Jon Cooper | The Good Word
If anyone can appreciate tactical genius it's members of the United States military.
Fittingly, on Veterans Day and Military Appreciation Day at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field, Georgia Tech gave its honored guests from all branches of the armed forces, as well as its fans, a superb display of tactical genius in Saturday's 28-22 victory over No. 17 Virginia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets, of course, used their signature sledgehammering ground game, led by B-back KirVonte Benson, who carried 22 bruising times for 86 a game-high yards. That was expected.
What might not have been was the way the Jackets used Virginia Tech's obsession to stop the run as a conduit for their long passing game. The result was pair of long scoring passes in the second half -- a 60-yard touchdown pass to Brad Stewart and a decisive 80-yarder to Ricky Jeune.
"I think when you play a team like [Virginia Tech], they dictate that to me," said head coach Paul Johnson. "They sometimes sell out to play the run and when they sell out to play the run you're going to have some one-on-one opportunities deep."
"It was just part of the game plan," said quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who twice set the mark for Georgia Tech's longest pass of 2017 with the strikes to Stewart and then Jeune -- the previous long had been 49 yards, set last week in a hook-up with Jalen Camp last week at Virginia. "We knew they were going to be playing press-man the whole game, so we would run the ball then try to get them on play-action."
It didn't take long to implement their strategy, as the Jackets' went long on the game's very first play from scrimmage. Marshall dropped back and launched down field, targeting Jeune. The redshirt senior, who'd actually scored on a similar play as a sophomore against the Hokies three years ago, had a step on his man but the pass was just out of reach beyond his fingertips.
Tech receivers being that open would be a recurring theme and Marshall-to-Jeune would be heard from again.
"[Marshall] barely overthrew it and when you do that, sometimes it gives you pause to do that again," said Johnson. "He made, what, two completions but they were both for touchdowns and it ended up being 140 yards? So we'll live with that. That's a pretty good average per attempt."
Juene blamed himself for the incompletion, admitting he "kind of slowed down a little bit" while, Marshall also blamed himself, not only for the first incompletion but also to other two missed opportunities in an 0-for-3 first half. All three incomplete passes in the opening 30 minutes could have been big plays.
"I have confidence in my arm at all times but it's very frustrating to me when I overthrow someone or miss a pass that probably should be completed," said Marshall.
Leading 14-9 at the break somewhat cushioned the blow for Georgia Tech, as did knowing those plays were there.
The Yellow Jackets finally cashed in on their third play from scrimmage in the second half. Facing third and 18, Marshall dropped back, gave a slight look to A-back J.J. Green, who was in motion the other way, then tossed a perfect pass to Stewart, who got separation, caught the ball in stride at the Hokies' 20 and cruised home. setting off a celebration in the south end zone.
"There's not a word for it," said Stewart, still grinning ear-to-ear. "`I haven't scored since . So I forgot how to celebrate to be honest. It felt great. There's really no way to describe it, just being in that moment. Just seeing all the fans and players getting hype for me because they know how bad I wanted it."
"You're always surprised on third-and-18 if you're that open," said Johnson. "We thought we had some good stuff in the play-action game with the way they were playing because they tried to pass guys off. I think what happened is the safety was going over the top, the corner had to cover him and he was kind of leveraged and Brad did a nice job and Quon threw a good ball and led him to the open space."
The home run ball was pretty much open all day because of the Hokies' obsession to stop the run.
"I told TaQuon [at halftime] to lead the receiver and throw it on time," Johnson said, with a laugh. "The way they were playing, they were all play-action plays and they were one-on-ones and we were crossing guys and trying to get them confused on the man coverage."
Unfortunately, it was confusion on a pass play midway through the fourth quarter that put the Jackets down, as a Marshall pass that was supposed to be thrown away ended up as a Virginia Tech interception. After VT's Greg Stroman returned the interception 24 yards for a touchdown, Georgia Tech found itself trailing 22-21 with 7:22 to go in the ballgame.
However, the deficit would not last long. Jeune made sure of that.
On the second play of Georgia Tech's ensuing possession, Jeune blew past Hokies linebacker Mook Reynolds, caught the ball in stride at the 45, then outraced free safety Terrell Edmunds to the goal line, extending the ball inside the pylon for the go-ahead score.
"I made sure I was all-out sprinting," said Jeune. "Actually, I caught it and almost fell. I caught my balance, so that was good."
"We'd been running the twirl option and they were bringing the corner and rocking the safety over the top. I told our guys at halftime, if they did that, the receiver should be wide open," said Johnson. "You could see, I think it was (Reynolds) back there, he's pointing to him but he was going back outside to play the A-back on the twirl. Because there was no tail motion they had no rotation. So they couldn't go over and our kids executed it really well. TaQuon threw a nice ball and Ricky finished."
So did the Jackets' defense, which fended off the Hokies at the end. Virginia Tech's final possession ate up 5:18, but saw them get no closer than the Georgia Tech 32. The last gasp was a fourth-and-one pass into the end zone that was broken up by redshirt freshman cornerback Ajani Kerr, who was filling in for injured Step Durham.
So for the second straight year, Georgia Tech has put up a big, late-season win against Virginia Tech, reviving and inflating their dreams for a strong end to the season. The next step comes on Saturday, with a trip to Durham, N.C. to play Duke. A win officially nets the Jackets bowl eligibility.
Who knows what Johnson has in store for the Blue Devils. Duke can only anxiously wait and see. The Jackets will eagerly do the same,.
"Every week Coach puts in like three plays that we know, `This is going to be a big play,'" said Jeune. "Nine times out of 10 they usually are. Coach Johnson does a great job of scheming. He's just a genius.
"We can do a lot with our play-action so I think Coach Johnson does a good job with that as far as with the run and pass game," said Stewart. "Teams don't like playing us because of that. We use a lot of time on offense, four yards a carry, get the first every third down. But it is nice having those big plays come in there and everyone get excited right off the bat. It's fun to play with this group of guys. We may have had some downs this season but we have a lot to play for still and we're going to keep moving forward and get ready for Duke."