In which we give credit to the offensive line and compare the performance of the secondary to a game of Ring around the Rosie
Final Score: Virginia 48-40
Model Prediction: Virginia by 4.5, GT to cover: incorrect
Projected EPA (Offense and Defense) Margin of Victory: UVA by 16
GT Win Probability (Based on Success Rate, Yards Per Play, and EPA): 21%
There were no ghosts, and there was no curse, but Georgia Tech was beaten soundly by a Virginia football team that had its way against a porous Yellow Jacket defense. Various models gave GT between a 30 and 40 percent chance of winning this game, but even after the advantageous onside kick and some late game offensive success, GT would have expected to win this game only 20% of the time.
Saturday night left a bad taste in my mouth because Virginia did almost exactly what was expected, but Tech couldn’t come up with satisfactory answers. Let’s dig into the numbers to see what we can learn.
Success Rate Comparisons
Success rate is the baseline metric for efficiency. As a reminder, a successful play gains 50% of the needed yards on 1st down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third or fourth down.
Georgia Tech posted a 54% offensive success rate and soundly lost the game. How is that possible? Virginia did not have a success rate below 50% in any quarter of the football game. I looked back through some data to try to find a comparable situation, and I came up empty. Even in last year’s demolition at the hands of Clemson, the Tigers posted only a 40% success rate in the first quarter. In the 2019 destruction by the Dawgs, UGA had a quarter with a 47% success rate. Some of the best college football teams of the last several years couldn’t manage the kind of sustained efficiency against GT that the Cavaliers pulled off Saturday night.
The 50% success rate that Virginia put up through the air shouldn’t be too surprising. But the Cavs succeeded on 74% of their rushing plays! Even as the game wound down, and it was entirely clear what UVA would do on their last offensive possession, they ran the ball 6 times and succeeded on every one of those attempts. The futility of that effort by the GT defense leaves me at a loss for superlative descriptors.
Advanced Stats Comparison and Positional Breakdowns
Once again, Jeff Sims put together a solid performance that should be enough to win most ACC football games. The offensive success rate and EPA/play numbers are multiple standard deviations above average. Sims had his CPOE (completion percentage over expectation) come in just below average, but without the four blatant drops by GT receiving targets, that number would have been excellent. Once again, even including the horrific interception Sims threw from a clean pocket, he put up outstanding numbers when not facing pressure. Jeff Sims led a performance that gave Georgia Tech a legitimate chance to win a tough football game, and his progress this year continues to encourage.
To go with a solid passing game came the rushing attack that the GT fanbase has been clamoring for all season. All of the four primary rushers had success rates well above the national average, Jahmyr Gibbs had the longest run of this career and put up 10 yards per carry, Jeff Sims was successful on 6 out of his 7 designed running plays, and Jordan Mason was used effectively on power runs. The offensive line opened holes that had not been there all season; the backs got up the field and shed would be tacklers. There’s not much more that this part of the attack could have mustered.
This was a Jekyll and Hyde kind of performance from the Georgia Tech receiving corps. Kyric McGowan delivered a beautiful over route to score an easy explosive touchdown on the opening drive of the game; then he dropped a ball that would have extended GT’s lead back to two touchdowns early in the second quarter but led to settling for a field goal. Nate McCollum broke tackles to pick up key third downs on GT’s second and fourth drives, but he had a mysterious drop and then struggled to get separation later in the game. Adonicas Sanders seemed to not be part of the gameplan until after the onside kicks, and then he was seemingly open every play. The receivers were adequate, but a couple of more made plays by the group would have seen GT finish a drive or 2 more with touchdowns.
Otherwise, the tight end position is still a non-factor, and Jahmyr Gibbs remains one of the most dangerous weapons in the country catching balls out of the backfield. One question from this writer is why we never saw Malik Rutherford get a chance to try and take the top off of the defense.
Let me take the opportunity to applaud the offensive line. With Ryan Johnson playing exclusively at right tackle (except for one play at left tackle when Devin Cochran had to leave the game) and several rotation players still unavailable, I did not have high expectations for this group’s performance. But perform they did. These numbers could change slightly with a second viewing, but I charted UVA as stuffing 3% of GT runs, generating pressure on 8% of GT drop backs, and posting a 7% defensive havoc rate. Every single one of those numbers is a season best for Georgia Tech to allow its opponent. One more offensive line focused metric for you: GT posted an opportunity rate (% of carries going for 4 or more yards) of 69% (national average is 42%)- also the best of the season.
Credit the guys for stepping up and giving the playmakers the kind of room that can make this offense scary. Credit Coach Patenaude for his 65% pass play call rate on first down that helped keep the UVA defense on its toes. Credit Jeff Sims for moving away from pressure and not into it. As much criticism as this offensive line grouping has received for much of the season, accolades are deserved for Saturday’s performance.
It just wasn’t good enough. GT stuffed 4% of UVA runs and created a havoc play on 6% of UVA’s snaps. The pressure rate of 24% was just below average, but it had to be higher for GT to have a chance of containing that Cavalier offense.
How important was this? Brennan Armstrong put up 0.77 EPA/pass without pressure and -0.53 EPA/pass with pressure. So, getting pressure changed the expected outcome of a play by 1.3 points on the scoreboard. Just five more pressures over the whole game would have been worth more than a touchdown. At the end of the day, the staff did not scheme enough to prioritize that.
Let’s break things down a little bit further by position group:
- Interior defensive linemen had 1 pressure and 1 havoc play
- EDGE defenders had 6 pressures and 1 havoc play
- Linebackers (read: Charlie Thomas) had 4 pressures and 1 havoc play
- Secondary had 0 pressures and 2 havoc plays.
The EDGE players were largely effective, even managing to create some pressures on three man rushes against 5 or 6 guys left in to block them. The interior of the line was highly ineffective, but I will credit the staff for at least trying a few times later in the game to line up an EDGE player inside. It didn’t work, but it was worth a shot. Charlie Thomas was the only linebacker who was any kind of a factor on Saturday. To me, this had to be a game plan limiting Eley’s snaps and perhaps seeing if Trenilyas Tatum could be more disruptive than the non-Thomas linebackers.
Now, onto my rant. Normally, I only include players in the above table who showed up in one of our disruption metrics, but I wanted to include additional guys who played substantially but did not chart a disruptive play. Notice especially how many secondary players fall into that category. This is not a blip on the radar; for the season (before Saturday’s game) GT’s secondary had recorded a havoc play on 3.6% of their plays; the national average for that number is 7.7% (with a standard deviation of 1.6%), meaning GT is in the 0.4th percentile. If there were 250 FBS football teams, GT would statically average being number 250 in havoc plays created by the secondary. This unit does not get home on blitzes, and they especially do not play the ball well when it is in the air. They cover space instead of players. The fourth year and older players who continue to play this way should not keep seeing the snaps that seem to be grandfathered to them at this point.
And here we find part two of the grounds for my ranting. Not a single player who was targeted on a pass play put up a negative allowed CPOE! Not a single one! No player on the GT defense held targeted receivers below an average completion percentage. Brennan Armstrong is a really good quarterback, but GT was not playing the 2007 Patriots.
GT’s efforts to play man on the outside led to receivers running five yards free. GT’s efforts to play zone in the middle of the field led to countless plays where three GT defenders would play a game of Ring around the Rosie with a UVA target comfortably open in the middle of them. If they’re being coached to play this way, coaches should move on. If they’re playing this far outside of the technique and scheme being taught, they should’t be playing. Nothing about the status quo of Georgia Tech’s pass defense can be allowed to continue. I would much rather see freshmen giving up these kinds of performances than the same guys over and over again.
EPA calculates the expected number of points added (or lost in the case of a negative number) on a particular play based on the down and the location on they field.
The EPA totals for this game leave us with a 16 point projected win for UVA. The converted onside kicks, of course, allowed GT to make the final margin closer than that, but this was a game that UVA won decisively.
As always, we’ll take a look at the most helpful and hurtful plays for GT.
Most Helpful Plays
- Jahmyr Gibbs leads us off once again; this time, he took a 2nd and 6 inside zone give for a 71 yard touchdown. 6.02 EPA.
- Jeff Sims’s 38 yard run to convert a 4th and 1 and reach the UVA 18 yard line. 4.54 EPA.
- Jeff Sims’s 37 yard touchdown strike to Kalani Norris to cut the UVA lead to 14. 3.67 EPA.
- Jeff Sims’s 25 yard catch and run completion to Adonicas Sanders to convert a 3rd and 8 on the game’s opening possession. 3.20 EPA.
- Two plays later, Jeff Sims found Kyric McGowan for the 35 yard touchdown. 3.15 EPA.
Jahmyr Gibbs provided a burst, and Jeff Sims created four more explosives to lead the way for GT. This is right in line with the way that this GT offense hits its upside this season.
Most Hurtful Plays
- Brennan Armstrong’s 77 yard touchdown pass to Wicks, where Derrik Allen took a gamble that never should have happened and let Wicks run 70 yards after the catch. -7.50 EPA
- Jeff Sims’s interception where he failed to properly diagnose cover 3 and threw an ill-advised post. -4.31 EPA
- Brennan Armstrong’s first touchdown pass to Wicks, where he out jumped two GT secondary players for a 13 yard TD on 3rd and 5. Armstrong obviously checked to the fade before the snap. GT didn’t see it or adjust to it. -3.38 EPA.
- On UVA’s opening drive of the 3rd quarter, GT started things off with a huge sack. On 3rd and 16 they let Armstrong comfortably complete a 23 yard pass in a deep middle zone. -3.16 EPA.
There were about 6 other plays that netted UVA between 2 and 3 EPA, but these are enough to tell the story. Jeff Sims made one horrible decision, yes, but the overwhelming problem in this game was the Georgia Tech defense.
Tracking Season Goals
*I set these goals for the 2021 season in some of my offseason preview work. We will be tracking them as we go this year.
**The pass defense EPA goal has beed modified to reflect the uptick in success offensive passing games have had in college football over the past two years.
The Georgia Tech offense is rounding into form. The season-long CPOE just barely dipped below our season goal, but otherwise the offense has gotten pressures in check, and Coach Patenaude seems to be figuring out the value in calling first down pass plays. Seven games in, I’m largely happy with the progress of this offense.
I can’t say the same for the other side of the ball. For the second consecutive game, the defense hit none of its goals, and the season-long totals have fallen further and further from the benchmarks we set.
- Jeff Sims led an efficient offensive attack that should have been enough to win 90+% of football games that Georgia Tech will play. The offensive line had its best statistical performance of the season. Coach Patenaude finally leaned into calling first down pass plays to put his team in good situations. If you’re looking specifically for how effective that strategy can be, look no further than the opening drive touchdown to McGowan. I have very little negative to say about Saturday’s offensive performance.
- We haven’t made much mention so far, but there were a few late game coaching decisions worth praising. The clever pooch kick to pin UVA back at their own 5 yard line with almost ten minutes to play was a nice call. The decision to go for 2 after scoring the final offensive TD was the correct and optimal strategy to win the football game. The two onside kicks by Jude Kelley were designed and executed well.
- Do I need to say anything else about the defense? UVA came into the game boasting very little offensive output in the rushing game. On just 23 called running plays (most for the quarterback Armstrong or the converted quarterback Thompson), UVA created 16 expected points of value. If that wasn’t enough, the GT secondary did nothing to challenge Armstrong, and he posted an elite 0.46 EPA/dropback. GT took nothing away from UVA.
Yes, there is improvement, most notably at the quarterback position, compared to 2019 and 2020. But overall it’s not enough. In three ACC Coastal football games, GT has been torn apart by Pitt and UVA and nearly lost to bottom dwelling Duke. That’s not an acceptable place in the pecking order for this program. 3 winnable games await the team, but defensive performances like the last three make it very difficult to sustain any kind of consistency.
Thus, the woeful Collins reality of still not winning back to back games persists as we approach the end of his third year on the Flats. It’s hard to see that streak coming to end over the remaining 5 games, and at this point, it’s worth making dramatic defensive changes to try and find something different. Coach Collins was forthright in pointing out some of these issues after the game, and he promised to get them fixed. Let’s hope there’s some substance behind the promise.