Before I start this week, I want to take a moment to thank BilldozerVT. All season, he has labored following many a painful football game to upload the game film that we use for analysis. Without his effort, this column would have degenerated into wandering nonsensical thoughts with the occasional reference to some seminal moment in my childhood, like Tim Krumrie's leg snapping in the second 49ers-Bengals Super Bowl or Don Mattingly's seven game home run streak. Please join me in thanking him.
Any hope the Hokies had of getting back into the ACC Coastal Division race evaporated into the cold Blacksburg sky on Thursday night. Perhaps, for the first time all season we saw what should have been for the 2012 Hokies. We saw a dominant defensive front that decimated the Florida State rushing offense, one of the top in the country. We saw an offense that flashed the skills of an elite quarterback, vertical passing, and a read oriented running game that opened holes on occasion with more guile than muscle. We saw a team that should be contending for an ACC title, but instead finds itself meandering its way through the worst season since I bought my first Nirvana cassette tape.
So, how did the Hokies lose this game? The common post game narrative was simple. The Hokies played for a field goal on the final scoring drive instead of being aggressive. Play calling was horrible. The offensive line stunk. The special teams again were anything but special. The secondary finally gave way after being under a tremendous amount of pressure. The film usually confirms some of the narrative, but it also discovers culprits that go beyond it. The facts are, despite all the positives we saw, there is still a poisonous mix of players who are not giving the same level of effort as their teammates, personnel decisions continue to negatively impact performance, and play design concepts that incorporate poor football logic and do not establish key bread and butter principles that lead to the kind of success that a program like Oregon has on a week to week basis.
My old physics professor told our class to always serve a little sweet with the sour as he handed back our graded tests with a brownie. The Hokies sweet was a dominant defensive line performance that featured a vintage Bud Foster attacking slanting scheme coupled with highlight reel worth performances. Derrick Hopkins was everywhere, beating guards on slants and getting up field, and dropping into coverage. James Gayle, Tyrell Wilson (who played a magnificent game against both the run and pass), Corey Marshall, and Dadi Nicolas used dominant inside leverage to prevent cutbacks. Bruce Taylor and Alonzo Tweedy came off the edge with a violent contain edge rush. It was vintage Virginia Tech from 1995-2003 and Florida State had no answer. Often, the Seminole offensive line never got out of their stance as lanes were taken away, and EJ Manuel was rocked. The blueprint was perfect.
Foster chose to abandon his approach against option/read teams. Against Duke and Clemson, we saw the defensive line play a two-gap scheme by getting into the blocker, shedding them, and making the tackle. Linebackers scraped side-to-side and attempted to clean up the mess. Against Florida State, the d-line either slanted play side or blitzed.
I would imagine that FSU had some tendency that made it relatively easy to call the correct stunts.
At the snap, each defensive lineman would stunt quickly across the face of the blocker to the immediate play side gap and then get two yards up field. Bruce Taylor and Alonzo Tweedy would handle contain by lining up wide and getting 5+ yards up field at a 45 degree angle, with the target one yard behind the QB/RB mesh point. Jack Tyler and Kyshoen Jarrett would fill the appropriate gaps. The Hokies in effect created an umbrella up front, outnumbering FSU's blockers 8 to 6. Moving around confused FSU. It was high risk, high reward football, with almost no help if the back broke through the initial line, and the corners and free safety essentially forced to play on islands.
The Hokies used this stunt repeatedly against the Florida State running game, and I don't think I saw FSU break a run against it a single time. It worked against counters, dives, and the option.
Nothing worked, except to get those backs in the flat against the Hokie outside linebackers before pressure got to Manuel.
At times, it seemed that the Hokies were in the backfield before the snap. To go with excellent design, the Hokie defenders played with an aggression as a unit that we have not seen all season. EVERY PLAYER who took a snap made plays. Fifth year seniors like Antoine Hopkins and Alonzo Tweedy not only stunted effectively, but then changed directions and made plays.
J.R. Collins held up against the run, and was a constant pass rush threat after being "demoted" to defensive tackle. Tyrell Wilson and Corey Marshall both played their best game of the season with The Million Dollar Man finally getting a sack after four QB pressures against Clemson.
Dadi Nicolas went from persona non-grata to getting critical snaps as a designated pass rusher in the 3rd and 4th quarter.
Nobody stood out more than Derrick Hopkins and James Gayle. I spent most of the game screaming for Derrick Hopkins, who I will now affectionately call "MANBEARPIG." He was unblockable on interior slants.
Zone blitzes on passing downs required him to drop into pass coverage and he made receivers pay. He even delivered a nice cut block on the Donovan Riley interception return (more on that in a moment). James Gayle played like an NFL defensive end, forcing the run, and then getting up field using hand/leverage technique to make plays.
Every player on the defensive line except for Antoine Hopkins returns next season. Anything less than prolonged dominance from this group is inexcusable. The wild card, as it has been the last two seasons, is simple. Can Bud Foster use this attacking, slanting design against read-option spread attacks like Clemson, or must he depend on the front four to dominate those teams playing a two-gap scheme?
Hope for the Secondary
The secondary had a mixed evening. Exum, Jarrett, and Bonner had good efforts. Kyle Fuller was solid in run support, but again struggled when forced to play man. Most of FSU's passing game developed off rub plays, or passes to the short flats against slower linebackers. Even with giving up well over 300 yards, and the game winning touchdown, on a clear pick play no less, I think most of us would say that the Hokie secondary had a better effort than we are accustomed to this season.
Perhaps most exciting was a surprise play by freshman Donovan Riley.
I am unsure why Exum was not on the field, but Riley found himself at boundary corner as Florida State was driving early in the game. Bud Foster called a Cover 1 Robber coverage, meaning that every Hokie linebacker and secondary player had man coverage responsibilities, except for the robber, who floats free and reads the eyes of the quarterback in an attempt to get an interception.
Unlike most teams, which use safeties as robbers, Foster uses corners, safeties and sometimes linebackers in the role. Here, Riley plays the robber. He drops off at the snap and reads the QB's eyes instead of bailing deep to help Bruce Taylor on a wheel route. The ball deflects up, and Riley was in perfect position to make a huge play. We have seen way too little of that this season. It was a great play by a young player trusting his instincts instead of making the safe read. With Donaldven Manning possibly leaving the program, Riley's growth will be critical as he, Desmond Frye, Davion Tookes, and all incoming freshmen must contribute to have a better secondary next season.
Hope for the Offense
Hope for the offense? Absolutely. We saw Logan Thomas give an inspired effort (even though it was derailed by his inaccuracy). We saw J.C. Coleman and Tony Gregory run with intensity, and Demitri Knowles and Corey Fuller make plays in the passing game. And, as I have screamed all season, when the Hokies had their best offensive line unit on the field (Becton-Via-Farris-Benedict-Painter), the offense moved the ball. They didn't dominate the Florida State front, but with the occasional exception, the line was efficient and created holes. To be honest, even the play calling wasn't that bad.
Unfortunately, execution, personnel decisions by the staff, and play design prevented Tech from sustaining drives. Logan Thomas not only threw two horrible interceptions, but he missed numerous easy throws in the first half that would have kept drives alive while the defense dominated the Seminoles. Marcus Davis has been lampooned repeatedly for his lack of effort blocking, but the failure of all the wide receivers and tight ends limits the ability to get more than 3-4 yards on perfectly executed sweeps and zone plays. David Wang did his best impression of legendary bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez on a disastrous 3rd quarter series right before the Davis fumble.
Critical red zone plays featured flawed design or set up that made them easy to defend. The Hokies were their own worst enemy on offense.
I want to start with personnel decisions. Again, Curt Newsome insists on playing David Wang when the offense repeatedly takes a step backwards when he's on the field. I know it seems personal at this point, but with the exception of the final Hokie touchdown drive, Wang was abysmal. The film speaks for itself. Here's a critical play to extend a drive. Third-and-three and O'Cain calls a simple power play.
The Hokies catch the Seminoles in the correct front, but Wang gets posted and driven back into the hole. Becton loses his leverage on his turnout, and J.C. Coleman isn't big or strong enough to push the pile forward. This should be an easy first down, but it turns into a punt.
If Newsome stays (which would result in a weekly column by your's truly highlighting even more busts by the front), Wang is going to be the starting guard next year. He must improve his poor footwork and pad level, or next season is going to be just as much of a struggle.
Davis' poor effort is now well documented. Besides the two deep routes where he dropped tough balls, he looked completely checked out in the second half. His blocking was non-existent. His route running looked more like a triple jumper warming up than any kind of serious NFL receiving threat. He played like both of his wrists were broken, and sadly, he wasn't the weakest link on the field. Dyrell Roberts was even worse with his route running. Here, the Hokies run a one man rule route off waggle action to Roberts.
Roberts should run a sharp out or comeback route, but he runs a half speed route that seems to be shaped like a banana. He doesn't force the corner to back off, and his cut doesn't give Thomas a target. Thomas probably needs to throw this ball away, but a fifth year senior has to give his QB more help.
Case in point, this sure looks like a catchable touchdown pass. I think Roberts short arms the ball.
At the very least he has to lay out for it. The rest of the game, Roberts may as well have been invisible with the exception of a 10 yard gain on a late screen pass. His inactivity makes the rest of the offense easier to defend. This week, it appears that Davis and Roberts have been benched.
Kudos to the staff for that, but the eyes in the booth and on the sideline must recognize the detrimental effect these poor efforts have on the rest of the team and make lineup adjustments in the flow of the game. It is lazy to play either Roberts or Davis just because they are seniors or have the most talent when they are not producing.
Finally, O'Cain and Stinespring are not putting players into a position to succeed. I am a big supporter of Ryan Malleck, but you can't have him blocking defensive ends that are as good as FSU's in space without help on critical blocks. You can't run sweeps and zone plays when defensive backs ignore the wide receiver play action threat and the receivers don't make any kind of effort to block (add Corey Fuller to that list, in spite of his other heroics). J.C. Coleman will be a dynamite player, but in traffic, between the tackles, physics takes over and he can't push the pile.
I will touch on play design in my thoughts on the red zone offense.
Red Zone Offense
Perhaps the most virulent post game criticism of the coaches centered on the play calling in the red zone. When I looked back at the film, I found that the play design and the failure to set up the zone read correctly were much bigger problems than the actual play calls. Let's take a look at the Hokies first-quarter, first-and-goal situation.
On first-and-goal, Tech runs what looks like a read option following motion by Marcus Davis.
Upon a second view though, it looks like O'Cain calls this as a direct sweep disguised as a read option based on Painter pulling play side. The tight end is forced to turn out the end. The play requires the wide receiver to seal the linebacker inside, but Fuller doesn't get to his down block on the linebacker. The linebacker fills the hole. Wang pulls, but beaten by the trap man. No gain. Now VT faces second-and-long.
Second-and-goal and it is time to put on our dunce caps, as O'Cain goes back to his fullback clear out route.
The design of this play is incredibly flawed. First, O'Cain is calling it on a clear passing down (second-and-long) so the play action isn't effective. Second, the design calls for Malleck, Eric Martin, and Joey Phillips as the primary options (Dyrell Roberts runs to the far corner, out of sight and out of mind). Then, to really make you scream, Phillips is really the only option, as both tight ends drive into their cover guys without looking back at the quarterback until he is already past the line of scrimmage.
Essentially, O'Cain has called a play targeting his worst receiver running a one-man route, but takes three potential blockers out of the play that could be blocking if this is actually a designed QB draw. As expected, the fullback isn't open, and Thomas makes a great run for a touchdown, that of course is negated by a brutal holding penalty by Vinston Painter.
Hokies end up with a field goal, hinting to the awful ending that awaited our hopes for the upset.
Final Scoring Drive
On the final scoring drive, the coaching staff demonstrated that at least they know which offensive line group is the most effective, even if they forget it during the flow of the game. Via replaced Wang, with Benedict at right guard and Farris at center. The kick return by Coleman gave them great field position. The play calling was surprisingly conservative, but the Hokies executed, opening holes for Coleman and Gregory, while finding Coleman, Gregory, and Fuller open against the Seminole safeties and linebackers. The Hokies reached the FSU 13 yard line with less than 4 minutes left, and aspired to not only score, but to milk the clock and prevent the Seminoles from getting the ball back.
On first down, the Hokies offensive line created a nice hole on an inside zone run.
Coleman makes the right read, and gets five yards. However, near the goal line, the tailback must have the ability to physically run over the unblocked linebacker, or make him miss. Coleman doesn't have space to make a move, and physics take over. He doesn't have the size to push the pile, and what should have been a 2nd-and-3 is a 2nd-and-5.
On second-and-five, the Hokies again run the inside zone.
This time, back side pursuit gets to Coleman. Again, the play is blocked efficiently, but Coleman doesn't have the size to finish. At the same time, Scales probably doesn't have the wiggle to find that hole. They needed a finisher, and if Trey Edmunds isn't redshirted, I think he gets that first down and forces the defense to work that much harder.
Finally, I think everyone in the stadium knew that on 3rd down the zone read was coming.
For those of you who have not played offensive line, when you pull you are dependent on the play side offensive linemen to make a call identifying the front so you know who to trap. Here, Benedict turns up and doesn't kick out the linebacker, who clearly is his assignment. If he makes contact on that backer, the Hokies score a touchdown. Communication? An error in recognizing the defensive front? Again, that falls on Curt Newsome and his teaching.
So, What is the Road Ahead?
I, along with all the fans, were enthused by the improved performance on Thursday night, but unlike most Virginia Tech fans, I don't think it is fait accompli that the Hokies beat BC and UVA to make a bowl. Making a bowl this season is perhaps even more critical than last year. It provides several additional weeks of practice to get Mark Shuman, Laurence Gibson, and the young receivers and defensive backs ready for their first test against Alabama next season. It allows Coach Beamer to also work on weeding out some of the deadwood currently on the roster, and perhaps it would allow the Hokies to make changes to the offensive staff and have them participate in bowl preparations.
But, I don't think it is going to happen. Manning's possible dismissal, Davis' YouTube infamy, and Antone Exum's Tweets about recording a music video makes me feel like this is still a distracted team which gave a maximum effort against the Seminoles that was not rewarded. Boston College, with the noon kickoff and a half-full stadium, gives the perfect environment for a huge letdown. I hate that I have reached that point, and I hope that I am wrong, but I expect the season to reach its nadir on the turf of Chestnut Hill.