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Option Strategy Report: Virginia Tech

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The offense stepped up big and gave the Jackets their most impressive win of the season

Georgia Tech v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Just when fans were ready to give up hope on this season, Georgia Tech turned in their best performance of 2018 with a convincing 49-28 victory over the Virginia Tech Hokies in Blacksburg on Thursday night. The Jackets’ offense produced one of the most memorable stat lines of the Paul Johnson era, rushing for 465 yards while passing for exactly zero. The win brings Georgia Tech to 4-4 on the season and raises their chances of making a bowl game to nearly 50%. While at this point we have no clue what to expect from this team on a week-to-week basis, the Jackets showed enough positives on both sides of the ball that all of a sudden, the three remaining conference games on the schedule all seem winnable. Today we’ll review how Tech made easy work of the Hokies, look back at the season up to this point, and address the potential quarterback controversy that everyone’s been talking about this week.

Virginia Tech’s Defense

Bud Foster has been called one of the best defensive coordinators in history, but he’ll likely want to hide Thursday night’s game film if he wants to keep that reputation. Foster’s defense looked woefully unprepared to stop Paul Johnson’s flexbone attack, allowing the Jackets to gain 6.0 yards per carry and hold the ball for a staggering 42 minutes of possession. So what went wrong for the Hokies? What strategies did teams like Pitt and Duke employ to keep the Jackets’ offense in check that Virginia Tech wasn’t able to duplicate?

Let’s quickly look at how Duke defended Georgia Tech two weeks ago. Faced with a 3rd & 1 in the 1st Quarter, Tech lined up in a base formation while Duke brought nine defenders into the box. The Jackets ran a Rocket toss, but the Duke defenders quickly chased down A-back Clinton Lynch and stopped him for no gain.

Now, let’s look at a similar situation from Thursday night. With 3:53 remaining in the 1st Quarter, Georgia Tech found themselves facing a 4th & 1 on their own 35-yard line. The offense lined up in a tight formation, while Virginia Tech lined up in a standard 4-3 with a single linebacker cheating up on the line of scrimmage. The Jackets again ran Rocket Toss, and this time A-back Qua Searcy picked up a 9-yard gain.

The difference between Duke and Virginia Tech’s defenses was that the Hokies lacked any sort of aggressiveness towards stopping the run, especially in short-yardage situations. They were perfectly content keeping their safeties and linebackers far off the line of scrimmage, despite everyone in the stadium (except for Bud Foster) knowing that the Jackets had no intention of passing the ball. The first time I re-watched the game film, I wondered if maybe the 3rd & 1 play above was just a one-off defensive mistake, but this is how the Hokies lined up on defense for the entire game. Their linebackers and safeties were so far off the line of scrimmage that even if the Jackets hadn’t been dominating in the trenches, they still would likely have been able to pick up at least a few yards on every play. Bud Foster apparently never recognized this, and despite giving up four first-half touchdowns, he made zero halftime adjustments. When the Jackets faced a 3rd & 1 with 13:45 remaining in the 3rd Quarter, the Hokie again defense lined up in a standard 4-3 with just four players on the line of scrimmage, allowing the Jackets to easily pick up the first down. That’s just bad coaching.

Dominance at the Line

While Virginia Tech’s defensive scheme was certainly making life easy for the Jackets, it was also clear that the offensive line was in complete control from start to finish. Kieffer astutely pointed out to me that Georgia Tech’s dominance in the trenches was aided by simplified blocking schemes that directly resulted from lining up in the tight formation on 61 of their 79 snaps. Tight formation (also called a Double Flex) is simply the standard base formation with the wide receivers moved inside, lined up just outside the offensive tackles. With everyone bunched together, most blocking assignments flowed in a single direction. This allowed the offensive linemen to focus solely on blocking the defender directly in front of them, and they did that to near perfection. You could pick any play at random from the game and you’d probably see the Jackets’ blockers manhandling the Hokie defenders and opening up huge running lanes. Here’s B-back Jerry Howard on 1st & 10 with 7:31 remaining in the 1st Quarter, taking the carry straight up the middle for a 15-yard gain. Take a moment to appreciate how quickly the Virginia Tech defensive line gets completely erased from the play.

I can’t help but wonder if the Jackets could be sitting at 6-2 or even 7-1 right now had the offensive line played this well all season, although at this point all we can do is hope for some consistency moving forward. While this Georgia Tech team has without a doubt been the opposite of consistent this season, I’m hopeful that the stellar blocking performance against Virginia Tech is a sign of things to come. I’m excited to watch the offensive line this weekend against North Carolina to see if they can continue their dominance.

A Tale of Two Teams

Following the win Thursday night, when asked about how the Jackets played at such a high level, Coach Paul Johnson told reporters: “This year, it’s been good Georgia Tech, bad Georgia Tech. They got good Georgia Tech.” He wasn’t wrong. It feels like we’ve watched two different teams this season; one week the Jackets look unstoppable and set offensive records, and another week they fumble eight times in a single game. The difference between Tech’s three worst games and three best games (excluding Alcorn State) is striking:

“Good Georgia Tech”

Total Yards Rushing Attempts Rushing yards Yards Per Rush Turnovers Offensive Points
Total Yards Rushing Attempts Rushing yards Yards Per Rush Turnovers Offensive Points
vs Bowling Green 532 49 372 7.6 0 56
vs Louisville 554 65 542 8.3 0 59
vs Virginia Tech 465 78 465 6.0 0 49
Average 517.0 64.0 459.7 7.2 0 54.7

“Bad Georgia Tech”

Total Yards Rushing Attempts Rushing yards Yards Per Rush Turnovers Offensive Points
Total Yards Rushing Attempts Rushing yards Yards Per Rush Turnovers Offensive Points
vs Pittsburgh 386 56 320 5.7 2 19
vs Clemson 203 56 146 2.6 1 21
vs Duke 354 61 229 3.8 3 14
Average 314.3 57.7 231.7 4.0 2 18.0

“Bad Georgia Tech” is exactly what you would expect: turnover prone and relatively ineffective at running the ball, barely averaging 4.0 yards per carry. “Good Georgia Tech” on the other hand has committed zero turnovers and ran all over the competition at an impressive 7.2 yards per carry. Omitted from these tables is the USF game, which was a showing from “Good Georgia Tech” in the form of 602 total yards of offense, and a showing from “Bad Georgia Tech” in the form of three turnovers, two of which came in the 4th Quarter.

When looking at these numbers, the most frustrating aspect is realizing how much potential the Jackets had this season. I can’t figure out why “Bad Georgia Tech” has made so many appearances, but it’s unfortunately cost the Jackets 2-3 wins and a chance to seriously compete for an ACC Coastal title. The good news is that there are still four games left, and all we can do now is hope that Thursday night’s win in Blacksburg was the breakthrough game the Jackets needed to set themselves up for a strong finish to the season.

Quarterback Controversy?

Shortly after Thursday night’s win, Georgia Tech fans found themselves all pondering the same question: should Tobias Oliver be named the starting quarterback for the rest of the season? At at glance it seems like a no-brainer; Oliver led the Jackets to their most impressive win of the season, he’s a tough runner who picks up yards after contact, and he has more yards-per-carry and rushing touchdowns than fellow quarterback TaQuon Marshall. What kind of lunatic wouldn’t believe that Tobias gives Jackets their best chance of winning moving forward?

Well, I’m that lunatic. While I certainly believe that Tobias is the quarterback of the future, I also disagree with the fans who are calling for Tobias to start over TaQuon. Here are a few key reasons why:

A quarterback’s success in the flexbone offense is largely dependent on the performance of the offensive line.

Before we discuss Tobias and TaQuon, let’s take a quick look at some recent Georgia Tech football history. In 2014, star quarterback Justin Thomas led the Jackets to an 11-win season that included victories in Athens and the in Orange Bowl. Hype for Georgia Tech football entering 2015 was through the roof, and Kirk Herbstreit even named Thomas his preseason “Most Exciting Player in the Country”. Then, despite returning their Orange Bowl MVP quarterback, the Jackets stumbled to a 3-9 season. Was Justin Thomas to blame for the team’s poor performance? Not at all. Looking back, it turned out that losing Shaq Mason to the NFL after the 2014 season had a much greater impact on the offense than anyone ever expected. Mason was a special player, blessed with the athletic ability to physically dominate defenders while also possessing an extremely high football IQ that helped him identify defensive fronts and call out blocking adjustments pre-snap. Without Mason the offensive line was a mess, and despite Justin Thomas’s best efforts, the offense struggled all season. The lesson we can learn from this story is that a flexbone quarterback can’t single-handedly transform or carry an entire offense.

Now let’s jump back to today. I’ve read comments this past week saying things like “This looks like a different team with Tobias playing quarterback” and “The offense has looked better with Oliver without fail”. It’s easy to understand fans’ excitement about Oliver following his 215-yard, three touchdown performance in Blacksburg, but these comments disregard how important the offensive line was to Oliver’s success. As discussed earlier, Tech’s blockers dominated against Virginia Tech from start to finish, and there’s no doubt in my mind that TaQuon Marshall would have enjoyed similar success had he been under center. Marshall proved in the Bowling Green and Louisville games that he can run the offense to near perfection when the offensive line plays well, so I struggle to understand why people think Tobias is an improvement over TaQuon. Tobias did exactly what was asked of him against Virginia Tech, which was mostly to take the snap and run behind his blockers or hand the ball off to the B-back. He was hardly asked to throw or pitch the ball, and when he was given opportunities to do so, it wasn’t pretty. Which leads into my next point:

CPJ doesn’t yet trust Tobias Oliver to throw, pitch, or make reads.

Running the ball won’t always be as easy as it was on Thursday night. While we certainly hope the blocking has been cleaned up for good, it’s quite possible that the offensive line will struggle against teams like Miami and Georgia that tend to recruit superior athletes. When that happens, Paul Johnson will be forced to open up the playbook. While TaQuon has been running the full playbook for the past two seasons (albeit with mixed results), Tobias has run just a tiny fraction of that. Many of Oliver’s runs against Virginia Tech were designed quarterback keeps (hence his 40 carries on the night). He attempted just three option pitches in the game, and one of those ended up on the ground:

Oliver’s lone pass attempt didn’t fare much better. He lost his footing after failing to properly set his feet and sent the ball straight into the ground, demonstrating that he still has a lot of work to do on his passing technique. While there’s certainly no guarantee that TaQuon would have completed that pass, the fact that Marshall has 76 pass attempts this season compared to Oliver’s 10 indicates that Paul Johnson only feels comfortable letting one of his quarterbacks throw the ball. Some fans might assert that with such a small sample size, why not give Tobias the green light to throw and see what happens? Which leads to my final point:

CPJ knows better than anyone else who should be running his offense.

As fans, all of our opinions are formed based on the small sample size of 12 games we watch our team play over the course of a season. Paul Johnson’s sample size is the tens of thousands of reps he’s watched his players run through since the beginning of spring practice. When you also consider that he’s been coaching the flexbone since 1983 and has won several national championships with it at multiple levels of college football, it seems obvious that CPJ knows better than anyone else on this planet which players should be running his offense.

Now, this isn’t an argument that CPJ is immune to scrutiny. I’ve criticized Johnson’s in-game decision making multiple times this season, and I believe there’s an argument to be made that he single-handedly cost Tech the Pitt game in Week 3. However, when it comes to evaluating talent and choosing the best personnel to run his offense, I think we should trust in CPJ. Tobias Oliver is the starter of the future, and Paul Johnson will name him the starter when he believes Oliver is ready. Until then, we should trust CPJ’s judgement that right now, TaQuon Marshall gives Georgia Tech the best chance to win football games.

Up Next: North Carolina

This week the Jackets square off against the North Carolina Tar Heels, a team that has won just four games since the start of the 2017 season. This season the Tar Heels sit at 1-6, and head coach Larry Fedora finds himself likely coaching for his job, although at this point his firing may be inevitable. Last year’s matchup was rough for the Tar Heels as the Jackets rushed for 403 yards on their way to a 33-7 victory in Atlanta. UNC lined up in two different defensive formations, a 4-3 (shown below) and a 5-1-1, which gave the Jackets some issues early on. In the second half, however, the Jackets found tremendous success running up the middle with B-back Kirvonte Benson, who finished the day with 130 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.

While nothing is guaranteed with this Georgia Tech team, their success against the Tar Heels last year is hopefully a strong indication of similar success to come this Saturday in Chapel Hill. A major factor working against the Tar Heels is that four of their top five tacklers from last year’s game are no longer on the roster, meaning they’ll be relatively inexperienced at the defensive positions most critical to stopping a flexbone offense. I may regret saying this, but it feels like the Jackets’ offense should steamroll the Tar Heels on their way to an easy victory. We’ll find out on Saturday.