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Nailing the Game Plan

Oct. 16, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– Mike London got what he wanted Saturday and Paul Johnson did not, so Virginia beat Georgia Tech. Really, though, the Yellow Jackets were done in more by the Demi Lovato principle and the oldest principle in the universe – time.

It’s really as simple as those three things.

The winning nod went to the team that hit more marks on its to-do list. That was Virginia. The Cavaliers nailed their game plans by keeping the ball in Tevin Washington’s hands and by running the ball when they had it as if they were the Jackets.

Or maybe this is the bottom line: Tech ran less into superior competition and more fell under its own critical mass. The Jackets, it says here, were undone by Epsilon bugs; they finally slipped beneath their own weight (and, oddly, for a team picked before the season to do nothing of import, of external expectations. These Jackets were, after all, No. 12 in the nation.)

Nerves, jitters, pressure, whatever it might be called . . . the Jackets have played more tightly in each of recent weeks, their character becoming more difficult to discern as their national profile actually came more into focus.

The Tech head coach has said repeatedly that practices have been poor, focus has been wan.

There’s some sort of inverse principle at play, something like a pop culture star who loses track of his own reality as his or her stardom explodes. One day, Lovato’s starring in one of those Disney/Nickelodean shows my daughters loved and cutting an occasional song, and the next thing you know the teen star is in rehab for something.

There has still been no real detailed description of what ailed Lovato, but stories have circulated about anger management, and her possibly punking co-workers. There have been other storylines, too. It all seems so hard to grasp, and my daughters are unable to filter it for me (and I’m sure not going to bother trying to sort it out myself).

The Jackets began the season so startlingly well, cranking out such prodigidous – and unexpected — offensive numbers that it was nuts to think anything other than there would be a downstream back-to-earth process.

So how do you coach against that?

Johnson’s carped about a sinking quality in recent practices, and while he said a few weeks ago that he’s always be quick to let players know what he thinks of their work, when it comes to internal motivation and things like that there’s only so much a coach and his staff can do about it.

Then, he added a clause about not wanting to push too hard at the wrong time so as to blow the mix.

He’ll have to make a decision now about whether to bark more, or to salve. He suggested that part of why coaches get paid is to determine the ratio of dispensations.

Ratios mattered Saturday . . . a lot.

London, the Virginia head coach, and his staff took notes upon watching film of Tech’s previous game, a 21-16 win in which the Tech option quarterback rushed a whopping 32 times as the Jackets clung on to beat Maryland.

Johnson suggested after that one that his quarterback ought to hand it off or pitch it more. The coach wants the ball spread around more, and ideally he has a B-back or two in whom he trusts to do the bulk of toting (i.e. Dwyer or Allen).

There were reasons that Johnson said before the season that the Jackets would probably pass more in 2011 than in his previous three seasons at the helm. He sensed that converted quarterback David Sims, while impressive for transitioning to the B-back position, is not Dwyer nor Allen (who are in the NFL); and eventually opponents would gear to slow the perimeter attack.

Early this season, the passing attack did more than its part.

Not lately.

And while Virginia wasn’t quite as successful as Maryland at jinxing the Jackets’ ratios, the Cavs came close. Washington ran the ball 26 times Saturday, and while the degree of separation was slight between this week’s carry total and that of last week it was out of line enough that when other issues were blended in Tech came up with its first loss.

Virginia defended so that Washington was neither leaving the ball with his B-backs up the middle to great success (Sims and Preston Lyons combined for 40 yards on 12 carries), nor were the Jackets racing regularly on the perimeter.

Look at the Tech A-backs: Embry Peeples had a 27-yarder, Roddy Jones had a long of 17, and Orwin Smith’s best was 15. Those are all nice, but none were game breakers nor touchdowns.

When Johnson’s offense is really working there are more big plays than what the Jackets cranked out Saturday. Here’s a two-part litmus test: when the Jackets are clicking, your quarterback doesn’t have half your carries, and you cannot subtract each of the top three A-backs’ runs and be left with this: 10 combined rushes for 30 yards.

As Virginia linebacker David Greer said, “That was kind of the game plan, to make [Washington] keep the ball.”

When being defended that well, there’s nothing like a good passing attack to loosen the jam. Tech’s passing game has not measured up in recent weeks, however, as Washington has looked when passing somewhat like a young man who is being hit so often that he’s outta whack. Or, like a guy concerned about living up to newfound expectations.

The sledding’s been tougher of late, in conference play, and when your best big plays get wiped out by penalties, well, was it any wonder Johnson looked like he was ready to crack his teeth at times by over-clenching his jaw?

Virginia raced to 14-0 lead, Tech tied it on Rod Sweeting’s interception return for a score, and then the Cavs took a 24-14 lead to halftime.

If you’d have told Johnson and the Jackets then that Virginia would not score again, they’d have been pleased.

But . . . Washington wiggled loose and ran 85 yards for a score to start the second half only to have that one called back because of an illegal block penalty. Later, a huge pass play to Smith – the Jackets’ first completion – was cut by about 70 percent because of an illegal block penalty.

Tech was among ACC leaders in fewest penalties per game over the first five games, but the Jackets took a season-high eight against Maryland last week. Although they took just five Saturday those two were dreadful, and Tech also was penalized on two of its first three snaps of the game. Pressure?

There’s also this: Much as the boss might want to argue, the idea that teams with an extra week to prepare for his unusual offense have an advantage is becoming difficult to contest. The Jackets are 5-9 in those situations against FBS teams. As Paul said earlier this week, every team has an advantage with a bonus week to prepare. There’s no shame in that; it is what it is – painful reality.

Virginia cornerback Chase Minnifield said, “It’s probably the hardest we’ve prepared for a game, and the results showed. Without that second week, we might not have had the same result.”

Tech drove the field after Washington’s called-back run and scored anyway, but psychological effect on an opponent of busting repeated big plays cannot be underestimated, and that was not on Tech’s side Saturday.

The offense scored one touchdown in each half Saturday. And who among you predicted that Virginia would match the Jackets in rushing yardage, 272 apiece?

Sure, Tech’s rush defense has been a concern for a few weeks. But the `D’ allowed 24 points, and scored seven. That’s good enough. The prodigious offense is flagging.

Jones was asked after the game: mental or physical?

“It’s pretty frustrating . . . ” Jones said. “I’ll probably know more when I see the tape. Initially, I’d say mental because we know how they’re going to line up . . . “

You read it here first: wake-up call; Tech wins next week at Miami.

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