It almost seems surreal that, given Virginia Tech's long standing rivalries with Miami and UVA, that over the last 4 years the ACC game which has caused many a Hokie the greatest worry has been the Ramblin Wreck of Georgia Tech. Paul Johnson has successfully been able to implement a true flexbone offense in a BCS Conference, and despite a clear drop in his offensive recruiting talent, Johnson has been able to adapt his lesser athletes into a system that works.
A moment of full disclosure, I am a football purist. I believe in the fundamentals, and the premise that repetition and technique can make up for a lack of athleticism. This matchup features a Virginia Tech defense that uses a slanting, gap control model which compensates for lesser athletic ability against a Georgia Tech offense which harkens back to the days of Darryl Royal, where the offensive line veer blocks, coming off low and fast the way many of us were taught in high school.
Traditionally, Georgia Tech wins that head to head matchup. The flexbone veer requires defenses to abandon designer blitzes, slanting, and defensive line stunts. They simplify the game, and force each defender to play straight ahead gap responsibility. All the techniques that Bud Foster teaches in order to "funnel" running backs to certain defenders go right out the window. Each Hokie defender must A) Control their straight ahead gap assignment; B) tackle the first offensive back who comes into their space, regardless of if they have the ball and C) tackle effectively, especially on the perimeter.
Georgia Tech's flexbone also elminates another Hokie strength: gang tackling. Defenders can not scrape and flow. They can't fly to the ball. Each defender must account for their gap assignment until the play is over. Similar to play action, this tends to freeze defenders and they start "watching" the offense develop. Georgia Tech has several keys for victory: keep ahead of the sticks, control the clock, and pressure the defense into making mistakes. Mental fatigue leads to poor tackling, and poor tackling and gap control against this offense leads to big plays.
Bud Foster has always held to two tennents when playing Georgia Tech's flexbone. First, he makes stopping the dive his highest priority. Hokie DT's, especially John Graves, thrived on flying through the zero gap and attempting to get to the mesh point where the quarterback either fakes or hands to the fullback. For the most part, GT's "big plays" come from fullback traps that quickly gash the defense. Virginia Tech has really done a good job of limiting Georgia Tech's fullbacks. However, Virginia Tech is utilizing a different style of DT this year. Both Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy are pluggers, not guys who blow through gaps on the snap and get upfield. Corey Marshall could be that guy, but his problems with alignment and gap control (as well as a tendency to play with his pads high) could really dampen the coaching staff's trust to put him in the A gap.
The trade off for taking away the dive is that Virginia Tech is left with making difficult choices for the "option man" (ie, the unblocked defender on every option play who the quarterback reads in order to decide on pitching the ball or keeping." Traditionally, VT's option man has almost exclusively taken the pitch man, leaving the rover and free safety to take the quarterback. This strategy limits big plays, but without turnovers, causes Virginia Tech to die a "death by a thousand cuts." Essentially, a safety taking quarterback means that Georgia Tech's QB's will get 3-5 yards every time they keep, barring a spectacular play (and likely a blown assignment against the dive where a backer flows into the QB lane.) For a football purist, watching the QB keep again and again and again is beautiful football, moving the sticks with a precision and faith in system rarely seen in today's football. For a fan of the other team, it is death. Every play looks like the defense made a good stop, then you look up and see that it is 3rd a 1, rather than 3rd and 5. Again, it puts tremendous pressure on the Hokie safeties to tackle well, which has not been a strong point this season. Eddie Whitley and Antone Exum may combine for 30 tackles this game, but the misses will speak louder.
The second tennent of the Bud Foster model for playing the flexbone is causing turnovers. Georgia Tech's multiple ball fakes and misdirection results in the ball hitting the ground. The Hokies must get turnovers early and get an early lead, or we will be in for a long evening.
Neither goal is achieved simply by "doing what Miami does" because the Hokies base defense requires very different fundamentals to play on a week to week basis. You don't just "forget" all the muscle memory you develop week to week. If the Hokie D want to give their offense a chance to win the football game, they must take away the dive, tackle well on the end, and the corners must effectivey shed option stalk blocks without getting burned deep on play action in order to assist with pitch as well as stopping quick pitch plays. Also, every time Tevin Washington carries the football, they must punish him. The QB is the key to the cadilac, and if the Hokies can make him tenative, turnovers will follow.
Offensively, the Hokies face a familiar challenge. Georgia Tech's features Al Groh's old reliable 3-4 defense, which functions on the premise that the three defensive tackles tie up as many blockers as possible, while the linebackers scrape and make plays. Most of the pass rush is generated through OL confusion by bringing different linebackers from multiple positions. Several Hokie linemen have struggled against the 3-4 this year (Becton and Brooks come to mind), while Andrew Miller has had his best games against a 3-4 while struggling with the 4-3.
There are two soft areas of this type of defense. First of all, the big linebackers can be worn out running sideline to sideline defending the Hokie screen game. Then, the running game itself MUST be focused on effectively running quick hitting plays between the tackles. This opens up the sweep and the stretch play in the second half. The Hokies will not have success running a standard zone play against a 3-4 unless the Hokie running backs can effectively locatate cut back lanes. The Hokies would be well served to run power plays, out of a one back set, in the first half.
Second, the secondary for Georgia Tech tends to play relatively deep, safe coverages. Logan Thomas will be forced to look to underneath routes and make accurate throws versus zone coverage. Georgia Tech will attempt to make the Hokies grind out long drives, counting on the execution trouble that the Hokies featured against Duke to rear it's ugly head again.
The Hokies must score touchdowns in the red zone, and must score off turnovers. The offense must play with a sense of urgency that any drive not resulting in points could spell disaster. They can not afford stretches of 3 and outs, or the defense will eventually break under the strain.
My prediction? Hokies 31, Georgia Tech 24.