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Option Strategy Report: Louisville

NSFW for people named Brian VanGorder

Georgia Tech v Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

I’m not ready to say I’m legitimately excited about Georgia Tech’s offense...but I’m getting really, really close. For the second straight week, Coach Paul Johnson’s offensive unit has looked just about unstoppable as they walloped the Louisville Cardinals 66-31 on Friday night. Tech has been absurdly efficient, with their last 18 drives (excluding running out the clock) resulting in one punt, one field goal, and 16 touchdowns. While the past two opponents haven’t been particularly menacing (Louisville now sits at 99th in the S&P+ rankings while Bowling Green has the 128th spot on lockdown), the offensive efficiency has been unprecedented. The only two-game stretch of the CPJ era that comes close to matching what we’ve seen these past two games was Weeks 1 & 2 of the 2015 season when the Jackets scored 19 touchdowns in 24 drives against Alcorn State and Tulane. If you have a particularly unpleasant reaction to reading “2015 season”, that’s because Tech finished 3-9 that year, proving that beating the snot out of bad teams doesn’t correlate to beating good teams. While it’s been a blast watching the Jackets’ offense run over everything in their path these last two weeks, I’m still hesitant to get too excited until they perform well against a legitimate opponent.

But that’s a future problem, right now let’s focus on that beatdown last Friday in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Nobody had a rougher night than Louisville’s notorious defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder. VanGorder had the opportunity to prove to the world that he is the master of defending CPJ’s flexbone offense, and that his win over the Jackets in 2015 as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator wasn’t just a product of fielding athletically superior players. Needless to say, he did not take advantage of this opportunity. The Jackets gashed the Louisville defense for 542 rushing yards at 8.3 yards per carry as they handed Louisville their most rushing yards allowed in school history. VanGorder didn’t have much to say about it:

The Many Defensive Formations of Brian VanGorder

To VanGorder’s credit, he tried everything in the book to stop the Jackets’ ground attack. Like, literally. Louisville trotted out six different defensive formations in the first half alone, and all of them were spectacularly ineffective at slowing the Jackets down. Here are all six of those formations, ranked from most effective (or rather, least ineffective) to most ineffective:

(Special thanks to Andrew Rodrigues, Kieffer Milligan, and Nishant Prasadh for collecting all the play data, and be sure to check out their Option Advanced Stats Report tomorrow).

2-4-5 Formation

Appearances: 6

Yards allowed per play: 5.7

The most effective formation VanGorder dialed up on Friday was the 2-4-5 formation, which delivered a relatively respectable 5.7 yards allowed per play. The 2-4-5 lines up just two true defensive linemen, each in a 3-technique (between the offensive tackle and guard), accompanied by two inside linebackers and two outside linebackers. This formation may have worked if Louisville had larger inside linebackers, but the Jackets had absolutely no problem running right up the gut, as we saw on this Midline give to B-back Jordan Mason:

4-3 Formation

Appearances: 3

Yards allowed per play: 7.0

VanGorder’s second-most effective formation was the typical 4-3 defense. Teams have slowed the Jackets down with the 4-3 in the past, but it’s highly dependent on defenders understanding their assignments, which is where Louisville ran into issues. On one instance when the Jackets run an Inside Veer (Triple Option), both the playside defensive end and the playside outside linebacker collapsed on the B-back, leaving A-back Nathan Cottrell with plenty of room to pick up a 10-yard gain:

4-4 Formation

Appearances: 5

Yards allowed per play: 8.0

VanGorder also tried bringing an 8-man front with four down linemen and four linebackers. While this would be strong against runs up the middle, having less speed on the field means defenders will have difficulty avoiding blocks and pursuing ball carriers to the perimeter. The Jackets took full advantage of this as TaQuon Marshall kept the ball on a Belly Option to pick up 10 yards and a first down. Take a look at the beautiful cut blocks dished out by center Kenny Cooper and B-back Jordan Mason on the two inside linebackers:

3-5-3 Formation

Appearances: 23

Yard allowed per play: 9.2

Early on, VanGorder seemed determined to make the 3-5-3 formation work. After all the success he had with it at Notre Dame three years ago, surely it would work again here, right? The defensive linemen would eat up blocks down low to leave the linebackers free to pursue all three options of the Inside Veer. It sounds so great in theory, but it turns out when you force fit a scheme requiring athletic superiority on an athletically inferior team, things don’t go well:

3-4 / 5-2 Formation

Appearances: 22

Yards allowed per play: 9.6

Coming in as the fifth least effective formation is, surprisingly, the defensive formation that is usually most effective against Georgia Tech: the 3-4 in which two outside linebackers line up on the line of scrimmage (basically a 5-2). We’ve seen teams like Clemson and Pitt have a lot of success at slowing the Jackets down using the 3-4, but despite its proven track record, the Cardinals just couldn’t make anything happen with it. Ultimately, it boiled down to Tech’s athletic advantage once again, as was clear on this give to B-back Jerry Howard. The offensive line blows the Louisville defenders backwards with ease, and Howard runs hard to pick up a 10-yard gain:

Mystery Formation

Appearances: 1

Yards allowed per play: 11.0

I’m not really sure what VanGorder was trying to do with this formation, so we’re going to call it the Mystery Formation. When looking at the defensive alignment pre-snap, the biggest mystery might be how Tech only gained 11 yards on this play. It’s as if the Louisville defense wanted to line up in a 5-2, but both linebackers shaded way over on the short side of the field and neither wondered who was defending the wide side of the field? Louisville seemed pretty convinced that the Jackets were running to the short side, considering they had five players lined up between the hash and the short sideline. I can only imagine TaQuon thinking “What in the world…” to himself as he pitched the ball to Cottrell for an easy 11-yard gain.

While much of the credit for Georgia Tech’s offensive dominance can be attributed to athletic superiority, TaQuon Marshall also deserves recognition for his development in reading the defensive fronts. On a significant fraction of the Jackets’ plays, Marshall could be seen making audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage based on how the defense lined up. TaQuon finally seems comfortable being in command, and when he’s dialed in, it seems like this offense has tremendous potential against any opponent. If he’s able to continue his excellent pre-snap reads to go along with his stellar performance running the ball, this offense could be a lot of fun to watch for the second half of the season.

Excellent Pitch Reads

This will hopefully be the last time we discuss pitch reads in detail on the Option Strategy Report, since reading pitches is something we expect a flexbone quarterback to always do correctly. It seems TaQuon Marshall has finally overcome his issues with pitching the ball, and his technique when running a pitch option has improved dramatically since the beginning of the season. The single biggest improvement has been Marshall’s ability to force the pitch key to commit to one of the two options. While in previous games it sometimes looked like he was guessing which option the defender would pick, now he’s reading the defender’s body language in order to make the correct decision.

On this Inside Veer with 5:09 remaining in the 1st Quarter, Marshall keeps his eyes focused on the linebacker until his body language shows which option he’s pursuing. In this case, the linebacker plants his inside foot, indicating that he is spreading to the outside to guard the pitch. The moment that inside foot gets planted, Marshall tucks the ball and cuts it upfield for a 15-yard gain:

Just three plays later, Marshall found himself with another pitch read when the Jackets ran a Counter Option on 1st & 10 with 3:24 remaining in the 1st Quarter. Again, Marshall waits as long as possible before committing to either option. This time, the linebacker plants his outside foot, indicating that he’s coming inside for Marshall and leaving the pitch option open.

Marshall’s patience pays off, and he gets the ball out to A-back Qua Searcy who sprints ahead for a 25-yard gain:

Hopefully this is the end of Tech fans worrying each week about whether Marshall will make the right pitch reads. Of course there will still be missed reads from time to time, but the rate at which they were occurring early in the season was simply unacceptable. It seems TaQuon now trusts his running backs to make plays and doesn’t feel pressured to try to do everything himself. Now, he’s just taking what the defense gives him, and that’s exactly what he needs to do for the Jackets to keep winning.

Up Next: Duke

Now for the real test. Saturday’s matchup against the Duke Blue Devils kicks off a gauntlet of five straight games ACC games, only one of which the Jackets are given a greater than 50% chance of winning.

Last year’s clash with Duke was rough. Tech entered the game riding the high of their 28-22 win over #17 Virginia Tech the week before and just needed a win over the 4-6 Blue Devils to punch their ticket to a bowl game. After taking a 20-13 lead late in the 2nd Quarter, the Jackets never scored again, giving up 30 straight unanswered points on the way to an embarrassing 43-20 final score.

Duke didn’t do anything special on defense. They lined up in a 4-3 with their middle linebacker far off the line of scrimmage. With so much space up the middle, the Jackets mostly moved the ball with ease, scoring touchdowns on three of their four drives in the first half. While Tech racked up 261 yards of offense in the first half, the second half was a completely different story as the offense mustered just 59 yards. Duke didn’t change their defensive formation at all, but the Jackets started missing blocks, missing reads, and passing the ball more frequently as they fell further and further behind.

This time around, if the offense stays focused like they have for the past two weeks, there’s no reason that Duke’s simple 4-3 should slow down the Jackets down. If the Jackets do the simple things right and avoid the self-inflicted wounds that plagued them earlier this season, there’s no reason the Jackets shouldn’t put up 40+ points on the same Duke defense that embarrassed them one year ago. Are the Jackets a legitimate team with ACC Coastal title hopes? Or are they just really good at scoring lots of points against really bad teams? We’ll find out on Saturday.