By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Georgia Tech overwhelmed Virginia early when they met last season in Atlanta, scoring two touchdowns in the first five minutes. By the time UVA steadied itself, the Yellow Jackets had firm control of an ACC game they went on to win 35-20.
Preparing in practice for Jackets coach Paul Johnson’s trademark triple-option attack is one thing. Trying to stop it during a game is another matter.
“It’s really tough,” said Virginia senior David Dean, a three-year starter at defensive tackle.
“I don’t feel that you can truly simulate their offense, just because they’re so good at it, and when you get into the game, the game speed is just entirely different. The dive is a lot faster, the pitch comes faster.”
In 2011, the Wahoos slowed that attack enough to pull off a 24-21 upset of No. 12 Georgia Tech in a Coastal Division game at Scott Stadium. Since then, however, the Jackets have won three straight over UVA, totaling 126 points in the process.
Virginia’s next look at the triple option comes Saturday, when Georgia Tech visits Scott Stadium for a 3 p.m. game.
The Cavaliers (2-5, 1-2) are coming off a 26-13 loss at North Carolina. The Jackets (3-5, 1-4) had a more enjoyable weekend. They ended a five-game losing streak with a 22-16 upset of then-No. 9 Florida State in Atlanta, returning a blocked field goal for a touchdown on the game’s final play.
“I was watching the highlights of the game on the bus ride back from UNC, and the last play was ridiculous,” Virginia linebacker Zach Bradshaw told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“That’s special teams, summed up,” senior fullback Vincent Croce said. “Michigan-Michigan State the other week, Georgia Tech-Florida State, it’s one-play football. That’s why special teams are so critical. You think you can maybe relax for a play, you know, ‘Oh, it’s just a punt, nothing’s going to go wrong’, or ‘If we just get this field goal off, even if we miss we’re going to overtime.’
“You have to be ready for anything to happen. Georgia Tech, Michigan State they made plays and were ready to step up. Some of it was being in the right place at the right time, just scoop the ball up easily, no issues. That comes with being prepared and being ready for anything.”
That will be the key for Virginia’s defense Saturday, too. Among ACC teams, Georgia Tech ranks first in rushing offense (283.4 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (35.1 ppg).
“It’s a huge challenge, because one mistake and the running back can go for six,” Dean said. “So it’s critical that everyone knows their responsibility and play after play they take their responsibility.”
Dean is confident he’ll be able to execute his assigned role against the triple option. Many of his fellow defenders, however, are less experienced, including ends Kwontie Moore and Trent Corney, safety Kelvin Rainey, and linebackers Bradsahw and Micah Kiser.
“I’ve played it for three years now,” Dean said. “Redshirt freshman year I played a little. Sophomore year I started against it. Last year I started against it. I definitely know what to expect now. The scheme hasn’t changed at all, so mentally I’ll be totally locked in and focused, and I can give some tips to the other guys. Kwontie, he’s a guy that’s going to have to step up for us, so I’ll definitely be giving him some huge tips for him to be successful.
“Zach and Micah, all I can do for them is just keep reiterating how fast that the offense is going to be and how focused they need to be in practice, because they’re definitely going to be a huge help to us.”
INSTANT IMPACT: Kiser, a redshirt sophomore who starred at Gilman School in Baltimore, backed up Henry Coley at middle linebacker last season. With Coley gone, Kiser took over as the starter this year and leads the ACC in tackles with 71.
With five sacks, the 6-2, 240-pound Kiser is second only to Mike Moore (5.5) at UVA. Kiser recovered a fumble and returned it 21 yards against North Carolina on Saturday, and he’s also forced two fumbles this season.
“We’ve been saying this since Micah got to school here: He’s just a pit bull back there,” Croce said. “He’s a shorter guy, but he’s burly. He doesn’t get bowed back very much. I’m really proud of the way he’s stepped in and filled that Mike linebacker role. He’s an incredibly smart player. He knows this defense inside-out.”
Dean said: “Micah has been very impressive. I don’t think a lot of people were expecting him to be this good. Although he’s made his mistakes, he’s been a huge help to our defense. We may not be as successful without him. No, he’s not the most vocal leader like Henry. But at the time he’s very physical, and he has potential to be what Henry was when he left. He’s growing into that slowly but surely, and as long as he continues to play physical and fast and play with his mind, I think he can be a very successful linebacker in the ACC.”
RESILIENT: Junior quarterback Matt Johns, who has started every game for UVA this season, had a disastrous second half in Chapel Hill. Johns threw four interceptions and lost a fumble, errors that helped UNC outscore Virginia 13-0 in the final two quarters.
For the season, Johns has completed 134 of 221 passes (60.6 percent) for 1,580 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he’s also thrown 12 interceptions. He knows his mistakes are hurting the team, but Johns hasn’t lost his self-belief, teammates said Monday.
“That’s what’s great about Matt Johns: He is an incredibly hard kid to shake,” Croce said. “The dude is confident in what he’s doing, he knows what he’s doing, he prepares well. Four interceptions and a lost fumble in the game, that’s hard to combat, but Sunday is our day to put the game, win or loss, to bed and to get back on track. Myself, I didn’t play my best game this past weekend. Sunday — yesterday — was a day for me to put that game to bed and get back into preparing for this next game.”
Offensive guard Ross Burbank said Johns “doesn’t get down on himself, and he knows that we’re all confident in him, and the coaches are confident in him. I think that’s the biggest thing: knowing that as long as your coaches and your team are behind you, that you can feel confident yourself, even if we have dropped a couple games here and there.”
Croce, Burbank, Dean and wide receiver Canaan Severin are the Cavaliers’ captains, and they take their responsibilities seriously, on and off the field.
“Aside from football,” Croxe said, “you just want to make sure everybody on your team is in good spirits and is staying up, staying happy.
“With football you need everybody to be locked in at all times. 2-5 is a really easy spot to just lay down and say our season is gone, and just lay down and just play the rest of the season looking forward to next year, but I don’t think anybody on this team has that in their mind at all, which is extremely positive for me to see as a captain. This is the type of team, we’re on to the next game. We have a chance to get a win, at home, and that’s all we’re focused on. And everybody believes we can and we’ll go out and put ourselves in the best position to get a win.”
Also, London said Monday, starting cornerback Tim Harris suffered a shoulder injury in Chapel Hill and is not expected to play against Georgia Tech.
“This game is unforgiving,” London said.
Gallon, a true freshman, made his first college start at UNC. In the first quarter, though, he left the game with what later was diagnosed as a Lisfranc injury. He’s scheduled to have surgery Tuesday, London said.
Mooney, who started the first five games at left tackle, hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury Oct. 10 at Pittsburgh. He too will require season-ending surgery.
“It’s tough,” Burbank said. “It’s tough for Mike … He was playing really well this year. To go down like that, it’s just awful for him.”
Gallon started in place of Bradshaw, who was penalized for targeting Oct. 17 against Syracuse and who thus had to sit out the first half of the UNC game. He watched the first two quarters on a TV inside a lacrosse locker room at Kenan Stadium.
“Got to see some of the formations [the Heels] were lining up in,” Bradshaw said, Monday, “so I kind of knew what to expect going into the second half.”
ANOTHER MATINEE: After hosting Georgia Tech this weekend, Virginia will play two straight road games. The first of those, Nov. 7 at Miami, will start at 3 p.m. and be televised on regional sports networks, the ACC announced Monday.