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No. 17 Virginia Tech will look to bounce back from their loss to Miami when they take on a dangerous Georgia Tech team on Saturday afternoon in Atlanta. The Hokies (7-2, 3-2) still have an opportunity to win 10 games in the regular season and make a great bowl game, while the Yellow Jackets (4-4, 3-3) still have to win two games to get bowl eligible. Both teams can take a big step toward their goals on Saturday.
Virginia Tech closes the season with a home game against Pitt, who has struggled for much of the season, and a road game at Virginia, whom the Hokies have beaten for 13 straight seasons. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech plays at Duke and at home against No. 2 Georgia after they face the Hokies. If we consider the Georgia game to be a likely loss for the Yellow Jackets, that means they must beat Virginia Tech and Duke to make it to six wins and gain bowl eligibility. Meanwhile, if VT wants to make it to a big bowl game such as the Orange Bowl, Peach Bowl or Citrus Bowl, they must win out.
There are two ways to look at Georgia Tech. On the surface, they are a middling 4-4 football team that at best will probably win six football games this season. From that standpoint, the Hokies should go on the road and win, similar to what they did at Boston College against another team that at best will make a lower level bowl.
On the other hand, three of Georgia Tech’s losses have been very close…
Tennessee: 42-41 in overtime
Miami: 25-24 on a last second field goal
UVA: 40-36 on a very late touchdown
The Yellow Jackets are just a few plays away from being 7-1. We’d all be very worried if that was the case. We’re all worried anyway, because of Paul Johnson’s style of offense, but the worry factor would be multiplied by about five if the Jackets had won those close games, or even two of them.
You know this is a big week for defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who has faced this Paul Johnson offense for a decade now. Unfortunately, the Hokies have one fewer day of prep because they didn’t get back to Blacksburg until 3 p.m. on Sunday following a nightmarish return trip from Miami that featured three failed landings in Roanoke, a refueling in Raleigh, a landing in Tennessee and a long bus ride back home. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out.
TaQuan Marshall: Good Runner, Limited Passer, and Perhaps a Bad Decision Maker
Georgia Tech’s offense is kind of the same every year. They have the same style of players, and generally they produce similar numbers on a year-to-year basis. That’s the genius of Paul Johnson’s offense. It’s a plug and play system. All you have to do is recruit guys who fit your scheme, coach them up, and plug them in. The system takes care of the rest.
It’s the quarterback that makes the Yellow Jacket offense go or not go, and TaQuan Marshall (5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Jr.) has taken the reigns of Paul Johnson’s offense this season. He has been a big-time playmaker on the ground, even more so than most Georgia Tech quarterbacks.
Let’s compare Marshall’s rushing numbers with his predecessor, Justin Thomas, in 2016.
Thomas (12 games): 137 carries, 604 yards, 4.4 ypc, six touchdowns
Marshall (eight games): 188 carries, 870 yards, 4.6 ypc, 14 touchdowns
Thomas was a good runner, but right now it appears that Marshall will easily eclipse the 1,000 yard mark. He’s averaging 108.8 yards per game.
However, part of that is because Marshall has struggled in the passing game. Let’s compare his passing numbers to those of Thomas last season.
Thomas (12 games): 79-of-148 (53.4 percent), 1,559 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions
Marshall (eight games): 36-of-86 (41.9 percent), 667 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions
Georgia Tech doesn’t throw the ball very much at all, and their completion percentage has dropped by nearly 12 percent. Paul Johnson wants efficiency from his offense, and on nearly 60 percent of Georgia Tech’s passes they are gaining zero yards. They can still be dangerous through the air, because when they do connect on a pass it generally goes for a big play. But it’s safe to say that Marshall is not nearly as good a passer as what Johnson is looking for.
A 41.9 percent completion percentage indicates accuracy issues, but it also indicates that there could be a problem with seeing the field clearly and making the correct reads. Those same issues seem to have also crept up on Marshall in the running game.
Georgia Tech doesn’t appear to be running as much true option this year. No A-back (an A-back is the player who goes in motion and takes outside pitches in GT’s offense) has more than 27 carries this season. Meanwhile, Marshall has 188, and B-back (a fullback) KirVonte Benson (5-foot-9, 211 pounds, r-Sr.) has 150 carries for 844 yards (5.6 ypc) and six touchdowns.
Such a heavy dose of inside runs could indicate that Marshall isn’t quite comfortable with his reads and making a lot of outside pitches. Paul Johnson has had to change his offense a little bit this year. There is more pulling and more trapping, and even though it might still look like Georgia Tech is running the option at times, in reality it’s simply a disguise to throw off the defense, with Marshall actually having no option, or perhaps only one option.
Still, just the threat of Georgia Tech’s option game has caused them to put up a lot of points and a lot of yards against certain opponents. However, the only two real defenses they faced shut them down.
In the loss to Miami, the Yellow Jackets scored 24 points, but only 17 of those were offensive points. Seven of them came when Mark Richt foolishly tried an onside kick, and Georgia Tech returned it for a touchdown. (Why couldn’t Richt have done something silly like that last week?) Later in the season against Clemson (a 24-10 loss), they managed just 10 offensive points, with seven of them coming late in the fourth quarter after the game was decided.
Miami and Clemson were both completely successful in stopping Marshall on the ground.
Marshall vs. Miami: 19 carries, 18 yards, 0.9 ypc
Marshall vs. Clemson: 15 carries, 23 yards (22 on one play), one touchdown, 1.5 ypc
Outside of one late 22 yard touchdown run against Clemson, Marshall was completely shut down in those two games. Virginia Tech has struggled to stop mobile quarterbacks the last few years, but the option game is a whole different animal, and Marshall doesn’t yet appear to be the decision maker that past Georgia Tech quarterbacks have been. If the Hokie defense can avoid too many big plays (and I know that’s a big if), I think it will be a struggle for the Jackets to move the football on a consistent basis.
Georgia Tech Defense: More Efficient than the Offense
Georgia Tech’s defense never gets enough credit. As difficult as it is for opposing defenses to prepare for the Yellow Jacket offense, it’s also difficult for the GT defense to prepare. They don’t get to practice against a regular college offense on a daily basis. Even when the Jackets go good on good in practice, the defense is facing the spread option. That makes it tougher to play regular offenses during the season.
This season the Georgia Tech defense ranks No. 45 in the country in S&P+ defense, while the offense ranks No. 50. That’s about as good as a defense can possibly be when it’s so difficult for them to prepare for regular offenses.
Here are Georgia Tech’s overall defensive efficiency numbers in the S&P+…
Success Rate: No. 73
Explosive Plays: No. 42
Finishing Drives: No. 58
Rushing Overall: No. 42
Rushing Success Rate: No. 67
Rushing Explosive Plays: No. 41
Passing Overall: No. 54
Passing Success Rate: No. 78
Passing Explosive Plays: No. 30
Those numbers indicate an above average defense, which is what Georgia Tech has been for most of the season.
The Yellow Jackets don’t make a ton of plays in the backfield, ranking No. 123 nationally in tackles for loss and No. 96 in sacks. They are a solid group, but not stocked with playmakers.
The top playmaker to watch is No. 93, defensive end Antonio Simmons (6-foot-3, 246 pounds, Sr.). He has 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this season. No. 94, defensive end Anree Saint-Amour (6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Jr.) has five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Other than those two players, the Georgia Tech defense does not put a lot of pressure on opposing offenses. However, they are solid with their scheme, and in general they’ve been more consistent than their offensive counterparts this year.
The big matchup here, as it’s starting to become every week, is how well Tech’s receivers can manage to get separation against Georgia Tech’s defensive backs, and can they secure the football when they do? It won’t be as difficult a task this week as it was against Miami, but the Jackets are still solid.
Virginia Tech has a huge advantage on special teams this week. I’m ditching the S&P+ special teams ratings because while I don’t understand exactly how they are computed, I know that Tech’s punt return team is a lot better than No. 50 in the country as the S&P+ likes to claim.
Here are the Hokies’ rankings per the FEI metrics, which seem much more in line with how VT’s special teams have actually performed on the field this year…
Overall: No. 9
FG Efficiency: No. 85
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 26
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 53
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 9
Punt Efficiency: No. 23
NPF: No. 1
NPF is the difference between the average starting field position of a team’s offense and the opponent’s offense measured in distance from the end zone. For the Hokies, that’s a difference of 11.4 yards, which is the best mark in the country. Overall, the Hokies are arguably a few missed short field goals from Joey Slye away from having the best special teams unit in the country. Remember when James Shibest was hired and some fans openly questioned why the Hokies would pay the special teams coordinator so much money? Now you know why.
Here are Georgia Tech’s special teams numbers…
Overall: No. 106
FG Efficiency: No. 93
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 13
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 106
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 97
Punt Efficiency: No. 94
NPF: No. 93
Needless to say, the Hokies have a huge advantage on special teams, and that could end up being the difference in the game.
I’ve gone back and forth about who I’m going to pick this week, but after doing some research to write the preview, I feel better.
Virginia Tech’s offense has struggled in recent weeks. The book is out on the strengths and weaknesses of Tech’s personnel, and there isn’t much the Hokies can do about it. It’s all about recruiting and offseason development, and unfortunately there are no recruits to sign and no offseason between now and Saturday. The Hokies are what they are, and they’ll have to deal with it as best they can.
Georgia Tech meanwhile is 4-4, but a very dangerous 4-4. Let’s look and see what they’ve done offensively in each of their ACC games…
Pitt: 35 points
UNC: 33 points
Miami: 24 points
Wake Forest: 38 points
Clemson: 10 points
Virginia: 36 points
Average: 29.33 points per game
The Georgia Tech offense has had four very good offensive games from a points standpoint, one middling offensive game, and one bad offensive game. The Virginia Tech defense is closer to the Miami and Clemson defenses than it is to teams like Pitt, UNC, Wake Forest and Virginia. Still, I don’t see the Hokies holding the Jackets to 10 points like Clemson.
I’m hoping for a defensive performance somewhere between Miami and Clemson’s performances against Georgia Tech. With the way the VT offense has been playing, allowing 24 points might not be good enough. Twenty or fewer, however, is very doable.
Virginia Tech is 6-3 against Paul Johnson. In VT’s six wins, Georgia Tech has scored 17, 21, 26, 17, 10 and 21 points, for an average of 18.67 points per game. In VT’s three losses, the Jackets have scored 28, 27 and 30 points, for an average of 28.33 points per game. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? If the Hokies can hold Georgia Tech to around 20 points, they have a great chance to win. If they don’t, they are likely to lose.
Considering the struggles that TaQuan Marshall has had this season, I like Virginia Tech’s chances. The Hokies don’t have the offense to run away with the game. It’s going to be a good one. But I’m going with Virginia Tech this week.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Georgia Tech 20
Will Stewart’s Take: In two seasons under Justin Fuente, the Hokies have never lost two games in a row. Each of the previous five losses have been followed by a win.
- Tennessee 45, VT 24 — VT 49, Boston College 0
- Syracuse 31, VT 17 — VT 37, Miami 16
- Georgia Tech 30, VT 20 — VT 34, Notre Dame 31
- Clemson 42, VT 35 — VT 35, Arkansas 24
- Clemson 31, VT 17 — VT 23, Boston College 10
- Miami 28, VT 10: ????
In nine previous seasons of Bud Foster coaching against Paul Johnson, the Hokies have never lost two in a row to Georgia Tech:
- 2008: VT 20, Georgia Tech 17
- 2009: Georgia Tech 28, VT 23
- 2010: VT 28, Georgia Tech 21
- 2011: VT 37, Georgia Tech 26
- 2012: VT 20, Georgia Tech 17
- 2013: VT 17, Georgia Tech 10
- 2014: Georgia Tech 27, VT 24
- 2015: VT 23, Georgia Tech 21
- 2016: Georgia Tech 30, VT 20
- 2017: ???
But as you can see, Paul Johnson has only beaten Virginia Tech twice before last season. That’s not a lot of data.
More so than any other game this season, Virginia Tech absolutely cannot start slowly on offense. That brutally painful 2009 loss to Georgia Tech was caused by an offense that featured Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Williams, David Wilson, Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale et al not being able to get anything going for the entire first half (130 yards, three points). Right before halftime of that game, GT chucked a long pass (51 yards) and then scored a rushing touchdown to go up 7-3 with 24 seconds left. Georgia Tech got the ball to start the second half, scored another touchdown to go up 14-3, and that was it. They were gone and Virginia Tech couldn’t catch them.
Watch for two things — Virginia Tech starting slow on offense, and whether Georgia Tech wins the toss and defers to the second half. Both things are bad news.
The fact that Georgia Tech isn’t utilizing the A-backs very much this season is good news, because the Hokies have the defensive tackles to defend the dive up the middle by the B-backs. Yes, Andrew Motupuaka can be baited out of position by an offense that runs up the middle, but that typically hasn’t happened to him much against the Jackets. Last year was an exception, but the Hokies, thinking Justin Thomas would start at quarterback, schemed that game to defend the perimeter. Instead, Matthew Jordan started at quarterback, and he and B-back Marcus Marshall torched the Hokies up the middle, instead.
Look for Foster to scheme to stop the runs up the middle, and to force TaQuan Marshall to the perimeter, where Bud will try to get him to turn it over.
That’s all fun stuff to discuss, but again, the real concern here is Virginia Tech’s offense. Georgia Tech’s defense is good (No. 45 in the S&P), but not great, so it will come down to matchups. Can the Hokies get the passing game going against Georgia Tech’s senior- and junior-laden defensive backfield? If not, can Fuente and Brad Cornelsen figure something else out?
I just can’t see Virginia Tech’s offense looking terrible for the second week in a row, but I’m not sure. This game is really a tossup. In that case, I’ll go with the good guys.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Georgia Tech 20
Ricky LaBlue’s Prediction: Virginia Tech was exposed vs. Miami. Neither team, in my mind, is all that impressive. It just so happened that the ‘Canes did the exposing, while the Hokies had plenty of time to think about getting exposed.
Virginia Tech is going to be as motivated as possible entering this game. They just got embarrassed on prime time television for the second time this season, and Georgia Tech cruised to an upset over the Hokies in 2016, inside Lane Stadium.
What should worry Virginia Tech fans is the Hokies’ inability to get guys open on the outside. You can only scheme guys open so much. Eventually, those guys have to separate from defenders and make plays. And this week, Tech’s receivers face another test against an experienced Georgia Tech secondary that is really good on third downs (eighth in FBS at 27.18 percent).
This is a statement game for the Hokies. Win, and you’re back on track to win 10 games in consecutive seasons. Lose, and you get exposed once again. Time to show up.
Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Georgia Tech 14