This week, I enlisted the help of Ken Sugiura, who covers Georgia Tech football for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to help preview this week's game between the Panthers and Yellow Jackets. Here are Ken's responses to a couple of questions...
1. What is going on with the Yellow Jackets' quarterback situation? Vad Lee has started every game, but Justin Thomas appears to have gotten a few more snaps in the last couple. How much confidence does the staff have in Lee and what does he bring to the offense? What are his weaknesses?
Vad Lee is entrenched as the starter, but coach Paul Johnson wants to get Justin Thomas on the field since he has some serious jets. Thomas has typically been given a series or two as something of a change of pace and, according to Johnson, as a reward for the work he has put in in practice. Frankly, too, Lee hasn't done quite enough to demand being on the field without interruption, as he has had some turnover issues.
I don't think that the use of Thomas is an indication of any sort of lack of trust in Lee or an attempt to give Thomas a chance to win the job. Johnson makes it a point to say that Lee is the starter. I think, as I said, Thomas has ability that coaches feel like needs to be on the field at least some amount of time. Lee is a more polished passer and has a year more of experience in the offense than Thomas does. He also has some size and speed, bigger than Thomas but not as fast. Lee has a tendency to sometimes freelance a little bit, which sometimes can work out great but often can turn a bad play worse, particularly when running the option.
2. What are the common denominators when the triple option has been successful this year? With almost 400 rushing yards in the last two games, it looks like the offense is clicking right now. What did teams like Virginia Tech do to slow down the running game?
When it's working well, the quarterback is making the right reads in the option, the line is getting push off the ball and getting to the second level and the B-backs (fullbacks) are running hard up through the middle. The offense's health, to a large degree, can be judged by how the B-backs are faring. If they're getting stopped up the middle, it makes everything else more difficult. When they're pounding away for four, five yards a pop, everything else – the perimeter game, the play action passes – becomes more dangerous because defenses have to honor the interior run game.
To whatever degree Paul Johnson has a foil, it's probably Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster. He's got the athletes, a scheme and I would imagine the right way to teach his players how to defend the option in a week's time, which is often perhaps the biggest challenge that coordinators face when preparing to play Tech. Anyway, part of Foster's plan for Tech is to get as many athletic players and good tacklers as close to the ball as possible. For example, he has brought cornerback Kyle Fuller in to play linebacker because he's both a good athlete and a good tackler, and he has been a pain for Tech to deal with over his four seasons.
The other thing is that Virginia Tech has often had stout, athletic defensive tackles, which are often a problem for Georgia Tech for the reasons related to the importance of the interior running game. To that end, Pittsburgh has a good starting point with Aaron Donald.
3. What are the strengths of Georgia Tech's defense? Pitt has had some issues with pass protection this year; is that something the Yellow Jackets could take advantage of?
The strength is its ability to stop the run and avoid big plays. The Jackets probably have done those things as consistently as anything this season. Tech does a good job of filling the gaps and has become better at tackling. Those two things – stopping the run and limiting explosion plays – are part of defensive coordinator Ted Roof's mandate, along with getting off the field on third down. To that end, he's been pretty successful compared to Al Groh, the previous coordinator. Tech is tied for 39th in yards per attempt (3.76), tied for 25th in plays allowed of 20 yards or more (27) and 26th in third down conversion defense (33.7 percent).
The best players are probably defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu (No. 45) and safety Jemea Thomas (No. 14).
The pass rush has been decent this season, not great. Attaochu is a high-motor guy and can make plays in bunches, but can get overpowered as he's not huge. It's an area that Tech could exploit but teams have also had success max protecting and sending only three receivers to find holes or outrun coverage.
4. What's the general mood around the Georgia Tech team like through eight games this season? This is a team that could have possibly challenged for the division title, but lost both its big games against Virginia Tech and Miami. Is there a sense of disappointment that now a return to the ACC title game appears to be out of the cards? What are the goals for this GT team the rest of the way?
Given that Tech got put out of the ACC race, as you note, I think the mood is actually pretty good. I think the roster has pretty good character and I think Johnson has done a good job of re-directing the team away from the disappointment of falling out of the ACC title hunt and honing in on just trying to have the best season possible. It definitely helps that Tech has played two considerably easier opponents in Syracuse and Virginia than the previous three (Virignia Tech, Miami, BYU) to get some good feeling stirring again.
As far as goals, the Jackets want to improve their bowl after going to the Sun Bowl the past two years and also have two big revenge games against archrivals remaining –Nov. 14 at Clemson and Nov. 30 against Georgia. Wins in those games would ease a lot of the disappointment of the Virginia Tech and Miami losses.