Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson outfoxed one of college football's sharpest defensive minds last week against Virginia Tech. Saturday at Virginia he'll challenge another.
Johnson foiled Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster with a halftime blocking adjustment that transformed the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense from toothless to menacing.
On Saturday, Johnson will play chess against Virginia's Al Groh, perpetually embattled as a head coach but never to be overlooked as a defensive strategist.
Last season was Johnson's first at Georgia Tech, and his offense, unique among teams from the six major conferences, led the ACC in yards and ranked fourth nationally in rushing. But Groh's unconventional 3-4 defense slowed the Jackets enough to produce one of the year's biggest upsets.
Thanks to quarterback Josh Nesbitt, Georgia Tech is much-improved offensively, while Virginia probably isn't quite as good defensively. Still, the Cavaliers' recent resurgence, the Jackets' bleak history in Charlottesville, and the coaches' tactics a compelling matchup make.
Can Virginia force Nesbitt, the ACC's No. 3 rusher, to relinquish the ball on the option? If so, will the errant pitches and subsequent turnovers that have plagued him continue? To the point where the Cavaliers win?
Can 11th-ranked Georgia Tech block Virginia as efficiently as it did Virginia Tech? If the Cavaliers (3-3 after an 0-3 start) corral Nesbitt, might Jonathan Dwyer, last season's ACC player of the year, run free between the tackles? To the point where the Jackets win at Scott Stadium for the first time since 1990?
The teams' meeting last October in Atlanta offers some clues but is hardly definitive.
A two-touchdown favorite, Georgia Tech scored on its first two possessions to seize a 14-3 lead. The Jackets rushed for 73 yards on their first series alone.
Virginia was toast, and the anti-Groh camp was plotting more Beta Bridge mischief.
But Groh and then-assistant Bob Pruett tweaked the defense. Perhaps as important, the Cavaliers grew accustomed to Johnson's deceptive misdirection.
"You're constantly having to adjust to the blocking schemes," Groh said.
Georgia Tech ran for a meager 83 yards after that first possession and scored only a field goal in the second half as Virginia rallied for a 24-17 victory. The Jackets' 156 rushing yards for the game marked their second-lowest output of the season and were 117 shy of their average.
"It wasn't all perfect," Groh recalled this week. "We had a lot of issues during the course of the game. Some of those issues were solved frankly because we had an effective offense that day and cut down on (the Jackets') time of possession.
"We know where our problems are, and clearly they've got (video), too, so we would expect a counter move on their part."
Groh is right. Thanks to Cedric Peerman's running and Marc Verica's passing, the Cavaliers enjoyed an 8:36 advantage in possession.
But even when they had the ball, the Jackets could not advance. They averaged 3.8 yards per carry and committed three turnovers.
"I remember that in the game we had a zillion chances to win," Johnson said. "We had a lot of turnovers. We turned the ball over on the 4-yard-line
and we dropped a snap in the second half."
While Dwyer was the centerpiece of Georgia Tech's 2008 offense, Nesbitt has emerged this year. He rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns last week, including the game-clincher from 39 yards out. His 625 yards through seven games nearly match his 693 in 11 appearances last season.
"I would say they got a new set of shutters," Groh said of Georgia Tech's evolution, "maybe painted the front door. But the foundation is still the same, and the structure of the house is still the same."
The Jackets (6-1, 4-1 ACC) have dropped eight consecutive games at Scott Stadium since their epic 41-38 upset of the No. 1 Cavaliers in 1990, a victory that propelled them to a shared national championship. Three coaches -- Bill Lewis, George O'Leary and Chan Gailey -- have since failed to author a sequel.
Saturday marks Johnson's first game in Charlottesville, and chances are he'll arrive in a foul mood.
"A year ago, we were 6-1 and a two-touchdown favorite against the same team," he said, "and they came in here and smacked us in the mouth."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime