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Option Strategy Report: Pittsburgh

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Nobody expected an offensive performance quite this bad

Georgia Tech v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

I’ll be the first to admit that Georgia Tech’s poor offensive showing this past Saturday against Pittsburgh caught me off guard. Just last week, I praised our offensive firepower and called for confidence in quarterback TaQuon Marshall. Needless to say, my feelings have changed after Tech’s 24-19 loss to Pittsburgh. After averaging 573 yards total yards over the first two games, the Jackets mustered just 287 yards of offense through the first 56 minutes against Pitt. While they did manage to put together a 99-yard drive against a Prevent defense in the game’s waning minutes, the reality is that the offensive firepower we saw in Weeks 1 & 2 were completely missing on Saturday.

I wish there were just one or two particular areas that were lacking, but unfortunately the offense was just flat out bad across the board. The most frustrating aspect of Tech’s offensive failures against Pitt were that most of the issues were self-inflicted. Georgia Tech can play so much better than how they played Saturday, and even after the loss Tech is still ranked 19 spots ahead of Pitt in the S&P+ Rankings. At the post-game press conference, Coach Paul Johnson stated “the offense looked like we’d never played before.” He’s absolutely right, although to be fair, there were times when it looked like Paul had never coached before either (more on that later). Let’s dive in and take a closer look at all that went wrong for the Jackets this past weekend against the Panthers.

Pittsburgh’s Defense

Pitt showed multiple defensive formations throughout the game. Initially they ran a 3-4 scheme similar to what USF ran last week, with the two outside linebackers up on the line of scrimmage, effectively making it a 5-2. Pitt also mixed in a 4-3 formation on a significant number of plays, but how they chose which formation to run on each play wasn’t entirely clear. What was clear, however, was that Pitt was focused on having their defensive ends widen on each play to keep Georgia Tech running up the middle. The results speak for themselves: Tech’s A-backs on the day combined for 9 carries and a mere 43 rushing yards. Pitt’s strategy of widening the defensive ends on the snap was evident on the Jackets’ 3rd & 4 play with 11:02 remaining in the 1st Quarter.

The play call is an Inside Veer, meaning there are two “key” defenders that determine how the play develops: a “dive key” and a “pitch key”. The dive key is the defender who TaQuon Marshall will read immediately following the snap to determine whether he will hand the ball off to B-back Jordan Mason. In this case, the playside defensive end is the dive key. If the defensive end crashes inside, Marshall will keep the ball and locate the pitch key, who in this case is the playside outside linebacker. If the defensive end widens to the outside, then Marshall will hand the ball off the Mason, which is exactly what happens.

The playside outside linebacker, knowing that the defensive end widening outside will force Marshall to hand the ball off, quickly collapses to middle and stops Mason for almost no gain. It was an unfortunate situation where Marshall made the correct read, but the defense found a way to beat it. If Pitt continued with this strategy for the entire game, Tech could adjust by switching the outside linebacker to the dive key and the defensive end to the pitch key. While Pitt wasn’t as aggressive with the linebacker throughout the rest of the game, the defensive ends continued widening on every snap, which posed constant issues for TaQuon Marshall.

Going 3-and-out on the first drive of the game isn’t the end of the world, especially when the defense earned it with a great play call. The first drive is about figuring out your opponent’s strategy and making adjustments accordingly. While Pitt earned this defensive stop, the unfortunate reality is that for the remainder of the game, Tech’s offensive woes were entirely self-inflicted.

Poor Run Blocking

It doesn’t take a football genius to recognize that the success of a flexbone offense is almost entirely dependent on solid run blocking. One missed blocking assignment can bring an entire drive to a screeching halt, as was the case when the Jackets ran a QB Follow on 3rd & 5 with 5:51 remaining in the 2nd quarter.

Here are the main blocking assignments on a QB Follow:

  • B-back Jordan Mason must run straight up the middle, fake receiving the handoff, and then lead block for Marshall
  • Center Jahaziel Lee must block the nose tackle
  • Right guard Brad Morgan must block the backside inside linebacker
  • Right tackle Bailey Ivemeyer must block the backside defensive end

Every block was executed perfectly... except for the last one. Ivemeyer hardly touches the backside defensive end, who explodes across the line to tackle Marshall for no gain. While it doesn’t look like an easy block, the bottom line is that the block has to be made. Without the defensive end getting into the backfield, Marshall likely picks up the first down and maybe more. Instead of a new set of downs, the Jackets were left with a 4th & 5 wondering whether they should kick it or go for it.

Missed Reads

While the run blocking wasn’t perfect, there were plenty of plays where everyone on offense executed their blocking assignments correctly, only to have a missed read prevent the play from succeeding. There were times when TaQuon Marshall seemed hesitant and indecisive, which always ended with him keeping the ball for a short gain. Marshall accounted for exactly half of Tech’s carries on the day, keeping it himself 28 times for 103 yards (3.7 yards per carry). As mentioned earlier, it seemed that the Pittsburgh defensive ends widening to the outside really got in TaQuon’s head, and at times they forced him into keeping the ball on plays where he should have pitched it. One of the most notable missed opportunities came on the first play of the 2nd Quarter:

Tech is running a B-back Speed Option, just like we saw plenty of times last week against USF. The playside outside linebacker (lined up on the line of scrimmage) is the pitch key, A-back Qua Searcy must block the playside inside linebacker, A-back Nathan Cottrell comes in motion and must block the playside safety, and wide receiver Brad Stewart must block the playside cornerback. Everything goes according to plan with all the correct blocks lined up, and then this happens:

Marshall has had issues pitching the ball throughout his entire career at Tech, and this play highlights a fundamental flaw in how he runs a pitch option. Flexbone quarterbacks are taught to run straight at the pitch key; if the defender holds his ground, pitch the ball, and if the defender flares out to defend the pitch, keep running straight ahead. On this play Marshall had two options that would have resulted in a big gain:

  1. Pitch the ball to Jerry Howard. There’s a moment when the linebacker starts to square up to TaQuon, and if the ball was pitched at that moment, there’s no doubt in my mind that B-back Jerry Howard would have outran him to the outside for a big gain.
  2. Keep the ball, but keep running in the direction the play was designed to go. In order for a fake pitch to actually be effective, you have to run through the space the linebacker just vacated by jumping outside. If TaQuon had done this he would have also picked up a decent chunk of yards.

There is no reason for this play to result in no gain, and it’s concerning to see a play like this from a senior quarterback. TaQuon’s issues pitching the ball have been present for as long as he’s been playing quarterback. Here’s a play he ran against Vanderbilt in 2016, in which we see a similar hesitation. The fact that his issues pitching the ball haven’t been resolved in three seasons are a major concern. I’m not sure if it’s ultimately due to bad coaching or an inability to make proper reads, but it’s not a good sign for the rest of the season.

Possibly the most significant missed read of the game didn’t occur on the ground, but through the air. On a critical 3rd & 6 with 9:42 remaining in the 4th quarter, Jalen Camp runs an “option” route on the right sideline. The route is fairly simple and only has two options:

  1. If the defender is giving a cushion, run a curl route at the first down line.
  2. If the defender isn’t giving a cushion, run a go route.

The cornerback gives Camp several yards of space for his entire route, so naturally he stops at the first down line and looks for the ball. Marshall for some reason reads the cornerback and thinks Camp will go deep, and the result is the easiest interception of that cornerback’s life.

Poor Pass Blocking

Tech doesn’t throw the ball very much, but when they found themselves facing a 3rd & 9 with 1:55 remaining in the 2nd Quarter, they didn’t really have any other choice. Paul Johnson dialed up a pass play that sent the two outside receivers deep and had the two A-backs cross over the middle. The goal of the play seemed to be for the outside receivers to pull their cornerbacks deep and for the A-backs to get open when the safeties get tangled up on the crossing routes. Unfortunately, the A-backs never had time to get open.

A few observations:

  • Right tackle Bailey Ivemeyer briefly holds his block on the defensive end before getting tossed to the side.
  • Right guard Brad Morgan gets completely manhandled by the defensive tackle, who B-back Jordan Mason is forced to pick up.
  • Center Jahaziel Lee, after not having anyone to block initially, lets the middle linebacker fly in untouched to sack TaQuon Marshall.

If any of these blocks were made, Marshall might have had a chance of scrambling to buy some time. Instead, the play resulted in a 7-yard loss and Georgia Tech was forced to punt, still scoreless for the game.

Questionable Play Calling

I’ve always been a fan of Paul Johnson’s aggressive play calling, especially when it comes to going for it on 4th down. It shows confidence in the offense and can kill the morale of a defense when the conversion is successful. However, Paul Johnson’s two 4th down conversion attempts in the first half of Saturday’s game left me scratching my head wondering whether I was watching footage of NCAA 14 or an actual real-life football game.

The more horrifying of the two play calls was the fake punt that occurred with 6:30 remaining in the 1st Quarter. There are so many things wrong with this play call that I had to make a list:

  1. Up to this point in the game, the offense had gained just 10 yards in 6 plays. Even if the fake punt was somehow successful, the sputtering offense would now have the ball at their own 35-yard line and likely be forced to punt the ball anyway later on the drive.
  2. Failing to convert gives Pitt the ball in field goal range and makes it highly likely that they will go up by two scores in the middle of the 1st Quarter.
  3. The Tech defense just gave up an embarrassing touchdown run on the previous drive and needed a morale boost, but now they have to take the field with their backs against the wall again.
  4. Punter Pressley Harvin III was named a True Freshman All American last year and has a career average of 43.0 yards per punt. This would have been a great time to use him.
  5. On the play itself, the ball was snapped to Antwan Owens, a defensive lineman. Understandably, he seemed to have no sense of running vision and ran into his own blocker before running into a defender who was being blocked. If someone with better running instincts had the ball, they could have ran to the outside and maybe had a chance at converting.

Miscues

At this point it should be pretty clear to anyone who didn’t watch the game on Saturday that things were going about as bad as they possibly could for Tech. Yet despite all the blocking issues, misreads, and questionable play calls, the Jackets still could have kept themselves in the game if not for a plethora of individual unforced errors:

  • With 6:34 remaining in the 2nd Quarter, TaQuon Marshall missed his pitch to A-back Clinton Lynch. A good pitch would have led to a first down and Tech would have never had to attempt a 4th down conversion two plays later.

  • With 5:11 remaining in the 2nd Quarter, the Jackets lined up for a 4th & 5. Wide receiver Jalen Camp ran a curl route, but TaQuon Marshall’s pass was so high that a jumping Camp (who is 6’3) could barely get a finger on the ball.
  • With 2:36 remaining in the 2nd Quarter, Brad Stewart dropped a tough but catchable pass that would have set the Jackets up with 1st & goal on the 1-yard line.
  • With 5 seconds remaining in the 2nd Quarter, Brenton King missed a 52-yard field goal. He missed by a lot.

  • With 8:43 remaining in the 3rd Quarter, Brenton King missed an extra point that ultimately cost the Jackets two points since they were later forced to go for a two-point conversion, which they failed to convert.
  • With 2:36 remaining in the 3rd Quarter, Jalen Camp dropped an easy catch that would have gone for a 30+ yard gain.
  • With 2:20 remaining in the 3rd Quarter, Clinton Lynch fumbled and gave Pitt the ball on the Jackets’ 28-yard line.

Every team will make some mistakes each game, but when you look at Georgia Tech’s failures across the board in every phase of the game, it’s actually pretty incredible that they only lost by 5 points. If even half of the countless mistakes had been eliminated, Tech probably could have escaped Pittsburgh with an ugly victory.

Up Next: Clemson

In their last three matchups against Clemson, Georgia Tech has rushed the ball 123 times for 364 yards, which comes out to an abysmal 2.9 yards per carry. Clemson’s formations are nothing special, they run a mix of 5-2 and 4-3 just like everyone else. What sets them apart is that more than half of their linemen and linebackers are future NFL talents, including Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Kendall Joseph. Clemson is really, really good and will probably shut Georgia Tech’s offense down on sheer athleticism alone. The only way Tech can be competitive against the Tigers is if they can correct their mistakes from this past weekend and execute the flexbone offense to near perfection. We’ll see what happens, but I’m not getting my hopes up.