Sunday Morning Quarterback
Matt Winkeljohn's notes from Saturday's win over Virginia
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Georgia Tech’s most thorough ACC victory of the season came Saturday because in the 35-10 win over Virginia the defense played its most complete game and perhaps even surpassed the offense in terms of efficiency.
The Cavs mustered just 22 rushing yards, converted 3-of-12 third downs, 1-of-3 fourth downs, and managed but 10 of a possible 21 (or 24) points in three red zone possessions.
This was seismic shifting from recent results for Tech defenders, who at the urging of head coach Paul Johnson and defensive coordinator Ted Roof focused chiefly in their preparation on tightening up pass defense.
Virginia quarterbacks completed 23-of-41 passes for 262 yards and a score, but the Cavs were much less dangerous through the air than the Jackets’ previous two opponents, North Carolina (390 passing yards, four touchdowns) and Pitt (328, one).
At the urging of head coach Paul Johnson and under the guidance of defensive coordinator Ted Roof, the Jackets dialed in last week in practice on playing tighter coverage more often rather than giving receivers cushions, and on ramping up the pass rush with more blitzing.
Tech (7-2, 4-2 ACC) did not clamp down on receivers 100 percent of the time, and dialed up blitzes more than in recent games but not exclusively. Chiefly, they mixed and matched more effectively and that paid off.
The result was two sacks against a team that had allowed just six in eight games (Virginia ranked No. 7 in the nation in fewest sacks allowed), two interceptions, and three passes batted down before they passed the line of scrimmage (by linebacker Paul Davis and linemen KeShun Freeman and Pat Gamble).
Safety Jamal Golden’s interception on fourth-and-8 from the Tech 10-yard-line late in the third quarter was effectively the game clincher, Virginia’s last legitimate chance. The Cavs’ two fourth-quarter possessions went nowhere.
Golden boxed out Virginia wide receiver Canaan Severin in the end zone.
“It was man-to-man coverage, and our thing this week was challenging receivers,” Golden said. “Coach Roof really put an emphasis on that in practice . . . It’s really on us, the cornerbacks and the safeties, whether we want to press [cover] or not. It depends on the situation of the game, really.
“It’s not where we want to be [defensively], but it’s the best we’ve done all season. We did a good job stopping the run, and that’s really what helped the passing [defense]. We got a lot of pressure on the quarterback when they put the ball in the air and that’s what turned over to the two picks.”
The Cavs (4-5, 2-3 ACC) barely gave their run game a chance, attempting six rushes in the first quarter, five in the second, five in the third and zero (not surprisingly) in the fourth.
“I think we tackled a little better,” Johnson said. “We tried to be aggressive, and we played a lot of man coverage. I think our defensive coaches had a good plan. We stacked the box pretty good. The bottom line is we beat some blocks and tackled better.”
Tech’s offense helped the defense, although that was nothing new.
The Jackets scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, taking a 14-0 lead in the process. From that point on, over the final 55:56 of the game, Virginia attempted just 11 runs (sacks count as run plays, oddly).
So much for the run; a Virginia offense that averaged 458.6 yards over its previous four games was rendered one-dimensional on the way to totaling 284.
Everybody prefers defending out-of-balance attacks.
“[Falling behind] had something to do with it,” said Virginia coach Mike London said his team’s pass-heavy approach. “They average a lot of time of possession...when you have your possessions, you have to make sure you have opportunities to move [the ball].”
Flipping the metrics
In addition to Tech scoring touchdowns on its first three possessions, the Jackets forced the Cavs to punt on four of their first five possessions with a touchdown sandwiched in between.
Both parts of that equation were enormous.
The Jackets entered the game forcing 0.5 punts per opponent’s score allowed versus FBS opponents, according to teamrankings.com. That ranked 121 out of 128 teams nationally.
That means that in the Jackets’ first seven games against FBS opponents, the bad guys were scoring on Tech twice as often as they were punting.
Stanford led the nation in that metric entering the weekend forcing 3.2 punts for every score allowed.
Last season the Jackets’ number was a much more respectable 1.2.
Against the Cavs, it was 2.5 as Tech forced five punts and allowed two scores – a touchdown and a field goal. The Jackets also banked two interceptions, and Virginia ran out of time or downs twice – once in each half – which was better for Tech than forcing a punt.
“Up until now, we haven’t played our best defensive ball,” said junior defensive tackle Adam Gotsis, who played every defensive snap and gathered his second career interception on a ball deflected when freshman end KeShun hit the quarterback as he was throwing.
“I felt like today we played with energy...we had a ‘Win at all costs,’ mentality down in the trenches.”
Moving pieces around
Gamble, heretofore a tackle, made his first start at end where Kyle Travis had been listed as the starter. Gamble was credited with two tackles and a pass breakup before leaving the field with a leg injury in the second half.
Johnson said only that X-rays were negative.
Travis did play, though not much.
The Jackets unveiled a three-man defensive front a few times, and Gotsis even played several snaps at the end spot with Freeman and Green joining him up front as the Jackets are short-staffed in the defensive line.
Freeman tied Davis for second on the team with five combined tackles, and Gotsis had three.
Think Johnson was happy to see defensive linemen factoring?
“Hallelujah!” he said when asked about that. “It’s time. It’s great.”
Speaking of moving parts, redshirt freshman Corey Griffin started at safety in place of Golden. Johnson was clear when asked about that.
“We felt like we needed to shake it up a bit back there and let guys know that if you don’t play well, you don’t just get to play all the time,” the coach explained. “I thought that when Jamal got back out there, he played fairly well.”
New look on offense, too
Johnson and the offensive staff added at least one wrinkle as well. Justin Thomas’ 18-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver DeAndre Smelter in the first quarter was a twist. Thomas bootlegged on the play, and Smelter ran a buttonhook, pulling up hard and turning about a yard short of the goal line. That sent Virginia junior cornerback Maurice Canady back-pedaling for a fateful yard or two. Smelter caught the pass, and by the time Canady was able to get back to him, Smelter had crossed the goal line.
“I wanted to get into the defender and make him think I was going deep,” said Smelter, who had four receptions for 107 yards for his fourth 100-plus-yard game of the season. “That is the first time we ran it. We just saw some things that we thought we could do. We’ve been working on it all week in practice.”
Thomas completed 7-of-13 passes for 141 yards and an interception. All three of his touchdown passes came on third downs. Tech converted 8-of-15 overall, and 2-of-3 fourth downs. Thomas’ scoring connection with Smelter came on third-and-7. He threw high in the end zone to tallish wide receiver Darren Waller on the first play of the second quarter to score on third-and-goal from the 11 (with Canady again covering), and found B-back Synjyn Days for a 17-yard score on third-and-14 in the fourth.
Flipping the script
Thomas’ only interception camp on third down as well, but the Jackets’ reversed critical Virginia takeaway trends in the game. On third-and-15 from the Tech 15 in the middle of the second quarter, Thomas aimed for Smelter in the right flat, but Virginia safety Anthony Harris undercut the play in zone coverage and leaped for the pick. The Cavs drove to first-and-goal from the 5, but after Virginia runs for 0 and 1 yards, former Wayne County High (Ga.) quarterback Greyson Lambert threw to the right corner of the end zone. Wide receiver Keeon Johnson dropped it.
Virginia settled for a field goal to pull within 21-10. That pick was Tech’s only turnover, a big change from last season when the Jackets coughed it up five times at Virginia yet won 35-25 anyway. The Cavs had 20 takeaways in their first eight games to rank No. 7 in the nation.
Green light in the red zone
All five Tech touchdowns were of the red-zone variety. Their last red zone opportunity came as the game ended, and reserves were on the field. On second-and-5 from the Virginia 6, senior B-back Matt Connors rushed for a yard to put a wrap on matters.
Numbers and such
Paul Johnson earned his 100th win as an FBS coach (100-63 at Navy and Tech)...The Jackets (7-2, 4-2 ACC) stretched the nation’s longest streak of .500 or better records in conference play to 20 seasons. They have ACC games remaining at N.C. State and against Clemson...If you want a team that gets busy in a hurry, the Jackets are for you. They’ve scored on their first possession of a game in seven of nine contests so far. Five of those have been touchdowns, including Deon Hill’s 14-yard run Saturday...Tech allowed a sky-high pass completion percentage of 65.9 in its first eight games, and then 56.1 Saturday (23-of-41)...The Jackets were No. 1 in the nation with an average of 18.5 yards per pass completion before the game. Saturday, that number was 20.1 thanks largely to Smelter’s 65-yard catch and run...Tech was allowing 6.6 yards per play vs. FBS opponents, ranking No. 118, and 7.0 at home. Virginia averaged 5.0 on Saturday.
Did anybody notice?
That Georgia and Georgia Tech could end up tied at the top? The Jackets are bowl eligible for the 18th consecutive season, the same as the Bulldogs, and only one program in the nation has gone to a bowl in more consecutive seasons. Virginia Tech’s streak is 21 games, but the Hokies (4-5) are in danger of seeing their run end after losing 33-31 Saturday at home to Boston College.
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