Firing On All Cylinders

Georgia Tech's defense has been highly praised in the weeks leading up to its Gator Bowl match-up against West Virginia. But what makes the unit click, and what are the weaknesses?

An initial scan of the roster, and the defensive starters, shows the typical size and weight of most BCS teams. Head coach Chan Gailey has also managed to recruit his home area effectively, even against Georgia, which has historically gotten most of the in-state talent outside Atlanta. It has the linebacker speed to get to the ball, and it mixes physical play up front with quickness because of the size and athleticism of tackles Darryl Richard (6-4, 285 lbs., Soph.) and Joe Anoai (6-3, 280 lbs., Sr.). KaMichael Hall and Phillip Wheeler – who have combined for 149 tackles, 21.5 for loss, and 12 sacks – will be the best tandem of any linebacking unit No. 13 West Virginia (10-2) has faced this season.

"They are like every ACC team, big and athletic," WVU center Dan Mozes said. "They are not as big as Rutgers but are very similar in what they do."

The design is to plug the run, and blitz from anywhere. The base 4-3 look will morph into a myriad of sets and alignments, all moving until the snap to hide the true blitz players and confuse the quarterback. It has worked for the majority of games this year for No. 25 Tech (9-4), which rates in the top 30 in four major defensive categories and has allowed just 16.8 points and 2.9 yards per carry, on average, in any game. Mountaineer players are likening the base sets and schemes to Rutgers because the Scarlet Knights also employ a fire blitz, meaning to bring pressure unexpectedly from safeties, corners and other players not in a typical front seven.

That style opens holes, however, as does the attention to the run via penetration up the middle and into cracks in the offense, which the ‘Jackets also like to do. Where the linebackers might shoot a gap opened by a stunting or looping lineman, if they do not make the tackle, the back can scurry into the vacated spot for gains, sometimes major ones. The fire zone works very well if the front four can hold down the run and occupy enough blockers so the linebackers and others run free to the ball. It can be burned, however, and that is where Tech's speed enters. It can make some mistakes and still clamp down on most teams for the vast majority of snaps because of its ability to run, and that gamble was something attacking defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta was willing to take throughout the year.

The Mountaineers would seem to have the tools to counter it, especially if fullback Owen Schmitt is healthy. The play when WVU is on offense and Tech on defense should be very fast. Tenuta won't likely call many blitzes out of man looks, because if found, that usually leads to major gains. The Yellow Jackets will play more zone, which can, if done right, also eliminate many hot routes. That's not as much of a worry for West Virginia because of its penchant for the run game, but White can't force anything if pressured. He'll be thrown more looks in this game than any other single outing this year, and though he will have had a solid month of tape study, there will be subtle changes. Watch the first two to three series for the Mountaineers, and see what WVU is doing to counteract the shuffling of Tech looks in the passing game, and to see if West Virginia can execute its wideout screens and short downfield passes, or if the underneath routes have all been taken away.

Georgia Tech contained most foes especially well on the ground and held three of its last four to no touchdowns. The lone major breakdowns came against Clemson, a team that runs a variant of the spread offense. Much of that was poor tackling. Part of it – and this is what WVU can expected to utilize – was misdirection. West Virginia's coaching staff likely installed new wrinkles, or perhaps entire plays, that will use more misdirection and force players like Hall and Wheeler (both all-ACC selections), stud end Darrel Robinson and corner Avery Roberson to play the spread offense honestly and not overpursue. That will give tailback Steve Slaton a chance to break additional gains outside, and the sophomore will also need to take the three to four yard chunks when available and not try to snap off double digit runs each carry.

Tech has been able to slow overeager backs with little patience, and because the defense does not allow many big plays, foes must be willing to piece together drives of eight, nine and 10-plus plays to score. The tackling in space will be crucial for both teams, but probably especially Georgia Tech, as West Virginia often finds ways to get the ball to outs premiere players in space via screens, end arounds, reverses, and a simple pitch and catch out of the backfield. Whichever side can take the other's skill players to the deck more efficiently will have a major edge.

"They are very athletic and run to the ball well," left tackle Ryan Stanchek said. "They change a lot and they blitz more than any team we will face. It's just practicing it and practicing it. Once you see it, you can adjust."

Besides White's recognition and Slaton's patience, Mozes' calls at the line of scrimmage will also be especially important with the changing looks. Solid zone blocking that eliminates gaps and seams will loom large as well, because Tech can exploit them with its ability, as noted. The Remington Award winner will be forced to deal with many looks out of the front four, including odd and even man styles and the occasional head-up player on the center in a nose guard positioning. It isn't anything the senior has not seen, but the variance in it might be more than what one typically preps for in one contest.

Tech's ability and talent (speed, solid size and a nose for getting to the ball and making plays) combined with its scheme and attacking bent makes it among the more difficult for which to game plan. Only Virginia Tech scored more than 23 points against the Yellow Jackets this year, and nearly all off that was in a fourth quarter that was meaningless because of Tech's lead. If West Virginia can take what Gailey and Tenuta allow and mix plays effectively, it has enough talent and speed to move the football. If the Mountaineers don't show patience, or get into a funk of continual stretch plays, Tech will stuff the spread offense in a similar manner to Rutgers or South Florida.


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