The beauty of Virginia’s outside zone could be key against Georgia Tech

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Virginia’s running game has come alive over the past month, thanks to an ever-improving offensive line. In its last three outings, UVA’s ground attack has accounted for 221 yards (vs. William & Mary), a season-high 228 yards (at North Carolina) and 138 yards against Miami’s top 10 rush defense in last week’s overtime road loss.

The Cavaliers’ outside-zone plays have finally clicked and could be the key if they are to win their first ACC home game of the Tony Elliott era today when they host Georgia Tech (2 p.m., the CW network).

“I have to give credit to (offensive coordinator) Des Kitchings because he’s a wide-zone guy,” Elliott said this week. “I cut my teeth as a coordinator off of the tight zone (inside zone). I was a tight-zone, counter guy, so a lot of my stuff was focused between the tackles.”

Virginia remains near the bottom of the ACC in rushing offense (13th out of 14 teams), but is trending upward, averaging 120.4 yards per game, which has greatly increased after stumbling out of the blocks this season. The Cavaliers have run the ball 319 times, fourth-most in the conference, now averaging 3.0 yards per carry.

Had UVA started the season that way rather than reaching that point toward the end of the campaign, Elliott’s teams likely would have won some of those close contests (four of the Cavaliers’ six losses have come by three points or less).

Georgia Tech (4-4, 3-2 ACC) brings the next-to-last rushing defense in the nation to Scott Stadium for this afternoon’s tilt. The Yellow Jackets rank No. 129 out of 130 FBS teams, surrendering 232.6 yards of real estate per game to opposing rushing attacks.

Tech is giving up 5.36 yards per rush and has allowed 21 rushing touchdowns so far this season.

If Virginia can get its running game going early, maintain that momentum and control the line of scrimmage, the Cavaliers could pick up their third win of the season with three more games remaining (Louisville on the road, Duke and Virginia Tech at home).

Elliott and Kitchings are only focused on Saturday’s battle with the Jackets, and that likely means giving Tech a heavy dose of outside-zone plays.

“The beauty of it is it creates space, whereas when you’re running tight zone or you’re running counter, you’re kind of boxed in with those [defensive] tackles,” Elliott said. “There’s a lot of double teams and you’re trying to create a new line of scrimmage, whereas on the wide zone, you get guys running. And then the linebackers can’t just come flat downhill. They’ve got to kind of scrape over the top. It creates some bigger gaps and causes misfits by the safeties.”

It worked so well against then-10th-ranked North Carolina that Tar Heels’ safety Kaimon Rucker said: “Virginia had a plan. They stuck to the split outside-zone plays and they were very successful off of them.”

Georgia Tech did similarly against UNC last weekend in a 46-42 upset of the Heels. Now, UVA will try to do the same against the Jackets.

“I’ll say it’s a risk-reward type of scheme in that you’re a lot more one-on-one blocks, so there’s a lot more opportunity for a potential negative play, but I think because of the space, it allows for the greater opportunity for the bigger plays or the more consistent chunk plays as opposed to with a tight zone you’ve got to fit it up just right, your back has got to see it just right,” Elliott explained.

“What I like about it is it gets guys running. It also challenges the D-line, too, because they can’t just come off the ball. They’ve got to be ready to run or they can get cut out of their gap, and that puts a lot on a linebacker or safety, which could lead to a big play.”

Virginia’s leading rusher, Perris Jones, flourishes in the outside-zone plays. A back with speed can bust big gains if he gets into the running lane, and that’s one reason Jones is averaging 5.5 yards per carry for the season, which begs the question, why not give him more touches?

Jones has only 55 carries or only 7.8 attempts per game, well behind Kobe Pace (70 carries), and just ahead of Mike Hollins (49) and quarterback Tony Muskett (47). Jones is also UVA’s fastest back with several explosive plays to his credit, including a 43-yard long for the season, and a much longer run that was negated by a penalty.

Virginia is a 2-point favorite over the Jackets, who have won only twice in Charlottesville since 1990.