It almost seems surreal that, given Virginia Tech's long standing rivalries with Miami and UVA, that over the last 5 years the ACC game which has caused many Hokies 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.
Often, 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 in the gap scheme goes right out the window. For the next ten days, every defensive player for Virginia Tech has to unlearn everything they have learned about playing defense, and incorporate new movements, keys, and techniques that allows them to: 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.
Let's take a look at Georgia Tech's bread and butter inside veer triple option (note, I have the play diagrammed to run left because the Yellow Jackets run almost two-thirds of the time to the left against the Hokies).
On the inside veer, Georgia Tech looks to seal the nose tackle and the mike linebacker inside with a double team (usually a cut block) on the nose and a down block by the left tackle on the mike backer. In an attempt to make the backer slide out wide to prevent being sealed inside, the wingback to the playside tries to influence the backer with a veer release, therefore opening up the lane for the fullback and quarterback. At the snap, the quarterback will turn playside and stick the football into the belly of the fullback (known as the "mesh point") in the soft space behind the double team block on the nose. The defensive end is unblocked, and the quarterback will read him.
- If the QB reads a lane for the fullback (which is always the primary goal of this play) the QB will give to the fullback. When their offense is really clicking, GT's longest runs come on the dive.
- If the end crashes hard inside on the dive, the quarterback with pull the ball away from the fullback and run wider, looking to option the next visible defender.
- If the end "forces" the quarterback, the QB pitches to the wingback.
With the defense outmanned to the playside, the option forces the defense to make a choice on which of the 3 options they can't account for. A good option quarterback will read that defensive call, and select that option. Different change-ups in angles (inside versus outside dives, crack-back blocks, down blocks) are used to confuse defenders, and 4-5 simple plays can be ran 10 different ways. Similar to play action, this tends to freeze defenders and they start "watching" the offense develop, instead of defending its attack. 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. Blitzing, slanting, and other techniques that the Hokies regularly use become incredibly high risk. If one additional defender vacates his gap in a slant or blitz to go with a crisp double team, the end result is often a Yellow Jacket touchdown.
How does Bud Foster try to stop this offense? Well, some things change each year as they use new techniques and have different skill sets, but several things hold true. Let's take a look:
1. Take away the dive.
The Hokie outside linebackers tend to ignore the influence block of the wingback, and in most alignments, the playside AND backside defensive tackle, the playside outside linebacker, and the mike linebacker all jam up the middle to take away the inside dive.
2. Make the quarterback beat you.
Not always, but most of the time, the unblocked Hokie defender will take the pitch man, as will the cornerback to the playside. The safeties play a two-deep zone and are not supposed to come up in run support until the quarterback has crossed the line of scrimmage. They have quarterback responsibility along with the late pursuit from the interior of the defense. This means the quarterback will get 3-7 yards more often than not when he keeps (Tevin Washington was well over 100 yards last season until he started getting sacked). So, why would Foster knowingly let the quarterback chew up yardage?
- The quarterback keep has the least likelihood of breaking for a big play.
- Good tackling wears the quarterback out, both with pain and mental fatigue.
- The QB develops a "memory" in game and starts anticipating a read rather than making a read. Foster will switch assignments in crucial spots, which forces the QB to either make the wrong read or the defender can crush him and cause a turnover.
On the crucial 4th quarter GT drive last season that ended in a terrific Jack Tyler 4th-down stop, Washington gave to the fullback on 1st and 2nd downs into the teeth of Hokie run blitzes. If he had read the play correctly, he would have kept on both plays for an additional yard or two. Playing "behind the sticks" (3rd-and-4 or longer) gave the Hokies the opportunity to stop the Yellow Jackets plays on 3rd and 4th down.
3. Force turnovers.
This offense requires precision, and with so many moving parts, fakes, and pitches, turnovers happen. And, when they don't, Bud Foster will throw a change-up look at Washington to force a turnover and get his defense off the field.
4. Get a lead.
Ah, if only football were so simple. Late in a game and trailing, Georgia Tech lacks the type of players needed to be dangerous in the drop back passing game. If you can get to the 4th quarter up 2 scores, you can take the Yellow Jackets out of their comfort zone.
So, what other wrinkles should we expect? Last season the Hokies played Kyle Fuller at whip and moved J.R. Collins to defensive tackle. As the game wore on, we also saw James Gayle and Tyrell Wilson play upright, which allows them to more clearly see the interior fakes and read the play better. Things may look radically different this year with a much larger and more experienced defensive front combined with a rugged straight-ahead style linebacker corps backed by an inexperienced secondary that may force Kyle Fuller to stay outside. No matter what the score is, there is no game on the schedule where both teams are more beat up physically than this game. Bring the hard hats and the lunch pails. It is time to grind out a W.