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Virginia Tech took one step closer to the Coastal Division championship on Saturday when they knocked off Duke 24-21 in Durham. They’ll have a chance to take another step this weekend when they face Paul Johnson and the spread option offense of Georgia Tech in Lane Stadium.
On paper, Saturday’s game is the most difficult ACC game remaining on the schedule. Get by the Yellow Jackets, and all that separates the Hokies from Orlando are the Virginia Cavaliers…a program that has not beaten the Hokies since I was too young to buy a beer. Even the most pessimistic of fans have to admit that this is setting up pretty well.
Georgia Tech comes into Saturday’s game with a 5-4 overall record, including a 2-4 mark in conference play. The Jackets have two ACC wins in squeakers over Boston College (17-14) and Duke (38-35). However, the Eagles and Blue Devils haven’t been particularly good this year…
BC: 4-5 overall, 1-5 ACC
Duke: 3-6 overall, 0-5 ACC
Total: 7-11 overall, 1-10 ACC
Georgia Tech’s two conference wins have come over arguably the two worst teams in the ACC, and they were both very narrow victories. Meanwhile, they haven’t played particularly well against teams who have been winning games…
Clemson: 26-7 L
Miami: 35-21 L
Pitt: 37-34 L
UNC: 48-20 L
Three of those four losses came by double digits, and three of those four losses have come against teams Virginia Tech has already defeated.
Nevertheless, Georgia Tech is a very dangerous football team. Their spread option offense is capable of challenging any defense that doesn’t stay disciplined. It’s important that the Hokies have a good day offensively on Saturday or else they run the risk of being upset.
Let’s take a closer look at the 2016 version of Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech team.
Advanced Stats: Georgia Tech Offense
Georgia Tech comes into this game as the #62 team in the country per the S&P+ ratings. Their efficiency rating on offense is much better than their defensive rating.
S&P+ Offense: #44
Finishing Drives: #64
Rushing Success Rate: #42
Rushing IsoPPP: #20
Passing Success Rate: #75
Passing IsoPPP: #2
The Georgia Tech offense is very explosive. Even though the Jackets don’t throw the ball very much, they rank #2 nationally in Passing IsoPPP, which is a measure of big plays. Overall, they are #4 in the country in explosiveness. They rank #14 nationally in plays of 40+ yards, and #12 nationally in plays of 50+ yards. A defense can have them stopped nine out of 10 plays, but that 10th play can yield a huge chunk of yards.
Advanced Stats: Georgia Tech Defense
Georgia Tech’s defense has not been nearly as efficient as their offense this season, especially over the course of the last two games, when they surrendered 35 points to Duke and 48 points to North Carolina. Here are some of their numbers…
S&P+ Offense: #81
Finishing Drives: #77
Rushing Success Rate: #90
Rushing IsoPPP: #31
Passing Success Rate: #119
Passing IsoPPP: #66
The Yellow Jacket defense has been a little bit above average at preventing the big play. However, they haven’t been able to stop opposing offenses from systematically grinding out yards and driving the length of the field.
Georgia Tech does a horrible job of getting offenses behind the sticks.
Tackles for Loss: #113
Because offenses are generally operating in short yardage situations against Georgia Tech, the Jackets defense is dead last in the entire country in third down efficiency at 51.97%.
All of those numbers bode extremely well for a Virginia Tech offense that has put up the following number of yards and points against FBS competition in Lane Stadium this season…
Boston College: 476 yards, 49 points
ECU: 462 yards, 54 points
Miami: 523, 37 points
Average: 487 yards, 46.7 points
Though the Hokie offense won’t get as many possessions because of the ball control nature of the Georgia Tech offense, they will still have an opportunity to put up plenty of yards and points this Saturday.
Stopping Justin Thomas
Outside of Joshua Nesbitt, whom Paul Johnson inherited from the previous coaching staff, Justin Thomas (5-11, 185, r-Sr.) is the most successful quarterback of the spread option era at Georgia Tech. He’s not a particularly big guy, but he’s a pretty good passer, and he has exceptional speed.
Throughout the first nine games, Thomas has run for 561 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 5.0 yards per carry. He’s also completed 54.4% of his passes for 1,168 yards, with seven touchdowns and just one interception. He’s having a very good season, and he’s had a very good career.
Thomas led Georgia Tech to the Coastal Division championship in 2014 and appeared to be poised to break through as one of the ACC’s top players. However, he had a terrible year in 2015 as compared to 2014…
2014: 51.3% passing, 1,719 yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs, 1,086 rushing yards, 5.7 ypc, 8 TDs
2015: 41.7% passing, 1,345 yards, 13 TDs, 8 INTs, 488 rushing yards, 3.4 ypc, 6 TDs
The regression was incredible. Part of that was due to injuries, and part of that was due to the inexperience around him. Thomas is putting together a much better season in 2016 than he did in 2015, but his numbers still aren’t quite back up to his 2014 level.
Still, he’s the most dangerous player on Georgia Tech’s offense, and last season the Hokies did a great job of shutting him down, holding him to 52 rushing yards and only 3.5 yards per carry. He was also only 4-of-13 for 97 yards through the air and was sacked twice.
If the Hokies can control Thomas, they’ll be very difficult for the Yellow Jackets to beat. However, if he puts together a very good performance against a banged up Virginia Tech defense, then things could get very interesting.
Will the Hokies Finally Score Against Georgia Tech?
Virginia Tech has had the advantage over Georgia Tech since joining the ACC, and even though the Paul Johnson offense put a scare in the Hokies early in his tenure, VT has remained in control of the series. In recent years, that has been mostly due to Bud Foster’s ability to stop Johnson’s spread offense.
2012: Virginia Tech knocked off the Jackets 20-17 in overtime on a Monday night in Blacksburg. Georgia Tech was held to 192 rushing yards and averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. That’s like holding a normal team to under 50 rushing yards.
2013: The Hokies beat Georgia Tech 17-10 in Atlanta on a Thursday night despite playing only five days beforehand. This was the famous “Kyle Fuller” game. Georgia Tech ran for only 129 yards and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry.
2014: Georgia Tech won in Blacksburg 27-24, but seven of the Jackets’ points came on an interception return for a touchdown, and their game-winning field goal was set up by an interception as well.
2015: Virginia Tech won 23-21. Georgia Tech ran for 161 yards and averaged 3.4 yards per carry.
In three of the last four meetings, the Virginia Tech defense has dominated the Georgia Tech offense, holding them to 192 rushing yards or less and no more than 3.5 yards per carry. Even when they didn’t dominate them in 2014, the Jackets still struggled to actually score points. The Hokies went 3-1 in those four games, but had they possessed an offense that could actually score points, all four meetings would have been double digit victories in favor of the Hokies. Instead, Georgia Tech hung around and nearly won all three games.
If the Virginia Tech defense can have another great performance on Saturday, then we likely won’t be quite so nervous in the fourth quarter as we’ve been over the last four years.
Special Teams: Advantage Hokies
Statistically speaking, the Hokies have held the advantage over all of their competition in special teams this year. Georgia Tech is no different. Here’s how the Yellow Jackets stack up in each special teams category according to the S&P+…
Overall special teams: #74
FG Value: #56
Punt Success Rate: #103
Kickoff Success Rate: #6
Punt Return Success Rate: #2
Kick Return Success Rate: #120
Georgia Tech is very good in two categories, but they are one of the worst teams in the country in two others. Here’s how the Hokies compare…
Overall special teams: #36
FG Value: #64
Punt Success Rate: #26
Kickoff Success Rate: #1
Punt Return Success Rate: #89
Kickoff Return Success Rate: #98
Though the Hokies haven’t gotten much out of the return game this year, their opponents have gotten nothing at all.
The FEI special teams ratings are even more in Virginia Tech’s favor. The Hokies rank #21 in that set of rankings, while Georgia Tech is #72. (Memphis, who was coached the last for years by James Shibest, ranks #1 nationally in this set of rankings.)
Still, Georgia Tech punt returner Brad Stewart is averaging 15 yards per return, though he has only seven returns this season. JJ Green also has a kickoff return for a touchdown. The Hokies will have to be careful with those two guys, but if the previous nine games are any indication, Virginia Tech will hold the special teams advantage on Saturday.
Paul Johnson’s Swan Song?
Paul Johnson got off to a hot start at Georgia Tech. His team played well in his first season, and then they won the Coastal Division in his second year (2009). However, the Yellow Jackets have started to level off in recent years, with a brief break for an 11-win season in 2014.
The 3-9 record last season put Paul Johnson on the hot seat, and though his team has improved this year, their chances of going any better than 6-6 during the regular season aren’t very high.
Johnson didn’t do himself any favors in the days leading up to the Clemson game in early October when he criticized the Georgia Tech administration for their lack of support for the program. Here’s an excerpt from this Yahoo! Sports article from October 4…
“No matter what you do — and this is like I tell our team about playing — commitment has to meet expectations,” Johnson said. “You can’t have expectations without commitment. It won’t work. No matter what you do. So if you say you want to be on this level, then you have to be committed to be on that level and you have to do what those people are doing. Simple as that.”
Johnson was immediately asked if he felt commitment was matching expectations at Georgia Tech.
“I don’t know that anybody gets that. You can ask that about anybody,” Johnson said. “But what I’m saying, you guys look, you don’t have to ask me — Do you think we’ve got the same thing Clemson does?”
The response was that not many teams have what Clemson has.
“Then how can the expectation be to beat them?” Johnson asked to silence.
With those comments, Johnson might have dug his own grave. If he’s expecting Clemson-type support from Georgia Tech, then he’s going to be disappointed. The whole reason for hiring Johnson in the first place is because Georgia Tech can’t compete with the Clemsons and Florida States of the world by playing traditional football. They had to think outside the box to beat teams like that, and they came up with Paul Johnson and the spread option. It worked early on, but it seems to have run its course. If Johnson isn’t gone after this season, it’s very possible that it could happen after 2017.
Whenever that happens, the next head coach is going to have a tough job. He’ll have to take an undersized offensive line that isn’t taught to pass block and emphasizes the cut block, combine them with a quarterback who hasn’t run a real offense and receivers who have never learned a complete passing tree and turn them all into a real offense. That could take a long while.
But that has nothing to do with this year’s game. Let’s get back on topic with our predictions…
All the numbers indicate that Virginia Tech will win this football game. The Georgia Tech defense has been bad for much of the year, and they’ve gotten even worse the last two weeks. Here’s how they’ve fared in those two games against Duke and UNC…
Duke: 559 yards, 35 points, 28:19 possession time
UNC: 636 yards, 48 points, 27:33 possession time
Both of those offenses were able to dominate the Georgia Tech defense despite possessing the football for less than 30 minutes. Those were two terribly inefficient defensive performances by the Yellow Jackets.
Another thing to consider is Virginia Tech’s margin of victory at home this year…
Boston College: 49 points
East Carolina: 37 points
Miami: 21 points
The Hokies are blowing out everybody they play at home this year. Meanwhile, here’s how Georgia Tech’s most recent road games have gone, going back to last season…
at UNC: 48-20 L
at Pitt: 37-34 L
at Miami: 38-21 L
at UVA: 27-21 L
at Clemson: 43-24 L
at Duke: 34-20 L
at Notre Dame: 30-22 L
The Yellow Jackets have been awful on the road recently, and in most cases they haven’t been able to stop anybody. All of the factors listed above heavily favor Virginia Tech.
However, the Hokie defense is banged up with injuries to their top three defensive ends. Starting rover Terrell Edmunds is suspended for the first half on Saturday, and I don’t think it’s very likely that Greg Stroman is going to play. Because of those injuries and the suspension to Edmunds, this defense doesn’t match up quite as well with the Georgia Tech offense as past Bud Foster defenses.
Not to mention that every game in this series is close. Here’s the margin of victory for both teams since 2008…
Average: 5.125 points
That’s pretty darn close.
Still, I don’t see the Yellow Jacket defense holding down the Virginia Tech offense. Perhaps Bud’s defense won’t play quite as well as they’ve played the last few years, but I don’t think it will matter.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, Georgia Tech 24
Will Stewart’s Take: Chris is correct, the Hokies need to be efficient offensively to win this one. In 2009, Virginia Tech piddled around in Atlanta and didn’t take advantage of good field position, scoring just three points in four first-half possessions in which VT crossed midfield.
The Hokies led 3-0, but they coughed up a late first-half TD to Georgia Tech. The Jackets then got the ball to start the second, scored another TD, and led 14-3. Just like that, the Hokies were playing catch-up … and they never did, suffering a 28-23 loss that cost Virginia Tech the 2009 Coastal championship.
While Virginia Tech’s offense against Georgia Tech’s defense feels like a good matchup, the margin for error is still slim.
Defensively, yes the Hokies are banged up, but there’s a positive outlook here. Andrew Motuapuaka had by far his best game of 2015 against Georgia Tech, with 12 total tackles and 2.5 TFL. Bud Foster moved him back off the line of scrimmage, and he attacked sideline to sideline and was very effective. He could have a similar outing Saturday.
The defensive tackles, one of Virginia Tech’s more effective defensive units right now, are tasked with stopping the fullback dive. If they do, and Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds clean up the lateral running game (along with the DBs), the Hokies are in good shape.
Virginia Tech is really banged up, and it’s starting to show. But the last time they were in Lane Stadium, they fed off the home crowd energy and played well. I’m not dismissing Georgia Tech, but the Hokies have a clear path to victory in this one.
With my prediction, I’m counting on Hokie offensive efficiency.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 30, Georgia Tech 17
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: Georgia Tech always gives Virginia Tech fits.
As Chris mentioned above, the Yellow Jackets always play the Hokies tough. There’s something about that option attack that helps keep the game close. Georgia Tech’s offense has the ability to grind out yardage, as well as the ability to strike for big plays downfield.
Virginia Tech’s defense has been a liability as of late. The Hokies allowed multiple big plays to Miami at home, allowed 36 points vs. Pittsburgh and allowed 227 rushing yards to Duke’s quarterback and backup running backs.
Fortunately for the Hokies, Georgia Tech’s defense has been pretty poor this year. Virginia Tech’s offense has been solid at home and I think that trend continues on Saturday. The Hokies’ offense will be able to sustain some drives, while the defense will play just well enough to win this game.
Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, Georgia Tech 27