Keys to the Game: Georgia Tech
by Raleigh Hokie, 10/27/04

After 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

This 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 game.

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 shorter passes.

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

Hokies 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

Hopefully, 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 non-stop pressure.

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 blocks.

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 stadium.

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 protection).

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 themselves.

Conclusions

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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