Now that the adrenaline of an overtime victory has worn off, it’s time for a (somewhat belated) closer look at how the defense did. Spoiler alert: it’s best to temper expectations. Mobile quarterbacks and run-pass options have given Tech headaches throughout the year, and UVA brought both to bear. The result was that aside from a couple drives in the third quarter, UVA essentially moved the ball at will, and the Jackets were ultimately lucky to walk away with a victory.
Week 12 vs. Virginia: Defense by the Numbers
|Points per Possession||2.7|
|Total Yards Allowed||403|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||3.9|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||9.8|
|Opp. Yards per Play||6.6|
|Third Down Conversions||5/9|
|Turnovers Forced (Defense)||0|
There’s a lot of “yikes” in this table, beginning with UVA’s 9.8 yards per pass attempt. When UVA looked to pass, they essentially averaged enough yardage for a first down. And largely as a result of this, Tech once again allowed an opponent to convert better than 50 percent of their third-down attempts.
But the truly ugly numbers are the rate stats. Tech had four havoc plays (two tackles for loss and two pass breakups) and one run stuff in the entire game, corresponding to single-digit percentages in those stats. The defense also permitted a success rate of over 55 percent for the game; for reference, the national average is 41 percent. A closer examination of that stat reveals just how ugly the game was—here are UVA’s success rates by quarter (courtesy of Bill Connelly’s advanced stats box score):
- Q1: 69%
- Q2: 69%
- Q3: 11%
- Q4: 65%
The sad truth is that Nate Woody’s defense played one good quarter of football on Saturday. A not-so-nice first half was followed by an outstanding third quarter and a regression in the fourth, though they did manage to get a couple stops in the final quarter.
There are two bits of good news. The first is that Tech did a good job of preventing huge gains on the ground. The second is that UVA wideout Olamide Zaccheaus, who had 111 receiving yards in this game and 98 a year ago (after racking up 68 rushing yards in the 2015 contest), will no longer be around next year to torment Tech’s defense further.
It’s no secret that tackling has been an issue for Tech this year. And as previously mentioned, mobile quarterbacks have given this team fits for years. Combine the two, and... it’s not a particularly good time:
The victim this time is Stinger linebacker Jalen Johnson, who actually does a decent job at the start of this play—he sticks with the receiver in his short zone and waits for quarterback Bryce Perkins to cross the line of scrimmage, at which point he breaks to attack. The problem is that by standing completely still, he can’t quite catch Perkins and is left to flail at the quarterback as he escapes.
Diving tackle attempts that fell just short were an exceedingly common sight in this game. Case in point: the second UVA touchdown, where Tech got burned by poor execution on an aggressive call.
Woody rolls the dice here on third and short, sending all four linebackers and leaving his defensive backs in man coverage. Backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong manages to get off a quick pass to Joe Reed, and it’s completed for a first down, but that’s okay—free safety Malik Rivera is right there to meet him. Until he’s not. It’s a very uncharacteristic whiff for Rivera, one of the team’s better tacklers, and it leaves Reed free to run 56 yards for the score.
Not too many other visuals are necessary here to drive home the point. The tackling hasn’t been up to par, and the issues in that realm will be amplified heading into a game against a team with speed at every skill position.
At this point, Woody’s system is clear: a heavy dose of Cover 3 with four medium zones underneath, plus a healthy amount of blitzes ranging from one extra linebacker to the entire front seven (with the secondary in man coverage in the latter case).
Adjusting to a new system doesn’t quite excuse how badly Tech has been burned this season on passing downs by receivers either getting open along the sideline or finding a hole in the coverage. It raises the question of how much of Tech’s collective trouble in zone coverage is scheme-related and how much is rooted in execution. For the most part, it tends to be an execution issue... though it’s very likely that inadequate coaching is a factor.
It’s an issue for pretty much every position group, and that was clear on Saturday. The issues sprung up as early as UVA’s second offensive play, when quarterback Bryce Perkins found a wide-open tight end over the middle on an RPO:
This one falls on inside linebacker David Curry, who’s lined up on the right hash to start the play. His fellow ILB Brant Mitchell is a blitzer on this play, and as such Curry needs to shift over in Mitchell’s direction as soon as the ball is snapped to cover the entire middle of the field. Instead, Curry stays where he is, leaving the tight end completely uncovered for an easy reception.
In fairness to Curry, the play developed so quickly that it’s unlikely that he could have gotten over to the TE in time unless he had begun shifting to his right before the snap, which might have tipped UVA off to the blitz call. Regardless, the fact remains that he wasn’t where he needed to be to execute the coverage. It’s an example of an issue that’s plagued everyone on the defense: not being quite where they need to be in order to make a play.
And, of course, Tech continues to struggle to guard receivers along the sideline. UVA only had one third-down conversion in the third quarter, but it was a frustrating one:
Third and short, and Lamont Simmons gives a massive cushion, allowing a completion well past the marker for a first down (and a few extra yards after a missed tackle) on a play where UVA was running max protect with only three receivers running routes.
Even aside from Simmons, this play is just kind of a mess. It’s a double ILB blitz, so Johnson and Jack linebacker Charlie Thomas have to cover a bit more ground underneath, and thus Johnson can’t really be blamed for this completion. What’s more confusing is the two safeties over the middle, who both end up hovering right next to the same receiver. As there are only three receivers running routes, it’s not necessarily horrible that they end up on the same guy; however, both seem to drift toward the same area right off the bat. It’s likely that something went wrong in the execution.
Things that Actually Went Well
Tech has generally seen positive results when sending pressure, though the occasional disaster does happen (see the Reed touchdown). The third quarter saw Tech’s best defensive effort of the game, and two of Woody’s favorite playcalls helped to snuff out UVA’s two possessions in that quarter.
The first was a call that’s had remarkably good results all season long: the Tre Swilling corner blitz. Swilling has only managed to record one sack this season, but on several occasions he has been able to force a hurried pass or otherwise disrupt the play, and this was one of them:
UVA’s right tackle picks up Thomas, leaving Swilling with a clear lane to the passer. Perkins begins to throw, but the cornerback reacts quickly—rather than going all out ofr the sack, he jumps to swat the pass away. It’s a smart, veteran play from a redshirt freshman that helped to force a quick three-and-out for the Cavaliers.
The other call that paid off was the classic outside linebacker stunt. Jalen Johnson had that ugly missed tackle early in the game, but he made up for it with a perfectly-executed stunt that led to a sack:
An assist goes to Desmond Branch, who occupies both the left guard and tackle long enough for Johnson to slip by before the guard can react. Johnson has a clear lane, and while Perkins nearly escapes, the linebacker manages to pull him down by the leg for a sack that forces UVA into a nightmarish third-and-32 situation. (Amusingly, the left tackle pushes Branch to the ground and stands over him, apparently not realizing that his quarterback is being dragged down behind him.)
- There was one lineup change of note on Saturday: senior Victor Alexander got the start at Jack linebacker and played a couple series there. Alexander was the starter there to begin the year before eventually ceding the role to the true freshman Thomas, who has simply been a better fit at the position. This was more than likely just a decision to let a senior get back out there on Senior Day, and Thomas should get the nod in Athens this weekend, though Alexander will continue to contribute on special teams and could see a series or two at Jack LB again.
- Paul Johnson announced that one starter will be out this weekend. The most likely candidate is the cornerback Simmons, who missed most of the second half against UVA. If he is indeed out, expect sophomore Ajani Kerr to get the nod in his place across from Swilling. Jaytlin Askew could also rotate in, though he’s mostly been relegated to the third-and-long dime package for the last several weeks; another possibility is true freshman Zamari Walton, though playing him would mean burning his redshirt since he has already appeared in four games this season.
It’s been a very up-and-down few weeks for the Tech defense. After making progress on several fronts against Miami, the Jackets seemed to take a big step back in the ACC finale, and that does not bode well with a talented U[sic]GA team on deck.
The good news is that U[sic]GA leans heavily on the run game, and Tech has done well to contain opposing teams on the ground—not necessarily shutting them down entirely, but at least preventing them from breaking off lots of long runs. The bad news is that quarterback Jake Fromm is more than good enough to take advantage of Tech’s zone coverage issues if the Jackets aren’t able to get pressure on him, and getting pressure could be a tall task against their offensive line. The worse news is that even if Tech is able to rattle Fromm, U[sic]GA could turn to Justin Fields, who is perfectly equipped to pick apart Woody’s unit.
The two big areas where the defense has improved from last year is in forcing turnovers and in swarming to the ball. Both will be absolutely vital on Saturday for the Jackets to have a shot at the upset.