By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia football team, it’s Georgia Tech week, which means, among other things, extra hours in the film room for defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s charges and a leading role in practice for Jacob Hodges.
Coach Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets are the only team on the Cavaliers’ schedule that runs the triple option, and it’s not an easy offense to prepare for in one week. A season ago, the Wahoos had a bye week before facing No. 12 Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium, and the extra time helped them secure what was then the biggest win in Mike London’s tenure as their head coach.
Virginia has no such luxury this year. A week after the `Hoos rallied to beat Penn State 17-16 in Charlottesville, they’ll face the Jackets in Atlanta. The Coastal Division rivals meet Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
This will be the ACC opener for the Cavaliers (2-0) and their first game away from Scott Stadium. A season ago, UVa finished 4-1 in road games.
“I think we kind of like going on the road,” senior middle linebacker Steve Greer told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “It kind of creates a sense of unity on the team. We kind of bond together and get in, get the job done and get out. That’s our mentality, and I think we need to have that again throughout this season in order to be successful on the road.”
Georgia Tech (0-1, 1-1) opened the season Sept. 3 with an overtime loss at Virginia Tech. Five days later, the Jackets crushed Presbyterian 59-3 in Atlanta.
Before training camp opened this summer, Greer said, he and some of other veterans organized a couple of players-only walk-throughs in which members of the defense reviewed the basics of Georgia Tech’s triple option, “making sure everybody understood their responsibilities.”
Moreover, London said the team spent some time during spring practice and again last month in training camp practicing against the option.
“Coach Reid and the defensive staff put together some cards, tape, breakdowns and personnel matchups,” London said.
This will be the third time the `Hoos have faced Johnson and the Jackets under London. Georgia Tech won 33-21 in Atlanta in 2010. UVa avenged that loss last year, winning 24-21 in Charlottesville.
“It’s a challenging offense,” London said. “We feel a little better. We have more understanding of it going into this game than we have done in the past, for sure.”
Hodges, a 5-11, 190-pound senior, is best known as Virginia’s holder for extra points and field goals, but he’s an outstanding athlete who ran the option as a quarterback at Mountain View High School in Stafford County.
He took over as scout-team QB in 2011 during preparations for the Georgia Tech game, and Hodges is reprising that role this year.
“Jacob does an unbelievable job,” Greer said. “He comes in and watches extra film on his own, just to understand what [the Jackets are] doing and making sure the looks we’re getting are right. I can’t even tell you how much that helps us.”
ON GUARD: The Cavaliers have attempted 79 passes in two games this season; the Jackets, only 30. But Georgia Tech has completed 18 of those passes, for an average of 18.8 yards.
For UVa’s young secondary — all four starters are sophomores — Georgia Tech’s offense “definitely presents a challenge for us,” cornerback Demetrious Nicholson said. “They run the ball so much, they try to lull you to sleep, and I know that they can take a shot at you and go deep.”
Greer said: “There’s going to be a ton of pressure on the guys back there … It is tough when you’re seeing run-run-run-run, and then all of the sudden they hit with you a pass. It can catch you off-guard, so the guys back there are going to just have to be really into the game and really focused and able to read the line of scrimmage and what’s going on in front of them.”
MULTI-TALENTED: After reviewing video of the win over Penn State, London and his staff honored Jake McGee twice. The coaches named the redshirt sophomore UVa’s player of the game on both offense and special teams.
At tight end, McGee caught four passes for 99 yards and one touchdown, all career highs. On special teams, he made two tackles, one of which prevented a long punt return by a Nittany Lion.
His role in the offense is expected to continue growing, but McGee sparkled on special teams in 2011, and he hopes coordinator Anthony Poindexter will keep him on the coverage units.
“That’s sort of where I got started last year, and it’s a part of the game I like a lot,” McGee said.
BACK IN THE DAY: One of McGee’s closest friends on the team is quarterback Michael Rocco. They were once rivals. In the 2009 Virginia Independent Schools, Division I state championship game, Collegiate whipped Liberty Christian Academy 48-28.
McGee played safety and quarterback for Collegiate, and Rocco played the same positions for LCA.
In the state final, McGee passed for 251 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 145 yards and three more TDs. He also ran for a 2-point conversion and intercepted a pass.
Rocco threw for 243 yards and three TDs and ran for another touchdown.
McGee, smiling, said he can remind Rocco of that game “only so much, or the ball might not come my way.”
UVa’s most memorable play against Penn State was McGee’s acrobatic catch of a pass from Rocco for a 44-yard gain late in the fourth quarter. McGee has since seen his catch replayed several times on national television.
“It’s cool at first, but it’s not that big a deal,” McGee said. “We got a tough ACC opponent coming up, so you can only enjoy it for a little bit.”
THE WAIT CONTINUES: Every team in the ACC, except one, has forced at least three turnovers this season. The exception? Virginia, which has forced none.
“It’s kind of killing me,” Nicholson said Monday, “because I got my hands on a couple of balls, and those passes I wish I could have picked off. I’m anxious to see who’s going to get the first one. Hopefully it’s me, but after that, hopefully we can keep it going.”
In 2011, UVa intercepted 12 passes and recovered nine fumbles by opposing teams.
Nicholson, who started every game as a true freshman last year, isn’t especially big at 5-11, 170 pounds, but he has made some punishing hits this season. One of his goals coming into his second year was to improve his tackling, including his technique.
“Definitely the weight room has got a lot to do with that,” Nicholson said. “Having the whole offseason to be able to be in there and get stronger and be more powerful and more explosive and just being able to play low every snap and be in good football position. Because last year, I look back on film and I’m kind of disappointed in myself. I played high a lot.”
WORK IN PROGRESS: Through two games, UVa is averaging a meager 3.2 yards per carry. Against Penn State, the `Hoos rushed for only 32 yards.
The Nittany Lions have a formidable front seven, but that rushing total is “not indicative of who we can be and what we need to be,” London said. “We need to be able to run the ball with authority … That is something that’s very important to us.”
The Cavaliers returned all of their tight ends from 2011 and three of their starting offensive linemen: Oday Aboushi, Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko. Aboushi and Moses are still at tackle, but Bowanko shifted from guard to center in training camp.
On his Sunday night teleconference with reporters, London was asked if the `Hoos might move Bowanko back to guard and start redshirt freshman Ross Burbank at center.
For now, Virginia is likely to keep Bowanko at center, where he can survey the defense before the snap and get the line in the correct protections, London said.
“I think what Luke provides right now is some experience in doing that and knowing that,” London said. “I think Ross will get better at doing it, but I think there’s still a little bit more ways to do for him to get that comfort level and get it 100-percent right. Because you gotta be right, or else your quarterback gets hit.”
TALE OF TWO KICKERS: The UVa-Penn State game came down to the final play, a 42-yard field goal attempt. PSU’s Sam Ficken missed, wide left, as time expired.
Ficken went 1 for 5 on field goals Saturday and also had an extra point blocked. UVa junior Drew Jarrett, meanwhile, went 1 for 1 on field goals, booting a career-long 46-yarder in the second quarter, and made both of his extra points.
Jarrett’s second PAT put the Cavaliers ahead 17-16 with 1:28 to play. In the stands, Jarrett knew, Anne Jarrett was watching anxiously.
“To tell you the truth, the only thing I could think of when I was taking my steps back and over to kick the extra point was, `My mother’s probably having a heart attack right now,’ ” Jarrett said with a smile Monday.