By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ATLANTA — In a perfect world — at least to UVa defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s way of thinking — he would have had months to prepare his players for the triple-option offense they’ll face Saturday at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Instead, Reid had one week, plus several periods during spring practice and training camp. A season ago, the Cavaliers had two weeks to prepare for their game with the No. 12 Yellow Jackets at Scott Stadium. Not coincidentally, perhaps, UVa won 24-21.
“It was a great advantage, and we said that right after the game,” Reid reminded reporters this week.
Coastal Division rivals Virginia (0-0, 2-0) and Georgia Tech (0-1, 1-1) meet again Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in an ACC game that ESPNU will televise. Both teams played last weekend. Combine that with the fact that UVa returned only four starters on defense from last season, and it’s easy to see why Reid was longing for more practice time this week.
“We’ve got to play with the discipline and the technique of [a defense that’s] really one year ahead of where we are right now,” Reid said, “and how you do that is just through repetition. Repetition is the basis of all great learning, and that’s what we’re attempting to do in a short period of time.”
That’s where Jacob Hodges came in. Hodges, UVa’s holder on extra points and field goals, ran the option as a quarterback at Mountain View High in Stafford County, and he led the scout team in practice this week.
“It’s amazing to see the guys being able to play different roles on this team,” sophomore cornerback Demetrious Nicholson said.
Sometimes Hodges ran plays with a football; other times he took an imaginary snap, “to make sure guys know their assignments and not try to follow the ball around,” Nicholson said.
Hodges seemingly was in perpetual motion this week. Asked how many plays Hodges had run against UVa’s defense in practice, Reid did some calculations in his head Friday.
“Hundreds,” Reid said.
“Probably close to 300,” Hodges said Friday after Virginia’s walk-through at Georgia State University.
In 2010, Mike London’s first season as UVa’s head coach, his team often looked helpless against Georgia Tech’s option attack. Coach Paul Johnson’s Jackets totaled 536 yards, virtually all of it on the ground, in a 33-21 win over the Wahoos in Atlanta.
Georgia Tech gained only 296 yards in the rematch at Scott Stadium last year. The `Hoos, meanwhile, totaled 407 against former UVa coach Al Groh’s 3-4 defense.
The Cavaliers are “big and physical on both lines of scrimmage,” Johnson said this week. “Last year they beat us up, up there. I give them credit. They got after us. So that’s going to be our challenge. We’ve got to see if we can stand in there toe-to-toe with them and do a little better job than we did a year ago.”
On their last possession, the Cavaliers ran out the game’s final 5 minutes and 58 seconds.
“Now, here we are the third year, and it’s about execution,” London said Friday. “Coach Johnson has made it plain that they’ll be ready for us this time, and however they thought about us going into Charlottesville, that’s not the case [this year]. So we’ll have to bring our A game.”
The `Hoos are coming off a 17-16 win over Penn State at Scott Stadium. Virginia won despite committing 10 penalties and turning the ball over four times. On defense, the Cavaliers failed to force a turnover for the second straight game.
Every other team in the ACC has forced at least three turnovers this season.
The penalties didn’t please London, but most “can be corrected with [more] concentration,” he said. “They’re not physical things like grabbing guys and holding them down or personal fouls or intentional roughness, roughing-the-quarterback type of things.
“I anticipate that we’ll make big improvements in those areas.”
His players expect to see progress in other areas, especially when the `Hoos have the ball.
Sophomore wide receiver Darius Jennings said the “world has yet to see what this offense has the potential to be.”
Against Penn State, Virginia finished with a modest 295 yards, only 32 of which came on the ground. The Cavaliers’ offense was more productive Sept. 1 in a 43-19 rout of Richmond, but their running game sputtered at times in the opener, too.
“We’ve put up some OK numbers, but we can definitely perform better,” Jennings said. “Even with our first game with Richmond, the stat sheet kind of lies … We did kind of play sloppy, and we played sloppy again [against] Penn State.”
Sophomore offensive guard Cody Wallace, who started UVa’s opener, will miss his second straight game with an injury. The Cavaliers also may be without junior wideout Tim Smith in Atlanta, too. Smith, who has seven catches for 108 yards this season, is battling a leg injury.
“Big game,” McGee said. “Definitely we gotta raise our level, because they’re a tough team. We gotta put a lot more points up this week and just play better as an offense.”
The Jackets opened Sept. 3 with an overtime loss at Virginia Tech, then overwhelmed Presbyterian 59-3.
Georgia Tech’s starting quarterback is senior Tevin Washington, but redshirt freshman Vad Lee is an explosive runner who may also take snaps Saturday.
The Jackets have turned the ball over four times this season, three times on fumbles. Their option offense can be “prone to producing turnovers,” London noted, “particularly when the quarterback has to pitch or the exchange between the quarterback and fullback is disrupted because of a stunt or blitz.”
In the triple option, the quarterback can hand the ball off to the fullback, keep it himself or pitch it to a teammate.
For a defense facing the option, it’s “assignment football, and you’ve got to take care of your assignment,” Reid said. “Schematically, if you cheat on any one assignment, then you’re putting your players at great risk with the other two phases.
“The other thing about it is, if you miss an assignment, you’re opening yourself up to a huge gain, and now you’re in great trouble.”
London said: “It’s a collective effort. It’s not one individual. I think sometimes in some games a guy has two interceptions or three sacks, and you can point to that [as being decisive].”
Against Georgia Tech, London said, “I think collectively it takes the entire defensive unit to play well and do well.”
Such was the case last fall at Scott Stadium.
“Definitely our whole team was involved,” Nicholson recalled this week. “We had guys that were out there yelling out `run’ and yelling out `pass.’ We were all in tune and running around like wild men out there, as Coach Reid likes to say, and it really shows on tape.
“It’s like two teams running into a phone booth, and whichever team comes out, that’s gonna be the team that wins.”
This will be the Cavaliers’ third game against their former coach, Groh, who’s in his third season as Johnson’s defensive coordinator. That storyline hasn’t generated much discussion this week, in part because many of Virginia’s current players are London’s recruits.
“I’m sure after the game I’ll go say, `How are you doing, Coach?’ ” said UVa middle linebacker Steve Greer, a fifth-year senior. “But as you’re preparing and going out there to play, I don’t think there’s really enough room to have those kind of thoughts in your head.”
A victory Saturday would give the `Hoos their first 3-0 start since 2005. Still to come this month are tests against No. 16 TCU (1-0) and Louisiana Tech (1-0).
“It’s really important to build momentum and kind of keep that going,” Greer said, “so we understand these first couple games can kind of change how the rest of the season’s going to go.”