Keys to the Game: Georgia Tech
by Raleigh Hokie, 10/27/04
a nice break, the Hokies get back to work with a Thursday night game on the road
at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets started the season slowly, but they have
begun to hit their stride behind the play of an outstanding defense. This will
be just the second road game of the season for the Hokies and the first where
the vast majority of the fans will be cheering against them. Home crowds are
generally at their best for Thursday night prime time games and the same can be
expected from the Jacket fans this week. Without a doubt, a serious challenge
awaits the Hokies in Atlanta. Although the Hokies have battled two teams ranked
in the Top 10, the breakdown tells me that this game may be their toughest of
the season so far.
These two Techs have head coaches that share the
same philosophy Ė run the ball, control the clock, play aggressive defense and
win the special teams battles. I see this as a field position game that will be
dictated by defense, so a turnover or a big play on special teams could be the
deciding factor. The Jackets are vulnerable on kick coverage, so donít be
surprised to see Mike Imoh or Eddie Royal bringing kickoffs deep out of the end
zone. Also look for the Hokies to go after a punt or two to try to turn around
field position with one play. On the other side, the Hokies cannot afford to
give away field position, so they need Vinnie Burns to perform more consistently
than he has the past few games.
On paper, these two teams look to be evenly
matched. As I look at it, I think Georgia Tech may have a few more playmakers
and Virginia Tech may have a bit more speed. I really like some of the matchups
in this game, such as VTís fifth year senior CB Eric Green against GTís true
freshman phenom WR Calvin Johnson or GTís all-everything DE Eric Henderson
against VTís best pass blocker, OT Jimmy Martin.
In the end, for the Hokies, this game likely
comes down to how well the Hokies senior QB Bryan Randall executes on the road
against a defense that will show many of the same pressure looks that he saw
from the NC State blitzkrieg four games ago. Letís break down the other key
factors to look for on both sides of the ballÖ.
When the Hokies are on Defense
The Georgia Tech offense has good talent, but
they have been plagued by inconsistency. In this game, their plan will be to
establish the run first with TB P.J. Daniels. From there, they will put the ball
in the hands of QB Reggie Ball to either use his legs to get to the edge or his
arm to get the ball down the field to a nice collection of WR talent, led by the
6í4Ē true freshman Calvin Johnson. Ball is an elusive runner with good speed
and he has a strong arm, but he is a streaky player that is prone to making
mistakes. Johnson is a star in the making that already knows how to use body
control and superior leaping ability to catch tough passes in coverage. Having
played Georgia Tech earlier this year, Miamiís Larry Coker compared Johnson to
ex-Pitt WR Larry Fitzgerald. Watch out for those fade routes!
Key #1: Stuff the run; force Ball to win the game
will be a tough because P.J. Daniels is the ACCís leading rusher again this
year. Heís a former walk-on that plays hard on every down. Georgia Tech likes
to run slants up front and have Daniels cut in behind the flow. To get control
of the line of scrimmage, look for the Hokies to play a lot of 8-man fronts with
aggressive pursuit up the field and down the line to close off the cutback
lanes. Weak side, I expect wide alignments along the defensive front with the
two linebackers shaded to the outside gaps. This will provide containment
against Ball and the bootleg, while closing down any cutback lanes for Daniels.
The presence of Darryl Tapp combined with the various run blitzes inside should
minimize any double team blocks against Jonathan Lewis and Jim Davis.
Penetration by the defensive tackles, run blitzes inside and aggressive pursuit
from the outside will make it very difficult for Daniels and the GT running
With the aggressive fronts, the Hokies will also
show a lot of man coverage in the secondary. Game tape will tell the Jackets
offensive coaches that the Hokies are vulnerable to play action, so look for
that early off the run game. Knowing that and knowing Ball has a strong arm,
look for the Hokies to be more conservative in their coverages, giving up the
underneath short stuff to protect against the long pass. The GT offense has
shown the tendency to make mistakes if they have to drive the ball down the
field, so look for the Hokies to test Ballís patience by giving him the
Key #2: Red Zone against Calvin Johnson
Georgia Tech likes to get Johnson lined up to the
wide side of the field, using a slot receiver to run off any inside help
coverage. The pressure will be on Eric Green on the fades and jump ball routes
that GT likes to run with Johnson. Heís just a true freshman, but Johnson will
be Greenís toughest challenge of the season so far. Ball and the GT coaches
have a lot of confidence in Johnson, particularly in the red zone, so look for
passes to go his way even when he is tightly covered.
The Jackets love for the fade routes may give the
Hokies some big play opportunities. If Ball sees single coverage with press man
outside, he will check to the fade route, even from 20+ yards out. Look for the
Hokies to try to dupe Ball into these checks by shading the safety away and
showing press man initially, and then dropping out into soft man or a variation
of a 3-deep zone late in the snap count.
Key #3: Pressure and Containment
Reggie Ball is a more accurate passer when he can
set up strong in the pocket, so the Hokies will want to make him throw on the
run. It seems obvious that they will want to bring a lot of pressure in passing
situations, but they canít allow Ball to start running downhill with man
coverage down the field. He is the Jackets' second best run option, so the
Hokies will have to think containment against him. One alternative is to turn
the tables and mix in zone pressures. Zone blitzes have several advantages,
including the ability to bring varying amounts of pressure while the zone
coverages provide natural containment against a scrambling QB. Bud Foster doesnít
call for zone pressure as much as some other teams, including Georgia Tech, but
he has them in his arsenal and they have been a productive option for the Hokie
defense in the past.
Bringing various types of pressure will allow the
Hokies to mix defenses and hide coverages better while Ball is going through his
pre-snap reads. Ball is still a young QB that is prone to mistakes, so the
Hokies will want to make him think by mixing pressure looks with different man
and zone coverages. The defense also wants Ball and his receivers to sight
adjust when they read pressure with the intent of forcing a mistake that could
lead to a big play. We might see more of the ďrobberĒ coverages; with Vinnie
Fuller patrolling the middle and jumping hot routes. Any or all of these
variations are possible as the Hokies defense works to force mistakes from the
Georgia Tech offense.
Key #4: Remember practice
In many ways, the GT offense is similar to the VT
offense Ė mobile QB, run game first, take shots down the field, mix in some
option, and then throw in a QB draw a time or two. The Hokie defense sees a
similar offense everyday in practice, so many of the formations, tendencies, and
blocking schemes will be very familiar to them. The Hokies will need to stay
disciplined against the tendencies and not get suckered by misdirection or trick
plays. Georgia Tech has the halfback pass in their arsenal and starting WR
Damarius Bilbo was a backup QB for two years before moving to WR last year.
Look for the Jackets to run some option when they see the Hokie
defense in an 8-man front. Good execution of the dive or speed option can put a
lot of pressure on an 8-man front defense, although I think the Hokies' speed on
defense will prove to be too tough to handle. Again, the defense sees the option
everyday in practice, so they should be well prepared if and when Georgia Tech
goes to it.
Key #5: Linebacker rotation
everywhere are looking forward the return of Xavier Adibi. Getting him back for
the tough home stretch is a key because he gives the defense more options to
match up against the diverse offenses the Hokies will see over the next six
weeks. How much he plays in this game is still an unknown, but Iíll guess that
he will get on the field after a few series and get 15-20 total snaps on
defense. He may get some time on special teams as well.
With Blake Warren nursing a sore toe, we could
see a 3-man rotation at the inside linebacker spots, with Vince Hall at Mike,
Xavier Adibi at Backer, and Mikal Baaqee getting snaps at both. I think Adibiís
biggest impact will come a couple of games down the road once he gets back in
the total flow of things, but Iíll be looking for his speed to get noticed in
this game, both against the run and the pass. Since they havenít seen much of
him on film, I think his speed will surprise the Jackets a bit when heís in
there. Watch Adibi in pursuit backside when the Jackets run Ball or Daniels to
the boundary. He has the speed to chase either of them down from behind.
Bottom line, Adibi isnít back in prime football
shape just yet, so his plays will be limited in this game. When heís in there,
I think Bud Foster will run looks that allow Adibi to work more in space and
minimize his chances of getting caught up in traffic too often. Getting him in
there will be particularly advantageous on passing downs where the Hokies can
use Adibi at Backer and Baaqee at the Mike spot. That is the Hokies' best pass
defense combination at inside LB, particularly when they play zone coverages.
When the Hokies are on Offense
One month ago, the Virginia Tech offense ran into
a buzz saw known as the NC State zone blitz. Thursday night, the Hokies get a
shot at redemption when they face the zone blitz schemes of Georgia Tech. Having
watched that NC State game film, there is no doubt that Georgia Tech will bring
blitz after blitz, right from the first snap to see if the Hokies have figured
out how to deal with the various pressure looks.
Unfortunately for the Hokies, the Georgia Tech
defense has been playing its best ball since the return of star DE Eric
Henderson three weeks ago. With only two sacks in their first three games, the
Jackets have had 17 sacks in the last three. Strongside linebacker Chris Reis
has been making plays all over the field since Hendersonís return. Reis isnít
very big and he isnít particularly fast, but he is the type of player that is
always around the ball making plays. It is safe to assume that the Hokies have
put specific things in the game plan to deal with Reis. Still, look for Reis to
be very active and a disruptive force the entire game.
Their other star defender is James Butler, a big,
physical safety that will be keeping his eyes on Bryan Randall most of the
night. Heís another of Georgia Techís all-ACC performers and the Hokie
offense will have to account for him in the passing game, particularly to the
middle of the field.
This defense will be a huge challenge for the
Hokies in this game, so it will be critically important for the offense to stay
patient and poised, make few mistakes, and not get behind the chains.
Key #1: Protections
the Hokies' offensive coaches and players got a good look at how Miami handled
the NC State blitzes last Saturday night. Most of the time, Miami chose to max
protect and get the ball down the field using only two man routes. The key was
the execution of those max protect schemes. Their two backs did a great job
picking up Stateís two-level inside stack blitzes with one back attacking the
first blitz and the second back ďcatchingĒ the stack blitz behind it.
The Hokies' vertical passing game isnít on the
same level as the Miami Hurricanes, so the game plan against Georgia Tech canít
be as one-dimensional. Look for the Hokies to mix it up by going up top with max
protect on occasion, but expect to see more sight adjust and quick passes on hot
routes. It will be critical for Bryan Randall to read the blitzes correctly,
adjust the protections as needed, and to be in synch with his wide receivers. If
he reads zone blitz, then he should check into a run play or adjust protections
and hit a soft area in the zone. If he reads man blitz, then he should sight
adjust with a wide receiver on a hot route.
To be successful, this whole operation will have
to show significant improvement over the NC State game, because they are going
to see a lot of the same looks. Most importantly, Randall cannot afford to be
hesitant against this type of pressure. He has to be willing to get rid of the
ball, throw it to a spot, and have confidence that his receivers will be there
to catch it. That hasnít been a natural reflex for him, which is why I believe
we will see varying protections with more quick passes against the Jackets
One additional note -- Georgia Tech runs various
zone blitz techniques, some of which involve Eric Henderson dropping back into
underneath coverage from his normal 3-point stance at defensive end. He has a
tendency to tip his drops by how he shifts his weight while in the 3-point
stance. This was particularly evident in the Duke game, although the Blue Devils
were not able to take advantage of it. Look for Bryan Randall to keep an eye on
Henderson pre-snap to see if he his tipping off a particular zone blitz. If so,
a quick hand signal in conjunction with a single verbal call at the line could
get the Hokies into a very successful play.
Key #2: Running against zone pressures
The running game has struggled for much of the
year and Georgia Tech has been very stingy against the run the last two games.
Creating seams for Imoh, Hamilton, and Humes will be a tough challenge for an
offensive line that has had trouble against quicker fronts. Jason Murphy
quickens up the left guard position a bit, but overall, quickness and
athleticism remain a concern along the offensive line. Look for Chris Reis to be
run blitzing constantly from the strongside, and at times, it will be the job of
the Hokies weakside guard to get out there quickly with a kick-out block to
prevent Reis from blowing up the play. That will be a tough assignment for the
Hokies guards and if they canít do it, then the Hokies will have to adjust and
go away from some things they want to do up front.
Georgia Tech likes to slant their line and bring controlled pressure from the
other side. The Hokies have to decide how to attack that Ė should they run at
the slants or at the pressure? One thing to look for is misdirection off the
option game similar to what we saw against USC. The misdirection comes by
running away from the slant and towards the pressure. One variant of that, like
we saw against USC, is to run a misdirection speed option by sending the
tailback into the slant and running the option with Randall and a reversing wide
receiver against the flow. We could also see misdirection from an option into
the direction of the slant with the pitch going to the WR on a reverse. Any of
these variants will slow down the pursuit behind the slanting line which should
create seams for the tailback as the game develops.
Look for the Hokies to use a lot of 2-TE formations again in this game, both
straight-up to balance the formation as well as using Jeff King in an H-back
role where he can motion across, step back as a fullback or pull for a trap
block behind the line slants. His pass catching has been big this year, but he
may be more vital to the success of the run game. Whichever role he has on any
particular play, he needs to execute because many running plays key off his
Key #3: Timing, recognition, and execution
The Hokie offense has to fight for everything they get, so they must be in synch
as a unit to have any chance at success in this game. They cannot afford to get
themselves in long yardage situations against this type of defense in their home
Early on, look for a fairly conservative approach with an emphasis on getting
the ground game established. We could see some planned runs to the edges early
from Bryan Randall in order to force the Georgia Tech defense to account for him
more in run-tendency formations. This would open up some space for the offense
to work some things with the tailbacks between the tackles.
We should see evidence of the quick passing game early on as well, driven either
by down/distance or by Randallís reads of pressure and subsequent checks at
the line of scrimmage. Hopefully, Randall and the freshmen WRís will be on the
same page in this game with their sight adjusts to hot routes. As the game
develops, look for the offense to open things up a little more, using play
action to take some shots down the field (hopefully, with good execution of max
The other key here is maximizing Bryan Randallís ability to recognize what the
defense is doing from play to play. There is a trend in college football to have
QBís look over to the sideline to get real-time adjustments from the coaches
in the booth based on how the defense is set. The theory is that the coaches in
the booth can see what the defense is doing better than the QB on the field, so
there is a system to get adjustments signaled in after the defense has already
set up. The Hokies havenít gone to this approach as of yet and itís unlikely
they would start doing so this late into a season. Instead, look for an
adjustment to the pre-snap operation to give Bryan Randall more time to read the
defense and make the proper checks and protection calls. One adjustment is to
simplify the process of signaling plays in from the sideline. Look for that to
be more streamlined by having Randall go to his wristband more often. That will
get them to the line quicker and give Randall more time to survey the defense.
It will also give him more time to vary the snap count, which is so important
against an aggressive, blitzing defense on the road.
Key #4: Success on first down
This is one of those keys that is important in every game, but I point it out
here specifically because the Hokie offense is going to be in all sorts of
trouble if they struggle constantly on first down against this Georgia Tech
defense. Over the years, weíve seen what the Hokie defense can do to an
offense that lacks big play ability and is misfiring on first downs. This yearís
Georgia Tech defense has that same ability.
The objective will be to average four to five yards on first down, which is a
significant challenge for the Hokie offense against the Jackets defense. This
defense isnít as fast as it is quick, but that quickness is a tough matchup
for the Hokies' offensive line. It will be critical for the offensive line to
neutralize the Georgia Tech defensive tackles on first down and not let them get
penetration against the ground game.
Clemson, UNC and Miami all had success running the ball against the Jackets on
first down, but Maryland and Duke couldnít run on them at all. Eric Hendersonís
return has had something to do with that because of the attention he commands
along the line of scrimmage. Look for the Hokies to line up in 2-TE formations,
play physical and run directly at Henderson and the rest of GTís defensive
front behind power zone blocking. I believe the Hokies will be more successful
with their straight-ahead running attack, so look for a lot of north/south,
power rushes on first down running plays. This could be a game for Cedric Humes
to make a statement, so look for the Hokies to try to get him established early.
Key #5: Play the field position game
Yeah, I know conservative football is boring, but many times itís the smart
thing to do. The Hokie offense knows that they are in for a long, hard night
against the Georgia Tech defense, so they cannot afford to give up anything
cheap. As Bryan Stinespring likes to say, his job as the offensive coordinator
is to make sure that he does what is necessary to win the game. Sometimes, that
means doing things that do not put the Hokies defense in a bad situation. Both
offenses know that the defenses are the strength of their respective teams, so
the top priority will be to protect field position.
Expect to see conservative plays on both sides when the down/distance and field
position favors the defense. For the Hokies, these are the situations when itís
smart for Bryan Randall to throw the ball away, or pull it down and use his
legs, or even take a sack. The game plan will be to protect the ball, protect
field position, and take advantage of the opportunities when they present
Offensively, the coaches would love nothing more than to physically take control
of the line of scrimmage, establish the power run game behind an Imoh/Humes
rotation, and pound the Jackets defense for five yards at a pop. That is easier
said than done and the Hokies really havenít done it consistently this year,
but thatís where they need to get to make something good happen in these five
tough games down the stretch, starting with Georgia Tech.
Defensively, the coaches want to come out and dictate the action from the very
first snap. Stopping P.J. Daniels and the running game is the #1 priority, so
the defensive line must continue its outstanding play. From there, I think the
defense will try to bait the Georgia Tech offense into certain things and then
look to get a big play out of it.
I see this as another close, tough game that will be decided in the fourth
quarter. I think the difference will come down to Reggie Ball and Georgia Techís
offense making a few too many mistakes against the Virginia Tech defense. Hokies
everywhere are hoping to see the erratic, mistake-prone Reggie Ball and not the
dynamic run/pass threat that is very hard to stop when he gets on a hot streak.
If we see that guy on Thursday night, then itís going to be a long,
frustrating game that could get away from the Hokies quickly.
Special teams could also be the difference in this game. That aspect of the game
bodes well for the Hokies as they should have the advantage across the board. I
have a hunch that we will see a big play from the Hokies' special teams in this
game Ė either a blocked kick or a big return on a punt or kickoff. Iím sure
the Hokies will take either one.
Look for the post-game follow-up on Sunday.
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