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Oct. 25, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The element of surprise is not a weapon Georgia Tech has tried to employ often during Paul Johnson’s tenure as head coach. Opponents generally know what’s coming when the Yellow Jackets have the football. The challenge is stopping the triple-option attack that is Johnson’s trademark.

UVa succeeded in 2011, upsetting the No. 12 Jackets 24-21 at Scott Stadium. A year ago, though, Georgia Tech rushed for 461 yards (and passed for another 133) in a 56-20 rout of the Cavaliers in Atlanta.

Virginia’s next encounter with the triple-option comes Saturday, on Homecomings. At 12:30 p.m., UVa (2-5, 0-3) hosts Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-2) at Scott Stadium.

“Historically it’s been a very tough place for Georgia Tech,” Johnson said.

The Yellow Jackets have won only once in Charlottesville in the past 20 years, in 2009. But they’re coming off a 56-0 romp in which they outgained ACC newcomer Syracuse 482 yards to 208.

“Our defense will have to play well,” said UVa head coach Mike London, whose team has lost four games in a row since pounding VMI 49-0 on Sept. 21. Most recently, Virginia allowed 35 unanswered points in a 35-22 loss to Duke at Scott Stadium.

The Cavaliers’ defense is in its first season under coordinator Jon Tenuta, who’ll be without at least three injured regulars Saturday: tackle Brent Urban and cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady. The depth chart UVa released Monday includes four true freshmen: tackle Donte Wilkins, strongside linebacker Max Valles, weakside linebacker Zach Bradshaw and cornerback Tim Harris.

That’s less than ideal, but Virginia still has numerous defenders who played against Georgia Tech last season, including linemen Jake Snyder, Eli Harold and Mike Moore, linebackers Henry Coley, Daquan Romero and D.J. Hill, cornerback DreQuan Hoskey, and safeties Anthony Harris, Brandon Phelps and Rijo Walker.

“You really have to get the experience of playing against it,” said Snyder, who with Urban out has been splitting time at tackle and end, “and luckily for us we have a lot of guys that have played against it. The more guys you have that have that experience, the better off you are at bringing along the other guys that haven’t seen it yet.”

For those young players, such as Wilkins and Valles, the “best thing you can do is just make sure they understand what’s gonna be happening and that they practice hard,” Snyder said Tuesday.

“This week, even more so than any other week, preparation is so crucial. And you have to practice fast and study a lot, so that you know what you’re seeing on the scout team.”

Tenuta is a former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator, but his tenure in Atlanta preceded that of Johnson. Tenuta, NC State’s linebackers coach in 2010 and ’11, added the title of associate head coach for defense in 2012.

Vincent Brown, who coached the Cavaliers’ linebackers in 2010, ’11 and ’12, now oversees the defensive line. On a teleconference Tuesday, Brown said Tenuta has seen “the triple-option multiple times and has some really, really good ideas and philosophies on how to defend it. Our guys are working toward making it happen.”

Brown said he’s told his linemen that, in his previous position, he noticed against Georgia Tech that it “was tough duty on the linebackers when the defensive line does not get their hands on offensive line in this scheme. And so being mindful of that, we’re placing a big emphasis on that: that we can’t let those guys run off the ball and attack our linebackers uncontested, that we have to get our hands on people. We gotta play with tremendous pad level and leverage, and first and foremost, and at all costs, we have to stay on our feet. You can’t make plays on the ground.”

That wasn’t UVa’s only problem last year in Atlanta, Brown said. On the first play from scrimmage, the Jackets scored on a 70-yard pass play. Georgia Tech’s next possession ended with a 77-yard touchdown run.

“Whenever you play this type of offense, everyone has to be on point with their assignments and not just understanding, but being able to execute the assignments,” Brown said. “Everyone talks about assignment football and defending the option offense. It’s not just in the run game. It’s in the throwing game also that you have to be keenly alert to what they’re doing.”

In 2012, Snyder said, UVa “had a lot of young guys that hadn’t seen [Georgia Tech’s offense] before and kind of got caught up in the speed early on, and we dug ourselves a hole. You can prepare yourself for it mentally by watching the film and knowing what to expect, but you don’t really know what it’s like till you play that first snap.”

The Jackets, averaging 36 points per game, rank 28th nationally in scoring offense. Adding to UVa’s challenge Saturday is that Georgia Tech ranks 17th in scoring defense (19.1 ppg). The Cavaliers (22.3 ppg) rank only 99th in scoring offense, in part because of inconsistent play from their wide receivers.

Marques Hagans, who coaches the wideouts, has not lost faith in his receiving corps, or in his team, which after Saturday will have games remaining with these ACC opponents: No. 3 Clemson (Nov. 2), North Carolina (Nov. 9), No. 10 Miami (Nov. 23) and No. 19 Virginia Tech (Nov. 30). Virginia’s games against Clemson and Virginia Tech will be at Scott Stadium.

“I’m just hoping that these last five games things will click,” said Hagans, a former UVa standout. “I think a lot of people are panicking, but we still have a lot of football left. We still have five games. A lot of people in the ACC have to play each other.

“As bleak as it may seem, I think we still have a great opportunity to control our own destiny. And if our guys, as far as the receivers in my group, can step up and make some big plays down the stretch, I think anything is possible for this team.”

So does offensive guard Conner Davis. “I know if we bring our A-game, good things are going to happen,” he said. “But you can’t wish that. You gotta go out and make that happen.”

Wideout Kyle Dockins was listed as doubtful and tight end Jake McGee and Davis as questionable on UVa’s injury report Thursday. Overall, though, the offense is healthier than the defense. Among the players rounding into form after returning from injury is tailback Taquan Mizzell, a true freshman from Virginia Beach.

Against Duke, he is carried six times for 52 yards, with a long run of 36 yards. Mizzell, the most heralded of the recruits who joined London’s program this year, is eager for his workload to grow.

“With the opportunities that I get, I just want to show I can make plays, be a game-changer, a home-run hitter,” Mizzell said.

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