Third-Down Blues

Nov. 11, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– It’s late, and we’re rummaging around Bobby Dodd Stadium, where so much air has been let out that some things don’t seem to add up. So, what stands out?

Perhaps nothing to send out a siren so loud as certain screeching nuggets below, but there is that “Fargo” leftover packing ESPN’s “Skycam.” Guy’s dressed like a lumberjack, and he has beady eyes. Just doesn’t look right. No doubt Jenn Brown avoids him. Since when do cameras hover over football fields anyway?

Not even half an hour after a game ended, and the drone and all the wires upon which it flew are nearly boarded. Football’s gone high-tech and futuristic, what with instant replay, yellow stripes painted across the field to suggest first-down targets for TV viewers, instantaneous stats, and quarterbacks built like tackles.

Yet upstairs among talking heads and writing wretches there is irrepressible temptation to boil down a just-ended, hyper-critical ACC contest to one play whose key element – according to its perpetrator — can be traced back so far in human DNA as to pre-date the game of football by eons.

In the midst of sharing a sack with teammate Julian Burnett, Georgia Tech sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu an hour earlier was penalized for unnecessary roughness on a play that looked until yellow laundry flew as if it would set up the home team in grand fashion.

Had there not been a penalty, visiting Virginia Tech would’ve faced fourth-and-21 from Georgia Tech’s 15-yard line. The host Yellow Jackets had a five-point lead at the time, and surely would’ve secured fine field position with the ensuing punt.

But this moose in football gear (the Virginia Tech people call their quarterback Logan Thomas), wouldn’t go down for what should’ve been a third-and-19 sack. So Attaochu and a teammate or maybe two kept wrestling the beast.

In the melee, Mr. Attaochu raised an arm. It connected with Mr. Thomas’ head.

That was a big problem.

And … it was a first down for Virginia Tech, courtesy of an unnecessary roughness call against the Jackets. Attaochu’s explanation: “I just kept hacking and … had an overdose of adrenaline.”

That’s a human thing.

So was the collective groan a minute or two later of 80 percent of the 50,140 (hopefully) more composed humans in Bobby Dodd.

The home-standing folks had sort guts two plays later when David Wilson rumbled for 44 of his 175 yards. Suddenly, these Hokies were in fine fettle, and the Jackets were close to being in a pickle.

Georgia Tech would try, though, to try to thwart the intruders.

Yet two plays after that long gallop, when Virginia Tech tried to make hay out of a third-and-1 at Georgia Tech’s 12, the Moose set the bale afire.

All the 6-foot-6, 254-pounder did was pound his way forward and, after a scrum not unlike the one that drew the yellow hankie moments earlier, he burst forth for an up-the-gut touchdown. Literally and figuratively.

At that, with 32 seconds left in the third quarter, Georgia Tech was destined to never again lead as the gobblers (a false word for the Hokies, who if you do your research you’ll learn is also a false name for a bird; see this link (http://www.vt.edu/about/hokie.html)) were up 27-26.

More importantly, Jacket momentum was gone for good.

From the fateful flag on, Virginia Tech out-gained Georgia Tech 156 yards to 1.

Yes, 1.

The Hokies went on to win 37-26, eliminating the Jackets from ACC contention.

We’re back to the present, however, and ready to stand for Jeremiah Attaochu.

The age-old adage uttered by coaches and players alike, “Yeah, but there were other plays,” is true even if you choke it down it as senior running back Embry Peeples suggests. Ask him if Thursday’s outcome was a tough pill to swallow, and he’ll say, “Can you imagine trying to swallow a baseball?”

Here’s why:

While the gameplan is ALWAYS to dilute either the opponent’s running attack or passing attack, and Georgia Tech did neither (Virginia Tech rushed for 267 yards, or 24 more yards than the Jackets, and passed for 209 despite completing only seven aerials), Thursday’s game came down to situations.

Specifically, it was about third and fourth downs.

The Jackets entered the game No. 1 in the nation in third-down conversion rate with an all-universe 57.6 percent rate. Padded it was, yes, by non-conference action, but still the Jackets had a league-best 52.7 clip in ACC-only games.

Thursday, they converted a modest 5-of-13 (38.5 percent).

On the flipside, Virginia Tech has been – especially when measured against the overall success of the Hokies’ season – moderately successful in similar situations.

Brace yourself for indigestible news.

Look past the Hokies converting 10 of 16 third downs.

Dig deeper.

Of the 16 times Virginia Tech moved to the line of scrimmage with the ball in tow, the Hokies either converted on that down or fourth down 12 times, kicked a field goal another, and Attaochu’s mistake meant that a third down counted as a failure was actually a success because the penalty included an automatic first down.

So, to recap, Virginia Tech met with success of some sort on 14 of 16 third-down situations. The Hokies punted twice, to end their first two possessions, and kneeled down to end the game. In the middle, they lost one fumble (the game’s only turnover), and scored on their other six possessions.

The Moose rumbled and roared, if that’s possible. He threw for three touchdowns and rushed for two.

The Jackets couldn’t tackle him nor keep him from completing a pass. “He’s a load,” said VPI coach Frank Beamer. “He’s a hard guy to bring down.”

Or, as Jackets linebacker Julian Burnett said, “We’ve faced some good quarterbacks, but probably not as big and as strong as that guy.”

Nine times Virginia Tech faced third-and-6 or longer, and only ONCE did the Hokies fail in those situations if you add what happened on fourth down thereafter.

They converted from 13 yards to go (33-yard pass by Thomas), 1 (2-yard Thomas run), 7 (18-yard pass by Thomas), 6 (9-yard pass from Thomas for a touchdown), 12 (34-yard pass by Thomas), 11 (38-yard pass by Thomas), and 7 yards (14-yard pass by Thomas for a touchdown).

That’s seven conversions, and after a third-and-7 in the fourth quarter, Virginia Tech kicked a field goal for the game’s final points on fourth down.

Thomas threw for three touchdown passes, and ran for two. He ran for a first down on third down four times, passed for a first down on third down six times, and rushed for two first downs on fourth down.

Virginia Tech scored three touchdowns on third down, and one on fourth. Their fifth touchdown, right before halftime, came on first down on a 63-yard pass.

And there you have it.

The penalty was big, but in the grand scheme many big plays that un-did the Jackets.

It’s not like Virginia Tech hasn’t done this before. The Hokies have played for the conference championship five of the seven years since the game came into being (Georgia Tech represented the Coastal division the other two times), and Beamer’s boys have won four ACC titles.

Virginia Tech is 25-2 in November games since joining the ACC in 2004, 23-2 in league games. The Hokies Thursday night stretched their league-record road winning streak to 12 games. They haven’t lost away from home since the Jackets beat them in Atlanta in 2009.

Sometimes, the other team is better, and it would be folly to say that’s true because of one penalty, no matter ill-timed.

Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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