In 2011, the performance led to fans joyfully spilling onto the field in Scott Stadium. In 2012, the performance made for a long flight back to Charlottesville.
One year, triple option defense was executed properly. The next year, it wasn’t.
Virginia has split its last two matchups with Georgia Tech in the most extreme of ways. On Oct. 15, 2011, the Cavaliers limited head coach Paul Johnson and his signature offense to 272 rushing yards, the Yellow Jackets’ lowest to that point of the season, in a 24-21 win over a then-12th-ranked Georgia Tech team.
On Sept. 15, 2012, the Wahoos were torched for 461 yards on the ground in a 56-20 clobbering in Atlanta.
What happened over the course of those 11 months?
For starters, UVa graduation.
“The more guys that have faced it before, the better chance you have against it,” said Virginia senior defensive end Jake Snyder, a starter in the last two UVa-Georgia Tech clashes. “And I think you saw it last year. We had a lot of young guys that hadn’t seen it before and kind of got caught up in the speed a little bit early on and we dug ourselves a hole.”
The Wahoos (2-5, 0-3 ACC) host the Jackets (4-3, 3-2) at 12:30 p.m., Saturday.
They’re seeking to find the success of two years ago when veterans like Matt Conrath, Rodney McLeod, Nick Jenkins, Cam Johnson and Chase Minnifield helped orchestrate an option containment that got Paul Johnson to admit afterward: “We had a hard time running.”
But last year, against a UVa defense with six new starters, Georgia Tech was a machine with the football. After their first four plays, the Yellow Jackets had 14 points and 210 yards.
They ended the afternoon with an eye-popping average of 9.2 yards per carry.
“The offense is so unique, you never know what to expect going into the game,” said junior safety Anthony Harris, who got his first extensive look at Georgia Tech last season. “Obviously, guys go into the game very excited — high expectations — and to come out of a game like that, it’s kind of demoralizing.”
The Yellow Jackets enter Saturday averaging an ACC-best 304 rushing yards per game.
Of Virginia’s projected defensive starters, only five started in last year’s contest at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
But, then again, all 11 will be going against the Yellow Jackets for the first time under Jon Tenuta.
The first-year defensive coordinator is no stranger to the triple option. As a defensive assistant at N.C. State from 2010-12, he faced Georgia Tech twice. As a defensive assistant at Notre Dame from 2008-09, including one year as the coordinator, he faced Navy twice.
Tenuta’s teams went 2-2, giving up an average of 29 points and just over 267 rushing yards.
“A few years ago when he was at N.C. State, I watched how they defended it and they did some really nice things,” said UVa defensive line coach Vincent Brown. “So he’s seen it. He’s seen the triple option multiple times. He has some really good ideas and philosophies on how to defend it. Our guys are working toward making it happen.”
Brown was referring to the 2010 N.C. State-Georgia Tech game in which Tenuta’s side limited the Yellow Jackets to less than 250 rushing yards, a rare feat, in a 45-28 Wolfpack win.
N.C. State also got into the backfield that day to the tune of 10 tackles for loss and three sacks, giving reason to believe Tenuta’s attack-the-pocket style can still work against a non-traditional offense.
With some tinkering, of course.
“I don’t really know if I’ll get into the game plan,” Snyder said, “but it’s a little bit of a different scheme because it is so assignment-based and we still want to find ways to bring pressure and to put pressure on the quarterback when they do pass.
“But the main thing is stopping the run. Linebackers will walk up to the line and close the hole and we need to eliminate that dive and get the quarterback to pitch the ball.
“That’s the basic concept of our defense and what we want to do this week.”
Johns replaces Hodges
Jacob Hodges was Virginia’s primary field goal and extra point holder from 2010-12. He was also UVa’s most valuable scout team member during Georgia Tech week.
Hodges was an option quarterback in high school and the Cavaliers always had him return to that role to help prepare for the Yellow Jackets.
Hodges is now a graduate assistant for UVa, meaning he can’t keep his tradition alive. Or can he?
“That's a great compliance question and I'll ask that question,” UVa head coach Mike London joked on Monday.
Instead, the Wahoos have turned to Matt Johns for option help.
The reserve redshirt freshman quarterback — and primary holder — ran for 13 touchdowns in high school.
This week, he’s Vad Lee, the Georgia Tech QB who’s rushed for 354 yards and six scores this season.
“I know he ran a zone read spread-type of thing in high school, so he enjoys that,” Snyder said of Johns. “He likes to run the ball and he likes to push the scout team offense and get us better. He’s done a great job of that.”