The Virginia Tech Hokies narrowly avoided a crushing defeat with last week's triple-overtime win over Marshall to move to 3-1. Unfortunately for the Hokies, they are on a short week and must be ready to play on Thursday as they travel to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech in their first ACC contest.
The Yellow Jackets enter Thursday on a short week too, having defeated North Carolina 28-20 at home. The Jackets improved to 3-0, 2-0 in ACC play.
Since the Hokies entered the ACC in 2004, Georgia Tech has been their primary rival in the Coastal Division of the ACC. In fact, since the ACC championship game was instituted in 2005, either the Hokies or Jackets have represented the Coastal every year.
The Hokies have won the last three meetings between the schools and are 7-3 all-time against Georgia Tech. Paul Johnson's only win over VT occurred in 2009, but his flexbone offense has given Bud Foster trouble over the years.
The two schools opened the 2012 season with the Hokies winning an overtime thriller in Blacksburg. Will this game be as exciting as that one?
Special teams has been an issue during every game this season for the Hokies. The last two weeks, they've missed three field goals in each game. Two weeks ago, it was redshirt senior kicker Cody Journell. With Journell suspended for violating a team rule, junior Ethan Keyserling got the opportunity and he also missed three field goals. The Hokies could have put both games away much sooner if they got consistency from the placekicker.
A bright spot in the win over Marshall was Kyle Fuller's blocked punt that led to a Derek DiNardo touchdown for the Hokies' first touchdown. Fuller almost blocked another one later in the game.
Derrick Hopkins blocked a Marshall field-goal attempt in the first overtime. It is the first time since 2006 that the Hokies have blocked both a punt and kick in the same game.
Dominate the Line of Scrimmage
Virginia Tech has a dominant defensive line. The team ranks No. 5 in total defense, and they have 16 sacks on the season. They are equally as good against the run as they are against the pass. Georgia Tech is always a tough test for Foster's defense, though.
In their first few meetings with the Jackets under Johnson, Georgia Tech ran at will against the Hokies. It opened up opportunities for plays down the field as the Hokies crowded the line of scrimmage looking to get extra defenders in the box to stop the run.
VT will rotate defensive linemen frequently. It will be important because the linemen get tired defending the run on very play. If the Hokies win the battle up front, they will limit Georgia Tech's ability to run their offense effectively.
Establish Running Game Early
The Hokies are not an offensive juggernaut. That has been established due to inconsistent play from each position on the offense. However, with an outstanding defense, they need to control the clock and keep Georgia Tech off balance.
Sophomore J.C. Coleman should be back this week. Between him and Trey Edmunds, the running game should be in good hands. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler needs to run the ball at will early in the game so he can afford to take some shots in the second half. If the Hokies can establish the run, they can win this game.
Take Shots Downfield Early
The Yellow Jackets are averaging 345 yards rushing per game, No. 4 in the country. They will run the ball throughout the game, regardless of the score. Sophomore quarterback Vad Lee can throw the ball, though. For the season, Lee has completed 56 percent of his passes and thrown for seven touchdowns.
The Jackets will establish the run early, then look for opportunities to throw downfield. Against a good, aggressive defense like the Hokies, they should attempt to open up the offense on their first possession. It will make the run game even more effective because it will keep the Hokies honest.
Pressure Logan Thomas
Georgia Tech has been very good on defense. However, they aren't getting a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. For the season, the Jackets have just four sacks. The Hokies have significant struggles in the passing game. If they can pressure Thomas early, he will likely struggle throughout the game as he lacks confidence in those around him to make a play in less than ideal situations.
Not turning the ball over is the key to victory for any team. But when you run a flexbone offense, big opportunities in the passing game are rare. The Yellow Jackets must take care of the ball so they aren't playing from behind. They have only turned the ball over twice on the season, so they do a good job. This is the first time they've played against an elite defense, though, so they will be tested.
Left Tackle Jonathan McLaughlin
In the first four games of his career, McLaughlin has been pretty silent. That is excellent news for an offensive tackle in charge of protecting his quarterback's blind side. As a team, the Hokies have allowed just five sacks on the season, pretty incredible considering McLaughlin's inexperience.
McLaughlin will get a stiff test on Thursday. Georgia Tech defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu is an outstanding pass-rusher. Although he has just one sack on the season, Attaochu has come close on several occasions. Attaochu has 20 career sacks and his speed could be an issue for McLaughlin on Thursday.
Quarterback Logan Thomas
Much like 2012, Thomas has been a turnover machine. His six interceptions on the season continue to limit the Hokies' offensive production. Regardless of whose fault it is, Thomas needs to play better. He is a senior and three-year starter at quarterback.
Thomas needs the running game to be effective so he can throw off play-action. The Hokies should incorporate more slants and crossing routes into the offense so Thomas can get comfortable early. It will be up to Thomas to make things go. One of Thomas' biggest moments from the 2012 season was his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Demitri Knowles to give the Hokies the lead.
Middle Linebacker Jack Tyler
Through four games, Tyler has 33 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and two sacks. It is shaping up to be another excellent season for the senior All-ACC linebacker. The game against Georgia Tech will be a change-of-pace for Tyler and the Hokies.
After playing two fast-paced, pass-first offenses, the Hokies will now face a team that will run constantly. They face the Jackets every year, so they know what they're going up against. Vad Lee makes things go for Georgia Tech. It will be up to Tyler to make sure his teammates are lined up where they need to be on every play. One mistake will equal a long touchdown against an offense like this.
Here is Virginia Tech's updated depth chart entering Thursday's game.
Quarterback Vad Lee
Lee is the perfect type of quarterback to run Johnson's flexbone option offense. He is extremely fast and a good decision-maker for someone with his relative inexperience. Lee is second on the team in rushing with 211 yards, and he has scored three touchdowns.
He has provided an upgrade in the passing game for the Jackets as he's already thrown for seven touchdowns in 2013. He is averaging 10.7 yards per attempt, so he can make big plays with both his arm and his legs.
Running Back Robert Godhigh
David Sims is Georgia Tech's leading rusher with 213 yards. However, Godhigh is the team's top big-play threat. He is third on the team in rushing yards with 179. He is averaging an astounding 12 yards per carry. Johnson will pound you with Sims, then look to Godhigh to pop off a big play. Godhigh is also an asset in the passing. He is averaging just under 17 yards per catch and is tied for the team lead with two touchdown receptions.
Defensive End Jeremiah Attaochu
Attaochu is Georgia Tech's best defensive player. He is a relentless pass-rusher, but through three games in 2013, he has just one sack. Considering Attaochu is going up against a true freshman left tackle, the Jackets need him to win this matchup consistently. If Attaochu can disrupt the Hokies' struggling passing game, it could lead to turnovers for Georgia Tech. He is a difference-maker.
Here is the complete depth chart for Georgia Tech entering Thursday's game.
Head coach Frank Beamer on oft-troubled senior kicker Cody Journell who was suspended last week, per Andy Bitter of The Roanoke Times: "He's made some mistakes, but he's certainly a good kicker and a good kid and comes from a good family."
Journell on his suspension and imminent return, per Bitter's article:
All I'm saying is that I made a mistake last week and I'm sorry for it and I want to apologize to the coaches and players and my family and everybody that supports me. But I'm back this week and everything's going to be fine.
Senior linebacker Jack Tyler, who had a career-high 17 tackles against the Yellow Jackets in last season's win, had this to say about facing Georgia Tech's flexbone option offense, per The Richmond Times-Dispatch: "For me, I remember the entire game plan from last year. You don’t really forget things like that. It’s a pretty set game plan we’re going to do. We just got to execute and play well."
This series has been dominated by the Hokies since they entered the ACC nine years ago. It has been much closer than people realize, though.
Considering the Hokies' struggles on offense, it is tough to imagine them going on the road against a good Georgia Tech defense and scoring enough points to win. If they are to win this game, they need to force turnovers and play a clean game on special teams.
Does anyone have confidence in the Hokies playing mistake-free on special teams at this point?
The Hokies' defense will keep them in this game, but it won't be enough to prevent the Yellow Jackets from moving to 3-0 in ACC play.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 20, Virginia Tech 16