Georgia Tech is my new favorite rival. It's a rivalry that actually matters. The UVA
bowties Wahoos haven't beaten the Hokies in what will be a decade, and that annual beatdown is less of a rivalry and more of a tradition at this point. The winner of the Techmo bowl not only is in great position to win the Coastal Division every year, but Paul Johnson can come across as such a jerk that it's always fun to see a look of disgust on his face.
Tonight's battle will tell us a lot about what the rest of this season is going to look like. I've seen a lot of different concepts used by Loeffler over the first four games of this season, but haven't seen what I would consider a "complete" game plan yet. Virginia Tech spent the Alabama game running triple option from the pistol with some pro-style under-the-center formations, and then next week against Western Carolina mostly ran the same base plays that were featured in the watered down August scrimmages. Against ECU's stunting 3-4 defense, the Hokies were unable to just zone-block their way down the field, so instead of trying to run some counter blocking schemes they gave up on the run and went four- and five-wide.
Last week, Marshall's defense again proved too capable for Grimes' zone blocking scheme, so Tech lined up in pistol and ran the veer over... and over... and over again. Where were the spread formations that Tech had moderate success with the previous week? This lack of week-to-week cohesion leads me to believe that Loeffler is waiting for this Thursday's matchup to bring all of his tactics together at once. Not a moment too soon either, because Georgia Tech is no joke this season.
As always, Paul Johnson's offense strikes fear into the heart of the opposing defensive coordinator. Look at what Jack Tyler has to say about Bud Foster during the Georgia Tech week.
Tyler said DC Bud Foster gets pretty amped for GT. "He's at a whole other level for Georgia Tech game. ... It's kind of solve the riddle."— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) September 24, 2013
No one (and I mean no one) does in game adjustments better than Paul Johnson. He has been running his offense for so long that he has seen every conceivable defensive strategy and has designed a counter for all of them. One scary adjustment that he has started implementing mid-game caught my eye against USC in their bowl game last year. It was so unexpected and so diabolical that I had to rewind the play about 10 times to make sure that I was really seeing it.
People who say, "Defending the triple option is easy! It's just the same play over and over! Just play assignment football!" simply don't know what's up. Most people (including most TV "analysts") will claim that if the defensive end takes the dive, and the OLB takes the QB, all the MLB or safety has to do is take the pitch man and the offense won't go anywhere. Boom. Problem solved. Those people are dead wrong, and this play is a perfect example of why Paul Johnson would run all over their game plans.
It looks like on this play USC has the defensive end taking the fullback dive, and the linebacker on the line of scrimmage taking the pitch man. They hope to have the QB hold onto the ball and run right into the MLB who is pursuing inside out. Paul Johnson is going to run what looks like a triple option play, but will make the most basic of blocking adjustments and screw up everyone's read.
At the start of the play the A-back goes in motion, which causes the outside linebacker to head outside to get in position in case the QB pitches. The playside MLB also starts flowing to the sideline because he sees the playside offensive tackle block down, a clear read. He doesn't bother himself with the FB dive, because in meetings all week the defensive coordinator told the defensive end "take the fullback, take the fullback, take the fullback". The playside MLB has to rely on his defensive end making the tackle on a QB give. The defensive end never gets a chance to "take the fullback" on this triple option, because it's not a triple option play. The QB isn't reading anyone. This is a designed handoff.
The playside offensive tackle does block down away from the defensive end, normally a dead give away on a triple option play. Notice the offensive guard though, he trap blocks the defensive end. The offensive tackle and offensive guard switch responsibilities, and perform a cross-block. Now the defense is in trouble. The outside linebacker is still headed towards the sideline to stop the pitch that's never coming, and the MLB is relying on his defensive end to tackle the fullback so he's going to run towards where he thinks the QB will be after taking the ball back from the fullback. By the time the MLB realizes the FB has the ball, he's being blocked by the playside A-back.
With the defensive end blocked by the guard and the OLB and MLB out of the picture, there's no one left to take the FB except the safety 15 yards down the field. Everyone else has been schemed out of the play.
Here is Georgia Tech running the same play again, but on the opposite side of the formation. Both times PJ runs it to the field side of the formation, so he must have figured out the defense's assignments to that side of the field. This time, the playside MLB runs himself so far out of the play chasing the QB that he doesn't even need to be blocked.
This was the first time that I've seen Paul Johnson use this specific tactic. Obviously he liked it's effectiveness and the bind that it puts defenses in, as he's used it against opponents early this year. Bud Foster has noticed it too. Talking to reporters about how much of a pain it is to gameplan for Georgia Tech, Foster mentions this specific wrinkle (he calls it a "switch block")
as one that he may have to adjust to in game.
"We've got to really look early for any new schemes they're going to use against us, whether they switch block to try to tie our ends up, block down and pull a guy around, if they're trying to load on our Mike with a slot back. There's different ways right now in our mindset, that I'm anticipating some potential things. That haven't always shown that. They've done it at different times, but it's once in a blue moon on certain things how they block it. If they do it consistently, we've got to be ready to make some adjustments." — Bud Foster
This is why it's so vital to not face Georgia Tech on a short week. Not because the coaches need more time to spend with players to come up with a silver bullet to stop the flexbone, but because the coaches will need 10 silver bullets. If the defense lines up and defends Paul Johnson's offense the same way every play, Paul Johnson will win that matchup every time. He is too good. He's the coaching equivalent of a great fastball hitter. No one can throw their best stuff right past Paul Johnson, but if you keep him off balance by switching up your defensive assignments and lining up differently then you can get him to swing and miss at a curveball.
Above Average Defense
Georgia Tech has long been held back by their paltry defensive play. Every Hokie figured that Al Groh wasn't going to be the answer to Johnson's defensive problems, and he did his best to run that defense into the ground. After making a change and firing Al Groh halfway through last season, the defense's improvement was almost immediate.
This season Ted Roof is coaching the defense for Georgia Tech. They are running a fairly standard 4-3 defense that isn't too exotic. The Yellow Jackets don't rely on exotic blitzes or complex coverage schemes to beat you, but they do rely on solid fundamentals like rallying to the football and beating blocks. Jeremiah Attaochu is still a star for them. The former outside linebacker in Groh's 3-4 scheme has moved down to defensive end in the 4-3. He will rush the quarterback standing up pre-snap on passing downs (probably the most comfortable way for him after doing so as an OLB early in his career) and he's very effective. The Hokie tackles will have their hands full trying to stop him in obvious passing situations, so look for Loeffler to leave in RB's and TE's to help in protection. Using read plays from the shotgun and pistol should also help to slow down Attaochu's pass rush. Staying out of 3rd and longs will go a long way to keeping Logan upright, so I expect Virginia Tech to try and establish the rushing attack early and often.
Georgia Tech prefers to operate with mostly two deep safeties to prevent any long completions, but likes to drop a safety into robber or man coverage every now and then. They normally wait until right before the snap to make this adjustment, so it'll be crucial for Logan Thomas and his wide receivers to recognize the change in coverage and adjust their routes accordingly. Notice the safety waiting right before the snap to move forward into a Cover-3/Robber zone.
The rushing attack in pro-style formations will need to be at least as effective as it was against Alabama. Truth be told, it needs to be even more effective. Virginia Tech can't afford to just give up on those formations because Georgia Tech stacks the box. Loeffler will need to exploit any over-aggressiveness the Yellow Jackets show by switching between zone and man blocking on runs, running bootlegs and play-action featuring routes down the field, wide receiver screens, and other quick hitting routes from under center. If Logan Thomas is forced to operate exclusively from the pistol or shotgun, it could be a very long Thursday night.