This is a hit piece. I can't run from the fact that on Saturday, the Hokies were so poor in their fundamental execution of their basic responsibilities that I find myself doubting that they can turn this ship around this season. After the end of the debacle in Chapel Hill, I tried desperately to find some kind of building block to give me hope for the immediate future. I expected to turn on the film of the game, and see tremendous effort sabotaged by singular errors in execution that we should come to expect with a young team that is struggling to gel. Instead, I saw breakdown after breakdown of the most basic fundamentals in football.
- Leg drive: Keep your feet moving. Chop your feet. Drive, drive, drive!
- Pursuit: Get to the football and gang tackle.
- Leverage: Be quick off the snap count. Low man wins. Play downhill.
- Shedding blocks: Be violent to get off blocks, or be so quick so you don't get blocked in the first place.
Ultimately, UNC did every one of these things better. Their offensive line was under the pads of the Hokie defensive line from the third possession on, and kept their leg drive while the Tech defensive linemen stunted to their gaps, got blocked, and stayed blocked. The UNC defenders got up field and shed blockers like they were an unruly horsefly, while the Hokie offensive line, especially the interior linemen, and the tight ends stood straight up with dead feet and were knocked backwards all game long.
I can accept that some of the kids in the secondary just are not talented enough to succeed in the position they have been placed. I can accept that the young running backs will struggle due to lack of experience. I don't expect perfect execution from 18-22 year old kids, because Lord knows I blew my share of assignments. But, to be so bad at the basics of football, at skills that these players are taught from the day they put on the pads in midget league, leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. I am no insider, and I don't pretend to know what these kids are being taught, but effort, leg drive, body position, and aggression are universal truths in football ideology. When I watched the film, I didn't see enough of any of this, and my breakdown leaves me asking more questions than discovering answers, especially when some of the guilty parties are players who have a proven track record of high performance.
Then, you add the gasoline on the fire. The Hokies lost Saturday while players who have demonstrated these capabilities spent the entire football game glued to the bench. I am reminded of Sean Connery's famous line in the Untouchables, "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight." By my count, the Hokies had six positions on offense and defense manned by players who I do not feel are talented enough to ever be regarded in the top-half of the ACC at their position, and three positions where I don't think the current players could start at any other ACC program.
Meanwhile, several players who have demonstrated the ability to be playmakers, to look like men amongst boys if you will, continue to receive limited or no playing time, and then if they make a mistake they return to the bench while the starters continue to be physically dominated. In my experience, that culture is devastating to team morale, and you could see the defense trying to go beyond their responsibilities to make up for those deficiencies, and it wrecked the system.
Blocking: A Key, Every Time
The Hokies have made a choice to utilize the spread and to use it in a fashion that is dependent on counter-action to influence defenders into being out of position rather than go straight at them and beat the defense physically. While there are other things to criticize (I think poor play-fakes are causing defenders to ignore the influence motion, causing the double whammy of removing a potential blocker from the space where you intend to go while leaving an additional unblocked player), the blocking just isn't good enough for any running back, much less this group, to have success against a top defense. With the exception of the first drive, you can pick almost any running play and most of the Hokie offensive line is on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage. Even when the offensive line neutralizes the interior, defensive backs and linebackers are having a field day running freely in pursuit because of the repeated failure of tight ends and wide receivers to block. Normally, I wouldn't beat a dead horse, but Saturday was not a normal Hokie loss. Today, I throw stones.
First, the Hokies had success using a buck sweep against Cincinnati and tried to get the same thing going against UNC. The buck sweep creates a seal inside through a blindside down block on the outside linebacker and defensive end and a seal outside by a pulling guard dominating a defensive back.
Unfortunately for the Hokies, the sweep requires an effective down block from the tight end on the defensive end to prevent the entire play from being blown up. Enter Eric Martin and Corey Fuller.
At the snap, despite be flexed off the line of scrimmage giving him a better angle at a down block, Martin takes a poor first step and goes straight ahead rather than moving at the angle and cutting off inside penetration. His head is also on the outside of the defender, rather than in front of him. With proper head position, a good angle, and ACC-caliber leg drive, Martin would have driven the defensive end at least a step inside and prevented penetration which caused Michael Via (pulling from right guard) to take a deeper angle, slowing the progression of the play. The issue is made worse by Corey Fuller. Fuller comes inside to crack on the outside linebacker gingerly, and failing to make contact, chases the linebacker into the backfield instead of moving on to a safety or back side pursuit. The play-fake also fails to freeze the nickel corner or safeties, so despite a good lead block by Michael Via and solid blocking by all four other linemen, the nickel and the safeties are waiting on Holmes after he makes a great adjustment just to avoid a 5 yard loss.
Later in the same series, Eric Martin fails to execute a block and it derails an opportunity to keep a drive alive. The Hokies run the jet sweep read option, which the Hokies scored a touchdown on to open the game. Again, the Hokies leave a defensive end unblocked, and Logan reads the end taking quarterback and hands off to JC Coleman.
When watching live, I thought Logan made the wrong read, but on tape, he executed perfectly. Michael Holmes sealed the outside linebacker, and there is a clear lane for the first down if Eric Martin can block the play side linebacker. Watch the tight end, lined up to the right, and prepare to be ill. Martin has excellent body position, but his feet go dead at contact and he starts to fall, meanwhile, Kevin Reddick (who may be the best linebacker the Hokies play all year) doesn't even look like he has been touched on the play. Remember that when we look at the defense.
Martin falls on his face and Reddick steps in the hole and makes the block. Coleman can't juke him because Marcus Davis (who blocked well for the most part) failed to cut off the corner flying in for run support. The results are a Hokie punt, and reinforcement of the notion that Eric Martin should not see the field. If your "blocking tight end" can't block, utilize Randall Dunn and force the safeties to account for him in the play action game. Martin is a veteran. This is the best he can do, and if this is the best, he can't be on the field if Tech expects to be successful running the ball.
As we move inside, the same problems rise again, again, and again, and Curt Newsome exacerbates them by not utilizing the best personnel options. Pad level is horrible. Gap control through head and hand placement is horrible. Repeatedly, we see linemen "hopping" into position and taking the incorrect first step to set up a block. And finally, I repeatedly see the feet stop churning at contact.
I will start with what seems to be my perennial whipping boy David Wang. He was horrendous in both pass protection and run blocking, especially when pulling (a perceived strength of Wang's when the season started). Here, the Hokies use their basic off tackle power play that we have reviewed several times this season.
The Hokies block down on the left side, and Wang pulls to kick out the defensive end. Pause the film at 10:02.
At contact, Wang's feet completely stop moving and the defensive end is under Wang's pads and driving him back (which is one hell of an accomplishment for that end, given that Wang might be the shortest starting guard in a BCS conference). While the end doesn't make the tackle, the rejection of Wang narrows the hole. (Please note, Eric Martin completely whiffs on the linebacker, who steps right into the hole and makes the tackle).
Looking at Wang again, and again, pad level and leg drive are horrendous. The Hokies run a simple counter dive. Wang has to turn a 1-technique defensive tackle inside, creating a seal to the inside.
Nick Becton effectively draws his defender up the field and seals him out. Wang however does his little bunny hop instead of taking a powerful lead step. The tackle gets underneath his pads, and Wang again is straight up and down and being driven backwards. Freeze the play at 3:53.
Wang is one full yard behind the line of scrimmage, and going backwards. That, my friends, is a whipping. Freeze at 3:54, and Wang is now two yards into the backfield, and his head is vertical instead of being on the play side of the defender (which could at least keep the defender at bay for a split second.
The tackle sheds Wang, and makes the play for a one yard loss.
Now, rewind the play, and watch Dyrell Roberts (receiver to the top of the screen.) He fails to even touch the corner, looks back to watch the play, and then goes down field to the safety.
This issue goes beyond Wang, but he is the most recognizable weak link in the running game. Still, everyone on the inside shows the same problems. Here, the Hokies try to get their pistol going with a counter dive read play.
If you freeze at 9:02, every Hokie offensive lineman is well behind the line of scrimmage.
Michael Via has also taken a hop step, and the UNC tackle has driven him deep into the backfield. Repeat, and watch Marcus Davis at the bottom of the screen. Again, Davis completely fails to even engage the corner. The penetration slows the play, and the defensive back steps in to make the tackle. Not team play!
The guards also struggled in pass protection. Here, Caleb Farris (who should be the starting center but isn't athletic enough at guard) gets some work as Via moves into Wang's slot. The Hokies have Dyrell Roberts wide open on a rub route, but he drops the ball and looks unprepared for the pass. Could it be that Thomas had to rush the throw?
UNC runs a basic X stunt up front. The left defensive tackle crosses Caleb's face, and Caleb dutifully follows him inside. The right defensive tackle crisscrosses so nicely that it makes you jump jump, and explodes through the space Farris vacated. Logan has to hurry the throw with a defender right in his face, and Roberts (who likely was suffering from a concussion) is caught off guard and drops the ball. This is frustrating for two reasons. First, this is a high school stunt. A college starting offensive lineman should be able to pick this up easily with proper teaching and good communication. Second, regardless of who has played guard for the Hokies this season, every single guard has been responsible for one quarterback hurry facing this simple stunt. One player not being good enough could be a talent issue, but the same error repeated by players with different skill sets tells me that teaching is an issue.
While this tragic performance is taking place, the Hokies best drive blocker (Brent Benedict) did not play a snap. You can sell me on the idea that he struggles in space, but there is absolutely no game film yet that makes me think he isn't a better option at guard than Via, Wang, or Farris. And, we have a small sample size of Laurence Gibson playing with good pad level and outstanding leg drive, but he continues to be wasted. If the players are not good enough, then you have to play someone who is. If the players are not being taught correctly, then the coach has to be replaced.
A Defense Without a Lunch Pail
Well, after watching the Pitt game, I didn't think the Hokies could possibly play worse against the run, but I was proven wrong. Bernard proved to be an outstanding back, and the UNC offensive line manhandled the defensive line from the second quarter until the end of the game. Initially, Bernard found running room by reading the Hokie gap stunts, and then running over or making the Hokie safeties miss tackles. As the game wore on, the defense started abandoning their assigned gap fits to make plays, and instead opened up huge holes. By the middle of the third quarter, the Hokie defenders seemed content with stunting to their gaps, and then merely bracing for contact rather than shedding blocks and pursuing. It was a slaughter.
The warning signs started early. Let's take a look at this first quarter play, which actually results in a tackle for a loss for Kyle Fuller.
UNC runs the same buck sweep that the Hokies ran earlier, however the tight end easily seals the defensive end inside, and the crack back seals Jarrett inside, who loses his gap fit. Also, Jarrett getting blocked seals the pursuit by Bruce Taylor and Jack Tyler inside along with the pulling guard. Fuller is forced to make a difficult tackle. While this play looks terrific at game speed, it foretells of disaster later in the game.
Later in the first quarter, the defensive line is already showing strain. UNC runs a simple middle draw.
UNC starts by doubling Corey Marshall and turning Antoine Hopkins to the right with relative ease. At the 6:12 mark, Hopkins has been driven 3 yards to the right of his original alignment and Marshall gets planted flat on his backside. J.R. Collins has been turned out with ease, and is still stuck at the line of scrimmage. Taylor gets cut, and can't shed the blocker. But, James Gayle is completely unblocked, yet so scared of Bernard's speed that he hesitates and Bernard runs right by him to the inside. The Tarheel line maintains their leg drive, and each lineman has better pad level than the Hokie defender they are blocking. UNC wins all the fundamental battles on this play, and the Hokies appear inept at getting off of blocks.
The wheels really started to fall off when Bud Foster, a week too late perhaps, breaks out a smaller four defensive end look, with Collins and Marshall playing inside and Nicolas and Wilson on the outside. This was fodder for the UNC monsters up front. Here, UNC runs an interior delayed trap from a one back set.
The right side of the Hokie defensive line gets destroyed, with Marshall driven almost to the hash mark and Nicolas gets driven off the ball, by a tight end(Eric Martin, watch this). Bruce Taylor gets trapped, and the flood gates are open. (Fortunately, J.R. Collins gets held, but UNC ends up scoring on the drive anyway). What is unique about this play? Nothing. You could watch every play for multiple series in the 3rd and 4th quarter and it would look like replay of this.
Bonners' Boners, and Cole's Catastrophes
Michael Cole missing on an open field tackle in the flat.
And again, Cole can't take the defender down.
Bonner doesn't get back in coverage.
Leaders not being Leaders
I think most disappointing in all my film review is seeing the drop off in the level of play of the defenders who were counted on to provide leadership for this unit. James Gayle looked effective, but got very limited playing time. J.R. Collins was abused at tackle and provided no pass rush at end. Derrick Hopkins was dominated and received much less playing time than we are accustomed to seeing. I am not sure if Foster was trying to send a message, but their replacements didn't do the job better.
I think my frustration peaked while watching Kyle Fuller. Kyle's strength is as a roving zone corner who looked back to the center of the field and read the play. Over the last two games, that strength has been used against Fuller. Cincinnati completed 8 passes for over 10 yards against Kyle, with six coming on skinny post or quick in routes. All the completions were on third-down-and-long. On each play, Kyle was in man coverage, but he plays on the outside shoulder of the receiver, looking back to the middle of the field at an angle. It allows him to watch the play, but it allows the receiver to run a skinny post with his body shielding Fuller from the ball.
UNC used the same formula, although they attacked Fuller less frequently.
Here, VT blitzes and Fuller gives up the skinny post without safety help.
In this coverage, I would think that an inside/out press coverage, where Fuller does not allow the receiver to cross his face to the inside and plays the percentages that a throw to the outside has less of a chance of success would make more sense without safety help.
Next, Kyle has safety help, but still allows the receiver to get inside position. This time, the tight end runs a circle route and beats Fuller back to the inside.
Jarrett provides a presence to the inside and nails the tight end, but a great throw beats the coverage.
Again, on a critical third down in the third quarter, the Hokies blitz and UNC goes right back at Fuller. Again, Fuller plays outside in without safety help.
The post route is wide open, and UNC gets a critical first down conversion when the game was still in doubt.
Finally, my frustration boiled over when I saw this play. The defensive line gets blown up, but the gap concept still results in the Hokies best tackler (Fuller) one on one right in the hole.
Fuller flies by like a bull by a matador, and the rest of the Hokies fail to pursue effectively. This looks nothing like a Bud Foster defense. From this point forward, the Hokie pursuit was terrible, and the defenders just seemed to accept blocks.
I wish I could say that a white knight would ride in and save this team, but week in, and week out, we see the same problems over and over again. Those problems are not being addressed and corrected, and those breakdowns are starting to erode the confidence and effectiveness of the veteran players. Everything is pointing to a train wreck, and I am not sure if playing Duke will serve as a rallying cry by which this group can right the ship. All the platitudes about playing for next year don't mean much, because with the exceptions of Ronny Vandyke, Brent Benedict, Demetri Knowles, and maybe Donaldven Manning, there are not many viable options for finding improved production. Corey Marshall and Dadi Nicolas failed to provide a spark yesterday, and James Gayle seems to be in the dog house or isn't playing enough. There may be some wins left on this schedule, but I don't know if they have another great October/November run in them.
Editor's Note: A lot of effort goes into French's fim review. French takes notes while watching the game live, but needs to rewatch the film to provide the best analysis. In order to make that efficient as possible, and to provide clips to embed in the post, Billdozer works his magic and makes a video of just the plays. Whether Tech wins or loses, he turns that around in a day so French can review it and have his post written by Monday night so I can produce, format and edit by Tuesday morning. (I do the least amount of work.) These guys work fast and sacrifice part of their weekend to produce.
There are always a ton of "thank you's" in the comments, and for that we are extremely appreciative! I personally feel this is the best game analysis available on any Tech site, free or otherwise. Personally, aside from watching the game itself, reading it is the highlight of my week.
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