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Option Strategy Report: Duke

The offense just isn’t very good

Duke v Georgia Tech Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

There was one question on everyone’s mind entering Georgia Tech’s matchup this past Saturday against the Duke Blue Devils: is Georgia Tech’s offense legit? The Jackets entered the weekend coming off a phenomenal two-game stretch in which they racked up a combined 129 points and 914 rushing yards. Tech seemingly had resolved their issues that hampered the offense earlier in the season and now had a chance to prove themselves against a tough Duke defense. Unfortunately, what we got on Saturday didn’t look anything like the team that scored 16 touchdowns in 18 possessions, but much more like the team that fumbled eight times in a single game. Let’s reluctantly take a look at why the Jackets couldn’t get anything going in their 28-14 loss to Duke.

Duke’s Defense

While the final box score shows that the Jackets gained 354 yards of offense, Duke held Tech’s offense to just 218 yards by the end of the 3rd Quarter when the game was already out of hand. The Jackets gained just 3.8 yards per carry for the game, and quarterbacks TaQuon Marshall & Tobias Oliver averaged a measly 2.5 yards on their combined 26 carries. While Duke’s defensive success can be partly attributed to their surprising athletic dominance, the biggest factor was that they were extremely well prepared to defend the flexbone.

When Tech played Louisville two weeks ago, TaQuon Marshall made pre-snap adjustments based on the defensive formation on nearly every play. The Cardinals never responded with any pre-snap adjustments of their own and allowed the Jackets to run all over them for 542 rushing yards. Duke was much more intelligent in their defensive approach, and with each adjustment Marshall made pre-snap, the Blue Devils made an adjustment of their own. In at least one instance, each side changed the play twice prior to the snap:

The Blue Devils had a keen sense of what play Marshall wanted to call based on how Duke lined up, and they always stayed one step ahead, forcing many plays to result in little or no gain. In the clip we just saw, Marshall ultimately called for a Rocket Toss, which the Blue Devils were ready for:

This continued throughout the game, and it’s how Duke held the Jackets to just seven non-garbage time points. Good teams will continue to predict the Jackets’ pre-snap adjustments, so hopefully during the bye week Coach Paul Johnson will work with his quarterbacks on disguising these calls better.

Blocking Issues

I’d be working well into next week to show you all the blocking issues Tech had on Saturday, but for the sake of our mental health we’ll just look a few examples. The most memorable blunder that everyone asked about after the game occurred with 8:41 remaining in the 2nd Quarter, when a Duke linebacker came through the line unblocked to chase down TaQuon Marshall in the backfield:

Obviously, this kind of breakdown results from a miscommunication on the offensive line. Center Jahaziel Lee tries unsuccessfully to block the middle linebacker, right guard Connor Hansen blocks the backside defensive tackle, and wide receiver Malachi Carter (lined up outside on the right) blocks the backside defensive end, meaning nobody is responsible for the backside linebacker. Considering Lee wasn’t remotely close to making his block, it seems that a better blocking scheme would’ve been for him to block the backside defensive tackle and for Hansen to take the backside linebacker, but without knowing the call we’ll never know for sure. It was an unfortunate miscommunication, but mistakes just happen sometimes. The good news is that the offensive line learned from this mental lapse and made sure it didn’t happen against for the rest of the game.

Just kidding. Three plays later, it happened again:

Here’s what Paul Johnson had to say about it after the game: “It was stupidity. It was calls by the offensive line. It was stupidity. And so then they had the receiver turning out and the guy would shoot the B-gap. That’s what it was...They were making offensive line calls. We were in a heavy formation. We practiced exactly what they did all week. And then we’ve got a guy up there who thinks he knows more about it, so he’s going to make a line call and the receivers don’t know and you tell them, they’re going to turn out. So they were turning out and they were leaving a gap for the guy to run through and he runs through from behind with nobody blocking him.”

At this point in the season, it’s embarrassing to see the offensive line still making these mistakes. There are only five games remaining on the schedule and Tech’s offense so far has only looked decent against an FCS team and three FBS teams who all rank in the bottom 20 nationally in rush defense. Fan frustration is at an all-time high, and there are no more cupcake games against a Brian VanGorder defense for the Jackets to put up 500+ yards of offense and momentarily look legit. The offense is running out of time, and they very quickly need to get their crap together and purge themselves of these issues that have haunted them all season.

I don’t have the patience to analyze any more missed blocks, but here’s a bonus clip of Clinton Lynch in pass protection (lined up at A-back on the right side) being completely unaware of the blitzing linebacker that runs right by him:

Ball Security

Just when we thought we’d seen it all, the Jackets found a new way to throw away a game by fumbling on three straight touches of the football in what was the most pathetic display of ball security since Pitt in 2014. Of course some fumbles are bound to occur in an offense that runs the ball on 85% of its plays, but two of Saturday’s three fumbles were the result of two different players having absolutely zero regard for protecting the football. The first offender was TaQuon Marshall, who laid the ball on the ground on the first play of the drive after Duke went up 14-7:

This play wasn’t entirely TaQuon’s fault. Center Kenny Cooper and wide receiver Brad Stewart both get beat on their blocks and Marshall quickly finds himself surrounded by Duke defenders. The point at which Marshall realizes the play is a bust is when he should cover the ball and go to the ground. Instead, he swings the ball around away from his body in an attempt to pick up an extra yard, allowing it to squirt out when he gets hit.

The award for “Worst Fumble of the Year” goes to Juanyeh Thomas, who gave the ball right back to Duke after they went up 21-7. Thomas fielded the kickoff and got to the 18-yard line when he decided to run backwards in an attempt to get around the Duke defense. As one would expect, the plan was a complete failure and Thomas had the ball knocked out of his flailing arm. Duke recovered on the 6-yard line and punched it in on the next play to go up 28-7.

Similar to how Marshall fumbled, we see Thomas swinging the ball all over the place instead of keeping it close to his body, even with defenders all around him. Instead of eating the loss, Thomas goes for the home run play at the expense of taking care of the football.

Both fumbles resulted from the same type of mental lapse, but they occurred by two very different players. TaQuon Marshall is a senior and a captain, and at this point in his career he should know better than to risk losing the football on a play that is already busted. Thomas, on the other hand, is a fiery true freshman who has been hungry all season to make an impact as a kick returner. While Thomas’s young age doesn’t excuse his critical mistake, we can hope that this will serve as a painful growing experience that will lead to better ball security from him in the future.

Up Next: Virginia Tech

The Jackets now enter a bye week before taking on the Virginia Tech Hokies in a nationally-televised Thursday night game. Just like the Jackets, the Hokies have seemingly been two different teams this season, but in the opposite way. While VT made easy work of Duke with a 31-14 victory in Week 5, they also somehow lost to one of the worst teams in the country when they fell to Old Dominion 49-35. Fortunately for Virginia Tech, both of their losses have been out-of-conference and they have a 3-0 record against ACC opponents.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster doesn’t have Virginia Tech do anything special on defense, running a standard 4-3 and sometimes a 5-1-1. Like Duke, the VT defenders will be disciplined in keeping their assignments and it will be up to the Jackets to execute perfectly if they want to have any hopes of moving the ball. In last year’s matchup the Jackets rushed for a mediocre 4.6 yards per attempt, but found success through the air with TaQuon Marshall completing two of his eight pass attempts for 140 yards and two touchdowns (plus a pick six to keep things interesting).

The Jackets need three more wins to punch their ticket to a bowl game, and beating Virginia Tech would make that goal seem much more realistic. Tech has won the last two matchups in Blacksburg, and are surprisingly given a 40% chance of winning this game. We’ll see if the offense can finally fix all their issues and perform well against a legitimate opponent, but given their track record this season, I’m not getting my hopes up.