First let's set the stage for a minute - this game is bigger for Georgia Tech than it is for the Hokies. The Jackets are up against a wall here, because if they lose they will have two losses in the division and those two losses will be against their leading competition for the ACC Coastal title in Miami and Virginia Tech. They would need VT to lose at least twice and Miami to lose another time and even then it would end up in some crazy tiebreaker that comes down to who wins a game of duck-duck-goose or some such silliness. Suffice it to say, GT's hopes to win the ACC hinge on winning on Saturday and teams whose backs are against the wall at home are a TOUGH, TOUGH OUT. They will be playing with as much focus and emotion as they've shown all season.
So while Bobby Dodd isn't a legendary venue for home-field advantage, it's still a night game and if you're Georgia Tech it beats the hell out of playing this game in Lane Stadium. It also means that the Hokies need to try and get the crowd out of it early with a score, ANY SCORE. I recall in 2004, the Hokies got to the GT 20 yard line in the 1st quarter and on 4th and 1, with the score 0-0, instead of kicking the FG to take that early lead, they went for it (on a toss sweep to Mike Imoh for heaven's sake) and failed. Oh my, looking back on that it's a miracle I'm still alive to type this today. Following that play, the momentum swung hard Georgia Tech's way and it took a miracle 4th quarter for VT to escape Atlanta with a win that night. I just hope and pray this "new and improved" version of Coach Stinespring now better understands the ins-and-outs of those decisions.
The final intangible factor here is that the Hokies are favored on the road and ranked #4 in the nation. Uh-oh. All Superfans know that this team plays twice as well when they get a chip on their shoulder and play the Rodney Dangerfield card to the hilt - ''no respect, I tell ya, no respect". When everyone is telling these guys how great they are, they've always seemed to find a way to start believing the hype. Take a page from the Miami Hurricane playbook, Coach Beamer. To listen to the college football pundits, the Canes invented sliced bread on their way to Blacksburg earlier this year and those Miami players started thinking they didn't need to wear deodorant anymore. The Hokies walloped their perfume-wearing asses all the way back to Dade County. The shoe is now on the other foot and Hokie players had better be TiVo-ing a whole lot of WWF this week instead of anything on ESPN, because if they don't go down there ready for a full-on wrasslin' match they will suffer the same fate.
So the intangibles all line up against Virginia Tech for this game and that's a bad thing that has my stomach beginning to knot up already. However, there are some concrete keys to this game that will probably play an even bigger role in who comes out of this game with a "W".
When the Hokie offense and Yellow Jacket defense are on the field, the biggest key will be the play of the Hokie WR's. For some reason I think we're due for a bit of a regression on offense (the dream can't continue forever, can it?). I have this sinking feeling the first Hokie play from scrimmage on Saturday is going to be a play-action pass deep downfield to Dyrell Roberts which is sure to either be a sack or fall incomplete. Hopefully I'm wrong, but to return to my main point, the WR's hold this offensive gameplan squarely in their hands. You see my fellow Superfans, Coach Paul Johnson is sick and tired of watching his Yellow Jacket defense get beaten up and down the field. They rank 82nd in total defense and 77th in scoring defense. So Coach Johnson said stop with the different personnel packages. Stop with the disguising coverages. Against Virginia Tech, let's stack the box against this tough running attack and play some basic zone and man/zone combo defense in the secondary. He wants his guys to just line-up and play football without having to overthink everything because they're just not executing on defense right now.
That means the Hokie WR's have to do two things: a) block extremely well on the perimeter to help out the running game as much as possible since we know the offense has to be committed to the running game (right Stiney?) and b) they absolutely have to continue their solid level of play in the passing game. That means recognizing these basic coverages and beating their man or running an accurate route so that QB Tyrod Taylor knows where they're going to be and can get the ball to them. The time of possession battle is incredibly huge against an offense like Georgia Tech's because you want to limit the number of opportunities the Jackets get to try and score, and in order to win that battle the Hokies are going to have to convert some 3rd downs in the passing game. These WR's have to step up and keep playing like they have been, but it's going to be a physical game and they'd better eat their Wheaties.
And for one moment let me just interject here on all the stuff I've been seeing about Tyrod Taylor lately. People are saying things like, "NOW he's a good QB" or "he's made a huge improvement since the end of the Nebraska game" or "he's finally turning the corner". As you, my Calm and Beloved Reader, know because I've been saying so for 2 years, this kid has been sitting around the corner, smoking a cigarette, just waiting for the REST of this offense to turn that damn corner. He's been hamstrung, if not out-and-out had his Achilles' tendon slit like in the Kill Bill movie, by some of the worst offensive coordination I've ever seen in my entire life. As a freshman, when he had senior receivers with NFL talent, he also shared a QB rotation with a great guy who happened to be a sub-par QB, and a starting QB rotation has never worked successfully in the history of college football. But even then Taylor made phenomenal plays and throws, from his very first game when he led the Hokies on their only scoring drive on the road at night against the eventual national champs! Then in 2008 he spent an entire season with a group of four freshmen at WR who half the time couldn't get lined up correctly, much less run the right route or get open. All this behind an offensive line that often had one or two guys blocking the wrong player and yet, despite all of that, he led the team to an ACC title with games (UNC and Virginia come quickly to mind) that were filled with great plays and a burning desire to refuse to lose.
To those who still dissent, I grant that certainly Taylor has been playing with more confidence since that Nebraska game, but good gracious, for the first time in 4 years the offensive playcalling bears some resemblance to a rational plan, and his receivers are where he expects them to be. The line is playing at a high level, and he has a solid ground game to take some of the load off of him having to run to move the chains. Of course he feels more confident! Tyrod Taylor has been a top-flight QB since his arrival on campus and I'm stoked that he is finally beginning to realize his potential in this offense.
Moving to the other side of the ball, when the Hokie defense takes the field against Georgia Tech, there seems to be this crazy notion out there that the Hokie D is going to dominate the Yellow Jackets. I'll say unequivocally that I don't think that's going to happen because at the level this Paul Johnson coached-offense is playing at right now, they're not going to be dominated by anyone the rest of the season. When you're talking about Paul Johnson vs. Bud Foster you're talking about one of the top offensive minds against one of the top defensive minds in all of college football and there's just very little chance that either side will dominate that matchup. It's going to be a chess-match for the ages.
And to those of you laughing at the Florida State defense for not forcing a single punt against the Jackets, remember that last year despite it being only the 3rd game after Johnson installed his offense, the Hokies only forced two punts the entire game. And that was with a defense that had senior experience at both linebacker positions. Now granted, the Hokies capitalized on a few turnovers that game, but the Jackets have cut back on a lot of those self-inflicted mistakes this season. You've got to find a way to get off the field against this machine. How to do it?
The answer is a two parter. First the defensive line has to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. Both Miami and Clemson (at least the final 3 quarters of the Clemson game) had amazing pressure from their defensive line. The end that the play is coming to has got to get upfield and force an early decision from Tech QB Josh Nesbitt. And they'd better hit him on just about every play whether he keeps the ball or pitches it. The defensive tackles and the end that the play is going away from have got to find a way to play off those cut blocks and disrupt FB Jonathan Dwyer on that dive play and they have to do it every time. And that's a lot easier said than done, because that Georgia Tech offensive line is a bunch of junkyard dogs and they are going to scrap and fight on every play. They aren't very big but they take those huge line splits and throw themselves at the legs of defensive linemen (which they do right after the snap so that they don't get called for illegal chop blocks) and they are in incredible shape, running up to the ball to snap it on almost every play. It's a high tempo deal designed to wear that defensive line out and prevent them from doing their job. Those Hokie linemen are going to get as worn out as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, but if they can beat up and relentlessly hit both Nesbitt and Dwyer on every play they can minimize the effectiveness of the running game.
The second part of the answer is scheme. And this part I feel pretty good about because you can be 100% certain that Bud Foster is not going to do what Florida State did last weekend which is play almost the same defensive formation on almost every snap. You do that to Paul Johnson and he's going to poke and prod and call plays to pick apart the holes which is exactly what happened to the Noles in their own stadium. By the way, before you chastise me for all these kind words about Coach Johnson, realize that I hate him and I think he's a jerk, but if you appreciate football in any way you have to respect his ability to design and call an offense. Now back to a man I love (in a very platonic way of course) - Bud Foster. Coach Foster has some experienced players on the defensive side of the ball especially on the line, in the secondary and at whip. And he's going to throw a variety of looks at Coach Johnson's offense, that require sound pre-snap reads by his guys so that they take the correct assignment when the ball is snapped. But they also will mess up some of the reads by the offense, and my understanding is that not every play is truly a "triple option" for their QB, Nesbitt. Sometimes, before the snap he already knows if he is going to hand off to Dwyer or keep it himself and if he tries to decide that based on how VT lines up, he might be in for some rude surprises.
Unfortunately, at linebacker, Coach Foster also has two very young linebackers. Now they are fast and instinctive which are normally two great characteristics for strongside and middle linerbackers, but against Georgia Tech those two things can be turned against you. If Jake Johnson or Barquell Rivers try and outguess a play after the snap instead of taking their assignment they will find themselves running out of position and doing it quickly. If they can somehow play within themselves they are certainly athletic and aggressive enough to come off of blocks by the aforementioned smaller GT linemen and make tackles, but they have to keep that focus every snap and that's just tough to do.
Watch the WR's when the VT offense is on the field and the defensive linemen when the Hokie defense is on the field. If those position groups win their battles and play at a high level, it will give Virginia Tech a chance to win this game. If for some reason, Georgia Tech self-destructs with penalties and/or turnovers, that would help me breathe a lot easier but I just don't see that happening with everything that's on the line for them. It's going to be a physical, desperate back-alley brawl and I'm glad that the Hokies get a bye-week after this game because win or lose they're going to need it to recover.