After a rough outing at Charlottesville a week ago, the defense, like the team as a whole, needed a bounce-back performance... and on Saturday, they delivered in a big way. Behind strong games from the linebackers and defensive tackles, plus a couple timely plays from the secondary, the Jackets contained the Virginia Tech offense for much of the game and held on for a narrow 28-22 win, giving the better Tech their first win over a ranked opponent this season. It was a heartening performance and, with Georgia looming in just under two weeks, one that could set the tone for a strong finish to the season.
Week 11 vs. Virginia Tech: Defense by the Numbers
|Points per Possession||1.3|
|Points Off Turnovers Allowed||0|
|Total Yards Allowed||258|
|Rush Yards Allowed||105|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||2.9|
|Pass Yards Allowed||153|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||5.9|
|Opp. Yards per Play||4.2|
|Third Down Conversions||4/15|
|Fourth Down Conversions||2/4|
The Hokies only had one long, sustained offensive possession: their 12-play, 74-yard touchdown drive at the end of the third quarter. Their other touchdown drive saw them start at the GT 29-yard line thanks to a long kickoff return, and their other two lengthy drives—an eight-play drive on their first possession that led to a field goal, and a 12-play drive on their final possession that ended in a turnover on downs—spanned just 38 and 42 yards, respectively. Overall, the Jackets did a great job of getting the Hokies off the field, allowing them to convert just four of 15 third downs and forcing a trio of three-and-outs. Their effectiveness in this arena was perhaps the biggest reason for the Hokies only amassing 258 total yards.
The defense was particularly effective in shutting down VT’s run game. They only had two runs of 10-plus yards, both by slot receiver Sean Savoy; running backs Travon McMillian and Jalen Holston combined for 20 carries for 61 yards, and neither had a run longer than eight yards. GT got a great push up front, and the linemen and linebackers were routinely able to contain the play and prevent the ballcarrier from reaching the second level.
If there’s one knock, it was that Ted Roof’s unit did not force a turnover. They came close a couple times, though. A couple defensive backs bumped into each other while trying to intercept a lame-duck pass in the third quarter (which of course ended up in the hands of VT receiver Eric Kumah), and GT nearly recovered a fumble off a botched read option mesh early in the fourth quarter. They recorded a solid havoc rate, though, which was bolstered by six tackles for loss and three pass breakups; really, the official havoc rate does not fully capture how disruptive the defense was in this game.
The defensive line has had plenty of ups and downs in recent weeks, but on Saturday they had one of their best performances of the season. They didn’t exactly light up the stat sheet—the unit combined for just 1.5 tackles for loss—but they won the majority of their battles against the VT offensive line, and their strong play was a major reason that the linebackers were able to make several big plays.
A big reason for that success was strong play from the defensive tackles. Desmond Branch, the quickest player at the position, finished with seven tackles and might have gotten a QB hurry on that near-interception in the third quarter if it hadn’t been caught. His fellow starter, Brentavious Glanton, routinely got great leverage when defending the run and was instrumental in closing off running lanes, freeing up the linebackers to attack the gaps. Brandon Adams also did well against the run and picked up a QB hurry when he forced Jackson to throw it away on third down. The ends didn’t make quite as much noise, but Antonio Simmons and Anree Saint-Amour were constantly in the backfield on the pass rush and flushed Jackson out of the pocket on several occasions.
Also, for the second straight week, a defensive lineman made a huge play on special teams. Against Virginia, it was Simmons flying in to block a punt; this week, it was KeShun Freeman getting the direct snap on a fake punt and getting across the marker for a first down. Freeman followed his blockers (fellow linemen Tyler Merriweather and Antwan Owens) a little too well and missed a chance to cut upfield for a few extra yards... but while his Madden ballcarrier vision rating might take a hit, he did a solid job for aguy with zero career carries..
Status: Stable and rising
Welcome back, Brant Mitchell.
The linebacking corps finally got a healthy Mitchell back in the lineup, and he made his presence known early and often. The junior and leader of the unit did a little bit of everything on Saturday. He made a diving play to break up up a third-down pass in the first quarter, sacked Jackson on a delayed blitz in the third, and finished with a team-high nine tackles in the game. Mitchell reacted quickly when VT kept the ball on the ground, and he played a huge role in stopping most of their rushes near the line of scrimmage. It was one of the best performances of Mitchell’s career and a major step forward for a guy who had struggled to make impact plays in the first half of the season.
His counterpart Victor Alexander had a rough first half. He over-pursued on a couple plays on the Hokies’ opening drive and took himself out of position to make a tackle, and he did the same on the 27-yard pass to running back Travon McMillian on a wheel route out of the backfield in the second quarter. That said, he rebounded in a big way right to start the third quarter. Alexander was a delayed blitzer on VT’s first play from scrimmage, and as Jackson tried to escape and throw it away, the linebacker closed in and pulled him down for a 12-yard sack. He nearly got Jackson again on the following play, forcing the QB to throw an off-target deep pass that fell incomplete.
True freshman Bruce Jordan-Swilling did not see much action even though he was coming off an outstanding game last week. He serves as Mitchell’s backup at MLB, and given that Mitchell was in top form in a close divisional game, Ted Roof likely just opted to stick with the hot hand. In truth, Mitchell and Alexander handled nearly every snap in this game at linebacker... but if the Jackets can open up an early lead against Duke next week, expect to see plenty of Jordan-Swilling and the other young reserves.
After not getting many impact plays from the linebackers all season, the Jackets have now had two straight games in which a linebacker has had a standout performance. It’s a great sign of progress at one of the team’s deepest position groups.
Status: Raised, especially in the latter half
By a show of hands, who predicted that Ajani Kerr would make the biggest defensive play of the day?
The redshirt freshman, third in line at boundary corner, somehow ended up with one of the toughest tasks of the day: guarding senior wideout Cam Phillips with no safety help on fourth down with the game on the line. And he delivered: as Jackson lobbed it deep to Phillips for what would have been a game-tying touchdown, Kerr tracked the ball in flight and reached across Phillips to swat it away in the end zone. It was the last piece of a solid performance for Kerr, who lined up at boundary corner for much of the second half and acquitted himself well. It’s unclear why he got the nod over veterans Step Durham and Lamont Simmons (maybe injuries were involved?), but he was a clear bright spot for the Jackets, and it would be no surprise if he remains in the rotation going forward.
Just as the linebackers got a boost from Mitchell’s return, the secondary as a whole looked noticeably better with free safety A.J. Gray back in the mix. Christian Campbell did as well as could be expected as his replacement, but getting Gray back gave the Jackets their veteran safety tandem to stabilize the back end. He had five tackles, including one of the biggest of the day: a tackle for loss on an A.J. Bush quarterback keeper on fourth and two in the second quarter. Corey Griffin had a few nice tackles as well as he and Gray traded off playing up in the box and playing center field.
Field corner Lance Austin had a solid day as well. He only had two tackles, but he swatted a pass out of Phillips’ hands for a pass breakup, and he would have had a second if not for a very weak pass interference call in the end zone. Perhaps the best sign of Austin’s success is that he was matched up with Phillips for most of the game, and the receiver finished with just two receptions for eight yards. Austin had a tougher time against the slightly larger Eric Kumah, but the senior corner largely held his own, and Kumah did get away with a push-off on a big fourth-down conversion against Austin on VT’s final drive.
Kerr made a fantastic play on the deep pass to Phillips at the end, but the reason he was in that situation was that Roof took a massive gamble on that fourth-and-one play. Here was GT’s alignment:
It’s a short-yardage situation, so the Jackets sell out to stop the run, with everyone but Kerr up in the box. One safety, Gray, is showing blitz off the edge; the other, Griffin, is acting as a linebacker while Mitchell steps up to blitz in front of him. That leaves guaranteed single coverage on Phillips on the outside, as nobody has any chance of getting over there to help. It’s an aggressive call by Roof in which he shows faith in his boundary corner to provide tight man coverage, and that’s refreshing to see from him in this situation. What takes it from aggressive to reckless is the fact that the guy he’s leaving out on an island is a backup freshman cornerback. If Phillips had broken free and made the catch, this call would have been utterly indefensible. But Roof showed faith in his guy, and freshman or not, Kerr played the ball perfectly and made a game-saving play.
There were some interesting alignments on Saturday. Take this one from the third quarter, on a third down that led to an incomplete pass, an amusing Corey Griffin celebration, and a VT punt:
The alignment itself isn’t necessarily strange. The odd part is that the player pressing the forward receiver in the trips bunch is Griffin, the strong safety, while the Austins hang back behind him. The Jackets have had occasional trouble defending bunched receivers like this, and while having a safety in press coverage is an unorthodox approach, it worked well in this situation.
In general, Roof called a somewhat similar game to last week, mixing in a healthy dose of blitzes with one safety usually in or near the box and the defensive backs giving cushions on most plays. It was a sensible gameplan against a redshirt freshman quarterback: stack the box, throw lots of heat, and force him to make quick decisions and/or throw on the run. He even got uncharacteristically aggressive at times, at one point dialing up a double safety blitz on third down (which backfired). Largely, though, the pressure proved effective.
The biggest complaint that emerged was one that echoes from prior weeks: the blitzes weren’t disguised particularly well. The most disguising he did was to send one linebacker behind the other on a double blitz or to have a linebacker wait until the running back was clearly in pass protection to attack. When he decided to send one linebacker or to blitz a safety, the VT offensive line had no illusions about it. The zone blitzes that Roof tried out earlier in the season seem to have been buried in favor of simply throwing more heat at the quarterback. That isn’t a bad idea, but mixing more creative blitzes in would at least keep opposing offenses on their toes.
It’s worth noting that the Jackets benefited from several bizarre playcalls by VT offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen, particularly on fourth downs. The most prominent was early in the second quarter, when the Hokies went for it on fourth and two at the GT eight-yard line. Backup quarterback A.J. Bush entered the game in a package that practically screamed “QB keeper,” the Hokies ran a QB keeper, and the Jackets won at the line of scrimmage and shut it down. The other was the decision to have Jackson throw deep on third and fourth down when the Hokies needed only one yard on their final drive. To their credit, though, GT had been stuffing the run all day, and the fourth-down play looked like a great matchup on paper: a star receiver one-on-one against an inexperienced cornerback.
Status: Stable, but in a dangerous sort of way
The defense hasn’t exactly played badly over the last few weeks, but even so, this performance was one of their best of the season. It was the result of a mix of heads-up play across the field and aggressive playcalling, and the Jackets got timely contributions from veterans and youngsters alike. It’s a major morale boost for the unit heading into the home stretch, and they’ll have an opportunity to continue their strong play against a reeling Duke squad next week.