– My game advance: Bud Foster, Hokies will try to solve Georgia Tech’s offensive ‘riddle’
– Aaron McFarling‘s column: Hokies are inconsistent, but they’re fun to watch
– My story from Wednesday’s paper about DE J.R. Collins‘ personal transformation in the last year and how it’s showing up on the field now.
– Five takeaways from both Scot Loeffler and Foster after Tuesday interviews, with the injury report up front.
Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech
- Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta (55,000)
- When: 7:31 p.m., Thursday
- TV: ESPN
- Records: Virginia Tech (3-1, 0-0 ACC), Georgia Tech (3-0, 2-0 ACC)
- Series: Hokies lead 7-3
- Last meeting: Virginia Tech won 20-17 in overtime in Blacksburg last year
- Line: Georgia Tech by 7
When Virginia Tech passes
Quarterback Logan Thomas has still yet to reach a 60 percent completion rate in a game this year. That makes 10 straight games going back to last year. He’s also thrown at least one interception in every game this year, giving him six this year. But he still made some big passes in the Hokies’ 29-21 triple-overtime win against Marshall last week. Receiver Josh Stanford made one of those big grabs on fourth down, setting up a late touchdown. Willie Byrn also made some nice catches, including his first career touchdown. But the drops still aren’t solved and the tight end play has been inconsistent. Tech seems to have found a threat out of the backfield in running back Chris Mangus, who had three catches for 47 yards last week. The line has still only given up five sacks in four games, decent protection so far this year.
The Yellow Jackets were bad in the secondary last year, but have shown major improvement in their first year under defensive coordinator Ted Roof. Georgia Tech’s 21st nationally against the pass, giving up 168 yards a game. Duke only passed for 132 yards earlier this month. UNC’s Bryn Renner didn’t have a huge day last week against the Jackets, completing only 14 of 29 passes for 218 yards. GT has allowed two passing touchdowns and picked off four passes this year. Jamea Thomas and Louis Young give the Jackets a pair of senior cornerbacks. Thomas’ seven career interceptions are third most among active ACC players. Safeties Jamal Golden and Chris Milton are both battling injuries, although it sounds like Golden will play. Georgia Tech hasn’t generated much of a pass rush, with only four sacks through three games. But given the group’s experience here, it’s still enough to get the edge.
Edge: Georgia Tech
When Virginia Tech runs
Running back Trey Edmunds is listed as probable for tonight’s game with a hip injury, which may or may not keep him out. The Hokies get a boost from the return of J.C. Coleman, who has missed three of the first four weeks with an ankle injury. Last week was a big running week for Thomas, who had 23 carries for 58 yards and a pair of touchdowns, one of which was the game winner in overtime. Tech used the read option liberally. It wasn’t always pretty, but it still got yardage. The Hokies topped the 200-yard mark on the ground, although they took 53 carries to do so. Some of that credit should go to the offensive line, although there’s room for improvement up front. Center David Wang (shoulder) is banged up and right guard Andrew Miller isn’t too far removed from an ankle sprain, so the Hokies aren’t in pristine health on the line.
Opponents haven’t had too much success running the ball against the Yellow Jackets, who have given up just 107.3 yards per game on the ground, 22nd nationally. GT’s linebackers have been active in Roof’s 4-3 scheme, a switch from last year’s 3-4. Middle linebacker Brandon Watts leads the team with 19 tackles. Weak-side linebacker Quayshawn Nealy is next with 15, although he’s been held out of practice this week with an injury and might not play. The Jackets have been successful at preventing opponents from breaking anything big in the ground game. GT’s opponents only have nine rushes of 10 or more yards, tops in the ACC and tied for 17th nationally Virginia Tech, by comparison, has allowed 17 such runs in four games. Only one run against Georgia Tech this year has gone for more than 20 yards. The Hokies have allowed seven of those.
Edge: Georgia Tech
When Georgia Tech passes
It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. And the scouting report on quarterback Vad Lee is that he’s more of a throwing threat than Tevin Washington and Josh Nesbitt before him. Lee’s completed 56.4 percent of his passes, with a 19-yard average per completion. Seven of his passes have gone for touchdowns this year. (Washington only threw for eight all of last year.) DeAndre Smelter leads the receiving corps with six catches for 100 yards and two scores, although the Yellow Jackets will pass to their running backs too. Sacks are at a premium against GT, since it passes so infrequently.
That neutralizes what’s been a big part of the Hokies’ defense all year, since they have racked up 16 sacks in four games, second most nationally. On the rare occasion that Georgia Tech drops back to pass, Virginia Tech should be able to provide pressure. End J.R. Collins is tied for seventh nationally with 4.5 sacks. It’s the coverage that will be key. Freshmen Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson will start at cornerback, with Kyle Fuller sliding inside to play whip linebacker. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has put a lot on his young corners early in the season and will put them in one-on-one situations tonight. Both seem to be up to the task so far.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Georgia Tech runs
This is the Yellow Jackets’ bread and butter, as their 345.3-yard-per-game average suggests. They’ve been consistent so far this year, not dropping below 324 rushing yards in any game. They’ve also been remarkably efficient on third downs, converting 66 percent of them (second nationally). Much of that is due to getting good gains on the ground on first and second down. GT’s offensive line are play-makers in this offense. Right guard Shaquille Mason has been named ACC offensive lineman of the week for two straight weeks. A host of running backs get in on the action. B-Back David Sims leads the team with 211 yards, followed by Lee with 180. Both have scored three touchdowns. But A-Back Robert Godhigh is averaging 12.4 yards per carry, tops in the ACC. Paul Johnson isn’t afraid to spread the ball around.
Virginia Tech has had some success slowing down the Jackets’ option offense in the past. Foster’s defense held Georgia Tech to 192 rushing yards in last year’s opener, which Foster said is akin to holding a regular team under 100. (Considering GT averaged 311.2 rushing yards per game last season, that sounds about right.) The Hokies are experienced up front. Everybody in the front seven has faced this kind of offense before. Linebacker Jack Tyler had his breakout game against the Jackets in last year’s opener, making 17 tackles to jumpstart an All-ACC season. And the entire defensive line is playing at a high level. The Hokies are allowing 2.63 yards per carry, 11th best nationally. Georgia Tech might seem like it would have the advantage here, but Virginia Tech is no pushover at stopping the run.
What to expect from Cody Journell? He had a disastrous game at East Carolina, then was suspended for a violation of team rules for the Marshall game. Who knows where his head is at heading into this week? In what should be a close game, field goals could be important. The Hokies still haven’t gotten their kickoff game going, ranking 112th nationally. There are some bright spots. The coverage teams, while still bad statistically, have improved since the Alabama disaster. Tech blocked two kicks in a game last week for the first time since 2010. And punter A.J. Hughes, despite his tendency for having one bad kick a game, is averaging 44.52 yards per punt, 18th nationally.
Georgia Tech has its own share of ups and downs. Its biggest asset on special teams is probably Golden, a kick and punt return standout last year. But he’s banged up with a shoulder injury and has yet to really have a major impact on a game this year, averaging a strong 27.8 yards per kick return but only 4.3 yards on punts. Nevertheless, he remains a threat. Punter Sean Poole doesn’t have many opportunities, although he’s averaging 47.8 yards per boot. Freshman kicker Harrison Butker made his first career field goal at 49 yards. He followed it up with two misses from inside 40, however.
It’s usually a chess match every time these two teams play each other, with Foster and Johnson going back on forth with various tweaks to their schemes to try to get an edge. Foster has gotten the better of Johnson of late — and by extension, Frank Beamer has gotten the better of Johnson to the tune of a 4-1 record — but there are other coaches to consider. Virginia Tech’s Scot Loeffler and Roof, a pair of first-year coordinators, also share a common Auburn bond (and a level of distaste from the Auburn fan base), even though they never overlapped at the school. Roof’s had more success with his new school, though. His defense ranks 11th nationally, giving up 275.3 yards per game. Loeffler’s offense has been slow out of the blocks, ranking 104th nationally in total offense (341.8 ypg) and 86th in scoring (26.8 ppg). That evens things out between the teams’ coaches.
I’m going with a low score. And if history is any indication — like two years ago when I did the same thing — that probably means it will be an unexpected shootout. Nevertheless, I’ll stick with a low-scoring affair. Virginia Tech hasn’t scored more than two offensive touchdowns in regulation against an FBS opponent since last year’s Duke game. Georgia Tech, although it has put up good offensive numbers so far, has yet to play a top-flight defense yet this year, particularly one like the Hokies that have limited it in the past. Put simply: I think the defenses are well ahead of the offenses at this point. And they both seem to get stronger as games go on. Virginia Tech has allowed 13 second-half points this year. Georgia Tech has given up only 7. I think Foster has enough experienced players in the front seven who have seen this unique offense to keep the Yellow Jackets from running wild on them. But I have my doubts the Hokies’ offense can get past the myriad mistakes it had last week and go on the road, into a pressure situation no less, and put up enough points to make the defense’s effort hold up.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 14, Virginia Tech 13