I stated my emotional reaction to the Cincinnati game in Joe's epic "All I Have To Say" column on Saturday night. The offensive identity issue has presented itself as a long term issue, and, barring a complete cultural change in the program, it is an issue that will continue to self-correct in sputters and gaps. While I may not be a fan of the spread/pistol system, I want to be 100% clear that I think any offensive system can succeed with outstanding execution, 100% player buy-in, and a play caller who understands how to use the system. And, regardless of the system, be it from the shotgun or lining up in the straight T, any offense is better when the offensive line kicks ass.
I tried to go into the film review with an open mind. Watching the film, I came up with the following conclusions. Some may surprise you, others may not.
No player was more responsible for this loss than Logan Thomas. He was horrible for long stretches. The touchdown run and the long touchdown to Fuller can't cover up some of his horrendous decision making and inaccuracy. Two of the other leaders, Marcus Davis and Dyrell Roberts, made no effort whatsoever to block in the first half, and also quit on routes repeatedly (to their credit, they were both terrific in the second half). You can't win when the guys who absolutely must be great are not great. In the first half, Thomas, Davis, and Roberts were not even serviceable.
While the output was terrible in the first half, it is amazing how close they are from actually being effective on offense. It seemed like each play was well executed except for one critical component. The line would block, the receiver would be open, and Logan would overthrow him. The sweep is well blocked up front, but the wide receiver misses (or loafs) on a crack-back. The o-line blocks great at the point of attack, but someone on the back side of the play can't reach block someone on the inside gap. Or, linemen would combo block on a defensive tackle, but nobody would roll off to the next level to get the linebacker. The play calling was not the problem (much to my chagrin after ranting about play-calling for this system on Saturday night). However, the staff definitely has a problem with their pregame preparation that lends itself to these poor starts. The outstanding second half (almost perfect offensively except for one blown blitz pickup and two bad throws) shows the top end potential for this offense.
The defensive front-seven played their best game of the season. I cannot take a person seriously if they question the effort and execution of the linebackers and defensive line. I thought Bruce Taylor had his best football game since 2010, the same for Antoine Hopkins. Jack Tyler was outstanding and his skill set was utilized correctly. J.R. Collins, James Gayle, Tyrel Wilson, and Corey Marshall played sideline-to-sideline which kept the Bearcats off the edge, and the interior tackles took away the dive on the read without help.
Alternatively, the secondary proved what we suspected before the fall, that they would be exposed in man coverage. This may not be a popular opinion, but after watching the film, I think that Antone Exum played as well as he can play with the way he is being utilized. Jarrett and Cole were absolutely terrific in run support, but both are weak in coverage, especially in man. Effort was not an issue with these three, but ability to cover in man is an issue, and will continue to be.
At the same time, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the first guy who sits when Kendall Fuller comes to town is Detrick Bonner, and Kyle Fuller had his worst game as a Hokie. By my count, he gave up 7 completions for 10 or more yards, with 6 coming on 3rd-and-10+ down and distance situations. The game winning touchdown was a Kyle Fuller bust. The coverage called should have resulted in an easy interception, as we will discuss below.
For the purpose of bandwidth, I will submit a defensive review later this week. Here are my thoughts on the offense.
Identity and Attention to Detail
I can't sum up the Hokies offensive trouble this year better than Virginian Pilot Columnist Tom Robinson:
"It's inexplicable: Virginia Tech could practice for two months, have a quarterback widely considered an NFL first-rounder, yet still play offense as horrendously as in Saturday's first half against Cincinnati.
Virginia Tech has to produce as many fruitless plays as any presumed conference contender in the country. Through their first four games, 45 percent of the Hokies' plays - not counting kneel downs or short touchdown runs - reaped fewer than 3 yards.
Of their 1,465 yards coming in, nearly half came from just 28 plays.
The Hokies are largely incapable of piecing together 50 yards of sustained activity: only a third of their possessions have covered that distance. Hit or miss held form again: 213 of Tech's 402 yards came on only seven plays."
Joe touched on the same point earlier this season, the Hokies offense has been either big play, or disaster. If I had the time and resources, I would love to create a statistical analysis to see what percentage of the Hokies offensive plays gain between 4 and 7 yards. The big plays are a testament to having more talent than we would like to recognize, but the lack of consistency and execution are reflected in the huge number of negative plays or short gains.
Perhaps more frustrating is the dichotomy between the first and second halves. In the first half, our reaction was to be angry at the coaches for poor play calling. I was guilty of the same thing, because watching live the lack of first down conversions prevented continuity. The film showed me that each play in the first half was well conceived, followed a logical pattern of risk/reward, and based on the defense and the review of the action, should have been successful (meaning resulting in a 4-7 yard gain). However, on every play, one player seemed to fail in executing an assignment.
What the hell happened to our Quarterback?
All season, the Hokies running backs have been perceived as the weakest position on the field, but each back performed solidly on Saturday. J.C. Coleman was more explosive, Martin Scales was cheated out of a touchdown in limited snaps, and Michael Holmes ran much more assertively than in weeks past. I still think Coleman would be my guy out of the three, but each was used effectively and would have been even more effective if the Hokies could have sustained drives early.
At the same time, Logan Thomas was a nightmare. This week, he seemed to clean up some of his pre-snap issues by using the snap count to get the defense off balance, and he was much sharper on the read option. However, his footwork, release point, and failure to follow through resulted in numerous high throws or throws behind receivers at critical moments. He also seemed to be completely focused on Corey Fuller in the first half, causing him to miss other open targets.
Even more frustrating is that the accuracy problems came mostly on plays where he wasn't rushed or pressured on throws. Most of them were pitch and catch type throws for serviceable D-I BCS starters. Let's take a look at back-to-back second quarter plays and watch how Logan's mechanics impact his throws.
On this play, the Hokies run trips left. Dyrell Roberts runs a hard inside route at 7 yards, and Corey Fuller picks the defender and then runs a corner route. Both receivers are open, and Logan chooses to go to Fuller, but overthrows him by 10 feet. Now, watch the play again, but focus on Logan. After the snap, he drops two steps and then plants his right leg, but instead of pushing off and throwing, he takes a small hop step back forward. At that point, he doesn't have a solid push off point for his back leg, which is where the power comes from in a throw. If you freeze his release point, even though his arm is coming forward, his weight is still on his back leg and his back is still arched way back.
There is no follow through with any force, and the ball sails high.
On the next play, the same thing happens.
This time, the Logan rolls to the boundary. Dyrell Roberts rubs off a Fuller pick for a short out, and Fuller sneaks behind three defenders on a post corner. Thomas again never gets a firm plant on his back foot, and the ball sails high behind Roberts.
Even on successful plays, Logan's feet are a mess. On this scramble and throw to Davis, Logan's feet get tied up, and his left leg buckles as the throws awkwardly.
Fortunately his arm strength managed to get the ball to a wide open Davis.
These issues culminated in two critical plays down the stretch. I don't need to discuss Dunn's interception, as it was clear that he was wide open, and Logan had a horrendous throw. An easy touchdown turned into game changing interception. But, I thought even more troubling was the third-and-long throw to Marcus Davis on the drive before the Corey Fuller touchdown.
The Bearcats had just regained momentum, and the Hokies faced third-and-long after a Ryan Malleck (boy has he let me down) drop on the previous play. Logan goes to Davis on a deep in route, and Davis is wide open, with both Bearcat defenders well behind him. Again, Thomas (this time with no apparent issues with his mechanics) sails the ball high and behind Davis. This was a critical play for the Hokies, and it seemed like last season, Logan made that play every time the Hokies needed it. I can't find any reason why the throw was off, other than to guess that he was indecisive. I welcome your thoughts here.
The huge throw to Fuller for the final touchdown would have been one hell of a band aid, but these problems need to be fixed, and fast.
Deplorable Wide Receiver Play in the first half
I don't know if words can describe my disgust watching fifth year seniors Marcus Davis and Dyrell Roberts blocking and running routes in the first half, so I am not going to even try.
Dyrell Roberts "blocking" from the right slot.
Marcus Davis route running when not the primary receiver. (It was nice of ESPN to circle him before the play so we could watch him loaf.)
And, the coup de grace, Marcus Davis "Blocking" from the left flanker spot, not making contact, and turning around to walk back to the huddle before the back is tackled.
I am offended that I played the same sport after watching that.
To their credit, both guys had terrific second halves, but if I was coaching, I don't know if either guy would have seen the field after those debacles. And, I can assure you, there was plenty more where those plays came from.
The Hokies blocking scheme is overly reliant on the ability of the line to reach block defensive linemen. A reach block (or a scoop block in the lexicon I was taught) is simply cutting off the pursuit of a defender who is aligned closer to the play side than lineman.
Here is a diagram showing a basic reach block.
The technique for a reach blocker is simple in concept. If the running back runs right, the blocker takes a hard step with his right foot flat down the line of scrimmage. The blocker then takes steps hard with his left foot, using an aiming point at the left thigh pad of the defender, so at contact the head is between the defender and the play-side gap, and the left shoulder ideally is in contact with the left side of the defender's torso or leg. Ideally, the blocker will then take another hard step with the right leg, pivot, and turn the defender back to the right. The tracking makes this almost look like an ice cream scoop, hence the name "scoop block."
Now, I can tell you from experience that this block is not as simple as it looks on a diagram. The defender is already closer to the ball than the o-lineman. Generally, defensive linemen are much quicker and more athletic than offensive linemen, and even if the blocker does get his head across, only the greats can get their body turned and shield the defender on a consistent basis. If this is the assignment back side on any running play other than a zone run right, tbe best chance of success is to aim at the left ankle rather than the hip and cut him, and college defensive tackles are usually athletic enough to win that battle most of the time.
Last week I picked on Matt Arkema, and he had a bad attempt at a reach block this week as well.
Arkema attempts to scoop block #95, and doesn't get good head position. Number 95 has better pad level, and tosses Arkema on his backside. That is embarrassing. Don't fret Arkema fans, he did some good things as well. (This play isn't helped by a dreadful attempt at a crack-back by Corey Fuller. Receiver blocking and effort was a problem all day.)
One technique to make the reach block easier is called a combination block.
Unfortunately, the Hokies did not effectively combo block the Bearcat defensive tackles and get to the second level. Here, we have a very nice looking read by Logan Thomas on a read option.
Logan correctly reads the Bearcat defensive end and hands to Holmes. If you pause at the 3:10 mark, you can see that Vinston Painter (right tackle towards the top of your screen) has effectively pulled the left defensive end up field, creating a nice hole for Holmes. Up front, Nick Becton and Matt Arkema effectively double team block on the right defensive tackle, while Andrew Miller and Brent Benedict have effectively double teamed the left defensive tackle.
At this point, things start to unravel. On a combination block, the two offensive linemen double the defender in order to give the key blocker an angle by which to cut off the defender's line of pursuit. Once that is achieved, the secondary blocker comes off the block and goes to block the linebacker. On both combo blocks, the secondary blocker stays engaged with the defensive tackle. If you freeze at the 3:11 mark, four blockers are tied up with the two defensive tackles, while both middle linebackers are unblocked in space. Even though there is a nice hole, the linebacker fills and tackles Holmes for a 2 yard gain. The Hokies are now in second and 8, despite a nice play call, a sharp read on the option, and a terrific initial hole.
As I discussed last week, I really think the Hokies offensive line would be aided by incorporating more "roll-it" blocks into their scheme.
A roll-it block is an option block, meaning the offensive line comes to the line of scrimmage and uses vocal cues to change the way they plan to block on a play. A roll-it means that rather than reaching a defensive tackle, the next lineman will block back, and the lineman who was supposed to reach will pull, similar to a trap block, behind the down blocker and turn up on the second level. This creates a much easier angle to prevent the tackle from catching the play from the back side, and forms bubbles in the defensive pursuit merely through the motion. The Hokies utilize roll-it kick out blocks as their standard block on the short yardage off tackle power play that I have highlighted Brent Benedict on often this season, and they use it as a trap block for the read option that Logan Thomas used so well last season and scored with on Saturday. Yet, for reasons I do not understand, they do not use it to handle most reach blocking situations, and they NEVER use it on the back side of a play. If I could have five minutes with Curt Newsome, I would beg for him to explain why this technique is not used.
As the game wore on, the offensive line started to dominate this game. The counter action the Hokies used in the second half froze the defenders, and the offensive line took advantage and pounded them upon contact. On almost every running play down the stretch, I saw the Bearcat front four going backwards. The mix isn't right just yet, but I stand by the idea that the top five linemen on this team can be a very good unit.
Even Matt Arkema did a little bit of stomping on the Bearcats. On the Logan Thomas touchdown run, watch the left guard. Arkema initially drives the defensive tackle inside, and when he starts to lose him, he continues to drive his feet and pushes the tackle into the end zone as he attempts to tackle Thomas. It wasn't pretty, but that is the physical dominance I am looking for from this line.
Just for the record, I can't figure out how this is a hold. Riley Biero threw one hell of a block here, and the official threw dirt on his pancake.
Thanks for reading this week. I am eager to discuss, and look forward to your comments.