Georgia Tech secondary to be put to test by Virginia

The last time that Georgia Tech faced an offense as prolific in the passing game as Virginia, it did not end well for the Yellow Jackets. Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett ripped Tech apart, passing for 389 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in the Panthers’ 52-21 rout of the Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Oct. 2.

The following week, Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg was a tidy 22-for-29 passing for 292 yards and a pair of touchdowns against one interception in Tech’s 31-27 win in Durham, N.C., on Oct. 9.

On Saturday night in Charlottesville, Va., Tech defenders will get all the opportunity they want to demonstrate progress in defending the pass. And, while more goes into it than the play of the secondary, Tech’s defensive backs invite that responsibility.

“We were talking about it,” safety Juanyeh Thomas said Wednesday. “Like, in the back end, we already know that they’re going to be a pass team, so we’re going to try to put it on us. We know it’s going to be on us to be on our P’s and Q’s, so we’ve just got to lock in and be ready for it.”

The Jackets will have to be ready for a lot. At 48.4 pass attempts per game, only three FBS teams put the ball in the air more frequently than the Cavaliers. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong ranks second nationally with 403.4 passing yards per game, has completed 63.8% of his passes and has a touchdown/interception ratio of 19/6. He has a quick release, throws accurately and can scramble to buy time or pick up yards.

Being so pass-reliant is an unusual method, but the Cavaliers are 5-2 and 3-2 in the ACC. (Tech is 3-3 overall and 2-2 in the league.)

“I was a young graduate assistant in the Big 12 (at Oklahoma State, 2010-12) with the slew of quarterbacks, and I feel like this is what we’re doing in the ACC right now,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. “I feel like it’s the old Big 12, where offenses are just explosive and throwing it out of the yard.”

The Cavaliers protect Armstrong well, line up in a variety of formations and personnel packages and challenge defenses with an assortment of pre-snap motions.

“And don’t get me started on how talented their receiving corps is, and the depth they have at catching the football,” Thacker said.

In one play in Virginia’s 48-0 rout of Duke on Saturday, Jacob Rodriguez (a backup quarterback listed on the depth chart as “football player”) ran in motion in front of Armstrong (in a shotgun set) before tightly circling back behind him. After the snap, Rodriguez completed the loop in front of him to help in pass protection before slipping out of the backfield as a potential target.

“It’s really different from other teams and what they do,” Thomas said. “They run a whole lot of schemes and stuff, so we’ve just got to be locked in on that, knowing our keys.”

In no small part because they’ve faced a number of potent passers but also because of their own shortcomings, the Jackets rank last in the ACC in defensive passing-efficiency rating (151.7). Often, the pass rush has either not created pressure or allowed quarterbacks to escape it, giving receivers more time to get free. Coverage has lacked. Jackets defensive backs have been caught using poor eye control, letting their vision wander away from their keys and losing track of their assignments.

And, surely, Tech has faced more than its share of dart-throwing pro prospects.

But more has been expected from a secondary group that has a combined 139 career starts (headed by safety Tariq Carpenter with 37, cornerback Tre Swilling with 34, Thomas with 27 and cornerback Zamari Walton with 22), third most among power-conference teams.

Tech averages one pass defended (either a breakup or an interception) for every 16.7 passes, the highest ratio in the ACC. The rest of the league is at 10.6 or below. Thomas’ interception of Holmberg was a game-clincher against Duke, but it also was the first by a Tech defensive back this season. The Jackets were more effective in containing North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell, sacking him eight times in the 45-22 win.

“We’ve faced a gauntlet over the last four games of teams that throw the ball really well,” Thacker said. “We’ve made mistakes as a defense, and we’re learning from those.”

Thacker also said that he was proud of the secondary, its coaches and where it is headed. He said that the open date after the Duke game enabled the group “to get some things ironed out this past week” before the Virginia game.

Thacker said that communication in the secondary has been effective and that the group has prepared well. Thomas said that one thing that the secondary has done well is “being a group and being a whole. I felt like previous years, we weren’t one. We weren’t all bought in, and I feel like we have done a much better job at that this year. And then, obviously, there’s still some stuff to get better on – tighten our coverage, eyes and stuff. To harp on the positive, I honestly feel like we have done a good job of staying as one.”

To their credit, the defensive backs have contributed to a considerable improvement in run defense. The Jackets are allowing 3.5 yards per rush, fifth in the ACC and almost a yard better than last year’s rate (4.4). Thomas in particular has been a solid run defender from his safety spot.

On Saturday at Scott Stadium, though, being effective against the run likely will go only so far against a team with a 38/62 run/pass ratio.

“It’s obviously a good pass team, and they pass the ball a lot, so the opportunity for us to take the ball away is going to be there,” Thomas said. “It’s just, when is it going to happen, and are we going to be dialed in enough to see it happen and just go get the ball? Because we’re going to have many, many chances to do that this game.”