A small problem with that deduction, as Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker pointed out this week, is that earlier this season, the Jackets pummeled the North Carolina 45-22 one week after the Tar Heels overpowered the Cavaliers 59-39. It’s life in the Coastal Division, where reason isn’t welcome.
“If you look in this league historically, in the Coastal Division historically, every week has a life of its own,” Collins said. “So we just have to go in there, prepare to play our absolute best. When we play our absolute best, we’re really good.”
2. Tough test in red zone
Tech’s ongoing challenge with scoring touchdowns in the red zone will encounter a particularly problematic test Saturday. While not a dominating defensive team, Virginia holds firm in the red zone. Cavaliers opponents have scored touchdowns in 11 of 25 red-zone trips (44%), which ranks second in the ACC.
The Jackets have scored touchdowns in 13 of 25 red-zone trips (52%), the lowest rate in the ACC. They did get in the end zone twice in three red-zone possessions against Duke. In that game, Tech scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Jeff Sims after he took the snap under center, a rarity for the Jackets.
The most significant benefit of being under center in that situation, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said this week, is the ability to run a quarterback sneak. Patenaude spoke of the need to be “ever-evolving” in red-zone play.
Maximizing opportunities figures to be especially critical Saturday, as the Cavaliers average 36.1 points per game. Tech has hit that total once this season in five games against FBS opponents.
“They say football’s a game of inches everywhere, but it’s really a game of inches down there,” said wide receiver Kyric McGowan, who has two red-zone touchdown catches this season. “So taking that right quarter snap, taking the right angle to this block or taking the right angle through a certain hole, whatever that may be, just trying to be as clean and efficient as possible down there so we can finish the drive with a touchdown.”
3. Chase for bowl game is on
The Virginia game marks the start of the second half of the season, one in which the Jackets most likely will need to win three games to make a bowl game. (In the event there aren’t enough six-win teams to fill all the bowl slots, teams that finish 5-7 become eligible.)
“We’re not playing just for that,” linebacker Ayinde Eley said. “We play to win every game. But we definitely want to have a postseason. We don’t want to miss a bowl game, for sure.”
After Virginia, Tech will play Virginia Tech, at Miami, Boston College, at No. 13 Notre Dame and No. 1 Georgia. While the final two games would be substantial upsets, the next four games would seem well within the Jackets’ grasp, but nabbing three of them would require more consistency than Tech has shown to this point.
“We had some ups and downs,” Eley said. “We just want to clean all that stuff up from the first half, correct that stuff in the second half and still play our brand of tough, physical, fast football.”
4. Big moment for backups
Patenaude identified the challenge and solution for running against Virginia. The goal of the Cavaliers’ three-man front is to plug gaps and force runs wide. The answer is to create lanes through the interior.
“If you run to the sideline against these guys and get flattened out, you have no chance,” Patenaude said. “You have to be able to puncture the ball north and south. All of the good runs, regardless of if it’s a power, a stretch play or an inside zone run, are runs that have started and then punctured north and south and gotten the backside guys cut off.”
On Saturday, though, with injuries mounting on the offensive line, Tech may have to depend on backups such as guards Paula Vaipulu and William Lay. For both, winning matchups and driving back Virginia’s front will be a heavy order. A second-year freshman, Vaipulu made his first career start against Pittsburgh. At times he held his own, but at other times understandably had a difficult time matching quickness and power.
However patched up the grouping is Saturday, Tech’s line will have a critical responsibility to create the defense-puncturing runs that Patenaude will dial up. (It is hardly unfeasible, as Virginia ranks last in the ACC in rushing defense at 188.1 yards per game.) Left tackle Devin Cochran said the key for younger players like Vaipulu is to stay calm and brace for the jump in speed from the practice field to the game.
“Nothing compares to what a game actually looks like, especially when you’re 19, 20 years old,” Cochran said. “So my biggest thing is just staying patient. Try to play smart, but still play fast at the same time. Don’t play too fast; you won’t be able to play smart. Don’t play too smart; you’ll be overthinking So it’s really just trying to help him find a balance. But (Vaipulu) is coming along.”
5. Virginia passing game poses problems
Tech will face a challenge not only in trying to stop Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who ranks second in FBS in passing yards per game (403.4), but also his array of targets.
Four of Virginia’s receivers are in the top 10 in the ACC in receiving yards – Dontayvion Wicks (second with 679 yards), Keytaon Thompson (sixth, 515), Billy Kemp (eighth, 474) and Ra’Shaun Henry (10th, 437). The Cavaliers have five receivers with 300 receiving yards, while no other team in FBS has even four. The aforementioned quartet has caught at least one pass in each of Virginia’s seven games this season. There is a lot for Tech’s secondary to track.
“They do a lot of things,” Collins said. “There’s a lot of window dressing, a lot of motions, a lot of shifts, a lot of unique formations that you don’t see. So we’ve just been really diving into trying to figure out any tells that we can get. But, really good players running a complex scheme.”