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Football: Roof Inspection Report - Week 8

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The defense gave up some big plays but got stops at key moments—especially in the second half

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

For a while, things weren’t looking good. Led by four-year starting quarterback John Wolford, Wake Forest’s offense punched it in on three straight possessions in the first half, moving the ball with ease on read option and run-pass option plays as Tech struggled to keep pace with their up-tempo offense and get calls relayed in from the sideline.

It took a little bit, but after halftime, Ted Roof’s unit righted the ship. Thanks to several timely plays from all three levels of the defense, Tech began containing the run game and held Wake to just three points in the second half, buying time for the offense to find its rhythm and retake the lead. The early struggles raise some concerns ahead of next week’s game at Clemson, which runs a similarly quick no-huddle offense, but Tech’s ability to adjust and keep pace—even with key personnel out—bodes well for tha matchup.

Week 8 vs. Wake Forest: Defense by the Numbers

Stat Total
Stat Total
Opp. Possessions 11
Points Allowed 24
Points per Possession 2.2
Points Off Turnovers Allowed 0
Total Yards Allowed 362
Rush Yards Allowed 110
Opp. Yards per Carry 3.5
Pass Yards Allowed 252
Opp. Yards per Attempt 8.4
Opp. Yards per Play 5.9
Third Down Conversions 4/11
Fourth Down Conversions 0/3
Three-and-Outs Forced 3
Turnovers Forced 1
Havoc Rate 13.1%

One stat that deserves further breakdown is the third-down conversion figure: Wake went 3-for-4 on third downs in the first half and 1-for-7 in the second half. That illustrates the defensive improvement as well as any other figure could. Where Tech had been giving up conversions on long gains on read-option runs or a perfectly-placed Wolford passes that were just out of reach, in the second half they started getting a better push up front to close down running lanes and began tipping away passes in those crucial moments.

Another worth exploring is Wake’s rushing average. They ran the ball almost at will in the first half, but over the final 30 minutes, they had 16 carries for 17 yards. That figure includes -26 yards from a botched snap and a sack, but even if those are removed, that leaves 14 carries for 43 yards—an average of 3.1 yards per carry. That’s a clear step forward for a defensive front that was without its starting middle linebacker and has had trouble stopping the run lately.

The havoc rate was up from a week ago, thanks largely to Corey Griffin’s interception and a slew of pass breakups from a secondary that played aggressively (plus one from the defensive line). A smaller fraction of it came from pressure, which is concerning given Wake’s 30 pass attempts but could also be partly due to their reliance on run-pass option plays.

Defensive Line

One of the big concerns that emerged from the last couple weeks was how well the defensive line—and particularly the tackles—could hold up against the run. Wake’s fast-paced option attack was a different flavor from what Tech faced against Miami, and for a while it was problematic. Desmond Branch swatted away a pass attempt on Wake’s opening drive, but he had a tough time getting leverage when trying to stop the run. His fellow starter, Brentavious Glanton had a similar story, but he was instrumental in clearing the way for the eventual tackle on a fourth-and-one stop late in the fourth quarter. Brandon Adams had more sustained success in getting leverage, but he’s still young and remains a rotational player for now. Also, some of the issues were related to not getting set in time, which made it difficult for the linemen to engage Wake’s offensive line properly.

The story here was the same as it was for the defense in most other regards: things were bad early on, and they got better in the second half.

There was one oddity with regard to personnel—namely that defensive end Antonio Simmons didn’t see a ton of action. He rotated in occasionally and was in on some third-down sets, and he did nearly record a sack in the fourth quarter, but KeShun Freeman and Anree Saint-Amour got the vast majority of the snaps. Keeping those two on the field may have been a concerted effort to focus on stopping Wake’s run game. The ends in general weren’t a huge factor in the game, but they did a good job of sealing the edges to prevent Wake from taking some of their outside runs all the way to the perimeter.

Status: Stable with some leakage in the run game

Linebackers

Even with starter Brant Mitchell out, these guys got the job done. The totally (un)official award for play of the week goes to junior Victor Alexander, whose fourth-down sack in the third quarter ended a Wake drive that was nearing field goal range. There isn’t anything particularly special about the play as it was drawn up, but it’s quite fun to watch:

Alexander gets a great jump on a standard OLB blitz, and Wake’s left guard somehow misses the linebacker running right past him. Running back Arkeem Byrd tries to pick him up, but Alexander has a 40-pound size advantage and brushes him aside, and from there he has a clear lane to the quarterback. It was the biggest play of the day for the junior, who had a strong all-around performance and tied for the team lead with six tackles.

The award for biggest improvement goes to Bruce Jordan-Swilling. Despite getting plenty of snaps against Miami, he looked lost for much of the game, and he eventually ceded his role to Tre Jackson. This week, Jordan-Swilling stepped in for Jackson in the second quarter and never looked back. He had a couple of impressive tackles; one saw him disengage from a blocker to stop running back Arkeem Byrd for a two-yard gain, and he also made the stop on a crucial fourth-and-one play in the fourth quarter, which ended Wake’s last big offensive push. In general, Jordan-Swilling did a much better job of being in the right spot to close off running lanes and staying in his zone in coverage. He still needs to work on reading the play and acting more decisively at the snap, but he’s shown tremendous growth from even a week ago and might have cemented his spot in the rotation.

This unit could definitely use Brant Mitchell back for next week’s big matchup. His leadership would have helped to combat the unit’s pre-snap confusion early in the game, and there were plenty of plays when Wake gained good yardage by running directly to a spot where a linebacker should have been. Nevertheless, they took a clear step forward from how they looked a week ago after the junior went out of the game, and that’s a good sign.

Status: Stable

Secondary

The defensive backs were playing up on Saturday for almost the entire game, with the cornerbacks offering virtually no cushion and the safeties playing closer to the line of scrimmage than usual. The result was more big plays given up but also more opportunities to make plays. They gave up a few big plays to coverage lapses, but more often they forced Wake quarterback John Wolford to make some tough throws. Wolford was accurate on most of them, but after a rough opening half, the Tech secondary came up with several good plays of their own to help turn things around.

Step Durham gave up Wake’s first touchdown on a quick slant, but he was fantastic in the latter half of the game. Wolford went after him often, and Durham made two timely pass breakups and provided tight coverage on several other occasions. Unfortunately, his day ended on a sour note thanks to a... questionable hit at the end of a fourth-quarter play. On the opposite side, Lance Austin was targeted very infrequently even though he was almost never giving his man a cushion. Lance has quietly been much better in pass coverage in his senior season, and as is often the case for successful cornerbacks, it’s reflected in how little he’s showing up on the stat sheet.

The defensive back that had the roughest time was his brother. Nickel corner Lawrence Austin was close to several big plays—he had a would-be interception bounce off his hands in the third quarter, and he was an inch or two away from a leaping pass breakup on the following drive. But he was also beaten on several of Wake’s longest pass plays. The caveat is that he had by far the most challenging assignment: going up against receivers Greg Dortch and Tabari Hines, two of Wake’s most dynamic players, when they lined up in the slot. It wasn’t a particularly great day for Lawrence, and he needs to provide tighter coverage if Tech wants to have any hope against Clemson... but this game was also uncharacteristic for a senior who’s been having a strong year otherwise.

As for the safeties, Corey Griffin, who has had several near-misses in coverage this season, finally came away with his first interception of the year. The senior iced the game by snagging an overthrown ball in the end zone on Wake’s final drive and running it back 27 yards. He might have been able to get at least a bit more—it looked like only linemen were in his path—but the veteran made the smart play, sliding to enable Tech to run out the clock. Across from him, free safety A.J. Gray continued to make an impact all over the field, recording five tackles and breaking up a deep fourth-down pass in the fourth quarter to end a Wake drive and preserve Tech’s lead.

Status: Stable with some signs of leakage

Coaching

Give Ted Roof credit: after weeks of soft coverage and a four-man rush with the occasional blitz or boundary corner press, his gameplan for Wake was aggressive from start to finish. He sent linebackers on blitzes early and often, both to contain the run game and to get heat on the quarterback, and he had his corners playing up on receivers—often in man coverage—and his safeties playing just 7-8 yards back from the line of scrimmage on virtually every play. On paper, it was exactly what we had hoped to see from Roof: more heat from the front six and more faith in the veteran defensive backs to hold down the fort in the passing game.

As described in the previous section, the result of all this was more big plays given up but also more opportunities for defenders to make plays of their own. With a veteran defense like this, that’s a risk well worth taking. Tech got burned on several occasions when Wolford went to the air, but when it happened in the second half, they constantly rebounded to get a stop.

If there’s one outstanding complaint about the actual scheme, it’s that the blitz packages were pretty vanilla. Even though Roof sent a linebacker on a blitz on roughly half of Tech’s defensive snaps, the majority of the time it was the outside linebacker (typically Alexander, but sometimes Terrell Lewis) attacking the B-gap on a run blitz. That said, there were a few new wrinkles—including a double outside blitz that featured Alexander rushing off one end and Corey Griffin coming up to rush off the other end. For most of the season, we had seen A.J. Gray effectively acting as another safety/linebacker hybrid with Griffin playing center field, but Roof seems to be mixing up their roles on occasion, which will help to keep things honest.

The actual alignments, playcalls, and personnel didn’t seem to change much from the first half to the second half. The issue, from what players and coaches said after the game, was mainly in communication between the sideline and field against a very fast-paced offense. It improved with time, but the communication issues are concerning--especially ahead of a matchup with a Clemson team that will be running a similar scheme with much better athletes.

Status: Leaking a little, but stability restored in crucial sectors