- Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech, 7:30 PM, ESPN
- Spread: Virginia Tech -3 (per VegasInsider.com)
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Virginia Tech will return home on Thursday night to face the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. With a 3-0 mark in the ACC after three conference road games, the Hokies have a chance to close the season strong with four of their final five games at home. On paper, this gives Virginia Tech the advantage in the Coastal Division race, but as well all know, Tech has been a better road team since joining the ACC.
Here are the Coastal Division standings right now…
Virginia Tech: 3-0
Georgia Tech: 1-3
Georgia Tech and UNC are out of the race, and Duke is probably out of it as well. Pitt is sporting a 3-4 overall record, so despite their 2-1 start, it’s hard to imagine them being a contender at the end. That leaves Virginia Tech, Miami and UVA, with the Hoos already holding the head-to-head tiebreaker against Miami. The Hokies’ last two games of the season are against Miami and UVA.
For now, though, it’s Georgia Tech. Though the Jackets don’t sport a particularly good record this year, we all know they are a very dangerous team. They’ve beaten Virginia Tech three of the past four seasons, including twice in a row. In 2017, they went just 5-6 (their game with UCF was cancelled), but still managed to defeat the Hokies in Atlanta.
Most of this preview will be centered around statistics, trends, and overall thoughts, but we’ll begin with a section dedicated to the Georgia Tech players to keep an eye on.
Players to Watch
QB TaQuan Marshall (No. 16, 5-10, 185, Sr.): Marshall is the returning starter at quarterback. He’s a veteran who knows how to run the offense. He’s only completing 47.4% of his passes, with three touchdowns and four interceptions. Last season against the Hokies, he completed just 2-of-8 passes, however, those two completions went for 170 yards and two touchdowns. This year he leads Georgia Tech with 598 rushing yards.
QB Tobias Oliver (No. 8, 6-2, 182, r-Fr.): Oliver is perhaps the favorite player of Georgia Tech fans because he’s the backup quarterback. He’s been used a lot this year, rushing for 445 yards and seven touchdowns in six games. He’s 4-of-9 passing with one touchdown. He doesn’t appear to be trusted as much in the passing game at this point, but he has the full set of keys to the running game. Prepare to see both Yellow Jacket quarterbacks in action on Thursday night.
B-Back Jordan Mason (No. 24, 6-1, 212, r-Fr.): The redshirt freshman is Georgia Tech’s second leading rusher on the season, with 482 yards. On 70 carries, he has lost yardage just once all season.
A-Back Qua Searcy (No. 1, 5-11, 174, r-Sr.): Georgia Tech’s most experienced A-back (wing back), Searcy has 240 rushing yards on the season while average 10.9 yards per carry.
B-Back Jerry Howard (No. 15, 6-0, 215, So.): Howard will split time behind the quarterback, along with Jordan Mason. He has 257 rushing yards this year and is averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
DE Anree Saint-Amour (No. 94, 6-3, 245, Sr.): Anree Saint-Amour has been Georgia Tech’s most disruptive defender this season. In fact, he’s arguably been their only disruptive defender. He has 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
The Georgia Tech Offense vs. the Virginia Tech Defense
Georgia Tech’s system makes a statistical study of the Yellow Jackets almost impossible. This is a team that has the following impressive offensive rankings…
S&P+: No. 21
Success Rate: No. 2
Marginal Efficiency: No. 5
Rushing S&P+: No. 3
Passing S&P+: No. 15 (they don’t throw it a lot, but they can hit big plays)
Opportunity Rate: No. 3
Stuff Rate: No. 7
First and Goal Success Rate: No. 2
Inside 10 Success Rate: No. 1
You get the point. The numbers say that the Yellow Jackets do a lot of things well. Still, Pitt held them to 19 points. Clemson held them to 21. Duke held them to 14, and seven of those came on a short field after a terrible Daniel Jones turnover. That (along with their 3-4 overall record and 1-3 ACC record) tells me that Georgia Tech isn’t particularly good.
On the other hand, there is the good version of the Yellow Jackets who ruthlessly smite sub-standard defenses. Here’s the amount of points they’ve put up against the less worthy competition this year…
Alcorn State: 41
Bowling Green: 63
The Hokies are no Alcorn State or Bowling Green, and the Louisville players have shut off their effort switch early in the season this year. Still, it’s not like Tech is the brick wall defensively that they’ve been in the past. Some darn good Hokie defenses have had trouble with the spread option in the past. How will a less-than-good VT defense handle it?
Virginia Tech’s most recent performances on defense have been mixed.
ODU: 49 points, 631 yards
Duke: 14 points, 327 yards
ND: 45 points, 438 yards
UNC: 19 points, 522 yards
I can’t tell if Tech’s defense is completely awful, pretty average, getting better, or getting worse. They played better against Notre Dame than the numbers indicate. However, they also played worse against UNC than those 19 points indicate…a decent team probably would have put up 30+ on the Hokies that night. Also, Duke has turned out to be a pretty bad offense. Here are their numbers since their meeting with the Hokies…
VT: 14 points, 327 yards
GT: 28 points, 304 yards (poor GT turnovers helped Duke score)
UVA: 14 points, 320 yards
We thought the Tech defense played well against Duke, but as it turned out, the Blue Devils gained even fewer yards against Georgia Tech and UVA. Duke just isn’t very good offensively. That’s a pretty sobering thought. The fact is, over the last eight quarters of football, the Hokies have yielded nearly 1000 yards of total offense, and most of that actually came in the last six quarters following a good first half against Notre Dame.
So for the last six quarters of football, the Tech defense has been pretty awful, until they’ve been backed against the red zone, where they made some stops against UNC. This Thursday, they’ll go against arguably the best red zone offense in the country in Georgia Tech. That means it’s time to start scoring some points. That brings me to the next topic…
Time For The Offense To Put It All Together
At times, we’ve seen Virginia Tech’s offense look really good on the ground, and at times we’ve seen them look really good through the air. They haven’t been able to put both elements of the offense together into one really good game as of yet.
When Ryan Willis became Virginia Tech’s starting quarterback following the Old Dominion game, I wrote this…
“On average, Jackson has been better than Willis in practice. When Willis is “on” he is the best quarterback on the team. But when he’s not – and he hasn’t been “on” in practice more often than he has – Jackson has been better. However, Willis does give the Hokies a better chance of scoring 30+ points, in my opinion, which I believe makes him the better choice for this particular team. The other side of that argument is that a bad day by Willis will probably mean a couple of turnovers, which could turn a close game into a double-digit loss.”
In other words, I thought Willis would give the Hokies a better chance to win a shootout than Josh Jackson. To beat Georgia Tech on Saturday, that might be the type of game they have to win. Here’s what the Tech offense has done the last three weeks with Willis under center…
Duke: 31 points, 413 yards
ND: 23 points, 441 yards
UNC: 22 points, 375 yards
The offense has failed to score 30+ points in two of the three games in which Willis has been the starting quarterback. They’ve averaged 25.33 points per game in that span. I’m not sure that will be enough to beat Georgia Tech. Here’s what the Yellow Jackets have scored on the Hokies in recent meetings…
That 26.5 points per game came against much better Virginia Tech defenses than the Yellow Jackets will face on Thursday. It’s not inconceivable for Georgia Tech to put up 35 or 38 points against the Hokies, or perhaps even more, if you just compare this VT defense to past Tech defenses.
It’s time for Ryan Willis and the Tech offense to catch fire and start putting up some points. They need to play well for all four quarters, and they need to turn their red zone trips into touchdowns (which they’ve been very good at, with the exception of one drive against Notre Dame).
I thought they might do that last week against a porous UNC defense, but I was wrong. Hopefully they saved it for this Thursday night against a Georgia Tech defense that has also struggled this season.
The Georgia Tech Defense: Not So Good
Georgia Tech ranks No. 51 nationally in total defense, which is perhaps not indicative of how poorly they’ve played at times. The Yellow Jackets have been good at not allowing big plays, and they are the beneficiary of an offense that controls the clock and shortens the game.
Their advanced stats tell a different story. Here are those numbers, and as you can see, they fluctuate from extremely good to horribly bad.
S&P+ Defense: No. 104
Success Rate: No. 124
Marginal Efficiency: No. 123
IsoPPP (explosive plays): No. 17
Marginal Explosiveness (explosive plays): No. 23
Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity: No. 124
Passing S&P Defense: No. 118
Passing Marginal Explosiveness: No. 21
Third and Long percentage: No. 106
Third and Short percentage: No. 130
Big Play Rate (20+ yards): No. 8
Inside 10 Success Rate: No. 105
Georgia Tech has done a great job of preventing the big play this season, and they’ve done a horrible job of almost everything else. They can’t stop teams on third and short or third and long, they haven’t stopped teams inside the 10-yard line, etc.
Perhaps the stats that are the most out of whack are the overall pass defense, and the big play pass defense. Georgia Tech ranks No. 118 in S&P+ pass defense, but No. 21 in passing marginal explosiveness. That means the Jackets must be pretty horrible at stopping passes under 20 yards down the field.
Judging from their past performances, it’s very possible that the Yellow Jackets will limit Virginia Tech’s big play opportunities on Thursday night. However, also judging by their pass performances, there will be plenty of opportunities for the Hokies to move the football within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. It’s up to them to execute.
Brenton King went 1-of-4 on his field goal attempts for the Yellow Jackets, though to be fair to him, two of the three misses were from behind 50 yards. True freshman Wesley Wells has since replaced him, and he has converted his only attempt from 41 yards. Based on that knowledge, it’s hard to know how good Wells is or isn’t. There isn’t a large sample size.
Here are Georgia Tech’s overall special teams rankings…
Special Teams S&P+: No. 105
FG Value: No. 122
Punt Efficiency: No. 24
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 114
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 29
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 72
The Yellow Jackets have been good in the punting game, but not so good with kickoffs or field goals. Here’s how Virginia Tech compares…
Special Teams S&P+: No. 10
FG Value: No. 42
Punt Efficiency: No. 10
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 1
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 26
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 104
The Hokies haven’t been good at returning kicks this year, but they’ll get their chance on Thursday against Georgia Tech kickoff specialist Shawn Davis. Only 13 of his 42 kickoffs this year have gone for touchbacks, and opponents have returned two of them for touchdowns (both by USF).
On paper, Virginia Tech has an advantage on special teams, as they do against most of their opponents.
Here’s how Georgia Tech ranks in all three of the major S&P+ rankings…
Offense: No. 21
Defense: No. 104
Special Teams: No. 105
Two of their three units rank outside the top 100. Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is a good football team, because it’s not. The Jackets have to win three of their final five games against Virginia Tech, UNC, Miami, UVA and Georgia to qualify for a bowl. It’s very possible that they’ll be at home for the holidays for the second year in a row.
But each football game is its own separate entity, and they come down to matchups, not stats. I’m very concerned about Virginia Tech’s defense and how they match up against an offense they’ve never faced. I’ve looked down on the field at times this year and seen five freshmen in Tech’s front six, with even more freshmen and sophomores in the secondary. I don’t like the idea of that many young players facing this offense for the first time.
It’s not just the X’s and O’s of the offense, but the speed at which Georgia Tech can execute the offense. There’s no way an opponent can prepare their scout team to run that offense quickly and efficiently on short notice, so it’s tough to get a great look at it until you get out there on the field. For a number of young Virginia Tech players, it’s going to be an eye-opener. You can tell them all day long what they are in for, but they won’t understand it until they actually experience it firsthand.
I’m excited to see what Bud Foster has cooked up schematically. I’m guessing it will look different from what we’ve seen the last couple of years. Still, he’s coaching a bunch of young players, and there’s only so much he can do to help them. To me, this game comes down to Virginia Tech’s offense, and whether they can produce when the defense needs their help. The Hokies have only scored 30+ points against Georgia Tech once since Paul Johnson took over. That might need to change in a hurry.
Like most games this year, I really don’t know how to pick this one. With such a young defense going up against that offense, I could see the Jackets handling the Hokies pretty easily if Virginia Tech’s offense doesn’t play well for four quarters. On the other hand, Georgia Tech is 3-4, all the numbers indicate they are a below average football team, and they’ve never beaten the Hokies on Thursday night. I could also see the Hokies winning comfortably, if everything goes right. My guess is the result will fall somewhere in between.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, Georgia Tech 31
Will Stewart’s Take: That’s a good look at the Yellow Jackets from Chris Coleman. But I don’t think it matters much, at all.
I started to think about how Bud Foster is going to scheme to stop the Yellow Jackets. For Bud, the key is to compensate for his weakest tacklers, so they don’t get exposed by Georgia Tech. One of his best options is to set up a scheme and personnel grouping that gets Caleb Farley off the field, and probably Dylan Rivers as well. Those guys have struggled with one-on-one tackling on the perimeter.
There are years where Paul Johnson has run up the middle on the Hokies, and years where he hasn’t. In 2016, his QB and his B-back went up the middle on 51 of Georgia Tech’s 56 runs, because the Hokies’ scheme gave up the middle of the field.
Georgia Tech rode that setup to a 30-20 win in lane Stadium, a game in which the Jackets led 20-0 at half time.
I’d rather have GT pitching the ball outside, because they’re more likely to turn it over when they do. But that means you have to scheme to bait them to run outside, and if you don’t disrupt the pitch or the lanes, then you have isolated your cornerback against the Georgia Tech pitch man, and he has to make the tackle. That should make Hokie fans nervous, because their young corners haven’t tackled well this year.
Then I thought: stop over-analyzing it. The Hokies are just going to have to score points.
Virginia Tech hasn’t scored over 30 points against Georgia Tech since the Hokies won 37-26 in Atlanta way back in 2011. In 14 games against Power 5 competition since the start of the 2017 season, the Hokies have scored over 30 points just three times, and two of those were just barely: 31-24 over WVU (2017), 59-7 over UNC (2017), and 31-14 over Duke (2018). Virginia Tech has averaged just 24 points a game in those 14 games, and that includes the 59-point outlier against UNC in 2017. Throw that out, and … (shudder).
Unless Bud Foster works some insane Bud Foster magic, Georgia Tech will likely score over 30 points Thursday. That will be rare, because Paul Johnson’s Jackets have only hit 30 against the Hokies once: that 30-20 GT win in 2016. But this is a rare Bud Foster defense that is struggling.
Unless the Hokies have an uncharacteristic offensive eruption Thursday night, they won’t score over 30 against Georgia Tech. Perhaps the Ryan Willis we saw against Duke will show up. You never know.
I still like Virginia Tech’s outlook for the rest of the season, and I can see myself picking the Hokies to win most or all of their last four games, but I don’t like this game.
Will Stewart’s Prediction: Georgia Tech 34, Virginia Tech 24