To Georgia Tech defensive end Izaan Cross, the horrors of the Yellow Jackets’ visit to Charlottesville, Va., a year ago have no bearing on what will unfold Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The way that the Tech defense was overpowered by the Cavaliers offensive line doesn’t register on Cross’ radar.
“We look at [Saturday] as another game, another opportunity for us to show what we have,” Cross said. “We’ve gotten better, we’ve watched film on them, seen what they do. This is a new season.”
The hope among Tech fans is that Cross has diagnosed his unit precisely. In its first two games, the Jackets defense has shown signs that it has turned a corner in its third season under defensive coordinator Al Groh’s direction. The test provided by Virginia should offer a much clearer answer on that matter.
“This’ll be, certainly, a big chapter towards that,” Groh said. “I don’t think it’ll be the final chapter, but it certainly has the possibilities of being a significant chapter in that direction.”
A year ago, Tech players and coaches posited that with a year of Groh’s coaching under their belt, they could play with more surety of his 3-4 scheme. The scoreboard often suggested otherwise, as the Jackets allowed an average of 26.1 points per game, 60th in FBS. In 2010, Groh’s first year, Tech opponents averaged 25.2 points per game. Last season, Tech’s final four opponents – Virginia Tech, Duke, Georgia and Utah – scored 30 or more.
Miscommunications, faulty pre-snap alignment and failure to execute assignments indicated Groh’s lessons hadn’t been completely absorbed. Players recruited by Groh were still developing and finding their way onto the field. Last October in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers crammed 272 rushing yards down Tech’s throat. It was the most allowed by Tech last season.
Virginia offensive linemen like offensive tackle Oday Aboushi got the better of Tech all afternoon on stretch plays and tosses. Leading by a field goal, Virginia held the ball for the game’s final 5:58 to upset Tech, then ranked 12th and undefeated at 6-0.
“That game was definitely a landmark for us,” Aboushi, a potential first-round draft pick, said this week.
Through two games this season, Tech does appear closer to matching Groh’s vision. The Jackets had the better of Virginia Tech for much of the opener before succumbing in two fourth-quarter drives. The Hokies’ 4.5 yards-per-play average on offense was lower than all but one of their games from 2011.
“It was a very confident group,” Hokies offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said Thursday of the Tech defense. “It was a group that played exceptionally well together and they were able to play at a high tempo. Sometimes, you think you’re playing so fast, you’re not taking care of the little things. They played fast and took care of the little things.”
The promotion of outside linebacker Brandon Watts into the starting lineup has sped up the defense. Starters like outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, inside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, cornerback Rod Sweeting, safety Isaiah Johnson and Cross are drawing on the knowledge of hundreds of game and practice snaps.
That said, Virginia Tech was replacing four offensive linemen, two wide receivers and a tailback. Perhaps the Jackets might have been expected to show well, and certainly so in its drubbing of Presbyterian College last Saturday. It brings the Jackets to game No. 3. Virginia has three of its offensive linemen back, including one of the best tackle pairs in the country, quarterback Michael Rocco and versatile running back Perry Jones.
The Cavaliers, however, delivered a stink bomb last Saturday in its escape over Penn State, turning the ball over four times and rushing 25 times for 32 yards.
“Last year, we came out physical and that’s what we’re going to have to do this year and impose our will,” Aboushi said. “It’s going to be a bigger challenge this year, being in their house. We’ll be up for it.”
One suspects that the players on the other side will be, as well.
“We remember them being pretty physical up front,” Tech defensive end Euclid Cummings said, “but this year we’re a year better, and I feel like we’ll be able to match that.”
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Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog