Georgia Tech stole Duke’s blueprint and it almost backfired.
Virginia’s 35-22 loss to the Blue Devils last week was defined by a second half meltdown in which the defense couldn’t make stops and the offense couldn’t make first downs.
Staring at a 22-7 halftime deficit, Duke went into its locker room and made one key defensive switch. No longer was Kevin Parks going to will the Cavaliers to a win. UVa’s victory chances were to rely on the right arm of David Watford.
The Blue Devils loaded the box, taking away the Cavs’ running game and forcing them to go to the air for success.
The strategy worked. After gaining 93 yards on 25 carries in the first half, Virginia was held to seven yards on 12 carries in the second half. Watford completed just seven of 13 passes for 76 yards and an interception in the final two quarters. The Cavaliers were good for all of six first downs in the second half as opposed to moving the chains 16 times in the first half.
A week later, the Yellow Jackets prepped for UVa with the Duke film in mind.
“I think we went in with a defensive plan that we were going to try to limit the run and get [Watford] off the field on third down,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said following the Jackets’ 35-25 win on Saturday at Scott Stadium.
Limiting the run was no sweat. Virginia rushed for 68 yards on 31 carries. Parks, the ACC’s third-leading rusher entering the afternoon, gained 54 yards on 15 attempts.
But containing Watford was a bit of an issue.
The redshirt sophomore set a single-game school record for throws (61) and completions (43) while setting a career high for yards with 376. He tossed for a pair of scores and an interception.
That air reliance wasn’t exactly simulated during the practice week.
“That was not part of the plan,” Watford said. “I was just going with it. ... We were going to run the ball, we were going to do different things. But 60 times? Hey, let’s do it.”
It was an equally portioned 61 tosses.
Watford threw the football 13 times in the first quarter with Georgia Tech leading 7-0, 16 in the second quarter with Georgia Tech leading 14-10, 13 in the third with Georgia Tech leading 21-10 and 19 in the fourth.
“Their run defense, they packed the box a little bit by bringing a safety down,” said UVa head coach Mike London. “We felt you could still run the ball effectively if you spread them out, but as the game went on, the thing that became positive for us was the ability to spread the ball by throwing it. That became an adopted game plan.”
Watford managed 6.2 yards per attempt, his third-highest rate of the season. His wide receivers made 26 catches, surpassing that group’s season high by 14.
“That’s definitely a positive we can take from the game,” said senior Tim Smith, who made 10 receptions for 151 yards, joining with Darius Jennings (13 catches, 119 yards) to become the first 10-catch duo in program history. “Me, Darius, David and a few others stepped up on the offensive side. We’ve been taking a lot of criticism at the receiving position, so we took it upon ourselves to make a statement today.”
Unfortunately, it came in a loss, the fifth in a row for Virginia (2-6, 0-4 ACC).
“Defense had five turnovers, we didn’t capitalize on that,” Watford said, referring to the Cavs’ zero points after takeaways. “It’s tough because we made progress, but we’re still not doing enough.”