Everything You Need to Know: Louisville v. Georgia Tech

Spread: Georgia Tech -4.5, O/U 58; Louisville +165 money line

How to Watch / Listen: 7:00 ET on ESPN Friday, 790 AM

Last Time: This will be the first meeting between the Cardinals and Yellow Jackets.

The State of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Head coach Paul Johnson is among the longest-tenured coaches in the ACC, joining Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. Johnson has been coaching at Georgia Tech since 2008, where he’s won three ACC Coach of the Year awards (2008, 2009, and 2014), won four ACC Coastal Division titles (2008, 2009, 2012, and 2014), and has won the conference championship in 2009. Prior to arriving at Georgia Tech, Johnson won two I-AA titles at Georgia Southern (1999 & 2000), and revitalized a struggling Navy program to the point where the Midshipmen were ranked for the first time in over 40 years.

That, combined with the recent success of Navy’s Ken Niumatololo and Army’s Jeff Monken, should erase the stigma that the flexbone offense is an antiquated system in today’s football. But Paul Johnson also finds himself on the hot seat right now. Since his stellar 2014 campaign, the Yellow Jackets are 19-22, and rival Georgia is quickly on their way to becoming one of college football’s elite programs. A win against Louisville would keep their bowl aspirations alive, and cool down the seat temporarily.

A common misconception about Paul Johnson’s offense is that it’s a ‘triple-option’ offense. As many Georgia Tech fans will tell you (and some football purists), that is just one of many plays they would run. They incorporate a number of plays like counter option, midline option and some run-and-shoot elements.

Entering tomorrow’s game, the Yellow Jackets are 2-3, with wins over FCS Alcorn State and Bowling Green. Their three losses have come at South Florida, at Pitt, and at home against Clemson.

Key Players: QB TaQuon Marshall, B-Back Jordan Mason, A-Back Que Searcy

For Johnson’s flexbone offense to be successful, it needs a quarterback who is (A) athletic enough to hit gaps or take runs outside, and (B) can understand the timing of the offense, its motions, and deliver pitches or reads correctly. Johnson has been blessed with quarterbacks who can execute his system about as perfectly as you can, with guys like Josh Nesbitt, Tevin Washington and Justin Thomas running the offense.

Right now, that guy is TaQuon Marshall. Marshall has upped his accuracy from last year (37.1% in 2017 to 47.6% this season), and is an electric runner. What I like about Marshall is that he has the speed to break open a big gain outside, and has the elusiveness to capitalize as a scrambler if there are no open receivers. This play illustrates it best. He can be a mismatch for a Louisville defense that hasn’t had a lot of success getting to the quarterback. They have a capable backup in Tobias Oliver, who has also seen the field with relative success so far.

Flexbone formation
A drawn example of the flexbone formation that Georgia Tech likes to use. The “B” backs usually line up behind the quarterback, whereas “A” backs typically line up outside of the tackles where a tight end normally would.

Watching Georgia Tech’s offense, you’ll hear some terminology that isn’t familiar with a lot of common football fans. Most notably the positions of “A-Back” and “B-Back.” The B-back is usually lined up as a fullback in the offense, usually 2-3 yards behind the quarterback, and most notably handles dive/blast plays as well as their midline option. That responsibility falls upon Jordan Mason. He isn’t as big for a B-back (6’1, 212 lbs.), but he bounces off tackles and has great vision on inside runs. The freshman is averaging 8.11 yards per carry as their B-back, a huge plus for an offense that needs a reliable one to be at their best.

There is also the A-back. The A-back, also referred to as a “split back,” usually lines up outside of the tackles where a tight end normally would. Their best work usually comes from handling option pitches, able to take outside runs for a big gain. They can also split out as a slot receiver, as they are usually the faster players and thus can stretch the field. The best one of the bunch is Qua Searcy. Searcy has blistering speed on the outside, able to take a pitch and split the defense for 35-40 yards. Searcy only has 16 carries, but is averaging just over 12 yards per carry. Don’t be surprised if they give him a carry after Mason and Marshall go for 3-4 in a row, to keep the defense on their heels.

Key Matchups

  • Louisville Front Seven v. Georgia Tech Run Blocking

When defending the flexbone offense, the main priorities are making sure that you don’t overcommit to one aspect of the option game, allowing Georgia Tech to read that and take advantage of it.

That can happen easily, due to Louisville’s issues with discipline and Georgia Tech’s wide array of option plays. Georgia Tech can easily call dive / blast plays, and if they see that a defense is ready to attack that again, they’ll whip out a counter option to take it the other side of the field, or throw a big play-action pass to Clinton Lynch and Jalen Camp.

Two particular option plays, the midline option and the triple option, could be what kills Louisville most. We’ll start with the midline option. In most option plays, one defensive player will be left unblocked, forcing him to choose between two assignments. The main priority is forcing the defensive tackle to decide between taking the dive or taking the quarterback. If he takes the dive, the quarterback can run inside and get a nice chunk. If the defensive tackle takes the QB, the B-back can blast through the A-gap and get 4-5 yards at least, unless the weakside tackle or linebacker make a solid play. Louisville’s defensive tackles have had some challenges clogging up running lanes, so they will have to be smart in their play and not overcommit to one aspect of that option.

An example of a well-executed midline option play can be seen here:

The triple option is also one that can have a lot of success, if Louisville’s defense cannot make the right reads. It is predicated on the quarterback being able to read the defense. First, he has to read the defensive end who is left unblocked. The success of the option is very correlative on the quarterback diagnosing his reads on that defensive end, as well as the linebacker and safety (think of the option in terms of “if A happens, then do B”). Here’s an example below.

Triple Option

  1. Highlighted in lime green, the “A” back will serve as the de-facto tailback on this play. He motions behind (or close to it) the “B” back, after the quarterback gets his cadence in.
  2. They snap the ball, and the QB (highlighted in blue) meets the “B” back (highlighted in red) in the backfield. His read (otherwise known as a hand-off key) will be the defensive end, highlighted in orange. If the defensive end plays the “B” back’s run inside, then the quarterback will take it himself and run with the “A” back. If the defensive end decides to play the quarterback (and thus the option game), then the QB will hand it off to the B-back, who will get some yards depending on his blocking and his line’s ability to get to the second level.
  3. The “keep” aspect of the play can mean the difference between 3-5 yards, or 23-25 yards. Let’s say the “B” back has occupied the defensive end. Then the QB and weakside “A” back, whom the QB is optioning with, will run it outside. The play side tackle should be aiming to get someone in the second level, preferably a linebacker. The play side “A” back, highlighted in brown, is going to be the lead blocker in that situation, taking on another linebacker. This leaves a two-on-one situation for the QB and “A” back, who now have to read the pitch key (either the linebacker or safety). It’s the same concept as reading the defensive end; if the pitch key takes the QB, he should pitch it to the “A” back. If the pitch key takes the “A” back, then the QB will simply keep it and get as many yards as he can.

Also worth looking out for will be the counter and speed options. The counter option can be particularly devastating, especially if the defense overcommits to one side of the ball and leaves the pulling guard and optioning “A” back with plenty of open field. An example of that can be shown here:

  • Louisville Passing Game v. Georgia Tech LBs and DBs

On the opposite side of the ball, I think this is a game that Louisville’s offense could have a solid performance. There were some things that Louisville’s offense had trouble executing, but they did show growth, especially running the ball with Hassan Hall and Trey Smith. Jawon Pass also had 306 yards passing and three total touchdowns, which is solid other than the numerous misses downfield that would have led to surefire scores.

In Georgia Tech’s losses, they were caused by two problems: stopping the run, and lack of strong play from their defensive line. The Yellow Jackets have allowed 5.5 yards per carry (110 carries, 605 yards, eight touchdowns) in their three losses, which comes at a great time for a Louisville team fresh off their strongest rushing performance so far. Against South Florida and Clemson, quarterbacks Blake Barnett (USF) and Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) had little trouble against the pass rush and made solid plays. Georgia Tech also failed to log a sack in their loss at Pittsburgh.

That leads to the one key stat to keep in mind; Georgia Tech has six sacks on the season, which is tied for 102nd in the country. Given that, Louisville’s offensive line has to buy some time for Pass to make the right throws. Getting the run game going, as well as receivers winning their one-on-one matchups, will be very important to getting Pass in a rhythm early.

  • Turnover Margin

It becomes a broken record the more that I state it, but it will remain true. Louisville has to find a way to keep the turnover margin in their favor.

Just because Georgia Tech runs the ball a lot, does not mean that there will be less opportunities to force a turnover. Louisville’s defense has to find a way to clog up pitching lanes and force TaQuon Marshall (or Tobias Oliver) to deliver a bad pitch, and give their defense a short field. Louisville has not forced a fumble in their last three games, and has four forced turnovers this season. If there’s ever a time to break out of that and give the offense something to work with, this would be the game to do so.

On offense, Louisville also has to avoid the turnover bug. Last week’s interception (granted it was a very controversial and ill-advised play call) destroyed their momentum and gave Florida State what they needed to pull off a miraculous win. Despite their low sack total and overall average numbers (51st in total defense), the Yellow Jackets are third in the ACC with seven interceptions this year. If anyone on the Yellow Jackets defense will make a play, it will either be defensive back Malik Rivera (team-high two interceptions and 25 tackles) or defensive lineman Anree Saint-Amour (12 tackles, one sack, one interception).

Plain and simple, Louisville has to avoid turnovers.

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