victor Alexander (the Jack) is 237 lbs. The other two LBs are 217 and 215. That’s pretty small for an FBS LB, especially in a 3-4. Again, for comparison purposes, Virginia’s LBs are all at least 225 (Charles Snowden).

The leading tackler for the Jackets is senior FS Malik Rivera, a graduate transfer from Wofford. Rivera has been a big pickup for the Jackets, because he’s a sure tackler in the secondary who can also play the pass a little bit. He’s a better run stopper than pass defender, but he plays a solid CF and has two INTs on the year.

True freshman Tre Swilling is starting at one CB spot. He’s a multiple legacy. His brother is a sophomore LB. Their father, Pat, played DL for the Jackets and is in the College Football Hall of Fame. He was also an NFL All-Pro and the 1991 Defensive Player of the Year. They also have two uncles who played for the Jackets. Swilling has started eight games and has proven to be a strong cover guy. But hasn’t shown a willingness, or ability, to make plays against the run. He has just 17 tackles on the year. His backup has 28 tackles, though does not have the cover skills. The other CB, redshirt senior Lamont Simmons is a 2015 transfer from USC. He also doesn’t have the same cover skills that Swilling has, but is also much better in run support.

This defense is undersized at almost every position. They can be run on. The problem is, the offense is so good that teams feel forced to throw to keep up. UNC, Virginia Tech and Miami all averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry, but weren’t able to stick with the run long enough to matter.

Look at these two plays from Pitt. Look at the push that Pitt’s OL is getting. Look at the size of the holes those RBs are going through. If Virginia’s OL can do what Pitt’s did, Virginia has a shot.

The Hoos will have to stick with the run. This Virginia offense is based on the run. They’ve run the ball 380 times, versus just 270 pass attempts. Yes, many of those runs are pass players where Perkins scrambled. Or they are run-pass-options. But the point is that the offense gets going with the run, and the pass feeds off that. If they can’t run the ball, they won’t succeed. Case in point: Pitt held Virginia to just 44 yards rushing and just 13 points. That is not going to get it done against Georgia Tech.

Virginia on Defense

When it’s humming, Paul Johnson’s triple option is nearly impossible to stop. Over the past five years, the Jackets have never finished worse than ninth in the nation in rushing offense. OK, not such a big deal considering they almost never throw the ball. But that offense has been pretty good at times. And when it is good, the team is good. Here’s GT’s national rank in both Rushing Offense and Total Offense over Paul Johnson’s tenure (2018 numbers are current as of 11/15).

Georgia Tech Under PJ

Year Rushing Total Wins
Year Rushing Total Wins
2018 1 32 6
2017 5 74 5
2016 9 85 9
2015 8 80 3
2014 1 19 11
2013 6 44 7
2012 4 35 7
2011 2 18 8
2010 1 36 6
2009 2 26 11
2008 4 50 9

Two top 20 finishes and six top 40 finishes. That’s an impressive offensive resume. Although there are some outliers (notably 2016), the team’s performance mostly lines up with how good the offense has been.

The basis of the offense is that triple option. It starts with a dive by the “B-Back”, who lines up directly behind the QB. If that hand-off is made, that’s the play. The Wreck have used two different starters at B-back, redshirt freshman Jordan Mason and sophomore Jerry Howard. They are very similar players and have had similar seasons. They’ve combined for 1107 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging over six yards per carry. Here’s an example of the dive play.

Notice one of the wing-backs (they call it the A-back) going in motion behind the QB. This is misdirection. Paul Johnson uses a LOT of mis-direction in his offense.

In a 3-4 defense, the dive play is essentially the responsibility of the NT and the two ILBs. Of course, because of the depth issues on the DL, Virginia hasn’t shown quite as many thre man fronts. Against Lilberty, Virginia opened the game in a 2-4-5 set and that was common throughout the game. Jordan Redmond does seem like an ideal player against the triple-option because of his size and ability at the point of attack, but he hasn’t seem much run of late.

If the dive play option isn’t chosen, then the play essentially turns into a traditional option play with one of the A-backs. The starters at A-back are a pair of seniors, Qua Searcy and Clinton Lynch. Both have been productive in their careers. In 2016, Searcy had a 60 yard TD run and Lynch had a 54 yard TD reception. Neither has really had any success against Virginia outside of those two plays.

Obviously, I’ve over simplified the triple-option. What I’ve described is the basic play that everything else stems from. But there are tons of variations. And Paul Johnson always has some new wrinkle to throw at the defense.

Here’s one variation. In this case, the play is a fairly traditional option. There is no dive play. The QB sprints out along the line of scrimmage with the B-back acting as the pitch man. The far-side A-back comes across the formation, acting mostly as a decoy. The play-side A-back acts as a blocker.

Here’s another variation. This time, they fake the dive play followed by both A-backs and the B-back acting as lead blockers on a designed QB draw.

Interestingly, the Jackets have switched QBs quite a bit this year. Senior TaQuon Marshall rushed for 1100 yards last year, but redshirt freshman Tobias Oliver is a bit bigger, and seems to be a bit better a runner. Marshall is listed as the starter, but do not be surprised to see Oliver play extensively.

Last year, Virginia beat the Yellow Jackets at home. You look at the score, 40-36, and you’d think the triple option worked. But Virginia actually did a very good job of shutting down the triple option. GT totaled just 399 total yards and averaged just 4.2 yards per carry. That’s not bad against this offense. Even more impressive that is the Jackets attempted 22 passes in the game. That was the most passes they’d attempted since the 2015 game against the Hoos. Yes, Marshall threw for 179 yards, but completed just 6/22. Even averaging almost 30 yards per completion, it is difficult to add value when you complete just 27% of your passes.

The reason Marshall attempted 22 passes was that the running game simply wasn’t working. In the first half, the Jackets had 8 drives and 6 punts. They had 23 run plays for 84 yards (and that is after removing two sacks for -15 yards). That’s 3.6 yards per carry. They scored on a 14 yard drive following a fumble and they scored a play after a 49 yard pass completion. That was the extent of their offense.

If Virginia can do that again, there’s a good chance they’ll win. Last year’s Virginia team was much better on the DL though. Andrew Brown’s quickness was a huge advantage against the triple option. Virginia does not have that, especially with Mandy Alonso out.

Georgia Tech’s OL might be the smallest in FBS. They average just 290 lbs. But they are quick. Look at those highlights above, there is a lot of movement from the OL. They move and the fire out. There’s a lot of low blocks, or cut blocks. Some people (mostly defensive coaches) consider this type of block dirty. But if it were dirty, they’d hide it. This is their scheme. They’re up front about it. The defense has to adjust.

I focus entirely on the run, which isn’t accidental. This is the #1 rushing offense in the nation. Against Virginia Tech, they attempted one pass and it was incomplete. But they can throw the ball. They use it as a big play weapon. They don’t dink and dunk. Marshall completed just 48% of his passes, and Oliver is right at 50%. But the duo combine to average nearly 20 yards per completion. Their 9.6 yards per attempt isn’t bad either.

Senior Brad Stewart is the leading WR with 12 catches for 177 yards. However, Lynch and Searcy are actually the top two in receiving yards, and each is averaging over 28 yards per reception.

Here’s an example of what they can do passing. Stewart actually isn’t all that open, but the defender is scrambling back and never spots the ball.

Virginia’s secondary must have a strong game if Virginia is going to win this game. They have to be strong in run support. That means taking the correct angles, making the correct reads and not missing tackles. But they also need to be strong in pass coverage. When GT does throw the ball, they often hit for big plays. Oliver has just six completions on the season, but two TDs.

Conclusion

These two teams are fairly evenly matched, which probably explains why there have been just two road victories in the series in the past 10 years. One was by Virginia 10 years ago, and one was by Georgia Tech in 2013. Games between evenly matched teams generally go to the home squad.

This year’s Georgia Tech team is flying high right now. They’re winning, and they’re winning big. The offense is rolling and the defense is doing enough. If this was a home game for Virginia, I’d feel different. But on the road against a hot Ramblin’ Wreck team, Virginia is going to struggle to get enough stops to outlast the Jackets.

Prediction: Georgia Tech 34, Virginia 24 (Season record: 6-4)