By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ATLANTA — On one side are UVa football coach Mike London and assistants Anthony Poindexter and Vincent Brown, all intimately familiar with Al Groh’s defensive philosophy and trademark 3-4 scheme.
On the other side is Groh, Georgia Tech’s new defensive coordinator. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of virtually every player on the Cavaliers’ roster.
To Groh’s successor at UVa, however, the key in Saturday’s ACC game at Georgia Tech will be players’ execution, not coaches’ moves.
The Yellow Jackets (2-1, 3-2) host the Wahoos (0-1, 2-2) at 3:30 p.m. in what will be unseasonably warm conditions.
“I don’t think it’s a chess match, so to speak,” London said Friday during his team’s walk-through at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “Because neither Coach nor myself or any of the coaches are playing. It’s the execution when the play is called, our players executing their assignments, based on whatever look [the Jackets] give.”
Groh spent nine seasons as head coach at UVa, his alma mater, being before fired last November. Among the assistants he hired at Virginia were London (twice) and Poindexter. Brown was a graduate assistant under Groh at UVa and played on New England Patriots teams for which Groh was defensive coordinator.
“You can’t ignore the fact that there’s been a previous history,” London said.
Nonetheless, London said, he hasn’t brought up the Groh-faces-his-former-team storyline to UVa’s players. That’s just as well, said senior quarterback Marc Verica.
“To be honest with you, that’s not my focus,” Verica said. “Coach Groh is not playing in the game, and we have other things to worry out.”
The Cavaliers’ biggest concern is the Jackets’ triple-option offense, an attack led by Joshua Nesbitt, soon to become the greatest running quarterback in ACC history.
Nesbitt averages 86.8 yards per game rushing, and fullback Anthony Allen averages 66.
“What’s really tremendous to watch is the precision of the reads and the ballhandling, especially by Josh Nesbitt and Anthony Allen,” Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid said.
Overall, the Jackets have rushed for nearly 300 yards per game, and they average 5.6 per carry.
“They run the ball a lot, which means you’re going to have to tackle,” London said.
Rest assured, UVa defenders were reminded of that a few thousand times in practice. Missed tackles doomed Virginia last weekend in its 34-14 loss to Florida State at Scott Stadium.
Of the Seminoles’ 256 yards rushing, Reid calculated, 172 came as a result of five missed tackles by his charges.
“We spent a lot of time on that this week, and we’ve spent a lot of time on it the first four games,” London said. “We’ve just got to continue to improve on that, because this is a football game, and blocking and tackling are going to be involved.
“During the course of a game, sometimes you miss tackles, but for the most part we’ve got to make sure we have two, three [players] on the ball [on every Georgia Tech play]. We’ve just got to make sure that we gang-tackle, that we get around the ball, and that on offense we try to get some first downs. Because in this game, with a rushing attack like [the Jackets’] that eats up the clock, when you get your possessions, you’re going to have to do something with your possessions.”
Verica said: “In any football game, first downs, that’s where you make your money. You’re keeping your defense off the field and you’re keeping their defense on the field. And that will more than ever be a priority in this game because of their tendency to eat up so much clock with their offense.”
Jackets coach Paul Johnson hired Groh to instill the 3-4 defense. The transition from the 4-3 to the new scheme hasn’t been especially smooth for the Yellow Jackets. Among ACC teams, they rank eighth in total defense and 10th in scoring defense.
Under Groh, the Cavaliers often struggled in road games. In 2008, however, they surprised the No. 21 Yellow Jackets 24-17 in Atlanta, a game in which Verica threw two touchdown passes.
“It helps for the morale of the team, knowing that we’ve been there, we’ve done that before,” said Anthony Mihota, a first-year starter at center for UVa this season.
“Knowing that we can beat them on the road is great, but we’re going to go into every game thinking we’re going to win.”
This is Virginia’s second road game under London. In the first, the ‘Hoos lost 17-14 to then-No. 16 USC in Los Angeles.
“It’s hard enough as it is to play in your own backyard,” London said this week, “but when you go on the road and you have to play against good teams, you’ve got to minimize many of those errors, situations that can cause you concern.”
London was reminded during the walk-through that his 50th birthday is Saturday, and Dave Koehn, UVa’s radio play-by-play announcer, wished him the best.
“I appreciate that,” London said, “but right now the most important thing to me is this game.”