Prior to the Hokies' 39-36 victory, Virginia Tech never won at Heinz Field. To compound matters, Pitt came into Thursday's critical Coastal Division matchup with a dangerous offensive unit and a defensive front that lead the ACC in rushing defense. In order to beat Pat Narduzzi's Panthers, the Hokies had to win two critical matchups. First, Tech had to restrict explosive plays from Pitt's variety of jet sweep packages. Second, Jerod Evans needed to capitalize on a weak Panthers secondary and get the ball into the hands of Tech's vaunted receiving corps. Like a heavyweight fight, each team made adjustments to counter the nuances of the opposition's scheme. Ultimately, Brad Cornelsen was able to exploit one-on-one coverage for numerous chunk completions. Meanwhile, Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada didn't give the unstoppable James Conner touches at critical moments when it seemed like Tech's defense couldn't stop him.
"Why Run Up the Middle?" Running Fade Routes within the Offensive Scheme
During the game I received a plethora of questions asking why Cornelsen continued to run plays into the teeth of Pitt's defense when it was abundantly clear the Panthers' corners couldn't defend Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips, and Bucky Hodges outside. To answer that question properly, let's look at how Pitt was defending the Hokies' offense.
On this last second quarter play, the Hokies align with twin receivers to the boundary and a lone receiver to the wide side of the field. Cornelsen calls an inside zone read from the pistol. Sam Rogers crosses the formation to "wham" the defensive end (or perhaps head out to the flat for a pass on an RPO). Pitt is playing a modified eight-man front, with four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and the field safety all defending the run inside the box. This leaves Ford (top of the screen), Phillips (slot to the boundary), and Hodges (wide to the boundary) all individually covered.
To the play side, the Pitt defensive line attacks the zone blocks and extends their arms to shed and read. The two field-side linebackers and the field safety all come in to fill. There are six Pitt defenders against five Virginia Tech offensive linemen. Eric Gallo and Jonathan McLaughlin attempt to block the two Pitt defensive tackles one-on-one while Wyatt Teller and Augie Conte release to the linebackers. Conte and Teller get to the second level. Unfortunately, the Pitt defensive tackles both beat Gallo and McLaughlin and tackle Travon McMillian for no gain.
Outside, Pitt accounts for Sam Rogers on any leak out pass to the flat and Jerod Evans on the keeper. Pitt kept the boundary outside linebacker shadowing the quarterback because earlier in the game the Hokies ran the exact same blocking scheme with Evans keeping and running for a nice gain. Note the Hokies are in the same formation (twins to the boundary, Ford to the field).
On this play, OLB Mike Caprara (No. 30) and DL Rori Blair (No. 92) crashes inside on the dive from the boundary. Rogers loops around the edge and Evans scoots to the outside for 15 yards.
The Pitt defenders have now seen the inside zone with wham and the quarterback keeper from the pistol formation. The Panthers have adjusted to the keeper by aligning the boundary outside linebacker as a spy on the quarterback. As result, Cornelsen identifies the outside linebacker may be vulnerable to play-action. He calls a play pass with the same run action and a subtle formation change. Twins are now to the field, and Chris Cunningham is "hidden" as an extra blocker in place of the boundary receiver.
Caprara and Dane Jackson (No. 11) have their eyes completely fixated on Evans. Cunningham leaks behind them on a corner route and is wide open for the touchdown. Once again, Fuente has set up the defense and Evans successfully executes the play for an easy score.
What about all those fade routes though? Well, most of the deep throws by Evans came off some form of play-action. I particularly noticed how the Hokies were able to play-action off of their one consistent running play: the jet sweep.
Cam Phillips led the Hokies in rushing (5 carries, 43 yards), in large part because the Hokies' skill players were able to seal the Panthers' edge players inside. On this jet sweep late in the fourth quarter, Pitt blitzes Caprara into the jet sweep motion.
Behind the blitz, the Panthers actually rotate their boundary safety over the top to give the corner coverage help on Bucky Hodges (unlike the narrative that Jesse Palmer repeatedly reinforced about Pitt playing press man to man on every snap). Rogers seals Caprara inside. McMillian leads Phillips to the outside while LB Matt Galambos (No. 47) scrapes across. McMillian kicks Galambos to the outside and drives him into the corner, effectively taking out two defenders. Safety Jordan Whitehead (No. 9) is eaten up by Hodges option-stalk block. Phillips gains almost 20 yards before Blair drags him down from behind.
Pitt's safeties and linebackers overreacted to the jet sweep motion after a couple of Tech gains. This contributed to the Hokies one-on-one matchups outside. On this play, Evans looks against the grain for a throwback back-shoulder fade to Hodges.
Watch safety Terrish Webb (No. 2) drift inside as his eyes follow Phillips on the jet sweep motion. This takes away any chance for corner Ryan Lewis (No. 38) to get safety help. Evans intentionally under throws the ball to Hodges back shoulder. Lewis can't get his head around to find the football and Hodges makes a great catch. Fuente and Cornelsen continue to establish every element of their offense as a credible threat, and by doing so they are conditioning defenses to overreact and then they take advantage for big plays. That is the reason why the Hokies continue to run plays that appear to have little chance of success; to set up other plays later in the game.
Stopping the Jet Sweep and Pitt's Adjustment
In my preview of the Panthers' offense, I discussed how Matt Canada featured jet sweeps to compliment Pitt's power running game.
The Panthers run this series from a variety of offensive sets, and they mix up whether the jet sweep goes to the strong side and the weak side of the formation. Regardless of the formation, there seem to be three consistent elements to the series.
- The slot receiver will start motioning back and forth behind the quarterback before the ball is hiked.
- At the snap, the offensive line will zone block away from jet sweep movement of the slot receiver. The Pitt tailback will run the inside zone in the same direction that the offensive line blocks.
- The slot receiver crosses behind the quarterback before the quarterback meshes with the tailback. If the slot receiver gets the football, on most plays he turns up almost immediately after exiting the tackle box.
On the above inside zone/jet sweep combination, Tremaine Edmunds filled inside to take away Conner's cutback lane. Vinny Mihota widened out to spill the football. Brandon Facyson saw the tight end widening out so he attacked him with his inside shoulder to force the ball back inside. Terrell Edmunds filled the alley in between Mihota and Facyson to make the tackle.
Away from the jet sweep, Tech accounted for the inside zone by slanting the defensive line in same direction as the offensive line's zone step. Andrew Motuapuaka filled play-side.
To the field-side, there is also a receiver away from the jet sweep motion split out wide. Greg Stroman had man coverage responsibility, so Chuck Clark served as the alley defender to that side on a potential zone run. Once Clark confirmed that Conner didn't have the football, he scraped out to the jet sweep.
With this scheme and aforementioned assignments, Virginia Tech's defense shut down Pitt's offense through most of the first half. However, Pitt successfully responded with a counter run from similar backfield action that wreaked havoc on the Hokies' defensive keys. On the counter, instead of zoning away from the jet sweep, Pitt's offensive line zoned the same direction as the jet sweep. Additionally, the H-Back would come back across the formation wham block away from the jet sweep.
The adjustment had a profound impact on the game. Tech's d-line slanted in the same direction as the zone blocks of Pitt's o-line, but now against the counter they moved away from Conner's running lane. This left the Hokies outnumbered away from the jet sweep motion. To make matters worse, the Hokies defenders started to make fundamental errors in spill/force technique that created tons of space for Conner to rumble through.
Conner's first touchdown featured all these elements. The jet sweep fake goes to the right, and the offensive line zones in the same direction. To the boundary, Trevon Hill crashes to the inside, and H-Back George Aston (No. 35) pulls across and kicks him out. A huge seam opens up between Hill and Woody Baron, and Conner walks into the end zone.
Hill also busted his edge assignment. Based on Adonis Alexander's alley positioning and Terrell Edmunds outside leverage on the tight end, it appears Hill should have crashed flatter down the line to spill Conner out to Alexander. Hill got kicked out, leaving Alexander defending air.
On the opening drive of the second quarter, Conner again broke a huge run on the same blocking concept. This time Ken Ekanem is the spill defender.
Ekanem does a wonderful job of spilling Conner outside, where Brandon Facyson is unblocked in the alley. Instead of charging up on the outside like he should on a spill call, Facyson takes a step to the inside. This gives Conner an angle. Conner beats Facyson to the outside and rumbles down inside the five.
Conner's power runs opened up the play-action and misdirection passing game, and Virginia Tech's defense appeared to be on its heels. Fortunately, Canada stubbornly refused to give Conner touches on early down and distance situations. After Joey Slye's field goal that closed the score to a 21-19 Pitt advantage, the Panthers had two straight three and outs that featured only one Conner touch. Those series bracketed Brenden Motley's first appearance at quarterback. It was a critical juncture of the game where Pitt had momentum, and Canada let the Hokies' defense off the hook. As result, the Hokies control their destiny in the Coastal Division and await the well-coached Duke Blue Devils for their fourth road game in a brutal five week stretch.