With the Virginia football team sitting on five wins, big picture talk has taken over the storylines.
Can the Hoos become bowl eligible? How are they handling the pressure being one win away? Are injuries and depth taking a toll? Will the offense snap out of its low-scoring funk? It’s easy to see why. UVA fans really want the football team to get on track as a program and a bowl bid would be a big positive step.
Still, the only way to get there is with another win and getting that this week requires attention on the micro level in a big way. Georgia Tech, after all, means its triple option week and that creates a totally different week of preparation. Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said that it’s like running two different practices – one for the defense and one for the offense with little overlap like most weeks of the season.
In fact, the preparation for the Yellow Jackets goes back to summer camp in August. Mendenhall devoted some specific practice time to option concepts in order to try to accelerate the preparation during game week in November. Bottom line: it’s challenging.
“It requires a lot of offseason work and a lifetime of lessons,” Mendenhall said. “The first time I defended an option team, it was humiliating and embarrassing and just enlightening. I didn’t know what it was, how to defend it or what to do to help my team, and have spent a long time studying and trying to prepare as best as possible to give our teams the best chance, and recent history has said we’ve done a pretty good job with that. But any given week you can learn and be humbled, and that hopefully provides growth, but it takes – even with the really busy schedule of college football coaches in season, it requires even more, and we all know that, and we’re trying to give our players the best chance, and it’s a very exhausting week. If you play well, really gratifying, and if you don’t, there’s learning that hopefully applies for the next year, that you can really help your players have success.”
And that’s just the triple option part of the equation. GT’s defense will challenge a struggling Virginia offense as well. The Yellow Jackets rank in the top 40 nationally in third down defense (10th/27.91% allowed), total defense (25th/330.1 ypg), and scoring defense (36th/21.3 ppg)
Then there’s special teams where UVA has been inconsistent as well. That included allowing a punt return touchdown for the second time this season last week at Pittsburgh. Georgia Tech returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Miami when the Hurricanes misplayed an onside kick to start the second half. The Jackets had a kick return TD in 2016 too. Plus, GT has the fifth most blocked kicks at the FBS level since 2013 with 18 even though it doesn’t have a block yet this season.
Punter Pressley Harvin III owns a 46.0-yard average over the first seven games of his career to rank seventh nationally and Brenton King is perfect on five field goal attempts this season as well.
All in all, this won’t be an easy one for the Hoos. They’ll have to earn it if this is the week for another win.
Kris’ Keys To Winning
1. Prevent explosive scoring plays. It’s been mentioned in the game preview already, but this is an important one this week. Last season, UVA gave up scoring plays of 67, 54, and 60 yards to the Yellow Jackets. GT coach Paul Johnson said this week that the Cavalier defense played the option “very well” last year, but that his offense made the big plays to make the difference. The challenge here is that Virginia’s defense has been vulnerable to big scoring plays throughout the Bronco Mendenhall era to date, giving up at least one touchdown of 26 yards or more in 15 of the 20 games to date. The Hoos just missed adding Pitt to that list last week by allowing a 25-yard touchdown run. Bottom line: make Tech earn any points it gets.
2. Move the chains and score some points. Georgia Tech scored fewer than 24 points for the first time this season last week in a 24-10 loss at Clemson, which snapped a 10-game streak with 24+ points. On the flipside, Virginia’s offense has scored 20 points or fewer nine times in its last 13 FBS games. The Hoos have scored 20 or fewer in eight of 12 ACC games to date in the Mendenhall era with a 1-7 record in those eight games. They’ll need to score more points than that this week to win more than likely. That probably will require making first downs in order to set up scoring drives. The challenge there is that GT’s defense is one of the best nationally at forcing three-and-out possessions. The Yellow Jackets have forced a three-and-out 86% of the time this season (37/86 defensive series).
3. Summon Mike Tobey’s senior stretch run mentality. That’s right, RAMT! Late in Mike Tobey’s senior season, coach Tony Bennett made a reference to the center playing with reckless abandon. Tobey delivered several big performances down the stretch as UVA made a run in the NCAA Tournament. That led to the reckless abandon Mike Tobey (RAMT) acronym on the message boards. While I generally prefer tangible keys, this week’s talk about emotion, passion, having the right mindset, and all of that out of Virginia brought this one to the list. Forget the consequences, bowl eligibility being at stake, and all of that. Get after it and let the chips fall where they may. RAVFT!
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I don’t like this matchup on paper. Virginia is reeling and dealing with injuries. Georgia Tech is two whiskers away from a one-loss season to date. GT’s defense gets off the field fast, while UVA’s offense does the same (cue the groans). Tech’s offense grinds you down and holds on to the ball while still scoring points. It just doesn’t look like a good week to be hoping for win No. 6. You knew there was a but coming. But the Yellow Jackets never seem to play well at Scott Stadium of late where UVA has won 10 of the last 12 meetings with an 11-4-1 record overall at home in this series. That includes a win in Mike London’s final season back in 2015. Dia de los Muertos ended Thursday, but Hoos Rising isn’t ready for that farewell yet. VIRGINIA 27, GEORGIA TECH 24. Season To Date: 4-4.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: Virginia’s defense performed well against the Georgia Tech option attack last year, allowing three big plays for the Yellow Jackets’ three offensive touchdowns. The Cavalier offense struggled to score – stop me if you’ve heard that before the last two years – and a Matt Johns interception was returned for a touchdown to seal the 31-17 result. UVA’s defense will come to play against Georgia Tech, and I think the Hoos will do well. My concern lies on offense. I’m just not confident Virginia can score enough points, and I think Georgia Tech ultimately wears down the Cavalier defense. I hope I’m wrong, but … GEORGIA TECH 28, VIRGINIA 17. Season To Date: 4-4.