Georgia Tech Game Preview: Hokies Face Transitioning Program

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Virginia Tech Georgia Tech
(Ivan Morozov)

Winners of four of the last five games, Virginia Tech will travel south to Atlanta to face a Georgia Tech team that struggled out of the gate but has shown signs of life in recent weeks. A victory would see the Hokies clinch a bowl bid for the 27th consecutive season, and would put them in a strong position to compete for the Coastal Division crown against Pitt and Virginia down the stretch.

Meanwhile, Georgia Tech has struggled this season thanks to the retirement of Paul Johnson and the transition to a more traditional offense under new coach Geoff Collins. The Jackets recruited to a specific system in the past, which means that Collins doesn’t have the right kind of personnel at this stage to run a regular offense. More on that later.

Still, we’ve seen improvement from the Yellow Jackets recently. Early in the season they lost to the Citadel, and then were defeated 24-2 by Temple. However, things have been trending up for them in their most recent games. They have a victory over Miami under their belts, and they also played UVA very tough on the road last weekend.

Let’s take a closer look at the squad the Hokies will be facing this weekend.

The Georgia Tech Offense: A Whole Different Ball Game

We all knew that the Georgia Tech offense would look a lot different this year, and we all knew that there would be a long transitional period as their new coaching staff taught a brand new system and recruited new players who fit that system. As expected, things haven’t been pretty in Atlanta.

Here’s how Georgia Tech ranks offensively in the ACC out of 14 teams in Pro Football Focus grades across all categories…

Overall: No. 14
Offense: No. 14
Passing: No. 14
Pass Blocking: No. 14
Receiving: No. 11
Running: No. 4
Run Blocking: No. 13

Geoff Collins Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech’s new head coach, Geoff Collins (Will Stewart)

It has been a season of transition for Geoff Collins’ team. It’s not easy moving from Paul Johnson’s offense to something more traditional. He inherited wide receivers and quarterbacks with no understanding of a passing tree, offensive linemen who were rarely asked to pass block and who had to learn a completely new style of run blocking, he had pretty much no tight ends, etc. In other words, he was starting from scratch, so it’s not a surprise that the Yellow Jackets have struggled offensively this year.

That said, they have played better in recent weeks. Not so much in a 20-10 loss to a Pitt team with an excellent defense, but in a 28-21 victory over Miami and a close 33-28 loss to UVA in Charlottesville.

The Yellow Jackets are like the anti-Wake Forest. Whereas the Demon Deacons want to run as many plays as possible, Georgia Tech wants to shorten the game. The Jackets average 5.31 yards per play against Power 5 teams, which ranks No. 62 in the country. That’s just narrowly behind Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, who are tied at No. 54 at 5.44 yards per game.

Georgia Tech’s biggest threat is their running game, but as you can see by Tech’s most recent games against Power 5 opponents, the Hokie rush defense has been a tough nut to crack lately.

Miami: 23 carries, 94 yards, 4.1 ypc
UNC: 40 carries, 143 yards, 3.6 ypc
Notre Dame: 38 carries, 106 yards, 2.8 ypc
Wake Forest: 29 carries, 63 yards, 2.2 ypc
Totals: 130 carries, 406 yards, 101.5 ypg, 3.1 ypc

Over an entire season, that yards per game average would rank No. 12 in the country against Power 5 opponents, and the yards per carry average would rank No. 16. If the Tech rushing defense has seemed pretty dominant recently, it’s because it’s been exactly that.

The Hokies will have to continue their run of good defensive play, because they’ll be facing arguably the best running back that they’ve faced since AJ Dillon to open up the season. Jordan Mason (6-1, 219, r-So.) has had a big year for the Jackets, putting up the following numbers…

Rushing: 129 carries, 716 yards, 5.6 ypc, 7 TDs
Receiving: 8 catches, 45 yards

Defenders have missed 60 tackles against Mason this year, and his forced missed tackle rate of 43.2% is the best among ACC running backs with 200+ snaps. It’s even better than Travis Etienne of Clemson (41.9%), and is well above the league average of 23.2%. The Virginia Tech defense has to treat Mason like they did AJ Dillon and gang tackle him around the line of scrimmage.

Georgia Tech has started three different quarterbacks this year, though they’ve finally settled on former Virginia Tech commit James Graham (6-1, 192, r-Fr.). Graham has thrown eight touchdowns and five interceptions, compared to the one touchdown and three interceptions that the other two starters combined for. He’s only completing 47.2% of his passes, which isn’t surprising considering how new the system is to all of Georgia Tech’s offensive players, and the fact that he was considered to be a defensive back or running back during the recruiting process.

Graham is very dangerous throwing the ball down the field, though the short-to-intermediate game for the Jackets clearly needs some work, as you might expect. The key for the Hokies will be to stop Mason. If they stop him, Georgia Tech isn’t likely going to be able to score enough points through the air to win the game.

Also of note, former starter Tobias Oliver moved to wide receiver during the middle of the season, so be on the lookout for the trick play.

ACC fans are glad to see the end of the triple option at Georgia Tech. (Ivan Morozov)

The Georgia Tech Offense, By The Numbers

Here’s how the Yellow Jacket offense has fared against Power 5 competition this season…

Rushing: 152.67 ypg, No. 52
Passing: 164.8 ypg, No. 98
Total: 317.5 ypg, No. 88

Only seven Power 5 teams average fewer yards per game against Power 5 competition than Georgia Tech: Duke, Illinois, Arkansas, Cal, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Rutgers. The Jackets have gotten better with Graham behind center, but they are still limited.

The Georgia Tech Defense, By The Numbers

Geoff Collins has needed his defense to step up and protect his offense this year, but for the most part they have been unable to do so. Here are their numbers against Power 5 teams…

Rushing: 214.83 ypg, No. 102
Passing: 239.2 ypg, No. 67
Total: 406.3 ypg, No. 75

This is a defense that, on the whole, has been very similar to Wake Forest’s this season in terms of total defense. Against Power 5 teams, the Jackets are No. 75 and Wake is No. 76.

Here’s how Georgia Tech ranks defensively across the ACC (14 teams) according to Pro Football Focus…

Overall: No. 13
Rushing: No. 13
Tackling: No. 6
Pass Rush: No. 14
Coverage: No. 7

The Jackets have tackled pretty well, and they are decent in coverage, but they’ve been bad against the running game no matter how you slice it.

(Ivan Morozov)

Defensive Players To Watch

Georgia Tech’s defense is described as a “4-2-5 Effort Based” defense according to the Jackets’ game notes, which is amusing, considering I don’t know of any defense that can be successful without players who give good effort. Like the Hokies, the Jackets are very inexperienced on defense. In fact, they didn’t start a single senior in their most recent game. Their best players are in the secondary, as you might expect from their pass defense numbers in relation to their rushing defense.

Keep an eye on…

No. 1, S Juanyeh Thomas (6-3, 216, So.)
No. 2, S Tariq Carpenter (6-2, 223, Jr.)
No. 22, NKL Kaleb Oliver (6-2, 212, r-So.)
No. 25, LB Charlie Thomas (6-2, 210, So.)

Those three guys have done a good job for Georgia Tech this year, and they have good size at the safety and nickel spot. Their cornerbacks haven’t been quite as good, though.

Linebacker Charlie Thomas leads the team in tackles for loss with nine, and he’s also tied for the team lead in sacks with two. The Jackets have only 15 sacks this season through nine games, as compared to Virginia Tech’s 29.

Special Teams: Advantage, Hokies

Georgia Tech’s special teams arguably cost them the football game against Virginia last weekend. First, they bounced a field goal off the upright that cost them three points, and later they gave up a kickoff return to the 50 that the Hoos turned into a touchdown. UVA went on to win the game 33-28, but it could have been a different story had the Yellow Jackets played better on special teams.

That’s been going on all year for the Yellow Jackets. In fact, the FEI metrics rank Georgia Tech’s special teams No. 99, with the Hokies coming in at No. 28. Pro Football Focus also does special teams ratings, and here is the comparison between the two teams…

Virginia Tech: 81.3 rating, No. 2 in the ACC
Georgia Tech: 62.5 rating, No. 14 in the ACC

Brian Johnson Virginia Tech
Brian Johnson and the Hokies special teams have the advantage. (Ivan Morozov)

The punting game has especially gone poorly for the Jackets. They average just 4.6 yards per punt return, and they’ve allowed a punt return for a touchdown. Their field goal kickers are a combined 3-of-7, including a 2-of-4 mark inside 40 yards. They’ve had a punt blocked, though they’ve also blocked two. Also, out of 31 kickoff attempts, their kickers have managed only three touchbacks with an equal number of kicks sailing out-of-bounds.

Special teams is a battle that Virginia Tech should win.

Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech Final Thoughts

I think Geoff Collins has done about as good a job as a coach can do in his first year at Georgia Tech. It doesn’t show up in their 2-7 record, of course. But it can’t be overstated how difficult it is to transition from Paul Johnson’s offense to a regular offense, particularly when your defense isn’t very talented. I think Collins has done about as much as anybody can do with the group he was given. The future of the program will be decided by player development and recruiting.

Collins may be a good coach, but good coaches lose all the time to other good coaches who have better players. The Hokies have better players, and this is a rare game where they aren’t at a huge experience disadvantage. The Jackets are still more experienced, but not as much so as some other teams on Virginia Tech’s schedule.

Of course, the concern is that after playing well for three consecutive emotional games, the Hokies will go on the road and have a letdown against a 2-7 opponent. That’s always a legitimate concern for any team. However, at least Justin Fuente can point out to his players how the Yellow Jackets have beaten them three years in a row, including a 49-28 blowout in Lane Stadium last year. This isn’t a game Tech should take lightly, simply because of past experiences.

I feel like that as long as turnovers are even and the Hokies play with emotion through four quarters, they should win. I think it will be tough for the Jackets to put up enough points to win the game.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, Georgia Tech 20

Will Stewart’s Take: Start with the running game. Virginia Tech is no. five in the ACC in both rushing offense and rushing defense, and Georgia Tech is no. 8 in rushing offense and no. 14 in rushing defense. A look at game-by-game stats shows that the Georgia Tech rushing defense has improved in the last five games, but the Virginia Tech rushing defense and rushing offense have improved in the last five games. Both teams are trending in the right direction, Virginia Tech more so.

In the passing game, the Hokies are more ball-control with a much higher completion percentage, while Georgia Tech can be explosive at times. GT’s Ahmarean Brown averages 21.2 yards on 17 catches and has five touchdowns, while VT’s Damon Hazelton averages 17.8 and has six touchdowns on 22 catches. I don’t worry about Georgia Tech being consistent in the passing game, but I do worry about them hitting a big one here or there.

Special teams as Chris noted are on the Hokies’ side, but special teams can also be a crapshoot at times.

This should go Virginia Tech’s way, and it being a road game isn’t a problem, as the Hokies are 5-2 in Atlanta since entering the ACC. All Virginia Tech has to do is show up to play and respond to adversity, two things they have been doing well A.D. (After Duke).

Here’s the thing: my record picking Virginia Tech this year against Power 5 teams is horrendous. I’m 1-5, including 0-5 in picking ACC games. The only one I got right was the Notre Dame pick. So it’s scary that I’m about to pick the Hokies to win three straight games, all against ACC competition. But here we go.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Georgia Tech 17

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14 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. My major concern is the field, they re-sodded a week ago and it has rained. Injuries and advantage to a slower GT team if the field is nasty.

  2. It is alarming that GT has been so successful the last three years against the Hokies. I think Will and Chris got this one right but anything can happen. Go hokies!

  3. Bud’s last chance to beat GT. Even with Paul Johnson’s triple option gone, this program has caused him and VT lots of headaches over the years. I think VT wins if Hooker stays healthy, but it may be closer than 2 TDs.

  4. With continually getting blown out by Clemson and UGA; GT fans have zeroed in on us as a more even rivalry. This would be a big signature win for them. Need to being our A game. GO Hokies !

  5. I think both predictions are good. Tech is “peaking” at the right time of the season. Clicking in all phases of the game and looking much better. Go Hokies!

  6. If this season could potentially have a so called “trap game” this is it. On paper, this should not be close, but this game worries me.

    1. JHH, fully agree, this is a “trap game” and more so now that Chris & Will have predicted a VT win..

      I am superstitious. GO HOKIES!!!

  7. Chris & Will-
    The way this Season has gone I feel much better when you don’t pick the Hokies!
    Go Hokies!


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