Game Preview: #24 Georgia Tech at Virginia

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UVa’s offensive line may have come around just in time and if Ian Yates-Cunningham is back in the lineup, I think that unit may continue to gel. A healthy Wali Lundy and Jason Snelling make a huge difference and if Michael Johnson and Cedric Peerman are ready, Virginia will have a full complement of backs. But the suspension of four players raises many questions, including the impact their absence will have on the gameplan.

Georgia Tech Offense vs. Virginia Defense

Georgia Tech runs an offense somewhat similar to Virginia’s, consisting of counter plays and slants where they will lead with the fullback or pull the off-side guard. They complement that with an effective vertical passing attack. The Tech backs have good quickness and can work the outside. Virginia may try and set a hard edge by deploying the outside linebackers about 2-3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage while the ends try and clog the gaps and disrupt the counters and sweeps. This may also serve to pinch the pocket to contain Reggie Ball’s running ability. The Tech backs are also adept at attacking the cutback lanes, so sealing the ends and playing their assignments will be crucial for off-side defenders.


Offensive coordinator Patrick Nix’s offense can attack in a lot of ways, but I believe Virginia’s first and foremost goal must be to stop the run. You can zone, double or triple-team Calvin Johnson and he will still get his catches and yardage. The Georgia Tech backfield is developing into an effective one-two punch with senior P.J. Daniels and sophomore Tashard Choice , an Oklahoma transfer. It’s no coincidence that Georgia Tech’s three most productive scoring games this season (Duke, Wake Forest & UConn) have coincided with three of its top four rushing performances.


The presence of Johnson makes stopping the run, especially with the front seven, even more essential. The loss of Kwakou Robinson at nose tackle and Vince Redd as part of Virginia’s four-down linemen set makes the task daunting. Robinson’s loss means defensive end Brennan Schmidt will be required to spell Keenan Carter at nose and mean more time for inexperienced defensive end Allen Billyk . Look for the Jackets to attack that side when Billyk is in the game and look for the ‘Hoos to possibly counter by switching the ends once Ball has an initial read.


The most significant loss from the suspensions is safety Tony Franklin, who is Virginia’s top run support player in the secondary. Freshman Byron Glaspy will start against Georgia Tech with sophomore Jamaal Jackson serving as the primary backup. Virginia’s safeties must be free to play pass defense and try and contain Johnson. Single coverage will not get the job done. Thus, the front seven must contain the Tech running attack.


Georgia Tech has the capability of attacking the middle of the Virginia Cover-2 zone vertically. Johnson leads the ACC in receiving yards per game and is second in receptions per game. The 6-4 sophomore has 40 catches for 725 yards and five touchdowns, while averaging 90.6 yards per game. He had a 10-catch, 130-yard performance against N.C. State. For his career, Johnson averages 17.8 yards per catch and 78.1 yards per game. For added pressure, former Tech quarterback Damarius Bilbo has become a viable option opposite Johnson. Both can run any pattern and Ball can make the throws.


The typical thinking is to attack a mistake-prone quarterback with heavy blitzes and mixing coverages and that’s exactly what Virginia did a year ago, recording six sacks and forcing two Ball interceptions. But that was without Daniels, which meant a limited Jacket running attack. Over the last four games, Tech has averaged 198 yards rushing. Also consider that few teams have had success getting to the quarterback as Ball has been sacked just four times all season. As a team, Tech leads the ACC in fewest sacks allowed with six, including just one in the last four games.


I doubt the Cavaliers will sit back in their Cover-2 all afternoon, but I don’t look for the same type of pressure as last season. Virginia may use timely blitzes combined with mixing six- and seven-man zone coverages while deploying its very effective nickel package. The Cavaliers want to force the Jackets to move the chains, be patient and drive the ball down the field. With the loss of Robinson, Redd and Franklin, look for Virginia to play (I know you’ll love this) bend-but-don’t break, try and confuse Ball into mistakes, and attack on obvious passing downs with various blitzing packages.

Virginia Offense vs. Georgia Tech Defense

The Georgia Tech defensive philosophy is pretty simple: blitz anytime from anywhere. The Jackets display multiple sets, bring corners and safeties on the blitz, use various bends and twists and do a lot of pre-snap shifting to try and confuse opposing quarterbacks. They will deploy both man coverage and will blitz from their zone sets. It’s all part of a well-conceived scheme, cleverly disguised until the very last second, that generally sends only one or two extra pass rushers even though there appears to be more.


That puts tons of pressure on Marques Hagans to recognize where the pressure is coming from, make the correct read and then attack the area vacated by the blitzer. Hagans’ decision-making is critical in this game as is the ability of the ends and receivers to avoid the jams and quickly detect the open spots.


Virginia deployed the shotgun early and often against Temple and that was no doubt a precursor to what we should see this weekend. This heavy use of the shotgun would give Jacket defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s blitz-happy defensive scheme a different look and allow Hagans more time to go through his progressions and read running lane openings.


With Tech’s defense looming, it comes as little surprise that Groh is getting Jason Snelling more involved in the offense. The way to scheme aggressive defenses is to attempt to slow them down with screens, draws and quick-hitting passes. Snelling is the perfect blend of power and speed to handle the draw and screen portion of that plan of attack.


Though Tech is a significantly more formidable opponent than Temple, the improvement in the running game with Snelling’s between-the-tackle, north-and-south running style and Wali Lundy’s improved ability to recognize the backside openings and his improved burst comes at an opportune time.


To slow opposing running games, Tech focuses on getting penetration from the back seven as well as the defensive front. Tech has 61 tackles for loss this season compared to Virginia’s 43. The linebackers do an excellent job of filling gaps and the safeties are very aggressive in run support, especially on the edge.


Against the speed of the Tech defense, I’m not sure Virginia has the ability to run to the edge, so look for the Cavaliers to work inside with the running game and out with screens to the backs, tight ends or receivers and quick-hitting out-cut routes. If effective, that may serve to keep Tenuta guessing a little on where to attack with the blitz. He won’t stop using it, but it may throw him off the gameplan.


If, however, Virginia can establish the running game or the short passing attack early, that may force the Tech safeties to move in for run support and open up UVa’s most effective avenue of attack, the middle zones with the tight ends and receivers up the seam.


Tech’s vulnerability (if you can call it that) on defense all season has been the secondary, but in a unique statistical anomaly, the Jackets are third in the nation in interceptions with 16. Auburn, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and N.C. State averaged 268 yards passing against them, but GT’s air defense has tightened recently, allowing just 141 yards per game over the last three contests. That, however, includes Duke and run-happy Wake Forest. Good passing teams have had success against the Yellow Jackets and with the exception of Virginia Tech’s Marcus Vick , they have yet to face a quarterback with Hagans’ combination of running and passing ability.

Hagans has a knack for burning aggressive defenses. Georgia Tech is fifth in the ACC with 21 sacks and its scheme employs a lot of zone coverage and zone blitzing. Virginia’s receivers and especially the tight ends have become adept at finding the open spaces left by blitzers in defensive zones. If Hagans has the time and the vision to make the throw, it will be interesting to see if Tenuta goes away from the base defense to try and get more pressure on the Virginia quarterback, utilizing more man and sub defense coverages.


With the emergence of Maurice Covington and Kevin Ogletree , the loss of suspended receiver Ottowa Anderson is mitigated.

Because of Hagans’ running and passing ability, Virginia has had success against attacking defenses, while teams like Maryland and Boston College that have taken a containment approach have controlled the Cavalier offense. I believe Tech has the players to play contain and do so effectively, but I can’t see Tenuta making the move to a read-and-react defensive scheme for Virginia. Ron Prince seems to be at his best against aggressive defenses and with some depth issues on UVa’s defense, he’ll need to be at his best Saturday.

Special Teams

Sophomore kicker Travis Bell, a semifinalist last year for the Lou Groza Award, has struggled but seems to have shaken off a sophomore slump with three field goals in Tech’s win against Wake Forest.


Punter Ben Arndt has developed into a reliable weapon for the Yellow Jackets. He is averaging 40.7 yards per kick, which ranks just eighth in the ACC, but he has downed 18 punts inside the 20 with just one touchback, giving Tech a net of 37.25 that is second in the ACC and 15th in the nation.

Who has The Edge?

Quarterbacks – Virginia

Running Backs – Even

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends – Even

Offensive Line – Even

Defensive Line – Georgia Tech

Linebackers – Virginia

Secondary – Georgia Tech

Special Teams – Virginia

Coaching – Even

Absolutes and Desirables

Absolutes are things UVa must do in the game. Desirables are things we’d like to see from the Cavaliers.

Absolutes

1) Special, Special Teams Play – The Cavaliers have better league rankings in total offense, passing and scoring offense and third-down conversion offense. Tech has higher rankings in total defense, scoring, passing, rushing and third-down conversion defense. What does that mean? The difference in this game may come down to special teams. That is where the loss of Ottowa Anderson is big. Anderson is one of the top special teams players for the Cavaliers and his absence could neutralize one of UVa’s most significant advantages. Virginia has the top kickoff coverage unit in the conference, while Georgia Tech possesses the league’s second-best punting unit. The ‘Hoos boast a better kickoff return game than the Yellow Jackets and the Cavaliers have a slight edge in the punt return game. The return of Cedric Peerman and some big kickoff returns would be nice. Virginia must dominate the special teams game with great kickoffs and excellent punt game play. It needs to control the field position game with special teams and make Georgia Tech’s conservative offense score with chain-moving drives from long distances.

2) Play assignment football – Georgia Tech boasts the best set of skill players Virginia has faced all season. Johnson is arguably the top receiver in the league, if not the nation, and the duo of Daniels and Choice has combined for 134.1 yards per game rushing and seven touchdowns. Ball can throw and is a dangerous runner and in his third year as a starter is finally playing and making decisions like a veteran. Georgia Tech is a running team that relies on the big strike in the passing game, usually off a play-action fake, to move the football. But there is also the added component of a mobile quarterback who is a key part of the Tech offense. Tech puts its games in the hands of a solid offensive line, an excellent blocking fullback and a shutdown defense, then counts on big plays from its offense and special teams to score. Virginia’s defenders must play their assignments, avoid the big plays and force the Jackets to play their possession game, then turn it over to the red-zone defense or simply force Tech to turn the ball over either by mistake or punt.

3) Ball security – The Georgia Tech defense leads the conference in turnover margin (5th in the nation), forcing 16 interceptions and seven fumbles. In fact, Tech defensive end Eric Henderson has four sacks on the season and has caused the quarterback to fumble on each one. The Jackets like to risk on defense and provide short scoring opportunities for the offense. They try to confuse the quarterback and complicate their pre-snap reads with various sets and take chances on passing. But that also leaves the GT secondary open to vertical attacks and open running lanes for Hagans. Virginia has only turned the ball over 12 times, the second fewest in the league, but nine of those turnovers have been picks. The Cavaliers simply cannot allow the Yellow Jackets to make big, momentum-changing plays with their aggressive defense. A Connor Hughes field-goal attempt or a fourth-down punt is a much better option than a third-down pass thrown up for grabs by a hurried quarterback from one of Tech’s unpredictable zone blitzes.

Desirables

1) Win the red zone – In Tech’s two losses this season, it was 2 for 7 in the red zone. In fact, the Yellow Jackets have performed poorly in the red zone (11th in the ACC), going 22 of 31 (71%) but scoring touchdowns only 48% of the time. Virginia hasn’t done much better. The Cavaliers are second in the league in scoring in the red zone (88.9%) but have produced touchdowns just 50% of the time. While Georgia Tech is last in the league in giving up scores in the red zone (90%), it is fourth in the conference in not allowing touchdowns in the zone (55%) with the Cavaliers right behind in fifth (52%). A key to winning for Virginia is to limit Tech’s touchdowns in the zone and maximizing its own opportunities.

2) Effective effort by the run game – The Yellow Jackets have held four opponents below 97 yards rushing this season. What’s interesting is that Georgia Tech lost two of those games and barely beat UNC even though it yielded just 61 rushing yards. The Cavs don’t have to have a 200-yard rushing game to win, but they need to be effective using the run to set up the pass and to keep the Tech defense guessing. Virginia cannot simply line up and dominate the Tech defensive front, but it needs running production in short yardage and must effectively attack between the tackles to slow the Tech pass rush. Lundy’s ability to read the backcuts to slow the Tech pursuit and an occasional pitch or option to Michael Johnson to get the defense moving and set up the quarterback bootlegs and waggles will go a long way toward keeping the Tech defense off-balance and opening opportunities for the deep passing game.

3) Big plays could mean a big win – While all of the blitzing and stunting has been very successful for the Jackets, they have been burned by big plays. I think Virginia will work the inside-out game early, with inside power running and screens to the outside, while moving the ball down the field with short-to-medium out passing routes. If Tech’s corners start keying on the shorter routes, look for Prince to turn those short plays upfield and try and capitalize. Success here will not only force the safeties to back off their run support effort but may also force them to support the corners. If that happens, you guessed it – it’s Santi, Stupar and Phillips up the seam. Don’t be shocked if the ‘Hoos simply decide to say forget the running game and attack deep early as they did against FSU. Why not give Tenuta something to think about right from the start? It is also about time for a big punt or kickoff return for a score. How about it, ‘Hoos?

Predictions

Greg: Until last season, when the Cavaliers won 30-10 in Atlanta, the home team had won nine consecutive games in this series. The suspensions of Anderson, Robinson, Redd and Franklin are debilitating but not devastating. In fact, they oddly may be a blessing as the Virginia coaching staff tends to perform better when faced with challenges. Even with the suspensions, Virginia is a 3.5-5 point favorite in this game. I don’t like to rely on Vegas but people there know more about football than most analysts. With that, UVa is 8-1 against the spread in the last nine games before playing Virginia Tech and the home team has covered six of the last seven in the series. This one may come down to special teams and even without Anderson, I like Virginia’s chances. Plus, until Tech proves it can shake the “Curse of Sisson,” I’ve got to take the home team in a close one.

Virginia 27, Georgia Tech 20

John: Even before the suspensions, I thought this was going to be a big challenge for the Cavs. Georgia Tech has some of the best players in the ACC in receiver Calvin Johnson, tailback P.J. Daniels, defensive end Eric Henderson and linebacker Gerris Wilinson. The Yellow Jackets also have depth. Fourteen different GT players have recorded at least one sack this season. Tech’s offensive line is decent and its special teams are solid. The Jackets aren’t a great team but they are as good as Maryland, Boston College and North Carolina – all teams that beat Virginia.

Of course, those three losses came on the road, while Saturday’s game is at Scott Stadium, where UVa has won 20 of its past 22. The home environment and the crowd have helped the Cavaliers overcome adversity in the past, most recently against Florida State following Brad Butler’s suspension. The latest suspensions could either demoralize or motivate the ‘Hoos. If this game was on the road, I’d definitely pick against Virginia. At home, the Cavs tend to rise to the occasion, even with their backs against the wall.

The other reason I’m picking UVa is because of the quarterbacks. Marques Hagans must be healthy, nimble, resourceful and accurate against the aggressive GT defense. If he’s anywhere close to the form he flashed against FSU, I like Virginia’s chances. On the other side, I’m just not a big believer in Reggie Ball. He’s not accurate. He makes bad decisions. And I don’t think he’s much of a leader. If he plays with poise and gets the ball to his playmakers (Johnson, Daniels and Bilbo), the Jackets will win. If he’s erratic and careless with the ball, the Cavs can pull this one out.

Virginia 24, Georgia Tech 20

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