Following their bye week, the Virginia Cavaliers get a Thursday night game in Atlanta against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. This will be the Wahoos’ first visit to Atlanta since 2018, as the two teams didn’t face off in the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
Virginia’s last win in Atlanta came way back in 2008. The ‘Hoos have lost four straight road games in this series. All time, the ‘Hoos are 7-17 on the road against Georgia Tech.
This year’s Wramblin Wreck are 3-3 (2-1 ACC), after starting the season 1-2 (with the win coming over an FCS team). Following a 27-10 loss to UCF, the Jackets fired head coach Geoff Collins (as well as their athletic director). The team responded to the change with a road win over a ranked Pitt team and then a home win over Duke.
The ‘Hoos, as you probably know, are 2-4 (0-3) and seem to be going nowhere fast. They’ve lost three straight and the last two were not competitive. Virginia is a five-point underdogs on the road.
Virginia on Defense
The Jackets are far enough removed from the Paul Johnson era that they should’ve been able to move past any issues which stem from the previous triple-option offense. However, since Paul Johnson left, the Jackets have peaked at just 71st nationally in total offense.
Initially, this was explained as the fact that running a conventional offense with players recruited to play triple-option can be difficult. But those players are gone by now. And the offense ranks 113th right now.
Georgia Tech is led by QB Jeff Sims, a dual threat QB who has always been just a bit better of a runner than he is a passer. One thing new head coach Brent Key has done is free Sims up to run more. Through six games, Sims has rushed for 301 yards on 84 carries (3.6 ypc). The past two games have accounted for 176 of those yards on 36 carries (4.8 ypc).
This was the clinching score in the upset win over Pitt. It’s a design QB sweep, and very much plays into Sims’ strengths. Using a QBs strength? What’s that like?
That’s not to say Sims can’t throw. He can. He’s just never really been consistent with his decision making (30 TDs against 22 INTs for his career).
Look at that arm. He rifles that ball downfield. It is not a big window but he gets it there. Good grab too from leading receiver Nate McCollum.
Speaking of good grabs, here is one from redshirt freshman Leo Blackburn. At 6’5” 220, he is kind of their version of Lavel Davis, and is a tough cover on the outside.
Sims reads single coverage against Blackburn and is always going there. The throw is a little behind (possibly intentionally) and Blackburn does a tremendous job of coming back to get it.
In their upset win over Pitt, the Jackets had 44 rush attempts (232 yards) against just 27 pass attempts (102 yards). This team is built to run the football, and that’s after losing last year’s leading rusher Jahmyr Gibbs to Alabama via transfer. Their leading rusher this year is their own transfer, Hassan Hall (from Louisville). Hall generally split time in the backfield with the Cardinals, but has been starting and playing well, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
This was the first play of the drive after Pitt scored a TD to get within a score. Huge run, which basically put the game away for the Jackets. Hall had 157 yards rushing in that game.
Virginia’s defense has struggled against the run most of the year. In the last game, the ‘Hoos allowed 198 rushing yard to Louisville. The week before they allowed 248 yards rushing to Duke. Those two games come on the heels of allowing just 75 yards rushing against a Syracuse team that has a very good ground game.
This is not a good look for UVA. There’s nothing fancy here, just a bunch of Duke linemen and even receivers winning their blocks. A couple of Virginia DBs take a bad angle and it’s off the races. These are back breakers, especially when the offense is struggling as it is.
The bright side of Virginia’s defense has been the pass defense. The team had given up tons of big plays in the passing game over the past couple of seasons, so seeing excellent coverage from the secondary is very nice.
Above, we saw Jeff Sims make a throw when he saw single coverage on the outside. This is a similar play, but in this case Virginia CB Anthony Johnson makes the play.
The safety duo of Lex Long and Jonas Sanker have been very good, freeing up the corners to play more press coverage knowing they have help deep. It has also allowed the front seven to do more blitzing and other things to generate a pass rush. The team is 32nd nationally in sacks, and 42nd in pass defense. The pass defense is, at least in part, good because they’ve been behind and teams aren’t throwing. (This is also part of why the team is poor at rush defense, but as shown above, there are still many problems with the run defense.)
But if teams aren’t throwing much and you’re still averaging 2.5 sacks per game, that’s pretty good. This defense hasn’t been great (64th overall), but it’s been good enough if the offense was holding up its end of the bargain. Which, obviously, it has not.
Virginia on Offense
The Jackets have an interesting defense. They rank 80th overall, and 108th against the rush. But they are 37th in pass defense and 22nd in pass efficiency defense. They are also 30th in interceptions, 32nd in sacks and 20th in TFLs.
It is a 4-2-5 defense, and despite playing just two LBs, that is the strength of the unit. The team leader in tackles is Ayinde Eley, who transferred from Maryland prior to last season. In 11 games last year, he had 3.5 TFLs and 0.5 sacks. This year, in 6 games, he has 9 TFLs and 3.5 sacks. He has also forced three fumbles and defended three passes.
This is one of his sacks, and is really more of a coverage sack. But he’s also clearly being used as a spy on Western Carolina‘s QB and when he realizes he has a free run to the QB, he goes and gets him. Don’t be too surprised if Eley is used in a similar way against Armstrong.
The other LB is senior Charlie Thomas. Thomas was All-ACC Honorable Mention last year when he put up 70 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble and two INTs. This year, he is second (behind Eley) in tackles, has a sack, 5.5 TFLs, two INTs, a fumble recovery, and a forced fumble.
In this case, there isn’t much of a pass rush, but Charlie Thomas comes away with the INT due to a great individual play.
The team leader in sacks is actually DE Keion White. He has four sacks, but is well behind Eley in TFLs. White is a transfer from ODU and astute Virginia fans may recall him from the 2019 ODU game where White was a one-man-wrecking-crew who almost single-handedly forced an upset of the heavily favored Wahoos. He had a sack and 3.5 TFLs in that game.
I think we all know how tough it is to chase Bryce Perkins down from behind. White also blocked a FG in that game. He is somebody Armstrong will have to be wary of. If GT can get to Armstrong without bringing extra pass rushers, it will be a long day for the Virginia offense.
Hopefully, the bye week was spent largely working on the offense, and in particular the timing and cohesion between Armstrong and his receivers. They were better against Louisville, as Armstrong completed 75% of his passes and threw for 313 yards.
This is what we were used to seeing last year. Wicks going deep and Armstrong hitting him in stride. This might be the best play we’ve seen from the offense this year. And it really comes only because it’s a free play for Virginia, as Louisville’s defense was offsides. Louisville has safety help over the top, but Wicks just beats it. When your outside WRs can beat their man like that, you need to take advantage. We haven’t seen it enough.
The issue against Louisville was a non-existent running game. UVA totaled just six yards rushing in the game. And that is coming off some solid rushing performances over the past few weeks. The ‘Hoos had 149 yards rushing against Syracuse and 229 yards against ODU. But they haven’t run the ball the past two weeks, and have fallen to 96th nationally in rushing offense.
It is this lack of consistency that is mostly troubling. If it’s the same problems week in and week out, you can focus on something to fix. But when things are going wrong all over the place, and nothing is really working, it is much tougher to fix.
This is your 2nd and 12 play-call? I suppose the idea is to pick up some yards and make third down easier. The problem is, LT Logan Taylor completely whiffs on the block and it’s an easy TFL for Louisville. It’s like the dropped passes and the fumbles. When things are going poorly, you can’t have these kinds of mistakes.
Here is another example, from early in the Duke game.
And this is the play immediately prior to this one.
They aren’t exactly the same play, but they are very similar looks. On both plays, there are Duke defenders in the backfield almost immediately after the snap. On the third down play (the second clip), Brown is able to sneak between two defenders and pick up a tough first down. Who sees that play and decides to run the same thing again?
Look, we were spoiled last year with a tremendously dynamic offense. That team had a strong, veteran OL and this team doesn’t. That’s a huge difference. Might they better if they used some more of last year’s concepts? Sure. After all, that big play to Wicks above was straight out of last season. But Bob Anae was an air raid offensive coordinator. Tony Elliott and Des Kitchings are not. Asking them to run an air raid offense that they don’t know isn’t going to work any better than asking an air raid QB to run a pro-style offense.
The way this team is playing, how can anybody pick them to win? Georgia Tech isn’t good, but they’re at home on a Thursday night and Bobby Dodd should be rocking. The Jackets will roll. Prove me wrong Virginia.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 24, Virginia 10