It's common knowledge that yellow jackets, in general, are pests. Justin Fuente probably agrees with that assessment. This is the third year Fuente and staff have game-planned for the triple option. It will also be the third year in a row that Fuente looks for his first victory against the Yellow Jackets.
The Hokies are jumping into the 7:30 Thursday night kickoff at 4-2 (3-0). Georgia Tech is 3-4 (1-3). With a Virginia Tech win, the Yellow Jackets would be eliminated from the ACC Coastal race. No pressure.
First Down: No Place Like Home (On Thursday Night)
Immediately after the ahem less-than-optimal appearance on national television against Notre Dame, there was lots of discussion. Mostly surrounding the 2018 version of Virginia Tech football and expectations going forward.
However, some discourse centered around Lane Stadium and the threat (or lack thereof) that it poses to opponents. Just maybe, the atmosphere in Blacksburg has been reduced to an intro? That was a big talking point on this forum. And to be fair, those criticisms might be warranted. Despite a handful of opportunities, Virginia Tech hasn't beaten a ranked team in Blacksburg since 2009. Opponents don't skulk into Lane Stadium with fear in their eyes and their tails tucked anymore.
But for all the flack that Virginia Tech gets for underperforming on the big stage, Thursday nights just seem to be a different story. And it's a pretty big stage. Consistent appearances in this specific time slot helped build the Tech program during Frank Beamer's tenure. Fuente hasn't missed a beat since taking over, leading the Hokies to a 2-0 regular season record on Thursday night.
This section is not quote driven. This is a rare moment to share some candid thoughts. Yes, the Hokies have managed to bungle almost any opportunity to win on a big stage at home in recent years. But Fuente earned an important win courtesy of a Thursday night drubbing of Miami. And who could forget sweet old Narduzzi's meltdown in the middle of a Tech triumph on a Thursday night.
Both of those wins helped propel Tech to the ACC Championship Game in Fuente's inaugural season.
This Thursday provides another opportunity for Fuente to stake that claim. With a win, Fuente could not only get the Georgia Tech monkey off his back, but the Hokies would move to 4-0 in the ACC. It doesn't matter if the Yellow Jackets limp into Lane. "Coastal Chaos" has proven time and time again that records don't matter at this point in the season.
Not only will this matchup set the tone for the remainder of the 2018 campaign, but it will also either help put the doubters to bed or provide them with even more ammo. It's time for this Hokies team to put up or shut up.
Second Down: Damon Hazelton Hitting His Stride
It seems to be a recurring segment, but let's focus on Hazelton. The redshirt sophomore is tied for second in the ACC with five touchdown receptions, and is averaging almost 86 yards per game. Take out the abysmal offensive showing by the Hokies against North Carolina, and that average shoots up to almost 100 yards per game. Not too shabby for the first year in maroon and orange.
Hazleton's 515 total yards is also good for 13th-most yards from scrimmage in the ACC. Being right on the doorstep of the top-10 in that category without a single rushing yard is impressive. At a certain point, teams will, and have already started to, make adjustments to how they cover the 6'2", 222 pound wideout.
"It's funny because the coaches every week will be like 'this team is known for pressing up, this team is known for going man, they're going to get in your face, they're going to challenge you at the line,'" explained Hazelton. "And then we'll get to teams, and I guess because we might have had so much success early in the season, but they play off coverage and they play back. So it's kind of funny just because [the coaches] preach on that and you get in the game, and [the other team] planned a whole different defense. It still leaves opportunity to make plays underneath, make plays where there are holes in the defense. I leave it up to the coaches to figure out where that is, and try to go out and execute."
Fuente has been encouraged by what he's seen so far, but knows the youngsters game can be refined more.
"Well, I think he certainly has room for improvement," said Fuente. "Doesn't mean that I'm not pleased with him. I think we've been happy with how he's approached things. He listens, he's a very coachable young man, but there are some technique things and consistency that he needs to continue to improve on. As do all of our wideouts. It's something that's a focus for him every week, in terms of technique. It's a lot more involved than just 'run by the guy'. It just doesn't happen very much at this level. The corners are all fast too. And understanding the technique it takes, and being able to execute those on a consistent basis. The good thing is, you know, like some of the guys we've had here in the past, like Isaiah [Ford] and Cam [Phillips], he can communicate with you about what he's getting or what he's seeing. So he can kind of see things in real time. There are some technique things that he will need to continue to improve on as he moves forward. And I think he will."
And because of Hazelton's success so far this season, the big wideout continues to be targeted by the Tech quarterbacks more and more. It's understandable. Get the ball to your most effective wideout. Duh. But how does the Tech coaching staff make that work without being too predictable? As Tech sputtered against North Carolina, there was plenty of chatter that Ryan Willis stared down Hazelton too much.
"I don't know," noted Fuente. "It's been a while since we've played and I've looked at the film, quite honestly. We missed Damon several times that we shouldn't have. I didn't feel like that on multiple occasions. Maybe on a few, we weren't distributing the ball to the right place. I didn't think it was an overriding theme throughout the entire game."
Third Down: The Triple Option And How To Stop It
If anyone wants to start a petition to ban this offense from college football, that's fine by me. This scheme sucks. It's boring, predictable, and comprised of a series of chop blocks. At least it's always a game that lasts less than 3 hours.
Takes a deep breath.
And now for some more controlled and reasonable takes.
The cut block rule was changed this past offseason by the NCAA.
If an offensive player blocks someone below the waist more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, it's illegal.
Only interior linemen can block below the waist from the side. Everyone else's blocks below the waist must come from the front. Previously, other offensive players were allowed to low-block from the side as long as they were inside the tackle box — the area about five yards in either direction from the snapper, and extending backward to the offense's goal line.
If you take a look at film across the country, it's super obvious the NCAA really cracked down with that alteration and made it a priority.
"I have seen zero difference really, in them," said Fuente. "I don't know that the five yard cut that has been disallowed has even been called very much. I don't know if it's happened very much. I'm certainly not insinuating that it should've been called. I just don't see much difference. We have coached some things differently on our side of the ball with not cutting, and some looks that maybe we have on perimeter run plays before. I'd say it's been negligible, I don't want to put words in Paul [Johnson's] mouth, but I think Paul would say it's been negligible or not much different than it always has."
The key focus for any matchup against Georgia Tech is defensive preparation. Specifically, the defensive line. Redshirt senior Ricky Walker hasn't played during a victory over the Yellow Jackets. The lone win over Georgia Tech during his Blacksburg tenure was in 2015, his redshirt season.. But he's prepared for the triple option for four years now.
"This offense is different," explained Walker. "Frustrating. But you know, our game plan is perfect. Just trust your technique, play out chop blocks and just penetrate. To people that didn't play it, just do your job and you know, don't worry about somebody else's job. If everybody does their job, then we'll be good."
Walker expounded on how to find success.
"The key for this game, Coach Wiles says it every year, in order to win this game you have to have great defensive tackle play," added Walker. "So penetration, staying on your feet, playing out chop blocks, just doing technique stuff is going to help this team win."
There might be some hardened veterans on the defensive line, but there's a knowledge gap at linebacker — literally zero experience against the triple option. However, Fuente opened up the press conference on Monday afternoon with an interesting tidbit.
"Sorry to keep you all waiting," Fuente said. "Was having a great meeting with Andrew [Motuapuaka]. So I'm sorry."
If the young linebackers benefit from Motuapuaka's advice, I don't think many fans will be asking Fuente to apologize.
"I've talked to Drew a couple times," said Rayshard Ashby. "We keep in touch and talk. We got together a little bit and hung out for a little bit. That's my brother. But yeah, I've talked to him and seen him around. ... He actually came out last week, the first weekend, and gave us some tips and helped us mike [linebackers] in general. Helped us with some tips that he had, what he did when he was here, what to look for, things like that. Helped me and Rico [Kearney] with that."
Ashby shared some insight into how the Hokies have been preparing for the triple option attack. For such a young player — it's his true sophomore campaign and his first playing snaps at linebacker — his maturity and ability to pick up the skills required at such a tough position continues to impress. It's becoming apparent why the coaching staff sang Ashby's praises throughout fall camp
"It's definitely strange and weird, because it's a whole different offense," added Ashby. "We hadn't gone over it at all. It is what it is. Every week you have a new game plan, even though it's different. So this week has just been 'different team, different gameplan'. Definitely getting used to it. I think I'm really used to it right now, been watching film on them going through practice and the scout team has been doing a good job. I'm just really getting a feel for it now and I've got it down pretty much."
Fourth Down: GT FAQ
What have the Yellow Jackets accomplished so far?
Well, they absolutely slaughtered Louisville back at the start of October, winning 66-31. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that 2-5 (0-4) Louisville is bad at football this year. The Yellow Jackets' other two wins come in the form of a 41-0 victory against Alcorn State and a 63-17 triumph over Bowling Green.
Long story short, this team doesn't have any impressive wins on their resume. Do they have any bad losses? Honestly, not really either. Maybe the 24-19 loss to Pittsburgh? But other than, their two losses are to Duke and Clemson. So it seems like for the most part, Georgia Tech is winning and losing the games they're supposed to.
With all that said, I don't even know who's supposed to win this game. Vegas says Virginia Tech by 3 points, but I don't know if much of the Hokie Nation feels confident going into this game.
Who's a player the Hokie faithful should watch out for?
The obvious answer is senior quarterback TaQuon Marshall. The 5'10" senior leads the Georgia Tech offense in rushing yards, with 598 so far this season. He's the returning starter, after taking the reins last season. Marshall has a total of 12 touchdowns in 2018, nine of them on the ground and the other three through the air.
However, right behind Marshall is "backup" quarterback Tobias Oliver. I put backup in quotation marks because I would be shocked if Oliver doesn't play on Thursday night. The 6'2" redshirt freshman has already rushed for 445 yards and 7 touchdowns this season. Throw in the fact that he's thrown for a touchdown as well lends me to believe that the Georgia Tech offensive coaching staff will be more than willing to play him on Thursday night.
Who wins and why?
Easy answer: Tech will win this game. Boom. Done.
Complex answer: Virginia Tech wins, but not by much. This game has all kinds of question marks surrounding it. Fuente's inability to beat Georgia Tech (so far). A Hokies' defense that lacks experience going up against the triple option. Ryan Willis' ability to make the right throws and literally not throw away one of the limited possessions that Virginia Tech will get.
It's going to be a somewhat high-scoring game, courtesy of the Georgia Tech offense that should be able to exploit the youth of the Hokies' defense. But I have a weird sort of confidence in Fuente and his offense to put it all together on their third try against the Yellow Jackets. Give me the Hokies, 34-30.