On the eve of a critical Thursday night matchup with the Miami Hurricanes, questions about the Hokie offense abound. While any changes to the offensive coaching staff, and a corresponding change in philosophy, will not take place until the offseason, we have seen a radical change in Bud Foster's defensive approach that has resulted in a significantly improved pass rush and run defense over the past two weeks. That continued success will be critical to any hopes of victory against a depleted, yet talented Hurricanes offense.
A quick comparison of film from the Pitt and UNC games versus the Duke and Clemson games demonstrates two significant changes in Bud Foster's philosophy.
A New Spin on an Old Trick: 4-4 and Stopping the Run
The first was a return to the old 90's 4-4 alignment, but adjusted to fit three and four wide receiver sets. It was utilized to shore up a previously porous run defense.
Up front, the Hokie defensive line did not stunt east-west to create tackling alleys for the linebackers. Instead, they played heads up, with the goal of getting penetration into the backfield. With some exceptions, the inside linebackers scraped sideline to sideline and filled when appropriate. Michael Cole aligned as the free safety in center field. Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum lined up as either press or soft corners. Kyshoen Jarrett and Dietrick Bonner lined up as outside linebackers. While each would flex out on slot receivers if one was aligned to their side, their run responsibility and reads were almost identical to those of a 3-4 outside linebacker. They play outside-in with screen, throwback, and reverse responsibility.
Both Jarrett and Bonner excelled in "squeezing" the Clemson buck sweep series, forcing Andre Ellington back to the inside by attacking the pulling guard and making the hole small. Here is a terrific example:
Initially, Clemson lines up twins to the right side. Exum is on the wide receiver, which is flexed off the line. Bonner lines up on the slot. The flexed receiver motions back to the inside, and Exum retreats across the formation. Clemson runs a sweep, with the motion receiver cracking back on the middle linebacker as well as the slot receiver. Clemson pulls a lineman to kick Bonner out, while the back runs inside the seam created by the kick out block and the crack backs. Bonner runs upfield at a 45 degree angle, leading with his inside (right shoulder) and keeping his outside shoulder free. He beats the guard to the spot and makes the play, but even if the guard does get to Bonner, he can still recover and close up field if the back tries to bounce it outside. This is perfect technique. Ultimately, he gets a hand on the back, and Jack Tyler and Michael Cole both beat the crack blocks and fill the hole perfectly, resulting in a one yard loss.
Bonner has been a whipping boy all season, but this was by far his best game of the season, especially in run support. Here again, Bonner squeezes the sweep.
This time he doesn't make the tackle, but he successfully squeezes the pulling guard enough to allow Jarrett to fill the hole.
Miami runs a much more traditional I-formation, and has some talented running backs in Duke Johnson and Mike James (hasn't James been there since Boss Bailey played at Georgia?) In the past couple of games they have somewhat abandoned the running game, but Miami bludgeoned Tech last year on the ground. The Hurricanes return several road graders up front, so it will be interesting to note if Foster uses the 8-man front to stop the run.
Raising a Fit: Pressuring the QB
While the secondary lacks depth and talent, both weaknesses have been over-exposed due to the lack of pass rush displayed up front. Earlier this season, I questioned the ability of some of the recognized stars and four-star prospects, but as the season has played out, my opinion changed. I felt that the defensive line as a whole had become robotic in fulfilling their gap responsibilities, and the burden of slanting east-west and then standing their ground at a disadvantage was limiting their natural aggressiveness. It culminated against UNC, where the defensive line got zero pass rush, and often slanted to their assigned gap and stopped without pursuing the ball carrier. The system used to make less talented defensive linemen look good because they stunted into the right place at the right time, but limits gifted playmakers.
Starting with the Duke game, Foster has almost completely abandoned stunting to stop the run, and instead of having the defensive ends playing a tentative read and react game, he is letting them get the edge and get up field. This places more of a burden on the inside linebackers, as they must now scrape laterally on wide runs and neither is particularly fleet afoot, but it has allowed talented pass rushers like Luther Maddy and James Gayle to break loose.
Gayle has benefited the most. I can't count how many times I have seen Gayle on third-and-long passing situations get poor jumps on the snap, and then pull up to tie up the tackle. Some of this has been a product of design, where the defensive line draws the attention of the blockers while the inside linebackers pressure the QB through the lanes that are created. In other situations, he appeared to have some kind of read responsibility, which required him to determine with certainty that the play is a pass before rushing effectively. In this new approach, the defensive line is allowed to take on blockers, beat them, and make plays. Gayle has flourished in this new direction.
Right off the bat, both Maddy and Gayle made their presence felt. On the Tiger's first offensive snap, Maddy utilized a nasty hand slap and exploded through the space he created to envelop the Tajh.
Luther doesn't have a particularly explosive first step, but his violent hands give him a direct path and he has an explosive second step. The downside to this aggression is that in order to use effective leverage techniques (with the exception of a rip move) you must lose some of your pad level, which makes you vulnerable to draws and sprint draws. The upside is that a pass rush by the defensive tackles blocks the quarterback's vision and allows you to drop the backers into soft zones, protecting the weaker defensive backs. Again, we have Maddy with an explosive finish off an X stunt.
Boy, he really could be a steal in the draft, especially if he improves against the straight-ahead running game.
On the third snap, the Hokies get a second sack from Gayle. Gayle uses his quickness and a low rip technique to get outside leverage on the Clemson right tackle.
Unlike most teams, Foster put's his best pass rusher on the right side of the offensive line. While this takes away opportunities for blind side hits, it usually puts Gayle against the weaker pass blocking tackle. Turning him loose should continue to pay dividends, as demonstrated again by this kind of relentless pressure.
The ability to rush with four gives Bud Foster more flexibility in his zone coverage. He can drop linebackers into short zones. He can use a player like RVD to replace one of the inside linebackers to add some coverage. It also makes the interior zone blitz more effective because the offense can't anticipate it. Case in point was this sack by Bruce Taylor immediately following the second Maddy sack.
Foster uses a 30 front with Vandyke in as an extra linebacker. The offensive line, especially the left guard, looks totally unprepared for the quick blitz.
Thursday Night, in an Empty Stadium
Ultimately, we know that the Hokies are going to be maddeningly inconsistent on offense. Miami has one of the worst rushing defenses in the country. Yet, I don't think we can count on a breakout offensive game from this unit, especially if we see more changes on the offensive line and in the backfield. I think the Hokies win the game, but the only way to be certain of victory is for the defense to show up looking like the stellar unit that we anticipated seeing all season. The weakness of the secondary requires pass rush to keep big plays from happening in the passing game, and that pass rush can only tee off if VT shuts down Duke Johnson.
The stadium is going to be empty, and I anticipate one of the strangest Thursday night football atmospheres we have seen. The Hurricanes have stunk for the last three weeks, struggling on both sides of the ball, and they stink of a team that will quit if the Hokies can step on their throat early. They also have talent on offense, similar to some of the special talent that UNC had last season. The Hokies didn't step on the Tar Heels' throats. With this game absolutely critical to any chance of a division, will they show the attention to detail and killer instinct that we have not seen outside of the Duke game this year?