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Option Strategy Report: Miami

TaQuon Marshall led the Jackets to victory against one of the nation’s toughest defenses

NCAA Football: Miami at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Johnson gave the best summary of Georgia Tech’s 27-21 win over the Miami Hurricanes in his postgame interview, saying, “It was a heck of a football game...It wasn’t always pretty, but we made fewer mistakes than they did.” Those mistakes proved to be the difference, with the Jackets converting all three of Miami’s fumbles into scores. It wasn’t a great day statistically - the Jackets gained just 304 yards of total offense and averaged only 4.4 yards per carry, but that proved to be enough to secure the win.

The Jackets and Hurricanes both entered the game with a 5-4 record, though the trajectories of each team’s season couldn’t be any more different. Miami has now dropped four straight games and fans are calling for massive changes to the football program, while the Jackets have won five of their last six and already punched their ticket to a postseason bowl game. Saturday night’s matchup against the Hurricanes was a major test for a Georgia Tech offense that was trending in the right direction, and they stepped up big to lead the Jackets to one of their best wins of the season.

Miami’s Defense

In case you hadn’t heard, Miami’s defense is really good. They boast the 10th best defense in the country according to the S&P+ Rankings and are 4th in the FBS in yards allowed per game. Prior to this game the Jackets had faced just two Top 50 S&P+ defenses, Clemson (#1) and Duke (#46), and the Jackets were held to a combined 3.2 yards per carry in those games. Needless to say, everyone knew coming in that moving the ball against the Hurricanes wouldn’t be easy. Miami ran a 3-4 scheme, with two outside linebackers up near the line of scrimmage and the two middle linebackers five yards off the line. As we’ve discussed several times this year, keeping the inside linebackers off the line allows them to crash inside or chase outside without getting caught by an offensive lineman.

The 3-4 scheme paid off early for the Hurricanes, in part due to the freakish athleticism of Miami inside linebacker Shaq Quarterman. On a 2nd & 5 with 8:57 remaining in the 1st Quarter, Paul Johnson calls a Triple Option to the right. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall keeps the ball after the defensive end crashes on B-back Jerry Howard, and then pitches to A-back Clinton Lynch when the outside linebacker stays inside. With the reads executed perfectly, one key block remains to open Lynch up for a big gain: right tackle Andrew Marshall must get to the second level and block playside inside linebacker Shaq Quarterman. While Marshall gets a mostly clean release, Quarterman is so strong and fast that he easily shakes off Marshall’s block attempt and quickly closes in on Lynch, knocking him to the ground for just a 3-yard gain.

Later on the same drive, we see another flash of Miami’s athleticism from defensive tackle Gerald Willis III when the Jackets run a Triple Option to the left on 3rd & 8. With right guard Connor Hansen shooting through the line looking to block a backside linebacker or safety, it’s the responsibility of right tackle Andrew Marshall to block Willis, the backside defensive tackle. Despite Marshall’s best efforts, Willis explodes across the line on the snap and chases down TaQuon Marshall from behind, turning a potential huge run into nearly no gain. I’ve seen comments criticizing TaQuon for not pitching the ball on this play, but I don’t think he did anything wrong from an execution standpoint. There were no defenders in front of him to force a pitch, and he had no reason to suspect that a defensive tackle got through the line unblocked behind him. TaQuon wasn’t perfect on the day and definitely missed a few reads, but this play was not his fault. If Andrew Marshall makes the block on Willis, TaQuon runs for a huge gain and we wouldn’t be thinking twice about whether he should have pitched it.

Quarterback Counter

With Miami’s defense flowing hard to the ball and consistently stopping the Jackets for short gains, Paul Johnson utilized the Quarterback Counter at crucial moments in the game with tremendous success. Facing a 2nd & goal on the 8-yard line with 1:32 remaining in the 1st Quarter, Tech ran their first Quarterback Counter of the night, resulting in a TaQuon Marshall touchdown. The play begins just like a Rocket Toss, and before the snap you can see the Miami defensive backs and linebackers shift in the direction of A-back Nathan Cottrell’s pre-snap motion. After faking the pitch to Cottrell, Marshall reverses field and takes off. Wide receiver Brad Stewart and B-back Jordan Mason put excellent blocks on the only defenders in the vicinity and Marshall waltzes into the endzone untouched.

Paul Johnson didn’t go back to the Quarterback Counter until 9:04 remaining in the 3rd Quarter, on the first play of the Jackets’ drive. Once again we see Miami’s linebackers and defensive backs bite hard in the direction of the A-back’s pre-snap motion, creating enough space for TaQuon Marshall to pick up an 11-yard gain. This play on its own wasn’t too significant, but it served as a reminder to the Miami defense that the Quarterback Counter always poses a significant threat to their aggressive defense. As we’ll see in a moment, the extra attention Marshall commanded from the secondary opened up the field for two of the Jackets’ biggest plays of the night.

Success Through the Air

TaQuon Marshall stepped up big time in the passing game on Saturday, delivering some of the best throws of his career. His stat line of 3-for-4 passing for 73 yards and a touchdown doesn’t tell the whole story - all three completions came on critical 3rd down conversions that significantly changed the game. His most impressive throw came with the Jackets leading by six points, facing 3rd & 8 with 5:35 remaining in the 3rd Quarter. The play initially appeared to be a variation of the Quarterback Counter, with Marshall faking a handoff to the B-back before rolling out to his left. TaQuon may have had room to run for the 1st down, but when he spots the single coverage downfield he sets his feet and delivers a beautiful ball to wide receiver Brad Stewart, who hauls in the 31-yard touchdown. The lack of deep safety help was in part a result of Miami’s fear of Marshall running the ball. Most of this occurs outside the frame of the clip below, but when Marshall begins to roll out, Miami has a safety standing on the 20-yard line. Instead of dropping deep to help the cornerback cover Stewart, the safety initially runs laterally to guard against a Marshall run. It isn’t until TaQuon launches the ball deep that the safety starts jogging upfield, just in time to see Stewart come down with the touchdown.

Brad Stewart shows off his top notch route-running skills on this play, beating the Miami cornerback with a slick double move. He waits just long enough for the defender to turn his hips upfield before making his first cut to the outside. This causes the cornerback to turn hard to the outside, likely expecting Stewart to head for the sideline on an out route. Stewart’s second cut back to the inside leaves the defender in the dust, and he easily brings the ball in for an uncontested touchdown.

Marshall’s other clutch throw came on the final drive of the game, a Georgia Tech seven-minute death march that prevented Miami’s offense from seeing the field again. That drive was kept alive by a 22-yard completion to Jalen Camp on the third play of the series with 5:16 left in the 4th Quarter. Again fearing a potential run, Miami commits seven defenders to containing Marshall, leaving four Hurricanes to defend Tech’s three receivers. Camp runs a terrific route, useing his size advantage to create separation from the cornerback and force his way inside. Marshall delivers a perfect ball underneath the coverage before the safety closes in, and Camp hauls it in to pick up the 1st down and keep the death march going.

Plays like this are why Paul Johnson has stuck with TaQuon Marshall as the starting quarterback all season. On a national stage, with the game potentially on the line, Marshall stayed cool and delivered a perfect throw. More than any other game in his career, Marshall stepped up as a captain and as a leader, coming through when his team needed him most.

Up Next: Virginia

This week the Jackets host the Virginia Cavaliers, who come in boasting a 7-3 record while still holding onto slim hopes of winning the ACC Coastal. In last year’s matchup the Jackets lost 40-36 in a wild game in which TaQuon Marshall completed six of his 22 pass attempts for 179 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. The Cavaliers ran a 3-4 defense just like Miami, with the outside linebackers near the line of scrimmage and the inside linebackers several yards back.

The S&P+ Rankings consider this year’s contest to be essentially a toss-up, with the Jackets being slightly favored at a 52% chance of victory. Virginia is ranked a respectable 22nd in the country in yards allowed per game, but considering the Jackets just put up 27 points on Miami, I’d like to think they can fare at least as well against the Cavaliers. Another win would bring Georgia Tech to 7-4, making this season a moderate success considering the Jackets’ disastrous 1-3 start. If Tech’s offense can continue playing at a high level as they have for the past month, there’s no reason the Jackets shouldn’t emerge victorious once again on Saturday.