Frustrating. That’s how defensive tackle Ricky Walker described Georgia Tech’s spread option offense.
Following an off-week, Virginia Tech had some extra time to prepare for the Yellow Jackets’ complex offense. For guys like Walker, who’s been banged up all year, it also offered some extra time to recover in the leadup to the physical matchup.
“It was huge,” Walker said. “Gave me time to rehab three times a day. Got me back close to 100 percent.”
Walker and the other defensive tackles will face one of the biggest challenges of the year on Thursday night. Georgia Tech’s offensive line inflicts its fair share of cut blocks with a punishing style of attack at the line of scrimmage.
“You need good defensive tackle play in this game, for sure,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “Penetration, disrupting those A and B gaps where they really want to establish their fullback. It’s an experience driven thing. It was good that we had a few extra days to prep, and really pleased with where we are right now in our scout team with what they’ve been able to do and how they bought into being a part of this game.”
Perhaps more than any other week, the role of the scout team plays an integral role before Virginia Tech takes the field under the bright lights.
“Yeah I think our young coaches and scout team have done a really good job of that so far,” Fuente said. “That’s part of the challenge, and part of it is not just simulating the play, but simulating the speed in which they execute it. I’m always very fearful that on the very first play of the game the defense is going to look over to the sideline and go, ‘Yeah, we recognized that play, but it was executed so much faster than we looked at for the past week.’ Our kids have embraced that challenge of simulating it and have done a pretty good job of it.”
Wiles offered a similar sentiment, saying it’s not the tempo, but more so how fast the Yellow Jackets’ offense is that will catch a defense off balance on the first few plays. Walker experienced that first hand in 2016, when Georgia Tech jumped out to a 20-0 lead on the Hokies from Lane Stadium.
“I remember the first couple plays I was getting cut,” Walker said. “I was on the ground. I was thinking ‘Oh man, this isn’t what I thought it would be.’ Once you get a feel for the first series, you’ll be alright. No matter how fast and how hard the practice guy does it, it’s nothing like the game.
“Coach Foster says it every year, if we don’t come out and attack, we’ll be down 14-0 quick. If everybody just stays intact, does their job, and just plays with a little bit of emotion we’ll be fine.”
Georgia Tech ranks first in the nation with 352.4 rushing yards per game. If Virginia Tech is going to prevent the Yellow Jackets from becoming the first team to win three straight games at Lane Stadium since Miami (1967, 1982, and 1992), it will need to slow down the rushing attack on early downs.
“They are going so fast and so forward, you think you hit it on the button and it’s second-and-6, second-and-5 when you feel like you really hit it in the backfield,” Wiles said. “The key for us is to be good on first down. We don’t want to be in a lot of second-and-5’s. Those are tough. We have to play good up front.”
If Virginia Tech is able to limit the Georgia Tech ground game, it has to be aware to not have the same lapses in the passing game like in 2017.
The Hokies limited the Yellow Jackets to 261 rushing yards and only two completions from quarterback TaQuon Marshall. Those two completions just happened to go for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Marshall connected with Brad Stewart for 60 yards and Ricky Jeune for 80 yards behind Virginia Tech’s secondary.
When a team is so concerned with stopping the run, how does an individual stay disciplined when Marshall actually does drop back for the few times he will during the game?
“Eyes and technique,” safety Reggie Floyd said. “Make sure you’re in the right place. Make sure your eyes are in the right place. Keep your eyes on your own work.”
As Walker said from the front, it’s sure to be a frustrating night at times for the Hokies. The Yellow Jackets will have a handful of tricks up their sleeves, but ultimately it comes down to Virginia Tech carrying out its game plan on Thursday night.
“Paul (Johnson) has been doing it for a long time so he has answers,” Fuente said. “He knows exactly how to fix or what to do next in the order of operations. From a big picture perspective, I think focusing on execution is the best thing that you can do.”
Time of Possession Challenges
Georgia Tech is 15th in the nation in time of possession, averaging 33:06 in possession. Virginia Tech’s average time of possession is 31:33, good for 41st in the nation. Perhaps no other game demonstrates the need to take advantage of every possession than Thursday night’s will.
“Time of possession is going to be huge for us,” Quarterback Ryan Willis said. “Eliminating three and outs and giving our defense some rest, because that triple option can go for a long time on the field. We just need to do our best, execute our plays and take care of the ball.”
The best way for Virginia Tech to keep its defenders from staring at the sideline with their hands on their hips is to engineer its own long and sustained drives.
“Each possession is very important because we have to be smart with the ball,” wide receiver Damon Hazelton said. “We won’t get the ball a lot just because of the way they run their offense.”
Damon Hazelton’s Emergence
Six games through the season, Damon Hazelton leads Virginia Tech’s receiving corps with 29 receptions, 515 yards, and five touchdowns. After sitting out last year, his presence has been a welcomed sight considering the Hokies seemingly lacked a go-to threat heading into the season.
“Well I think he certainly has room for improvement, doesn’t mean I’m not pleased with him,” Fuente said. “I think we’ve been happy with the way he’s approached things. He listens, he’s a very coachable young man.
“The good thing is like some of the guys that we’ve had here in the past like Isaiah (Ford) and Cam (Phillips), he can communicate with you about what he’s getting or what he’s seeing. He can kind of see things in real time.”
Hazelton was held in check in the 22-19 win over North Carolina the last time the Hokies were on the gridiron. The Baltimore native corralled two catches for 36 yards, both on the game-winning drive. It represents the challenge for Hazelton to adjust to the different defenses that will be thrown his way.
“I think him as well as a lot of those guys have to understand that when you’re successful, teams are going to find different ways to make you unsuccessful,” wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins said. “I felt that it was like that our first year with Isaiah Ford and Bucky (Hodges) and those guys. We kind of got tight coverage to begin with, took advantage of some fade balls, and then guys started playing off of us.”
- The off-week also presented an opportunity for Vinny Mihota to continue to heal. He played in 27 snaps against North Carolina, and Wiles noted he’s getting close to 100 percent.
“Vinny is beginning to look like Vinny, which is exciting,” Wiles said.