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Option Strategy Report: Virginia

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The Jackets came away with a thrilling win, but have a lot of work to do in preparation for Rivalry Weekend

Virginia v Georgia Tech Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

Georgia Tech’s thrilling 30-27 victory over the Virginia Cavaliers on Saturday had a little bit of everything. Between safeties, kick return touchdowns, two points conversions, and late field goal drama, the game was an emotional roller coaster from start to finish. Despite Tech gaining just 305 yards of total offense and failing on eight 3rd down conversion attempts, the Jackets played tough and came through in some critical moments to earn their seventh win of the season.

Virginia’s Defense

The Cavaliers’s defense gave the Jackets all sorts of issues despite running the same 3-4 scheme we’ve seen the past several weeks. It seemed there were two major keys to success on defense: disciplined linebackers and dominance by the nose tackle.

The discipline of UVA’s linebackers was most apparent whenever Tech ran a counter play. From the data collected and compiled by Andrew, Nishant, and Kieffer for the Option Advanced Stats Report, the Jackets had just a 31% success rate on counters. We can see why by taking a closer look at the Quarterback Counter the Jackets ran on the second play of the game. The play starts with A-back Clinton Lynch motioning to the right, which typically would bait the linebackers into sliding with the motion and open up space for the counter. However, Virginia’s linebackers stay patient and resist the temptation to follow Lynch’s motion, leaving no space for Marshall to run after he reverses field.

The other key to Virginia’s defensive dominance was the impressive play of nose tackle Eli Hanback. Hanback was a major headache for Georgia Tech center Kenny Cooper all game, and never was it more apparent than on this B-back Speed Option with 11:09 remaining in the 3rd Quarter. Virginia’s playside defenders to a great job widening and influencing quarterback Tobias Oliver to cut inside. After the cut, Oliver is immediately met by Hanback who brings him down for just a 1-yard gain. A closer review shows that Hanback was completely unphased by Kenny Cooper’s attempted cut block, showing off impressive footwork and balance to shed the block and clog Oliver’s cutback lane. While Oliver probably should have pitched the ball to B-back Jerry Howard, the play would have still resulted in an acceptable gain if Cooper’s block had even slowed Hanback down. This dominance up front gave the Jackets trouble all game, and it’s the reason that B-backs Jerry Howard and Jordan Mason finished with just 3.7 yards per carry on their 14 combined rushing attempts.

Two-Point Conversions

Possibly the most overlooked aspect of Georgia Tech’s win over Virginia are the two-point conversions the Jackets scored in the 1st Quarter and 4th Quarter. Failing to convert on either two-point attempt would have opened the door for UVA to win the game in regulation and left us all feeling a lot worse about the game. As Georgia Tech fans know first hand, two-point conversions can literally be the difference between a win and a loss, so I thought it would be worth breaking down both of Tech’s two-point conversions on Saturday.

The first attempt came with 3:13 remaining in the 1st Quarter after Juanyeh Thomas’s electrifying kick return touchdown brought the score to 11-7. Rather than kicking the extra point to go up by five, Paul Johnson made the logical choice of going for two to hopefully take a two field goal lead. While gaining three tough yards is typically considered a flexbone offenses’s bread-and-butter, Paul Johnson surprised everyone with a pass play.

The play begins just like a Triple Option out of the Heavy Right formation, but B-back Jerry Howard and motion A-back Qua Searcy stay in to provide pass protection. Wide receiver Malachi Carter lines up wide right and runs a fade route to take the cornerback out of the play while wide receiver Brad Stewart lines up tight on the left side and runs a drag across the middle of the endzone. Marshall’s preferred target on the play, however, is A-back Clinton Lynch. Lynch lines up tight on the right side and after a delayed release runs a short drag opposite the direction of Searcy’s pre-snap motion. The goal is for Lynch to find open space on the left side of the endzone after the defense flows to the right, similar to Tobias Oliver’s touchdown pass to Lynch in the Clemson game. While Lynch’s route gets interrupted by a UVA linebacker, the defense committed so hard to the right that Marshall was able to take it himself to the empty space Lynch was aiming for.

Tech’s second two-point conversion attempt came with 12:34 remaining in the 4th Quarter following a 3-yard touchdown run by Jerry Howard. The Jackets came out in a Trips Right formation, meaning the left A-back was swapped out with a wide receiver who lined up in the right slot. While Trips is often a passing formation, Paul Johnson called for a Triple Option to the left. On this particular play, left tackle Zach Quinney is responsible for blocking the playside outside linebacker (who ends up committing to the B-back dive, taking himself out of the play), and the playside defensive end is identified as the dive key. Wide receiver Brad Stewart is responsible for slanting inside to block the safety, leaving the playside cornerback as the pitch key. While Stewart misses his block on the safety, Marshall does a great job optioning the cornerback and pitches the ball to Lynch, who takes it in for the score.

Regression in the Passing Game

While Saturday’s win highlighted Tech’s toughness and grit, it also exposed several areas or concern. One of biggest disappointments of the game was the (metaphorical) step backwards TaQuon Marshall took when it came to passing. Last week I praised Marshall’s passing ability after he went 3-of-4 through the air for 73 yards and a touchdown, but this week he truly under-performed throwing the ball.

Marshall’s lone completion of the day came on a spectacular 37-yard diving catch by Brad Stewart, who used an incredible outside fake to burn the cornerback guarding him in single coverage. While the catch will be remembered for Stewart’s tremendous effort, the reality is that he shouldn’t have needed to lay out for this ball. If Marshall hits Stewart in stride or even underthrows him slightly, there’s no doubt that Stewart would gain a decent chunk of yards after the catch, and maybe even reach the endzone. Opportunities like this come maybe once a game, so it’s absolutely critical that Tech takes full advantage of them. Fortunately the poor throw had a minimal impact on the final score since Wesley Wells nailed his 48-yard field goal with 1:11 remaining in the 4th Quarter. However, if that kick had missed, we all would have looked back on this throw and wondered how things could have been different if Marshall hit Stewart in stride.

Marshall’s second pass attempt in overtime looked much worse and was nearly a total disaster for the Jackets. Facing 3rd & 8, Paul Johnson dialed up a pass play that sent A-backs Clinton Lynch and Qua Searcy on corner routes to the left while wide receivers Jalen Camp and Brad Stewart ran delayed crossing routes. Most of the UVA secondary followed the A-backs, leaving Brad Stewart wide open.

This is not a tight passing window. Marshall just has to lead Stewart towards the sideline at any depth and the throw would be pretty much a guaranteed completion. But in true Georgia Tech quarterback fashion, TaQuon delivers a weak throw off his back foot that allows the Virginia defender to close in and break it up.

Watching the pass from another angle shows just how close this was to being an interception for the Cavaliers. The defender gets two hands on the ball and it just barely squirts out of his grip due to the contact with Stewart. Lazy throws like this are simply unacceptable, and it could have easily cost Georgia Tech the game. It’s critical that TaQuon learns from mistakes like this since he’ll need to throw the ball well this week if the Jackets are to have any hope of beating Georgia.

Up Next: Georgia

Well, here we are. The final week of the regular season is upon us, and it’s time once again for the Jackets to take on the Georgia Bulldogs in the 113th installment of Clean Old Fashioned Hate. Georgia is, unfortunately, having another fantastic season. They enter the weekend sitting at #5 in the CFP Rankings and have an average margin of victory of 20.6 points. Unsurprisingly, S&P+ gives the Bulldogs a 93.9% chance of victory.

Last year Georgia’s defense dominated the Jackets, holding them to just 226 yards of total offense. Tech’s defense played tough in the first half and kept the game somewhat close, with the score sitting at 17-7 heading into halftime. Unfortunately Tech began the second half with two 3-and-out drives that combined for -11 yards while the Bulldogs scored touchdowns on consecutive drives, putting the game out of reach with a score of 31-7.

The Bulldogs ran a 3-4 scheme like we’ve seen from the majority of Tech’s opponents this season, and their athletic dominance negated pretty much everything the Jackets tried. Georgia looks just as dominant this year, so it seems highly likely that the game will go similar to last year’s. The best thing Tech can do to help their odds of winning is to avoid negative plays. This may be a game where Tobias Oliver could be more effective at quarterback given his north-south running style and ability to gain yards after contact. While TaQuon Marshall has greater big-play potential, he also takes more risks and is more susceptible to negative plays since he often runs laterally looking for a hole to open up. Against a defense that will likely have no issues getting into the backfield, the quarterback that can always pick up a few tough yards may give the Jackets the best chance of winning. Regardless of who starts, it will be a difficult game for the Georgia Tech on both sides of the ball. I’m not getting my hopes up, but we’ll see on Saturday if the Jackets can complete their incredible mid-season turn around by making it three wins in a row in Athens.