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Woody’s Roundup: Week 9 (Virginia Tech)

A tale of two halves, sort of

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, the defense had an underwhelming performance out of the gate... but once again, they got a few stops later on, and on a day when the offense was all but unstoppable, that was enough.

On paper, Nate Woody’s unit locked down the Virginia Tech offense for most of the second half to help put the game away. In reality, while they did have success over that stretch, the Hokies’ success on the first three drives cannot simply be ignored.

Week 9 vs. Virginia Tech: Defense by the Numbers

Stat Total
Stat Total
Points per Possession 3.1
Total Yards Allowed 323
Opp. Yards per Carry 4.9
Opp. Yards per Attempt 9.1
Opp. Yards per Play 6.9
Third Down Conversions 2/8
Three-and-Outs Forced 2
Turnovers Forced 0
Havoc Rate 8.5%
Stuff Rate 20.0%
Success Rate 53.2%

The raw total yardage total doesn’t suggest a bad outing on the surface, but then again, VT ran just 47 plays on nine possessions. And the per-play and per-possession totals tell an ugly story.

It’s worth noting that the yards per carry/attempt totals are skewed by VT’s opening salvo, where they moved the ball pretty much at will. On their first two possessions, which were five-play and three-play touchdown drives, the Hokies had 51 yards on four carries (12.8 YPC) and 94 yards on four pass attempts (23.5 YPA). For the remainder of the game, VT averaged 3.4 YPC and 5.9 YPA, both of which are much more palatable. Of course, that doesn’t excuse that disastrous opening sequence; it’s the second straight game that the defense has been bludgeoned right out of the gate. But to their credit, the Jackets did get things somewhat under control, with a bit of help from a few drops at key moments.

Still, the rate stats tell a more blunt story: the GT defense simply isn’t doing enough. The stuff rate wasn’t bad, but VT’s success rate was over 50 percent, and havoc was almost nonexistent. Perhaps more pressingly, the Jackets’ only havoc plays on defense were four tackles for loss. The defense’s MO to date has been to give up yards in chunks but to try to make up for it with turnovers and general disruption. But turnovers are luck-based to a degree, and when they aren’t happening, things go south quickly.

Personnel Overview

Defensive Line

It bears repeating pretty much every week: Anree Saint-Amour is a one-man wrecking crew. He had two more tackles for loss on Thursday, one of which was a crucial stop on a QB keeper on third-and-1 in the third quarter. All three defensive linemen were unblocked, perhaps by design, but Saint-Amour was so quick that he flew straight to Ryan Willis and dragged him down:

So far, nose tackles Cerge-Henderson and Brandon Adams have been good at occupying double teams on just about every play, and Antwan Owens has had some success in getting to the backfield. But the line is still complicit in the defense’s overall struggle to stop opposing teams from running the ball.

Outside Linebackers

Charlie Thomas finished with a team-high nine tackles—by far the highest of any Georgia Tech defender—and recorded the team’s lone sack. It came on a play where Woody sent the house, with six players rushing, and Thomas managed to pull down Willis before the quarterback could step up to avoid him:

Thomas didn’t have as much success on stunts as he has in prior weeks, or in getting pressure in general on non-blitz plays, so that’s concerning. The same was true for Jalen Johnson, who shared the same dual Jack/Stinger role that Thomas played against VT’s no-huddle offense, with each simply taking one side of the field. Tech has had success when sending lots of heat, but if Thomas and/or Johnson can’t get to the quarterback occasionally when Woody only sends four rushers, the defense’s struggles will not get any better.

Inside Linebackers

Brant Mitchell deserves credit for his role on the Thomas sack. By swinging outside and drawing the running back’s attention, he cleared a lane for the freshman to fly straight to the quarterback. Beyond that, though, Mitchell repeatedly ran into the same issue that has plagued him all season: being too tentative in run defense, which gets him blocked when he could have closed down the ballcarrier’s lane by being aggressive.

David Curry was a little better, finishing with three tackles to Mitchell’s one, but Curry struggled in zone coverage at times and allowed VT to pick up some yards because he drifted away from where he should have been.

The reserves, Bruce Jordan-Swilling and Quez Jackson, did not see action until the game was in hand in the fourth quarter.

Cornerbacks

It was a forgettable day for Tre Swilling. The redshirt freshman simply had an off day, missing a tackle on VT’s first touchdown and getting beaten on the second (though in fairness, the latter was a perfectly-placed pass when he wasn’t far behind the receiver). True freshman Zamari Walton took over for the third series and did well to keep the play in front of him, which generally meant giving large cushions. He had a bad missed tackle on a short completion that led to a 14-yard gain, but in general he did his job.

It’s worth noting that Thursday marked Walton’s fourth game of the season. If he plays in one more game, he’ll officially be burning his redshirt.

Across the field, Lamont Simmons had a quiet game, though he did get lucky on a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter. Willis lobbed it to Tre Turner, who had a one-on-one matchup with Simmons, and the GT corner never saw the ball. Fortunately for Simmons, it ended up bouncing off Turner’s hands for an incomplete pass and a turnover on downs.

Safeties

Not too much to report here—the safeties are basically a known commodity at this point. Malik Rivera continues to play center field on just about every play, though it would be nicer if he didn’t play at the metaphorical edge of the warning track on just about every play. Strong safety Tariq Carpenter has mostly been useful in run support, but he had a couple missed tackles on VT’s third touchdown drive that enabled them to pick up extra yardage.

Coaching Overview

Scheme

The VT game did not bring anything especially new to the table from a schematic standpoint. With the Hokies running a no-huddle offense, Woody dispensed with boundary/field alignments for the linebackers and defensive backs and simply had each player stick to a certain side of the field—the same tactic he’s used against other no-huddle teams to avoid lots of positional shuffling before the snap. The switch to Charlie Thomas at Jack linebacker has proven useful in this regard; he and Jalen Johnson are similar in size and skillset, allowing them to be used fairly interchangeably (though it does mean having less size on the field).

Woody continues to lean heavily on Cover 3 zone coverage, though in recent weeks he has shifted from having both corners play deep zones to having one cover a deep third while the other plays a short zone. While that helps with the issue of gaping holes along the sidelines, it doesn’t totally mitigate the issue, and the Jackets had to get lucky to escape some would-be first downs on Thursday.

Woody’s unit got a crucial third-down stop late in the first half, but it required a ball to go right through an open receiver’s hands. Wideout Tre Turner ran a comeback route against Walton, who was playing a Cover 3 deep zone, and with linebacker Jalen Johnson focused on the slot receiver, Turner had tons of room. The throw wasn’t perfect, but it was catchable, and the Jackets caught a break on what should have been an easy 13-yard gain.

The blitz packages were all ones that have been used before: boundary corner blitzes, an outside and inside linebacker rushing alongside one another, and the occasional (but effective) six-man or seven-man blitzes featuring all or all but one of the linebackers.

Personnel

As previously mentioned, the true freshman Walton got the nod at corner to replace Swilling, which was unexpected—Ajani Kerr didn’t play until very late in the game, and Jaytlin Askew only saw action as the nickel corner in the dime package. It was Walton’s fourth appearance, and if he appears again this season, it’ll mean burning his redshirt. It’s not clear if that is in the cards, but it is perhaps telling that Walton got the nod over two more experienced corners and played almost the entire game.

Other than that, Woody largely leaned very heavily on the usual rotation: starters playing most of the game, with Brandon Adams and Antwan Owens rotating in regularly along the line and Kaleb Oliver occasionally getting a series at strong safety. At this stage, it’s unlikely that many other players will get significant snaps in situations other than garbage time.

Advanced Stats Overview

To get a sense of how the team has done over the course of the season, it’s helpful to look over some advanced metrics. Diving into the metrics in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ Ratings and Defensive Line Stats, however, reveals several significant concerns:

Advanced Defensive Stats (as of 10/27)

Stat Season Total FBS Rank FBS Median FBS Leader
Stat Season Total FBS Rank FBS Median FBS Leader
Defensive S&P+ 35.3 106 28.3 12.6
IsoPPP 1.04 23 1.17 0.91
Success Rate 49.7% 125 40.9% 28.9%
Stuff Rate 17.7% 87 19.4% 31.2%
Opportunity Rate 49.1% 96 46.0% 33.2%
Sack Rate 5.2% 88 6.1% 13.0%
Havoc Rate 13.4% 112 16.2% 25.8%
F7 Havoc Rate 6.2% 125 9.8% 18.6%
DB Havoc Rate 7.2% 40 6.6% 11.4%

S&P+ is an efficiency rating based on a team’s success rate and its equivalent points per play. The defensive version is, in essence, an adjusted estimate of how many points a team can expect to give up in each game... so based on defensive S&P+, Tech is projected to give up over 35 points per game, compared to the actual result of 26.5 points per game to date (not including South Florida’s two special teams touchdowns). The biggest reason for the difference is that S&P+ does not take turnovers into account due to the large amount of luck involved, and it’s no secret that Tech has relied heavily on turnovers at times this season.

IsoPPP, or isolated points per play, is a measure of explosiveness: when a team is successful, how much damage do they do? This is one area where the Jackets have been successful, as they’re in the national top 25 in IsoPPP. They’ve given up big plays here and there, but between scheme and good closing speed by the defensive backs, Tech has largely been able to stop pass plays right after the catch. Because of the long touchdowns that the Jackets gave up early on Thursday, however, the team’s IsoPPP value ticked up a bit, which also bumped the team’s ranking down from 17 to 23 in this stat.

The IsoPPP showing is pretty much the only bit of good news. Tech is No. 125 out of 130 teams in FBS in defensive success rate and has a defensive opportunity rate of 49.1 percent, meaning about half of opponents’ carries go for at least four yards. The team is also in the bottom 30 in FBS in havoc rate (mainly due to virtually no havoc plays from linebackers other than Thomas) and is well below the national median in stuff rate.

So to summarize... the Jackets are largely limiting big plays and generating some havoc in the secondary, but beyond that, things are not in good shape. It’s still a very young unit with a first-year coordinator, so growing pains are to be expected... but if it feels like the Jackets simply haven’t had a ton of positives to build on this year, that’s because it’s true.