From his vantage point Saturday, Georgia Tech’s first play from scrimmage must have seemed awfully familiar to graduate assistant Tevin Washington.
During his days quarterbacking the Jackets, Washington ran almost identical plays on the first plays of two different games – wheel routes by the B-back on the backside of the play – for long touchdown passes.
The first-play home run is another example of the big-play potential of coach Paul Johnson as well as his playcalling acumen. He has demonstrated a knack for dialing up a play that he anticipates can go for a big gain and put the opposing defense on edge from the jump. The play used Saturday (and previously) took advantage of the opposition’s eagerness to follow the A-back motion, making defenders more susceptible to a play fake.
Saturday’s first-play touchdown was remarkable in its efficiency. Taking the snap on the right hashmark on the 19-yard line, quarterback Justin Thomas faked a toss to A-back Qua Searcy, who was going to the right in tail motion. All three Vanderbilt linebackers bit on the motion and fake toss and started to flow to their left.
B-back Marcus Marshall slipped out of the backfield to run a wheel route against the apparent direction of the play, flaring out to the wide sideline before turning upfield. The linebacker on the wide side of the field (also known as the field side) had followed the fake toss and couldn’t catch up to Marshall even when Thomas’ throw was slightly off target and forced Marshall to almost stop to catch it.
“I knew they’d have to have a linebacker on him on the wheel route, and he’s pretty fast, “Johnson said of Marshall.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason suggested that Johnson might have even set up the Commodores. In video review, Mason said, when the Jackets had run an A-back in motion to the short, or boundary, side of the field, Vanderbilt coaches had never seen Tech throw back to the field side when sending the A-back in motion to the boundary.
“I mean, that play, that particular play had only come to the boundary with motion,” Mason said. “So, hey, man, great job by them.”
Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham said that the play “kind of threw us off balance a little bit.”
Vanderbilt isn’t the first, as Washington would know. In 2011, against Middle Tennessee State, Tech snuck A-back Tony Zenon onto the field at the B-back spot. He ran a looping wheel route down the left sideline. As the backside linebacker followed A-back Embry Peeples’ motion to the offense’s right, he was unable to catch up to Zenon as he raced to the goal line with an easy 73-yard touchdown pass from Washington.
Said Johnson after the game: “It wasn’t scripted. It was just something we saw on film and knew that he’d get matched on a linebacker.”
In 2012, against Virginia, it was B-back Zach Laskey’s turn to run the wheel route. Again, he got into the clear when Virginia’s backside linebacker flowed to his left to follow A-back Robbie Godhigh’s motion and Washington’s fake toss. Laskey ran right past him as he stopped to change direction and, with wide receiver Jeremy Moore running downfield interference, Laskey scored an easy 70-yard touchdown reception, setting the tone for a 56-20 Tech win over the Cavaliers.
“It’s the matchup,” Johnson said after the game. “You get the guy on the linebacker, and he played the out route and we ran a wheel route. It was a great throw by Tevin and a great route by Zach.”
It’s a remarkable occurrence of repeatedly catching lightning in a bottle to uncork such big plays at one specific juncture. Since 2011, Northwestern has had two pass plays of 70 yards or more out of likely hundreds of plays that were initiated at or behind its 30-yard line. Out of just its set of 69 first plays from scrimmage, Tech has three, and they’re all essentially the same play.
In 2011, when I reported a story about Tech scoring a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage of the first three games of the season (Western Carolina, Middle Tennessee State and Kansas), I queried several schools about the last time they had a first play from scrimmage go the distance. Several had said it had been several years.
For Tech under Johnson, this is now at least the sixth occurrence.