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Virginia Cavaliers vs. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: THE BIG PREVIEW

No triple option...what do we even write about anymore?

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have played some memorable football games over the years. That includes the past two games, which were decided by a combined seven points. Last year, Virginia fell on the road in overtime and the prior year, Virginia scored a late TD to win and secure a bowl bid.

All time, the Yellow Jackets have won 21 and lost 19 in the series (along with a tie in 1984). The vast majority of those games have been close. Earlier this season, it seemed like this might not be one of them. They struggled early on, including a home loss to FCS The Citadel. They also lost 24-2 to a poor Temple team. Yellow Jacket head coach Geoff Collins came to Atlanta after two years at Temple. They’ve been better lately, with a road win against Miami and then a competitive (ish) loss at Pitt.

Overall, the Ramblin’ Wreck are 2-6 with the win over Miami and one over USF. Jeff Sagarin ranks them 99th in the nation (the Hoos are 33rd). Virginia, as you surely know, is 6-3 and holding on to first place in the ACC Coastal. We’ve been saying this every week this season, but this is a game Virginia needs to win if they’re going to reach their goals.

Virginia on Defense

After 11 years of Paul Johnson and the triple option, a new coaching staff means a new offense. Obviously, that kind of transition takes time. The players that Johnson recruited for the triple option are a different breed of player. The Jackets have thrown 186 passes this year (23 per game), on pace for 279 throws over 12 games. Over the past two seasons, Paul Johnson’s offense threw 245 passes in 24 games.

It’s a completely different offense. The OL plays differently, the RBs play differently, and the WRs play differently. And, of course, the QB plays very differently. Three different QBs have started a game for the Jackets, but redshirt freshman James Graham has started the past four and should start this one. All three were recruited by Johnson, and therefore are tremendous athletes and runner. But none of them are particularly accomplished passers. Graham has been the best of the group, but is still only completing 43% of his passes and his passing efficiency is third worst in FBS. The other two guys weren’t better.

They are all dynamic runners. In fact, one of them, Tobias Oliver, is the second leading rusher on the team. Oliver started the opener but has really moved to WR. The past 3 weeks, he has one carry and four receptions. Over 260 of his 279 rushing yards came in the first four games. Graham has 107 out of his 122 over the last four. The Jackets are 75th in rushing offense, but 124th in passing offense. They are 81st in yards per carry and 125th in passing efficiency.

That all bodes well against a defense that is missing nearly a ton of experience in the secondary. After facing Sam Howell and UNC’s WRs, this will be a much easier task. That’s not say that GT can’t make plays in the passing game. They’re actually 37th in the country in yards per completion. That’s a stat they excelled in under Paul Johnson. They didn’t throw much, but when they did they made it count. With the personnel in place, that’s still the game plan.

Here’s an example from the Miami game. This isn’t a particularly pretty throw, but it gets the job done. Because of the run threat, Miami’s DBs are beaten and Ahmarean Brown has time to adjust to the throw and make the play for the TD. (Apologies for the poor angle in the highlight, blame ESPN.)

A true freshman, Brown leads the team with 16 receptions for 302 yards. He’s just 5’10” 155, but he’s fast enough and quick enough that he had an offer from Alabama, despite being just a 3-star recruit.

Here’s another big play from the GT passing game. This is Malachi Carter on a deep ball. This is a much prettier throw from Graham, hitting his man in stride. You’ll also note that he gets out of the pocket as soon as he takes the snap. This may have been a run-pass-option, but the key was to get Graham away from the pass rush. The Jackets are 110th in sacks allowed, which is troubling for them considering they still don’t throw it that much. The OL is better at run blocking than pass blocking, not surprising since they were recruited to play the triple option.

The Jackets run a lot of read-option. You’ll see most plays start with a read-option look, even pass plays. They also do a lot of RPO When they Jackets are successful, it’s usually by running the ball up the middle with 6’1” 220 lb RB Jordan Mason. The sophomore leads the team with 622 yards on the ground.

This was, essentially, the game winning play against Miami. UNC had a lot of success with similar run plays last week, especially in the first half. That first half was played with Jordan Mack in the center of the Virginia defense. Without as big a passing threat, Virginia focus will be on the run, which should help contain those plays. But Virginia should be wary of play action and deep passes against their undermanned secondary.

Virginia on Offense

Geoff Collins is a defensive head coach, having previously been a defensive coordinator at Florida and Mississippi state (among others). The scheme changed from a 3-4 last year to a 4-2-5 this year, but considering only two starters return from last year, that may not have been a big deal.

Last year, the senior dominated unit finished 46th in the nation in total defense. This year, they’re 75th. That’s not great, but it’s not bad considering the turnover and the new system. And they’ve been pretty good recently, giving up an average of just 368 yards in the past three games. (That’s still more yards than Virginia averages in a game.)

What’s concerning for Virginia fans is that this defense excels against the pass and struggles against the run. As fans well know, Virginia can’t run the football. Last week, Virginia totaled 134 yards on the ground, but 65 of that came on Perkins’ highlight reel run. The other 31 carries averaged 2.2 yards per rush (that includes three sacks).

Against UNC, Perkins had 24 rushes and the RBs totaled 6. However, those six rushes went for a respectable 26 yards (4.3 ypc). Perkins’ big run may have been the play of the game, and another big run this week would be the same.

This is a RB out of the wildcat, which isn’t very different from a designed run for Bryce Perkins. And we know he has the ability to take a play up the middle and to the house. Perkins will likely still need the team in carries, but expect to see more than 6 rushes for the RBs in this one. If Taulapapa or Kier (or somebody else…*cough* Mike Hollins *cough*) can get going this week, Virginia will win this game going away.

That play is a big surprising, going up the middle, because the Jackets’ defensive strength is in the middle. Junior LB David Curry leads in tackles by a wide margin. His job is to clean up over the middle, especially against the run. He has just 1.5 TFLs out of his 65 tackles. His fellow LB Charlie Thomas has nine TFLs, over 20% of the team’s total. He’s also the only player on the team with 2 sacks. (Virginia has six players with more than 2 sacks.) Thomas is actually not listed as a starter on the depth chart, though he’ll certainly get plenty of run. He’s especially likely to get run in passing situations. Staying out of 3rd and long situations will be important.

Where Virginia excelled last week was in the air. And yes, GT can be beaten in the air. But not as much as they can be beaten on the ground. The Jackets are 20th in the country in passing defense, but 54th in passing efficiency defense and 50th in yards per attempt allowed. One of the reasons they’re passing defense looks so good is that they keep losing. When you’re ahead, you run the ball to bleed clock.

The Jackets’ DBs are big, but inexperienced. They average 6’2” and 205 lbs. With three safeties, a lot of the Jackets’ defensive plays have man coverage underneath with help deep. That may change this week, because of Virginia’s short passing game. Bryce Perkins doesn’t throw a very good deep ball, so they may not keep three safeties deep. In the past, they’ve been susceptible to short passes.

This is very similar to a throw we’ve seen to Hasise Dubois, including a big TD last week. If Dubois has man coverage on the outside, that throw will be there.

The Jackets will bring pressure, especially in passing situations. It’s important to stay out of 3rd-and-long situations. That’s what did Miami in, especially on the early GT defensive TD.

That’s a 5 man blitz, with freshman LB Demetrius Knight coming untouched into the QBs face. Miam QB N’Kosi Perry needs to do a better job of seeing the pressure and protecting the football. Perkins is better than that. Still, the important thing is stay out of those situations, and the easiest way to do that is to run the ball successfully.

We may not see another 500 yard day from the Virginia offense. Against Duke a couple of weeks ago, Virginia scored 48 points on just 307 yards, because the defense provided several short fields. But as long as the Hoos don’t turn it over, the offense should be successful against a defense

Conclusion

The Yellow Jackets are simply not a good team. They’re playing better than they did at the beginning of the season, but they still aren’t good. And at this point, a lot of young guys are getting extended reps in preparation for next season.

The win over Miami was a fluke. They scored a defensive TD and a special teams TD (on a fake punt) and blocked a game winning 25 yard FG. Miami missed three FGs, all under 35 yards. In a game that went to OT. Miami is kicking themselves for that loss, which is keeping them out of first place in the ACC Coastal.

Is it possible that GT pulls off an upset, similar to their Miami win? Sure. They have nothing to lose, so Virginia should be wary of fake punts and FGs and any other trickeration. Even with a depleted defense, Virginia shouldn’t have trouble keeping the Jacket offense in check. And if they can get anything approaching last week’s offense, this game won’t be close.

The Hoos know what they need to do, and that is hold serve at home. Outside of the first quarter against ODU, Virginia has been very good at home. No reason for that to change thiws week.

Prediction: Hoos 30, Jackets 10 (season record 6-2)