We are 5 days removed from the disaster in Death Valley, and I still find myself completely at a loss for what to write. The reality is, I see lots of good things. I really do. I think about 70% of the pieces are there for this to be a great football team. No, I am not kidding. The defensive line has been turned loose two games in a row, and without having the robotic responsibility of slanting to a gap and holding the space rather than pursuing, they have looked like the dominat unit we expected in preseason; a unit that can demolish without parlor tricks. Against both Duke and Clemson, the offense moved the football when it followed a coordinated, sensible plan of attack coupled with reasonable execution. I saw terrific effort, passion, and nastiness from critical players. We have evidence this can work.
Yet, the proof is in the pudding, and that's a stinking 4 up and 4 down record that makes my skin crawl and has the fans gathering pitch forks and lighting the torches. In the past, I have tried hard to not be part of the "fire the coach" drum circle every time some player screws up, as 20-year-old kids are prone to do. I thought that Mike O'Cain did an excellent job in his first season as a play caller, and attributed some of the offensive weaknesses to David Wilson's limitations as a running back and the weakness of the interior of the offensive line. I recognize the upgrade in talent on the offensive side of the football during Stinespring's tenure. At the same time, I repeatedly see the same fundamental errors in teaching. I see an offense that has no attention to detail. What they regard as innovative is actually nonsensical.
Regardless of whatever system the Hokies run year to year, there are a couple of truths of offensive football under the direction of Bryan Stinespring.
The offensive philosophy is a hodgepodge of "the newest thing" offensive ideas, but never a full commitment to any singular approach. With this year probably being the most committed they have been, defenses still only have to defend a small number of plays for each formation and situation.
Regardless of which players are on the field, the same fundamental errors occur:
- Offensive linemen take poor first steps, don't place their head on the correct side, and do not communicate well pre-snap to ensure the correct blocking versus changing defensive fronts.
- Quarterbacks (starting with Grant Noel) consistently hold on to the ball to attempt to make plays downfield. The end result has been numerous highlights that we will remember forever. More often than not, it results in frequent sacks that put the Hokies behind the sticks. Being behind the sticks means it is much more difficult to sustain drives. Problem number 1 this season? Sustaining drives.
- Wide Receivers (with the exception of Danny Coale) have been horrible route runners. Routes are often rounded off, with the worst example being some of the route running in the Kansas Orange Bowl. (Aqib Talib sends his thank you card.) Also, the design of passing plays makes no sense. Play design features four receivers going vertical, or four receivers hooking at the same distance. There is no layering of routes, where one receiver pulls a defender out of a zone so the next receiver through can get open. A terrific example is VT's insistence on sending the running back to the flat 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage on passing plays from the shotgun, outside of the quarterback's line of vision and in no position to be any threat of getting a first down.
Play calling lacks conviction. In one critical situation, the staff becomes highly conservative. For example, the end of the first half of the Clemson game. A Corey Fuller catch put the Hokies on the Clemson 30 with 2:10 to play. O'Cain then called three straight runs, the clock wound down to zero, and they settled for a field goal trailing by 10. Then, as if reacting to the yahoos in the stands who are fussing about the conservative play calling, O'Cain pulls a ridiculous trick play at the worst time to call it, with a play design that would only work when facing the most complete breakdown of a defense that can be imagined.
All of these traits are things we have beaten to death until not only is the horse unrecognizable, but the glue factory is calling my cell phone and telling me to ease up. The offense FINALLY looks like it has some go-to plays in the running game against Duke, then they are abandoned against Clemson. It would be funny if it wasn't so damn sad. The players have some accountability. Logan has to make that throw to Roberts for the long touchdown on the first throw of the third quarter. Blockers must block. Receivers have to run good routes and block, and runners have to run with conviction (I am staring at you Mr. Toss Sweep Short Yardage Michael Holmes). But, as much as we have seen and documented, mistakes that are indicative of poor teaching are mistakes we have seen by players as long as this current staff has been put together. If one player screws up, it is an anomaly. If multiple players make the same mistake, you must look at the common thread.
If I was a donor, Curt Newsome and Kevin Sherman would be tearing tickets at a Cinemall in Kuwait. Stinespring would be the offensive line coach until a better fit was hired. (I am available Beams, for around 86K per year I'd be a steal.) And, Mike O'Cain. Oh, Mike O'Cain. I have spent more energy than I should have over the years defending O'Cain. I admit to you, today, that it was under the false pretense that Mike O'Cain was the head coach and play caller for Phillip Rivers at NC State. For those of you who know me, Phillip Rivers falls into my elite of college quarterbacks. Well, I am watching ESPN Classic a week or two ago and sure enough, Phillip Rivers is torching Florida State, and that handsome cuss Chuck Amato is roaming the sidelines. So much for a memory damaged by a couple of knees to the head, and one too many jugs of gin mixed with grapefruit juice.
So, now I get where NC State, UNC, and Clemson fans have this horrible opinion of O'Cain. At each school, he created a hodgepodge of other offensive ideas, and usually the mix ended up not looking so good, especially at Clemson. Only someone with that track record could come up with a double pass off the screen, and choose to use it at that moment in the game? Why you ask? The play design was terrible, and Clemson was attacking to the screen side aggressively at the mere faint of setting up for a screen at the snap.
The Hokies have two versions of their screen game. The first comes from a variety of cross blocked setups from an I formation with twin receivers to one side away from the tight end. The offense successfully runs a variety of screens from this look, and teams tend to play passively against it because of the run threat, as well as the Hokies tendency to also throw deep from the I. The Hokies did not run a single screen from the I formation. Instead, they ran several varieties of what I have heard called "diamond formation" screens out of the shotgun. The concept is simple. The receiver getting the ball lines up several yards behind the ball, with either twin or three receivers in front of him, who in theory will block.
The theory is well and good, but in practice, it fails, especially for this team. First, the Hokies to my recollection have not showed a diamond formation one time all season. So, seeing it would suggest a "special" play, most likely a trick play. Second, the intended wide receiver is well behind the line of scrimmage, so even a normal screen from that formation must be perfectly blocked, because the defensive backs most likely will get upfield as soon as the receiver takes a bucket step backwards indicating screen. Finally, any scout in the ACC could probably tell you that Davis was a high school QB, so if the Hokies were to throw a pass after a lateral, he would be the guy to do it. O'Cain may as well have shot a signal flare in the sky above Death Valley.
So, you would think that in order to use the double pass, you must run the screen successfully to get a defense to bite. Am I on crazy pills? Well, O'Cain must be. On his first attempt, Clemson sent a loud message that they would attack the screen aggressively.
As soon as J.C. Coleman takes his side step, the corner explodes upfield, past the unprepared blocker, and was actually too fast because he overran a sure interception. I tell you, nothing makes me feel better about setting up a double pass than seeing the defender on top of my passer BEFORE HE GETS THE FOOTBALL. But, as madness started to set in, O'Cain went to the well again!
This time, either Logan botches the throw or Davis sets up wrong, but Clemson is in position to defend the screen even if Davis makes the catch. Freeze the clip at 8:48, and you will see that Clemson has a safety and a corner bracketing the receiver on the opposite side, and Coleman would be covered by the short man (or the safety could step in front of the throw easily) if Davis had looked backside.
But Mike By God O'Cain said in the post-game interview that the staff saw something that made them come back to that look a third time! Viola!
And six points goes the other way. I don't know how anyone can defend this call. What, you ran it so poorly the first couple of times that maybe they would fall asleep on it? What is the justification, especially when the offense has moved the ball with quick slants all game long?
Finally, I leave you with this. Here is the Ellington touchdown run.
Now here is the very is the very next Tech play from the line of scrimmage.
They may not look similar since Clemson scored a touchdown and the Tech gained a yard, but they are the same basic play (a counter/read.) Watch every aspect of the play. Note how the Hokie defense gets tricked by a sharp play fake by Tajh Boyd, and watch how he dives into the line to sell it. Watch how Clemson has bigger splits, but still seals the front. Watch how Ellington finds that seal, and aggressively hits the hole. Watch the speed and precision, then watch Tech's version. Nothing is as fast. Nothing is as sharp. Clemson's defenders ignore the fake. The screen option isn't an option because the play design leaves Logan's back to the receiver. Nothing is sharp. Why? Because the folks who designed this offense "learned" it during one week in Texas (you know, because when I think spread/veer, I think Texas and their dynamo offense the last two seasons). They don't know how to teach it.
I have become one of those guys. I don't know where they get an offensive mind who will have the power and authority to develop a real offensive concept, and be given the ability to recruit to that skill set. I don't know how they cut loose some of these coaches who can recruit, but clearly can't teach the positions they are responsible for, but it needs to be done. Offenses have caught up to Bud Foster's defense, and Tech's offense requires an attention to detail that this staff has demonstrated time and again it can't achieve. Burn the house down.
If my apathy will overcome it, there will be more to come this bye week. Topics include:
- Sliding pass blocking schemes to address blitzes: Poor Offensive Communication and Terrible usage of Running Backs.
- The Struggles of Vinston Painter (his worst game of the season).
- Bud Foster changing his approach to defensive line play. Pro's (Great pass rush) Con's (exposing the lack of athleticism at linebacker)
Thanks in advance for your comments!