Georgia Tech Preview: Glory, or Death by a Thousand Cuts

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.

Comments

This game

Is always brutal to watch. You think our defense is playing well on every down until you see they've moved 70 yards in 8 minutes.

I have a feeling this one is going to be like '09 all over again. I hope I'm wrong, but I sense it.

That is the beauty of the offense. A little piece of me dies when college offenses line up in the shotgun on 3rd and 3. If you can't run for 3.3 yards on a 3rd and 3, to me, you don't deserve to win the ballgame.

Viva El Guapo

That's an... interesting... take.

You design your offensive scheme and its base formation around your talent. Or, at least, well coached teams do. If you don't have the personnel to run a power I, you don't run a power I. Likewise if you don't recruit for a power run game, you don't bother trying to develop one.

There's being old school, and then there's being a curmudgeon. Your respect for classic option football is the former. Saying a team "doesn't deserve to win" if they can't play smashmouth football for three yards falls firmly in the latter.

People on Andy Bitter's live chat are acutally asking him if he thinks Old Dominion is a better team than Virginia Tech. Wow.

Viva El Guapo

Seriously, just because the offense doesn't execute a play doesn't mean it is a poor play call. Reading this live chat makes my head hurt.

Viva El Guapo

Bravo

Well done analysis, as always.

The 'death by a thousand cuts' metaphor is entirely appropriate. I've been to every VT-PJ Coached GT game, including in Atlanta in 2009, and the ability to constantly stay ahead of the chains becomes frustrating. We are 2-1 against PJ GT teams, but could easily be 0-3:

In 2008, Nesbitt missed a wide open WR running down the middle of the field with about 5 minutes left. If he hits his man, who had an easy 10 yards on the closest VT defender, we probably wind up losing 24-20. Thankfully, he overthrew him.

In 2009, we lost because we couldn't generate anything on offense in the first half, and scored way too quickly in the second half. The defense, while it played well in the first half, simply wore down. I think we only gave up one reception the entire game, but it was a long one to D. Thomas for like 50 yards.

Last year, Nesbitt broke his arm running down an interception. Even then, with a backup QB running the offense, the Yellow Jackets were able to tie it up at 21. David Wilson did his David Wilson magic, but the GT offense was able to drive in the final seconds before Tevin Washington was picked off by Rock in the endzone with 8 seconds left.

As stated before, be are lucky to have an extra couple of days to prepare for assignment football on the defensive side of the ball. I feel the key to whether or not we are in a position to win - cause let's be honest, GT is going to score on this injury depleted defense - is which one of our Jekyll & Hyde offenses shows up. If we come out and are able to execute with success early, like Miami, we will have a chance. If we look anything like last week, the game will be over by halftime.

Tweedy and K. Fuller could play big roles against the flexbone. Put Tweedy on Washington all game. The way this guy flies to the ball is crazy. His game is fundamentally unsound on several levels, so I don't really want him playing assignment football, having to sit on a player in hopes the ball comes his way. I think he'd shed his assignment in hopes of making a tackle too often. Instead let him pin his ears back and go after Washington on every snap. Make Tweedy's assignment to force Washington to pitch the ball.

A similarly unorthodox move, make K. Fuller the pitch man. He's the surest open field tackler we have and that's what we need in the option man. The problem there, of course, is taking a cornerback out of pass protection when it's obvious that this year more than any other we have to respect GT's passing game.

K Fuller as the option man would work if we play nickel all game, but then you have to figure out who takes Tweedy's place covering Washington.

There's a reason Foster starts scheming for these guys in January. One week of it is enough to make my head hurt.

the only problem with having Tweedy ghost Washington is that GT uses balanced sets. Tweedy would have to line up weak or strong side and GT can stay away from him.

In theory, this is how you would hope to defend the flexbone. Notice, the Hokie can't slant or blitz in this look.


                                 O

                       O        O        O
       O                 O O  X  O O              O
       C                 E   T   T    E              C
                     R      M       B      W

                                 FS

Assignments

DTs: Both DT's "eagle" in the guard-center gap. At the snap, get upfield a disrupt the mesh point between the QB and the fullback. (GT counter would be to attempt to trap block DTs, or get them moving laterally using the toss sweep.) The DT MUST stop inside dive by themselves. On every play, they should hit the fullback, regardless of if he has the ball.

DEs: Pressure the outside shoulder of the tackle, doing their best to squeeze a belly dive or a wide dive. Any time a back (QB, FB, or Z) comes through the guard-tackle gap, the DE should tackle him. The challenge for the DE is to squeeze wide dive, without getting blown up on a down block by each Z or wingback.

Corners: Each corner has man coverage, and must shake option stalk blocking UNLESS the safety has over the top coverage on the WR. If so, the corner has pitch.

Whip and Rover: Both play the role of 4-4 outside linebackers. Often, one will be the option man. I would anticipate that Bud Foster will play a great deal of base, and his signal will be on option, should the option man take pitch or quarterback. The Hokies generally have had the outside backers play pitch, leaving the QB to the safety. Occasionally switching that up can risk a big play, but it can also screw up the timing of the offense, resulting in turnovers. If the rover or whip sees the play moving away from him at the snap, must YELL "SCREEN, THROWBACK, COUNTER, REVERSE" and hold his ground. Yelling this allows for the play to develop and keeps him in position to cover all four counter options.

Mike and Backer: The mike and backer become almost like 3-4 middle backers. They will read keys. In my experience, the playside backer has responsbility for wide, belly, and double dive, then scraping to QB. In all roles, they are providing support and are not the primary. The backide backer has to tackle the fullback dive, every time.

Free safety. In Bud's system, he has responsibility for the QB, unless the corner has full run responsibility. If so, the safety would play over the top, similar to a cover 1 defense. Such a defense basically give GT any mid range passing completion they want.

Everyone has their assignment, and any freelancing will result in big plays againt. For the most part, Bud Foster's defense has prevented big plays by Georgia Tech. Now, the challenge is to create turnovers and let the Hokie offense dominate time of possession and the scoreboard.

Viva El Guapo

When Bud plays nickel against GT what is the nickel back's assignment?

Same as the whip. They will be interchangable

Viva El Guapo

Gotta vote nickel then. Tweedy might still be hobbled and I don't trust Nick Dew enough for his first serious playing time to be against GT.

I think Fuller may be the starting whip linebacker. The responsibilities are essentially the same.

Viva El Guapo

Would that be different than our nickel defense? Other than what you call the position K Fuller is playing?

Hope Jayron is fully healthy...

So he can cover one-on-one on Stephen Hill much like how UVA utilized Chase Minnifield. UVA completely shut down the passing game this way, allowing 10 men to cover the triple option. It should be a good game, and I just hope the defensive underclassmen really strive to prepare for this offense. If they are well prepared and play with discipline, VT will be fine. If not, Logan will have to play a near perfect game to pull off the win.

I certainly hope so. I am not sure if Georgia Tech follows suite, but MOST option teams tend to run to the short (or "boundary" in Hokie lexicon) side of the field. If Tech does their normal D look, that means that Hosley will have a great deal of run support responsibility.

While I am not sure about their option game, I am 100 percent sure that they like to run their quick pitch series to the field (or wide) side of the field. That play has been the backbreaker for the Hokies in the past. They need Chris Hill to be something we have not seen much of, a good open field tackler who forces plays rather than waiting on the runner to come to him.

Viva El Guapo

hey, nice blog post

Bunch of GT guys on my home forum were reading it, and wanted to give you some props. Your keys to success and/or failure seem about right to us. It's refreshing to see intelligent football analysis from VT folks, instead of cut block whining / etc. This game should be tight, and should decide the winner of the ACC Coastal just like every other year since the division started. They should really rename the division the "Battle of the Techs."

The chess match between PJ and Bud has been interesting to watch over the years. Each game is two or three new moves on the chessboard. Definitely a treat for students of the game.

Good luck and all the best.

gt fan, full disclosure

Good analysis, one note

Another GT fan here; I came across your blog last year as well and remember making a mental note to bookmark and keep up with it. Hopefully I will this time, always enjoy good, solid analysis of ACC teams.

One note with an early part: "For the most part, GT's "big plays" come from fullback traps that quickly gash the defense."

That's been true for the last few years with Dwyer and Allen running the ball, but our current B-Backs haven't shown that big-play ability yet. David Sims has 102 carries for 564 years (5.5 avg) - second on the team behind Tevin in both categories - 11 carries for 63 yards/game on average. For comparison, Allen's B-Back season was 18-101, and Dwyer's two were 15-107 and 17-99. Perhaps more telling is that Sims has just the one rush over 40 yards, and only 4 scores overall - the big plays have come from the A-Backs, with Orwin Smith averaging 11.3 and Roddy Jones/Embry Peeples averaging 9.5 apiece. Not that ignoring the dive is safe - as you note, the offense would be very happy running 5 yards a pop up the middle every down - but there haven't been those big breakthroughs as in past years.

Looking forward to a good game, injury-free. I think we can both agree on a Tech win, although perhaps we differ on the specifics.

Thank you for the feedback and the numbers. I have only had an opportunity to watch bits a pieces of three Georgia Tech games this year, Miami, UVA, and Clemson, and I did notice that the fullback wasn't getting quite as many big hitters up the middle. The premise of those dive plays being "big plays" is similar to the use of the fullback trap out of the buck-sweep "38" series in the wing-t. The tackles get upfield so much that they almost take themselves out of the play, which allows extra blockers on the linebacker. It is so quick hitting, that unless it get stopped right at the point of attack, the fullback can get to the 3rd level almost immediately, hence the big plays.

VT's primary focus the last 4 years has been stopping the fullback, and except for 2009 they have really done a good job. Their second focus has been pitch, which on the traditional option has not hurt them badly. Unfortunately with the option, the more you take away one player, the more things open up for other players, and in this case, Virginia Tech has forced the quarterback to beat them 3-5 yards at a time, in the hope that the pounding will lead to turnovers. Also (for reason that would require more film study than I have time for) Virginia Tech' outside linebackers and DE's have struggled mightly to contain Georgia Tech's quick pitch play to the motion back, especially in short yardage.

Miami's defense (which was absolutely awful against VT) figured out how to defeat the triple option almost 25 years ago with their success using the 4-3 against Big 8 team like Oklahoma. Up until that time, most team played wishbone defense using a 5-2 look, which is essentially a 3-4 but with very little pass responsibility for the OLBs. The front 7 played assignment football, manned their gaps, and tackled their assignments. Miami changed everything with the 4-3. Some of that dominance stemmed from Miami having much better athletes in their front seven, but I also think that Jimmy Johnson decided to get his guys upfield and dictate the down and distance to the defense. Their great athleticism made up for the times where they got trapped or blew and assignment. 25 years later, we saw Miami and UVA both use the 4-3 to stymie Georgia Tech.

The scary news for the Hokies is, their gap defense, while looking somewhat similar to the 4-3, has very different fundamentals and has more in common with the old 5-2. When you add that the Hokies can't slant, stunt, or blitz out of that look, it essentially means the defense has had one week to completely "unlearn" how to play their system. This year, luckily we have two, but the injuries mean there will be a tremendous amount of pressure, especially to the whip side where Gayle has been dinged up, and we can expect Kyle Fuller to be playing whip linebacker. We know he can tackle, but can he beat crack back blocks? This will be a war folks.

Viva El Guapo

This is the first year in a kabillion where Paul Johnson has not had a B Back on track for a 1000 yard season. I chalk it up to being young at G-C-G, but a large part of it I think is other schools looking to take away the dive first and forcing us outside with the ball. Another thing to keep in mind is with Dwyer and Allen, we used to run a lot of double option with the B as the pitch guy, and we're not doing near as much of that this year because of our relative strength at A back, who are more natural pitch recipients anyway.

VT's approach defensively the past few years has been to line up in an even front, with nobody in the field side B gap, and to motion a LB into that gap presnap. The intent with that is to goob up the reads, because the linebacker goes from being read to blocked, or blocked to read, depending on the count in the play. So you're showing a four man front then motioning into a five man front before the snap. VT has done this in 2010 and 2009, but I can't remember in 08 because I wasn't following the Xs and Os that closely, and didn't know what to look for.

That might be what you're calling "VT's Gap Defense," I'll admit to not knowing a whole lot about Bud's philosophy, but it's certainly something I've noticed about how you approach defending us.

The key to defending GT is soo much simpler than all this tactical crap. Any GT fan can tell by the end of the first quarter if we're going to score any points or not. Are we blocking you, or are you avoiding our blocks? That's the only important question. If we're blocking well then our scheme wins on pure math. If you're beating our blocks then the math fails and the scheme collapses. It's super simple.

gt fan, full disclosure

well said. I had noticed middle backers stepping into the hole sometimes. It didn't occur to me that they did it regularly. I do know that either the mike or backer have dive on every play.

As for the "gap defense", basically against other teams, the defensive line and the linebackers move to prearranged spots in different sets, with the intent for a specific linebacker to have the running play funneled in his direction. On every play, each player on the defensive line, the backer, and the mike, have a gap responsibility. The whip, who is a combo safety/outside linebacker, gets to freelance to the bau ll. Other times, they funnel the play to the backer or mike. One major tendency is for the defensive line to stunt one gap over to the tight end side of the offense, and the mike backer then stunts back to the weakside, in anticipation of tackling the back as he reads the cutback lane. It doesn't work if the offense can power run to the weakside, getting blockers on the whips (who generally have not been good at taking on blocks.)

Against Georgia Tech, the Hokies will not play this scheme. Generally they won't blitz much except for passing downs, and I would be stunned if you saw any of their normal slanting.

Viva El Guapo

I have a question....

french60wasp.....are you a coach somewhere? You obviously have some background....would love to hear it. Your analysis is incredibly detailed.....haven't seen that kind of breakdown since I played in h.s.....(not totally sure I saw it there either) Thanks for enlightening everyone!

Take the shortest route to the ball and arrive in bad humor.

I played in high school and at a Division 3 school that was very successful in the late 90's, where I learned both wing-t and pro-I principles. I didn't go into coaching mainly because I decided that I didn't want to teach and I didn't think I could handle the highs and lows of the job. I have been fortunate to have a good eye for the game, and many friends who now work as coaches from the high school to the pro level, and I have picked up pieces along the way.

Bud's defense always has been a challenge for me. I think the way they play Georgia Tech simplifies it to the point where I could explain it much better. It is certainly unique in college football, and while the terminology is the same, the concepts are WILDLY different from the wide-tackle six defense that Foster ran before 2004. Thank Aaron Rodgers, Larry Fitzgerald, and Rich Rod for blowing up that scheme and all the sacks and punishment that came with it.

Viva El Guapo

Props

I gotta say the analysis on this site makes watching our Hokies play even that much better. I look forward to the bloggers' pre and post game summaries here so I can learn even more. Good stuff! French60wasp you even made me google "A gap" to ensure i was on the right page with what you were talking about, actually found some good sites about that sort of thing. I, like many here, didn't play organized football so learning more of this stuff is pretty helpful. Maybe have more posts explaining parts of our offensive and defensive schemes? Thanks!!

To build off this maybe a weekly feature explaining football concepts in general besides the analysis of our game? I realize it may be too time consuming to do but I would definitely enjoy reading it! Great stuff french

lol #newhoos