Game Preview - UVA vs. Georgia Tech

[caption id="attachment_429" align="alignright" width="300" caption="The Cavaliers return to action this Saturday in their ACC home opener against #12 Georgia Tech. Photo / Virginia Media Relations / Pete Emerson"][/caption]

After a much needed bye week, the Virginia Cavaliers return to Scott Stadium this Saturday with the #12-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets coming to Charlottesville for the Wahoos ACC home opener.  Following a sloppy performance against Idaho two weeks ago, a game in which the Cavaliers narrowly escaped with a 1 point overtime victory, Virginia entered the bye week with a lot to work on.  Virginia also had several key players, such as running back Kevin Parks and defensive end Cam Johnson, in desperate need of rest and recovery time after being slowed by injuries over the course of the season's first 5 games.  With ample time to heal and plenty of time to defensively prepare for Georgia Tech's high-powered triple-option offense, Cavalier fans are anxiously waiting to see what type of team takes the field on Saturday afternoon.  On the other side of the ball, Georgia Tech enters Saturday's contest with a 6-0 record [3-0 in ACC play] and one of the nation's premier offensive attacks - with the Yellow Jackets averaging 361 rushing yards per game [4th in the country] and 46.5 points per game [6th in the country].  Al Groh's 'vaunted' 3-4 defense, however, hasn't fared so well - with Georgia Tech giving up a combined 79 points in it's last 3 outings, which have been against ACC foes UNC, NC State and Maryland.  Saturday will be a very challenging game for the Cavaliers, but it is certainly a game that Virginia can win.  In order for that to happen, here are some things I'll be watching for come Saturday afternoon in Scott Stadium:

Tackling, Tackling, Tackling

[caption id="attachment_430" align="alignright" width="239" caption="Coach Jim Reid and the Virginia defense will have their hands full on Saturday. Photo / Virginia Media Relations / Pete Emerson"][/caption]

Statistically, the Cavalier defensive has been pretty impressive on the season - giving up only 312 yards per game (ranking 23rd in the nation).  Statistics, as we all know, don't always tell the whole story.  One of the most frustrating defensive trends during coordinator Jim Reid's short tenure in Charlottesville has been the tackling inconsistency seen on the field by the Cavaliers - with missed tackles repeatedly plaguing the Virginia defense.  Going up against Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, assignment football will be a must for the Cavaliers on Saturday.  Being in place to make the play and actually executing the tackle, however, are two very different animals.  All too often this season Virginia has been in perfect position to make a critical defensive stop only to have the opposing team's player break through a bunch of high arm tackles and end up past the first down marker or in the end zone.  The Cavaliers must play sound, fundamental defense on Saturday - starting with the most basic of fundamentals in proper tackling.  I have faith that, given the bye week and the defense's progression through 5 games, Coach Reid will have his guys in the right place more often than not against Georgia Tech.  It's what they do when they get there, however, that counts.  The ability for the Yellow Jackets to generate yards after contact on Saturday will be a very telling statistic at the end of the day. 

Stopping the GT Passing Attack

[caption id="attachment_431" align="alignright" width="230" caption="Chase Minnifield will have chances to make plays on Saturday. Photo / Virginia Media Relations / Pete Emerson"][/caption]

Run.  Run.  Run.  That's all you usually hear about Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, and rightfully so.  As previously mentioned, the Yellow Jackets are averaging a stunning 361 rushing yards per game on the season (it's actually more stunning to me that the ranks only 4th in the country).  Long story short, Georgia Tech is going to have success running the football on Saturday - it's a given.  It's their passing attack, however, that could be the real difference maker.  With defenses stacking up against the run, Georgia Tech has abused teams with the play-action pass this year - leading the nation in passes of 40+ yards (10 on the year).  This is a troubling statistic for a Virginia defense that has long been susceptible to giving up big plays.  More importantly, quarterback Tevin Washington has been incredibly efficient when throwing the ball - with a 10:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio through 6 games this season.    It's no secret that Virginia has struggled to create turnovers this season, though the Cavaliers did intercept two 4th quarter passes against Idaho two weeks ago.  Going up against Washington's favorite target, 6'5 Stephen Hill, will pose a 'huge' challenge for the Virginia secondary - who have had some trouble with bigger receivers this year (most notably UNC's Dwight Jones).  There is some good news, however, for Cavalier fans.  Through 5 games, the Virginia defense - who has played some very pass heavy offenses - ranks in the top 30 nationally against the pass, giving up less than 200 yards per game through the air.  If Georgia Tech has success through the air on Saturday, it could be a very long day for the Cavaliers.


[caption id="attachment_432" align="alignright" width="264" caption="Darius Jennings could be a valuable weapon in winning the field position battle against Georgia Tech. Photo / Virginia Media Relations / Pete Emerson"][/caption]

If you haven't figured it out yet, Georgia Tech knows how to do two things very well - move the football and put points on the board.  With such a powerful rushing attack, the Yellow Jackets do a solid job of controlling the clock as well.  Furthermore, for anybody who has watched Paul Johnson's offense at Georgia Tech with any regularity, you know that the Yellow Jackets aren't afraid to go for it on fourth down - extending many drives that otherwise would result in a punt.  Virginia, on the other hand, has struggled to move the football between the twenties this year, with too many drives stalling in the middle of the field.  Third downs have been a particular cause for concern, where the Cavaliers have converted just 40% of their attempts (whereas Georgia Tech leads the nation at 63%).  Once in the red zone, however, the Cavaliers have been very efficient - converting on 19 of 21 attempt this year (13 touchdowns and 6 field goals).  Simply put, field position will be paramount for the Cavaliers if they are going to keep up with the Yellow Jackets on Saturday.  Unfortunately, this has been something that the Cavaliers have struggled with all year.  One of the most contributing factors, of course, has been Virginia's ineptitude in the punt return game.  On the year, Virginia averages a pathetic 6.1 yards per return and freshman Dominique Terrell has struggled mightily in determining when to field punts - resulting in Virginia's offense being backed up against their own goal line far too often.  UVA must show dramatic improvement in this area against Georgia Tech.  The coaching staff is keenly aware that field position will be a key factor on Saturday for the Cavaliers.  Virginia has to win this battle if they have any hope of pulling off the upset.   

Mistake-Free Football

[caption id="attachment_433" align="alignright" width="249" caption="David Watford will need to protect the football on Saturday. Photo / Virginia Media Relations / Pete Emerson"][/caption]

According to, the Cavaliers are 9-2 (dating back to 1982) when committing fewer turnovers than the Yellow Jackets.  Turnovers will help write the story again on Saturday.  As you've already read, Georgia Tech's passing game could be the ace up Paul Johnson's sleeve - or it could present an opportunity for Virginia's defense to make an opportunistic play and give the ball to the offense with solid field position (see above - man I'm good!).  Speaking of the Virginia offense, the Cavaliers have been way to careless with the football this year - turning the ball over 13 times.  Virginia must protect the football on Saturday, as Georgia Tech does not need additional chances to score.  The Cavaliers also need to limit penalties this weekend - particularly ones along the offensive line that have been drive killers all year.  And then there's the constant source of angst and pain for the Cavalier fans this season: Virginia's special teams.  The Cavaliers have zero chance of winning if the same special teams gaffes are on display in Scott Stadium this weekend.  Wary eyes will be on these units at all times on Saturday.  Virginia doesn't need a miracle to win against Georgia Tech; it needs to play a solid, fundamental football for 60 minutes.

The Pick

[caption id="attachment_434" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Will Virginia fans see another celebration on Saturday? Photo / Virginia Media Relations / Pete Emerson"][/caption]

It will be a beautiful Homecoming weekend in Charlottesville and I expect a very competitive game on Saturday.  There will be plenty of story lines to follow, most notably the return of former UVA Head Coach Al Groh - who didn't exactly leave Virginia in the most positive of circumstances.  This is also a huge recruiting weekend for the Cavaliers - with a ton of football prospects from the classes of 2012, '13 and '14 making the trip to Charlottesville.  For Mike London, Saturday presents an opportunity to put UVA football back on the map - a statement win that could give this program the breath of fresh air it needs.  More importantly, Saturday gives the Virginia coaching staff an opportunity to show hungry fans that the team is taking steps in the right direction.  In the end, Virginia just has too much to overcome for me to predict a win this weekend.  I do, however, think we'll see an improved football team that will give Georgia Tech all that they want on Saturday in Charlottesville.

Virginia 23 Georgia Tech 31

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