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The Big Preview: Georgia Tech at Virginia

NCAA Football: Duke at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Although the nail-biter wins over Miami and Louisville were exciting and fun, there’s a different joy that comes with an easy win. The Virginia Cavaliers got that easy win last week, and were able to breathe a little easier. Virginia had won six straight against Duke, including four straight at home.

They remain home this week to face Georgia Tech. The Hoos have won three straight at home over the Ramblin’ Wreck, but this year’s Jackets are 3-3 (2-2) and coming off a bye week. The Jackets have lost at home to a MAC school, crushed UNC at home, been crushed by Pitt at home and then won a squeaker on the road over Duke. That UNC game was the week after UVA’s loss in Chapel Hill, so perhaps the Heels were worn out from the previous week. The UNC team that faced Georgia Tech was not the same team that dropped 60 on the Hoos.

The Hoos and Jackets didn’t play last year during the pandemic-altered season. That was the first time since 1981 that they didn’t play. It means Virginia gets two consecutive home games against the Jackets, which is nice considering how close the series has been historically.

When: Saturday, October 23, 7:30 PM Eastern
Where: Scott Stadium
TV: ACC Network
Odds: Virginia is favored by 7, per DraftKings

Virginia on Defense

Although Paul Johnson’s triple option is gone, the Jackets are still largely a rushing team. On the season, they’ve run 238 times and passed just 161 times. In their last game, which went down to the wire against the Blue Devils, they had 39 runs and 25 passes.

Some of that is QB Jeff Sims. Although he’s missed two games, he’s the second leading rusher on the team, and only a bit behind the team lead.

Sims may be most known as a runner, but don’t think that he can’t throw the ball, because he absolutely can.

This is not as easy throw, and that is perfect. Sims is a very good runner, and averages nearly seven yards per rush. But he also averages nearly 10 yards per pass, an elite number. Sims doesn’t have enough pass attempts to qualify for individual leaderboards, but as a team the Jackets are 24th nationally in yards per attempt.

The Jackets have four receivers with double-digit catches on the season, and all average 15 yards per reception or more. (Virginia has six receivers with double-digit catches, but only two averaging 15 yards per reception.) One of those four Yellow Jacket receivers is RB Jahmyr Gibbs.

This play was in last week’s preview as well, highlighting Duke’s shoddy defense. In this case, an example of what Georgia Tech is looking to do. The play starts in a tight formation, and the three WRs all go to the middle of the defense on the snap, drawing in the defense. The RBs slide outside into the flats and are left alone. Gibbs does a good job of reading the defense and getting upfield. Sims sees it and it’s an easy TD. Virginia can’t afford any of these kind of mistakes this week.

One of the Yellow Jacket WRs is Malachi Carter, who did this in the 2019 matchup.

When the Jackets get to the red zone, or short yardage, you’re going to see a lot of zone-read.

These are back-to-back drives from the Jackets against UNC. It’s awfully tough to stop that play if Sims makes the correct read. The only real way to stop it is to get penetration into the backfield.

This is a similar look to something GT will run. In this case, the DLs get a little bit of penetration, but open up space for Nick Jackson to get into the backfield and make the hit. Pretty much exactly how they drew it up. But if Holmberg had held that ball, he might might’ve had space to run. That play was likely a designed handoff. GT will show that, but with the option of Sims holding the ball and running himself. Virginia did an excellent job against Malik Cunningham, who has similar skills.

Three RBs (and two QBs) have at least 30 carries on the season, led by Gibbs, a redshirt freshman who was second (to Gibbs) in rushing last year. And you may recall Jordan Mason, who had 94 yards and a TD in the 2019 matchup.

Duke had some early success running the football, but once the Hoos opened up a big lead that run game became much less formidable. Duke had 35 runs against 46 pass attempts, which is what happens when you fall behind early. That is not Duke’s game plan, and it isn’t Georgia Tech’s either. In their game against Pitt, when they fell behind early, the Jackets had 31 rush attempts against 33 pass attempts. Against UNC, a game they led almost throughout, they had 43 rush attempts and just 19 pass attempts. And, as mentioned, it was 39 runs & 25 passes against Duke.

So, once again, it’s important for Virginia to get off to a quick start. Some early points puts pressure on Georgia Tech’s 66th ranked offense. Duke’s offense largely fell apart once they trailed and were forced to throw. The same thing could happen to the Jackets if Virginia can get going early on.

Virginia on Offense

Virginia’s 528 yards of offense last week was right on with their season average of 526, which ranks sixth nationally. But the breakdown of yardage was different. Virginia had a lot of success running the ball, totlling 164 yards on the ground, their second best performance against an FBS opponent.

This was the third play of the game for the Hoos. Since suffering an early season leg injury, Armstrong has not been running much. Have we forgotten that Armstrong rushed for over 500 yards last year. His 78 yards rushing on the season are less than three of his single-game totals from last season. It’s kind of amazing how good this offense has been without really utilizing Armstrong’s legs. Just imagine what he could do when he gets back to 100%.

It’s not all Armstrong. Guys are making plays all over the place.

What just happened? That probably should’ve been a pick-six. That would’ve given Duke a 7-3 lead early. Might’ve been a very different game.

This is technically a pass play, because Armstrong tosses the ball forward. But, it operates like a running play. Great way of getting Thompson the ball on the move.

Georgia Tech runs a 3-3-5, not too different from Virginia’s defense. The Jackets even ran six DBs at times against UNC.

It’s not so easy to tell here, because part of the field is cut off. But this is a 3-2-6 from the Jackets. They have depth at DB, and they use this package at times. They actually opened with this look against UNC. But the three LBs are their top three in tackles. Quez Jackson is on top, with Ayinde Eley and Charlie Thomas behind him. Thomas leads the team in TFLs and sacks with Jackson second in TFLs.

This is Jackson busting through the line for a big stop. Tremendous read and the quickness to make the stop.

And this is Thomas with a TFL on a quick WR screen against UNC. Good read and attack, avoiding the pulling OL.

The LBs are the strength of this defense, and Quez Jackson is the defensive leader.

The Jacket DBs, however, can be beaten for big plays. This is just one example, there were several just in this Pitt game.

This all starts with the pass protection. Kenny Pickett has time to throw and his WR has time to get downfield. The coverage is not good, and Taysir Mack is wide open for the long TD. Pass protection is important.

Armstrong was sacked three times last week, despite the blowout. Virginia ranks 116th in sacks allowed. Some of that is because Armstrong drops back to throw a lot. And some of it may be due to Armstrong’s leg. But the OL could improve, and this week is a good week to get started. Because the schedule after this game is brutal and includes some very good pass rushes.

Duke rushed for 197 yards on the Jackets, but it took them 62 (!) carries to get there. That’s just 3.2 yards per carry. That was a back and forth game, but Duke held a lead with under a minute to play. Pitt rushed for 181 yards on 41 carries (4.4 ypc) in their blowout win over the Jackets. Last week, Virginia rushed 33 times for 164 yards (5 ypc). That’s what we want to see from the Hoos. They still threw 46 times, and that won’t change. But being willing to run the ball, showing Armstrong on the keeper, getting the ball into Keytaon Thompson’s hands quickly, that keeps defenses honest and slows down the pass rush. And that opens things up for Dontayvion Wicks and company. Wicks is eighth in the nation in receiving. And Billy Kemp is 15th in receptions per game. Kemp is also rising up the UVA leaderboards. He’s sixth all time in receptions (with 150) and should reach fourth over the next couple of games.


The Jackets have played better than expected in some games, most notably the win over UNC and the close loss to Clemson. But, they also played poorly against Duke, Pitt and Northern Illinois. They have the advantage of coming in well rested, having just had a bye week.

Virginia’s defense is improving and the offense is rolling. The Jackets are a little younger than Virginia and will be very dangerous next year in Atlanta. But, at home, on a beautiful fall day, Virginia has enough to cover the seven point spread.

Prediction: Hoos 37, Yellow Jackets 27 (season record, 4-3)

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.