I apologize this is late this week. Stay in school, because day jobs are not as fun as history lectures. -- French
The homecoming game against Duke came at a critical time during Frank Beamer's tenure. While the talent deficiencies in key areas make it most likely that the Hokies are not a great bet to run the table, a loss to Duke would have shaken the aura of invincibility that Virginia Tech has over the weaker programs in the ACC. That aura often has weaker teams beaten before they step off the bus, and it has given the Hokies several wins over the last 8 years that have kept them relevant as a regional power. Now we come to the three measuring stick games for 2012, starting perhaps with the toughest matchup, the Clemson Tigers.
As Joe indicated earlier this week, Clemson's dominance of the Hokies undermined an otherwise terrific season. In Charlotte last year, I sat behind the same end zone as I did when I saw the Hokies destroy Florida State. This time I watched the hillbilly version of UVA students stick their pinky finger in the air and twirl it in an "O" to complete the spelling of their alma mater so many times that I wanted to snap them off. Clemson continues to run a hybrid of the spread, single wing, and wing-t offense designed by Chad Morris. This offense, which uses veer dives, play-action, and counters, takes Bud Foster out of his stunting, gap control game plan.
Bud Foster used a slanting front based on Clemson's formation, but time and again Clemson's wing-t style angle blocking repeatedly sealed VT's defensive tackles and middle linebackers inside, while the defensive ends could not squeeze the gaps due to their responsibility of Tajh Boyd on bootlegs, and providing support on the jet sweep fake. This created huge gaps in the defensive front seven, and with Antone Exum locked up with Dwayne Allen, there was very little safety support against the run. In the second half, Jayron Hosley's injury allowed Clemson to get their play action game going, and the dam broke.
The 2012 matchup finds the Hokies weaker in the secondary, and finds Clemson more mature at the skill positions. The Hokies will need a remarkable performance from this defense, perhaps coupled with a change in philosophy, and at least 35 points and ball control by the offense to win this game. The Hokies righted the ship against Duke, and the Duke film gives us a glimpse at a sharper offense that must control the football and finish drives against Clemson. At the same time, the film points to a defense that must makes some changes in order to not be decimated by Clemson's superstar skill players.
Die Slow or Die Fast: What Choice Does Foster Make?
Bud Foster has a difficult choice to make. While the Hokies shut down Duke after the first quarter, Duke's lack of execution and the first effective four man pass rush we have seen this season played a much bigger role in the Blue Devil collapse than any adjustment up front. If Bud follows his game plan from the Sugar Bowl, I would anticipate that we will see Kyle Jarrett and Michael Cole (or Ronny Vandyke, who did not have a great game against Duke) playing almost like outside linebackers, and the defensive ends will be standing up and reading the blocks by the end man on the line of scrimmage and reacting accordingly. This strategy puts significant pressure on the defensive tackles and inside linebackers to completely shut down Clemson's inside read play and buck sweep, which both failed miserable to do last year. Our tackles had terrific efforts against Duke, but both Jack Tyler and Bruce Taylor had forgettable days. Case in point:
Tyler and Taylor must be able to make the initial tackle, because the safeties likely will be playing close to the line of scrimmage, and any breakthroughs won't have their support to stop. Based on the film of other teams playing Clemson, I think Foster would be wise to play Tyler and Taylor a little deeper, and look for them to scrape rather than attacking an assigned gap. Traditionally, both middle backers play very close to the line of scrimmage, and that makes the down block much easier for a big lumbering lineman (less distance to travel, and the linebacker runs into you when pursuing).
I doubt it would happen, but I would love to see Foster scrap his stand up defensive end approach, and put the ends wide like the old wide tackle six. It would be high risk, but I think that allowing Clemson to bleed you dry with solid gains isn't a winning strategy. I'd like to see Gayle and Marshall angled wide, lined up at a 45 degree angle, and their target zone should be a point one yard in front of Boyd's alignment in the shotgun and attempt to hit Boyd on every play. While it makes the Hokies vulnerable to inside runs, Boyd is prone to turnovers if he gets battered, and he doesn't have the safety valve in Allen like last season. I would love to see Gayle really get turned loose and play an instinctual game, rather than the robotic effort we have seen most of this season. I think Duke's right tackle would testify that an angry Gayle playing fast is problematic to deal with.
"RUSH THE QUARTERBACK."- Bill Cowher.
Die Safe, or Die Fast in Coverage
The Hokies appear that they will attempt to play man on Nuk Hopkins and Sammy Watkins this week; Kyle Fuller playing Hopkins and Antone Exum on Watkins. Watkins plays the flanker, which means he lines up flexed off the line of scrimmage. This makes him almost impossible to press cover on pass pro. Exum also will be responsible for motioning with Watkins, and I would imagine he will be put into one on one tackling situations frequently. Fuller meanwhile will see Hopkins line up at split end. Last season, Hopkins decimated with Hokies with quick pop routes and deep curls, so tackling will be at a premium for Fuller.
Against Duke, the Hokies played a ton of press coverage early, and Duke beat them twice over the top. Given how much of a deep threat Watkins and Hopkins are, you must keep your fingers crossed that the Hokies can stop the run, which will allow Bonner, Cole, and Jarrett to drop into robber zones over the top. Turnovers must be the key to the Hokies defensive plan, and forcing Boyd to throw quickly against disguised zones is the vehicle for making those turnovers happen.
Getting Downhill and Attacking the Soft Belly of the Clemson Defense
The win over Duke was keyed by a dominant performance by the Hokie offensive line and a much quicker downhill running game. Logan Thomas was much sharper with his option reads, and all the post snap motion was much quicker. The dominant performance up front opened up the play action passing game, so much so Marcus Davis' first big play came on a Logan Thomas play fake to nobody. Seeing a complete effort is encouraging because even if the Hokies have their best defensive performance of the season, the Virginia Tech offense must deliver their best offensive performance of the season in order to defeat Clemson. Bryan Stinespring and Mike O'Cain had a terrific game plan for Duke. Early on, the Hokies used the counter action we have seen in previous games, but the play calling made a concerted effort to run aggressively downhill in the gaps created by the threats to the outside.
Their game plan was almost derailed early by poor execution. An overthrow here, a drop there, and the early drives failed to bail out the floundering defense. The match that started the offensive explosion was a play that I have SCREAMED for throughout the season, the quick hitting veer dive/read option from the pistol.
A quick study of the pistol innovators, Nevada, shows that the veer dive is critical to force the defense to tighten up interior gaps, opening up off tackle plays and the read option. All season, the Hokies have barely utilized the play, and when they have, it has been a slow developing off tackle play, often with Michael Holmes slowly bouncing it in soft lanes to the outside. Finally in the seventh game, Tony Gregory's speed gets the play working correctly.
With Gregory quickly moving straight into the line, it forces the offensive line to pop off the football and get north-south immediately. Freeze the play at 5:41, and the offensive line is across the front playing on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage.
The quick hitting nature of the play doesn't give the defensive line time to engage and shed the block, so even though the lane is small, the Duke defenders must go on their heels in order to even hope of making contact. The veer blocking only needs to be successful at the point of attack, and backside pursuit isn't quick enough to get there before the back reaches the second level. It makes the offense THE AGGRESSOR, which is something we have seen far too rarely from the Hokies this season.
Running on the interior is critical for the matchup with Clemson. Last season, Clemson's defensive tackle Brandon Thompson essentially took away the dive play, and the Tigers played their ends, linebackers, and safeties all outside of the number 3 gap in order to take away David Wilson on the corner. With Thompson now gone, and Clemson weak on the defensive front, getting solid 4-5 yard chunks on the interior keeps the defense off the field and the offense in rhythm.
Building off the dive, the read option becomes more viable. Rather than picking between the pistol read option, the jet sweep read option, and the shotgun read option, it seems that the Hokies go-to is now the jet sweep read option with the running back serving as a lead blocker and J.C. Coleman as the slot man. Let's examine this play:
Earlier in the game, the Hokies had successfully ran the straight hand off to Gregory. On the play prior to the one above, Logan handed off to J.C. Coleman for a seven yard gain on the sweep. If you freeze the film at 9:49, note that even without Gregory blocking anyone, the defensive end has gotten far enough up field looking at Coleman that Logan can run inside, and the nickel corner and the outside linebacker both stay outside with Coleman.
Three players are tied up without even being blocked.
Next, and critical worth noting given the Hokies struggles blocking on the interior versus Clemson, review the terrific combination block on the Duke eagle-weak defensive tackle by left guard Michael Via and center Andrew Miller. At the snap, it appears that Via attempts to reach block the tackle, and we have noted how difficult a reach block is in previous columns. However, Miller takes a lead step and turns back towards the defensive tackle, which merely by body position creates a seam for Logan to run through. Miller hits the tackle and then moves on to the middle linebacker, and that chuck gives Via a better chance of cutting off the angle. Last season, Miller and Nosal repeatedly failed to execute this block against Clemson, and it allowed Clemson to overload the outside running lanes. In doing so, the Hokies became one dimensional.
Once the Hokies established the interior, they got big plays running on the edge. Last week, I highlighted Eric Martin's inability to effectively block on the edge and that inability's crippling effect on the running game. With Martin injured, Ryan Malleck got an opportunity to be the every down tight end, and he had his best game of the season.
On two Hokie touchdown runs, Malleck threw key blocks where he demonstrates terrific leg drive and body position, two traits that were woefully lacking in Hokie blockers against UNC. Here is the first touchdown run by Martin Scales.
Malleck lines up on the left side, and has responsibility for the right outside linebacker. The Hokies run their normal goal line power play, with Malleck responsible for creating an inside seal, the guard (Via) kicking out the end man, and Phillips killing the linebacker attempting to fill the gap. Watch Malleck make terrific contact chest to chest, keep his feet moving, and drive the linebacker two steps backwards. Now, compare that to Martin against UNC and you already see a major upgrade.
Fast forward to J.C. Coleman's touchdown that ended up as the game winner, Malleck again throws the key block by reaching the defensive end.
At the snap, Malleck chips the defensive end (#84), turning his pads to the inside. This allows Nick Becton an extra step to get his head on the left side of the defender and create the first inside seal. Malleck then moves to the outside backer. Malleck then gets his head on the outside of the linebacker, and turns him inside, also effectively sealing the middle linebacker. Phillips is now one-on-one with the corner, and he wipes him out. I am not sure if Coleman has had an easier run since high school. If the Hokies can establish this kind of run dominance both inside and out, it gives the defense, especially the linebackers and secondary, less time facing Clemson's defense.
It doesn't hurt that Malleck also contributed in the passing game.
Logan makes a great throw here, and this play can have ripple effects down the road. Defenses know that Dunn being in the game means a likely pass and a down the field threat from the seam, but now, they must keep their safeties deeper because they now know Malleck can also stretch the field.
Everything culminates with the final J.C. Coleman touchdown run.
The Duke defenders are bamboozled by the fake to Davis and the interior threat of Thomas. Ryan Malleck and Brent Benedict absolutely MASHES the left side of the Duke defense, and J.C. Coleman has himself another leisurely jaunt down the sideline.
Ultimately, Clemson is the toughest matchup for the Hokies this season. I truly feel that Virginia Tech must score 35+ points, get a minimum of 2 Clemson turnovers, and have their best defensive game of the season to win. Let's hope that last year's humiliation is a strong tonic.