Cavaliers visit Yellow Jackets
After shaky 17-16 victory, London’s squad faces ACC rival’s high-powered triple-option offense
The Virginia football team opens its ACC slate in Atlanta against rival Georgia Tech Saturday hoping for a more complete performance than the shaky 17-16 victory the team scraped last week against Penn State.
In their two victories this season, the Cavaliers (2-0, 0-0 ACC) have cruised past coach Mike London’s former team, Richmond, and escaped by the narrowest of margins against Penn State courtesy of a last-second miss by Nittany Lion kicker Sam Ficken. Facing the Yellow Jackets (1-1, 0-0 ACC), the Cavaliers will see their toughest foe yet.
Georgia Tech is known for its triple-option offense, which relies heavily on runs by both the quarterback and running backs. In a blowout 59-3 win against Presbyterian Saturday, Georgia Tech notched 712 total yards, the second-highest total in team history. Even in that explosive performance, the Yellow Jackets threw the ball just 14 times and ran the ball 58 times for 469 yards.
The real danger the triple-option poses for opposing defenses is that the heavy dose of runs opens up holes in the passing game. Georgia Tech is averaging 18.8 yards per pass in 30 pass attempts.
“This offense presents a challenge because they run the ball so much that they just try to lull you to sleep, and then out of nowhere they could just take a shot on you and go deep,” sophomore cornerback Demetrious Nicholson said. “So you definitely got to read your keys and know your assignment each snap.”
Last year Virginia had a bye-week before facing Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers took advantage of the extra preparation time to hold the Yellow Jackets to a season-low 296 yards and two pass completions, pulling off a 24-21 upset. The Cavaliers do not have the benefit of a bye-week to prepare this time around, but they have leaned on an unexpected source to gear up for the intricacies of the Yellow Jackets’ scheme: their holder. Senior holderJacob Hodges, who ran a similar style of offense in high school, has been used as the scout team quarterback to diagram the offensive schemes.
“He knows how to run it pretty well and that’s really going to play a key in us being able to prepare for Georgia Tech’s offense,” Nicholson said.
The preparation for this game began early in the offseason, when senior linebacker Steve Greer and other veteran Cavaliers organized walk-throughs.
“Guys just need to be really focused … without having that extra week, we’re really going to have to up our focus and understand that in order to win, we’re going to have to be mentally prepared to do our job,” Greer said.
The defense’s to-do list includes not only slowing the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense but also registering the first turnover of the year. Although the unit shone against Penn State in holding the Nittany Lions to just three points off of four offensive turnovers, it again failed to register a takeaway.
As the Virginia defense has its hands full preparing for a new offense, the objective of the offense is simple: Get its running game going. The Cavaliers are averaging just 3.2 yards per carry and rushed for 32 yards on 25 attempts against Penn State, giving them a woeful 1.3 yards-per-carry average for the game.
“We are looking to being able to get back to run the ball with authority because we have backs that can do that, and that’s a point of emphasis that has to be made this week,” London said.
Though the running game struggled throughout, the Cavaliers’ passing game came to life in the team’s final drive for the win. Junior quarterback Michael Rocco connected with sophomore tight end Jake McGee on a 44-yard pass on third-and-16 and a game-winning touchdown moments later. Rocco had been replaced earlier in the game by sophomore Phillip Sims, the Alabama transfer who has seen action at quarterback in each of the team’s first two games.
“We’ll continue to keep playing Mike as the starter, and if there’s opportunities to put Phillip in for his development, we’ll do that, but not at the sake of trying to win the game for us or trying to do too much for us,” London said. “We feel very comfortable with what Mike is doing.”
Rocco, who committed two turnovers against Penn State, is looking for a more consistent performance against Georgia Tech, a team that has allowed just 11.5 points per game. The Yellow Jacket defense is directed by former Virginia coach and current Yellow Jacket defensive coordinator Al Groh.
“[Groh] has always been really good at game planning and scheming — the blitz of the month before the game, he’s been really good at seeing what you do now and coming up with something that maybe that he has not shown in the last two games,” London said.
As the most accomplished team the Cavaliers have faced to date, Georgia Tech will likely offer less room for error than either of Virginia’s previous two opponents.
“We’ve got the second-hardest schedule in the ACC,” Nicholson said. “We want to win every game no matter how hard the schedule is and no matter which team we’re playing … whether it’s September or October, we want to win every game.”
Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m Saturday.