Maybe the run that best defined Georgia Tech’s night against Virginia Tech arrived midway through the third quarter.
It was second-and-6 at the Yellow Jackets’ 40-yard line. Ahead 35-21, the Jackets were trying to apply a knockout blow.
Quarterback Tobias Oliver pulled the ball out of a mesh with B-back Jordan Mason, tucked the ball and followed A-back Nathan Cottrell through a hole on the right side of the line. Oliver squirted through traffic and, six yards downfield, spun out of a tackle attempt by defensive back Chamarri Conner, slipped through the grasp of lineman Emmanuel Belmar and, stumbling, was finally brought down with a walloping hit from defensive back Jovonn Quillen, a 16-yard gain.
The play, which continued a drive that resulted in a touchdown for a 42-21 lead in what would be a 49-28 victory, had touches of the punishment that the Jackets brought to bear upon Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium. Powerful blocking at the line of scrimmage, eager attempts to clear a path by the Jackets’ running backs and the willful running of Oliver. It’s how Georgia Tech won a critical game, scoring more points on Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium than any Hokies opponent since 1974.
“I thought the offensive line fired off the ball really well,” said former Tech All-ACC center Sean Bedford, now the Jackets’ radio analyst. “I thought they won the line of scrimmage, and anytime you do that and you can limit the other teams’ effectiveness on third down, you’re probably going to win the game. I thought Tobias, just navigating the offense and controlling it as well as he did, I thought that was incredibly impressive for somebody making his first start. It really speaks for itself.”
The remarkable stat out of the box score – that the Jackets attempted only one pass all night and gained all 465 yards on the ground – is staggering. As Tech goes forward this week into its matchup at North Carolina on Saturday, it is worth another look back at how dominant the Jackets were on the ground against Virginia Tech.
Of Tech’s 78 run plays, only four were either no-gain or negative-yardage plays. Of those four, one was caused by a bad pitch by Oliver, another was a sack in which he ran out of bounds. The Jackets benefited from excellent blocking from the line.
“I was just blown away by how well Tech played (Thursday),” Bedford said.
In the first half, on 41 run plays, Tech runners encountered their first contact after the line of scrimmage 32 times. That included the fifth possession, when the Jackets drove 72 yards in nine plays on a diet of handoffs to the B-backs and quarterback keepers.
There was little pretense about the Jackets’ intentions. Eight of the nine plays were run out of the “tight” formation in which the wide receivers lined up snug against the offensive tackles on the line of scrimmage.
Still, on that drive, Tech ballcarriers encountered their first contact after crossing the line of scrimmage all nine plays. On seven of the nine, it was at least four yards past the line.
“They had a wrinkle that we had never seen before,” Virginia Tech defensive tackle Ricky Walker told reporters after the game. “Every year we play Tech, there’s a new play that we have never seen, and it seemed like we couldn’t stop it.”
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson estimated there were perhaps three or four called passes in the game, only one of which actually resulted in a pass.
“We just never really had to throw it,” Johnson said Sunday. “I think we could have thrown play action if we wanted to, but there was no reason. We didn’t want to take a chance in getting behind on down and distance because we were churning out a lot of five-, six-, seven-yard plays. When they did tackle you for two or three, you could come back and get it. There was no use to take a risk taking a sack or throwing an incompletion when you could run the ball as well as you could. Plus I was trying to run the clock and keep their offense off the field.”
Johnson’s offense is heavily run-oriented – it’s typically 80/20 run/pass – but the run orientation against the Hokies was heavy even for his standards with 78 runs and one pass attempt. In Johnson’s six seasons at Navy, the fewest passes that the Midshipmen threw in a game was three. Prior to this season, the fewest passes that the Jackets attempted in a game in Johnson’s tenure was four, against North Carolina in 2010 and Maryland in 2012, both wins.
Tech has now thrown five or fewer passes in three games this season – Alcorn State (five), Louisville (two) and Virginia Tech.
Could Tech remain this run dependent going forward? It would be new territory, and the Jackets’ remaining opponents will provide different problems to solve, but the challenge would also be hitting that same peak again in their performance.
“These guys just came out and executed as well as you could possibly hope for them to,” Bedford said. “I was just blown away by how well Tech played (Thursday).”
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