Risk vs. Reward In The Gator

They'll come from anywhere, and on any down and from any distance. So it won't be Georgia Tech that lacks in attacking or aggressiveness against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl. But that's a gamble, and the Mountaineers hope to guess right.

The No. 25 Yellow Jackets (8-4) use undoubtedly the most blitz-oriented defense No. 13 WVU (10-2) has faced this season. They have a blend of South Florida's speed – though don't match that per man – and Rutgers' fire blitz design – albeit minus the Scarlet Knights' size. It's a somewhere-in-the-middle mix that has allowed an average of just 16.8 points and 88.9 rushing yards per game, ranking it 20th and 11th, respectively, in the NCAA.

Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, in his fifth season at Tech and 26th overall as a coach, has headed a unit that rates in the top 24 in four major categories despite losing more than half its starters. The ‘Jackets have allowed 19 touchdowns in 13 games, holding eight opponents to one offensive touchdown or less. Tackle Joe Anoai, linebacker Philip Wheeler and defensive end Adamm Oliver were all-ACC picks, and gave Tenuta the base to install solid, young supporting players around them. Linebacker KaMichael Hall, an honorable mention ACC selection, lead the team with 75 total tackles, including nine for loss. There are seven other defenders that have at least five tackles for loss, and the team has averaged nearly three sacks per game.

Tech brings pressure to the pocket and forces signalcallers to the outside, where they typically get run down by the defensive speed. That won't be as effective against West Virginia, because the Mountaineers don't pass and no defense wants a one-on-one matchup on the perimeter with quarterback Patrick White. Instead, the Yellow Jackets will likely rush the pocket to try to force it to collapse, through the main focus will be on stopping the run of WVU, which ranks third in the nation at 38.9 points per game, the vast majority of which are created by its No. 2 ranked rushing attack, which averages 302.3 yards per outing.

Against the run, Georgia Tech will use a big front line and very good linebacker play in a simple plugging of holes scheme that, again, allows the back three players to get to the football. They will likely try to punch holes in West Virginia's zone blocking style in the run game and gain penetration, which forces tailback Steve Slaton to quickly choose a lane, as opposed to being able to read the blocks and suddenly burst up the best avenue. That worked for South Florida, because of its speed, and Tech has a similar set of abilities. The answer to the rush quandary is simple: gain what you can, and don't try for a big burst on each play, especially if Tech guesses right or overloads a side because of the blitz. That's accomplished with a patient tailback and one mentally easy offensive line technique that often gets lost because of its simplicity.

"You have to stay square when you block somebody and not try to get off at angles," Remington Award winner Dan Mozes said. "We have to make them react to what we are doing and not react to what they are doing. They are the runners-up in the ACC, and that says a lot, especially with how balanced the conference was this year. They do a lot of lateral movement and blitzing, on almost every play. They have a lot of playmakers and the big, old athletic defensive lineman. They try to get to the quarterback all the time."

West Virginia needs, then, simply to block the man in front of it and not overreach. The advantage to Tech's blitzing style is the ability to burn it. If Tenuta brings a player from the wrong area, and White and Slaton read it on the exchange or the line picks it up, there are holes galore. Then it's simply accelerating by them. Tech will not be able to be as aggressive as it is against many other teams because of WVU's speed and its misdirection plays to Darius Reynaud, and the spread's option to give or pull on most given handoff situations.

"The biggest thing we have to do is stay square with the zone blocking," left tackle Damien Crissey said. "We have to take our zone steps and stay square, keep the shoulders downfield. That is the biggest thing in stopping their fire zone blitzes. That is what (assistant head and offensive line coach Rick) Trickett has been preaching this week. The more film you watch, you can really start to grasp it. We are starting to see how they like to move guys around. We are starting to pick things up pretty well as far as if they are going to blitz, their tendencies on certain plays or downs."

Said starting left tackle Ryan Stanchek: "When you stay square, more than anything that opens the holes for reads by the running back. That exposes and opens seams and makes it easier to see for the tailback."

One other aspect of which to be aware are the field conditions. Alltel Stadium is known to be a bit of a sandpit, and though dry conditions with temperatures in the 60 are forecast for the 1 p.m. kickoff, if it does rain, the quagmire that could develop despite the drainage system at the NFL stadium could equalize any offensive advantage. That is two-sided, because it does allow wideouts to get open easier. Defensive backs both don't know where the cuts will come and lack the footing, while the receivers face just the one disadvantage and can slow and reaccelerate to keep balance as needed.

Multiple Tech players have said that they believe they can slow West Virginia because of their speed, and the game could come down to a punch-counterpunch when the Mountaineers have the ball. WVU needs to play physically here more than most games, and the addition of fullback Owen Schmitt looms bigger than in perhaps any contest this season because of his blocking and blue-collar play. Schmitt's style is a direct contrast to the game the ‘Jackets would like to get into, which is to simply have to slow Slaton and Reynaud's finesse while controlling White without having to worry about both a tough runner and another player to pick up the blitz. Schmitt will not be 100 percent for the game, but will certainly play, barring any further injuries or an aggravation of the high ankle sprain suffered against Cincinnati. He did not practice in the initial stages of preparation, but will once the team reassembles in Jacksonville and begins its final week of drills on Dec. 26.


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