Well, I am sure there are some frustrated Hokies out there who are stopping by looking for answers as to why Virginia Tech looked so pedestrian against a bad, but game, Austin Peay team on Saturday. I think before we dive deep into analysis of the performance, we must understand what this game meant to the Hokie coaching staff.
A long review of the film told me that the coaching staff treated this game like a scrimmage. The Hokies ran a very vanilla offensive set with limited offensive line movement, counter-motion, and almost no read option plays. The defense played long stretches of man to man coverage, with very basic slants and linebacker fills up front. If I were a betting man, the staff goals were:
- Win the football game, and be as healthy as possible after 2 games with only 3 practices in between.
- Place the players where they could be evaluated in one-on-one situations. For the most part, the offensive line blocked straight ahead with either a zone, man scheme, or pulling lineman to create a seal. Running backs were not given the benefit of the option. The defensive line rarely stunted and played gap control against head-to-head blocking. While the defensive line tied up blockers, the linebackers were given opportunities to fill and make plays. The corners were put on coverage islands (along with the safeties in 3 and 4 wide) and the safeties were expected to fill against the run. They will get great film on how well their starters and top backups can win individual physical battles.
- Keep everybody healthy.
I don't think any of us were pleased with the offense in the first half, however I thought the offense got better each series, while the defense showed signs of some wear and tear from the war with Georgia Tech on Monday. Film review showed me a bunch of positives and certainly some negatives that have allowed me to do some level setting about this football team.
- Every game will be a grind offensively. This offense has a collection of very good football players, but it does not have game-breakers. Drives will be long and require attention to detail. Execution will be paramount. There are some players which have the ability, but they are young and inexperienced. Logan and Marcus right now are the focal points of the offense, but Logan needs the receivers and backs to make plays to be successful. Davis is much better suited to be a big possession receiver with the ability to win physical battles against corners for intermediate routes that move the chains, than a guy you have going vertical more than a couple of times a game. Logan Thomas has all the tools, but he will need to be better than last year to make this a team to remember.
- Defensively, team speed is an issue, as is the sustained pass rush. The tackles and ends have been outstanding against the run, but there just isn't enough pass rush, especially against a weak team like Austin Peay. Pass rush equals turnovers, and turnovers can save the offense and defense when they have a weak night. With so many upperclassmen on defense, I want to see more people stepping up and making the wow plays, especially up front.
- At the same time, I think we can say that the future is bright, and we will see some young players who will be major contributors to this team and future groups. I thought Brent Benedict really stepped up after losing his starting job and not getting a snap against GT. Dadi Nicolas and Ronny Vandyke both made a major impact in limited snaps. Holmes, Coleman, Knowles, and Stanford all showed that they can make an impact. And, the Hokies young punter AJ Hughes looks like he will be a long term solution in the kicking game.
Analyzing the Offense
This game wasn't about scheme, so I really focused on individual performance on different plays and then tried to tie their performance to future roles. It all starts with Logan Thomas.
Everything starts and ends with Logan Thomas, and the offensive struggles early on reflected some shaky play that won't excite NFL scouts. But, his performance improves as the pace quickens, and his athleticism and leadership jumps off the screen. Let's take a look at how his performance changed as the game went on.
Here are two plays from early in the game that showed areas where Logan needs to improve. On the Hokies second offensive possession, they start by running a "zone buster" combination passing play to the flanker side off play action.
Ryan Malleck runs a Y go route up the seam to draw the strong safety, and Joey Phillips goes to the right flat to pull the short zone forward. The goal is to pull defenders away from Marcus Davis, who is running a skinny post and sitting down in a zone.
Freeze the frame at 1:13. Instead of doing what they should do, which is jumping the flat for the linebacker and taking away the tight end for the safety, all the Peay defenders focus on Davis.
Malleck is wide open right up the middle of the defense. Phillips is open in the flat. Dyrell Roberts, the last read on the play, has a 12 yard curl against a soft corner that is wide open. Davis is the last guy that should get the pass as he is bracketed by four Peay defenders, yet Thomas stares him down. Davis makes the play, but that is a disaster waiting to happen. NFL scouts would want Logan to be patient, and check to another receiver in the progression.
Later in the drive, the Hokies have a third-and-four.
Logan stares down Dyrell Roberts on what should have been a sight adjustment route (meaning that the QB and WR both make an adjustment to the best route when they see the coverage at the line of scrimmage) to the first down marker. It looked like Logan expected Roberts to run a curl based on the adjustment, but he runs a slant. Instead of coming off Roberts immediately, Logan waited and Dyrell ran right into the zone. The problem is exacerbated when David Wang fails to pick up the defensive end on a simple crossing stunt with the defensive tackle. The end result: the meal ticket QB got drilled, and Wang had a seat on the bench for the next series.
As the game started to get more tense, Logan's sharpness came back. It is no secret that he excels in a hurry up offense, and this game was no exception. Here are two outstanding plays from the two-minute drill where Logan showed a higher skill set.
One the first play, Logan starts his progression looking right.
Seeing nothing, Logan comes all the way back to the left, and finds Roberts open on a 15 yard come back route. Next, while the announcers froth at the mouth over Randall Dunn making a catch with no shoe, Logan again is patient, reads the defense, and fires a laser.
Logan stares down the sideline route, works back to the middle to find Dunn on an 18 yard curl in. Terrific pass blocking allows a slow developing vertical route to get open, and Logan makes an excellent throw. Throw aside, the head movement, vision, and read will make NFL scouts notice him more than the measurables.
I am a former lineman, and I get testy when people throw the offensive line under the bus. While David Wang struggled enough in the first half to be benched, most of the offensive line dominated the Austin Peay front. Brent Benedict really stood out to me with an outstanding performance. Michael Via is solid, but he tends to get a bit top heavy. Benedict has the ability and strength to be physically dominant, and you can't say that about many Hokie offensive linemen in the last decade. He fits early with the coaches desire to get back to basic power I football on the goal line.
Here, the Hokies line up for a third-and-goal run with the score 0-0. The Hokies run a power lead to the right side.
Let's take a look at the play assignments.
The offense lines up overloaded to the right, with two tight ends (one lined up as an H-back). A flanker lines up to give a play action option on a fade route. The backs are in the I formation. At the snap, the right tackle (Painter), the Y (Martin) and the H back (Malleck) all block down. The center and left side cut blocks the pursuit. Benedict pulls and kicks out the outside man on the line, and the fullback leads through. Benedict makes a big batch of pancakes, and Michael Holmes walks into the end zone. Benedict had several plays where he exhibited dominance, and even against a FCS team, I didn't see many crushing blocks by the other linemen. Benedict still is a little awkward in space, but his upside is much higher than any of the interior linemen.
On the flip side, both Andrew Miller and David Wang did not get as much push as you would expect for two guys lauded so highly by the coaching staff. Miller has a nasty attitude, but he is undersized and doesn't get as much push when faced with a big mobile nose tackle. Most of his knock down blocks come on late effort, which is great hustle, but you want more initial push. Wang continued his habit of stopping his feet dead to brace himself at contact when pulling and hoping to get position. He looks great most of the time with head position, but his feet stopping kills any chance to get push.
Those problems culminated in the disaster disguised as a quarterback sneak in the first half. Let's take a look.
The problem is simple. At the snap, the defensive tackle undercuts Wang and takes out the legs of Logan Thomas, while Miller failed to get any kind of movement. Wang is the shortest lineman on the team, and has tremendous leg strength. There is no excuse for such poor technique and effort in such a critical spot.
And, the coaches noticed. Wang was benched for a series early on, and Miller didn't play a snap after being replaced by Caleb Farris on the two-minute drive. Farris struggled snapping in the adverse weather, and his shotgun snaps were an issue in the second scrimmage. Nevertheless, Farris got a push against the same (although tired) starters. Matt Arkema replaced Wang early and looked like a kid who wasn't ready, but Laurence Gibson came in at right tackle late in the game and showed the footwork and athleticism needed to challenge Wang. Watch these three blocks by Gibson from the right tackle spot culminating with a Tony Gregory touchdown run.
First, Gibson cuts off backside pressure on a reverse to Knowles and drives the defensive end out of the screen. Next play, the Hokies run off tackle power behind Gibson. Gibson drives the end 3 yards outside after an initial drop step to influence the DE upfield, then he gets his shoulders turned and drives him 6 yards down field. Finally, VT calls a power lead to the left. Gibson seals the DE inside and drives him down field 5-6 yards, allowing Gregory to cut back and score an easy touchdown. On those three plays (as well as stellar roll out pass blocking the play before) I see tremendous footwork, upper body strength, and a nasty attitude. It baffles me that he has not been in the mix to at least rotate at guard, but right tackle may be his future.
Other issues on Offense
1. Wide Receiver Blocking
So, if the offensive line played well enough, then why wasn't the running game consistent? The answer? The receivers continue to have issues with blocking. Corey Fuller was blown up on the critical jet sweep play on two different occasions while weakly attempting a crack back. Marcus Davis took an absolutely useless holding penalty on a beautiful Michael Holmes run. And, Dyrell Roberts continues to struggle. Here the Hokies have a well blocked counter lead play with a nice hole developing off the left side.
The fullback takes the linebacker out of the hole. Roberts is supposed to option stalk the safety, who lines up a little inside. When the safety crashes down inside, Dyrell can go after him aggressively and drive him across the hole, but instead, Dyrell freezes twice, looking unsure of contact. The safety makes the tackle. If Dyrell at least makes contact, Holmes can cut hard to the left and a 4 yard run becomes a 25 yard run. Coming off two major injuries, it is not surprising that he is hesitant, but his failure to block effectively and untimely drops have hurt the offense over the last two weeks.
To his credit, Dyrell looked more aggressive and fluid as the game wore on, and he threw a terrific block on Marcus Davis's final long end-around run.
The improvement is an encouraging sign, but you still expect better from a 6th year senior, especially when Knowles, Fuller, and Stanford have not had the drops and work to be serviceable blockers. Other than Coleman, the Hokie tailbacks beat you by getting chunks of yardage. They are not going to generate long touchdown runs like we have grown accustomed to seeing over the last 5 years.
2. The lack of a commitment to a feature back.
Other than the fact that he isn't a game breaker, why are the coaches so resistant to getting Michael Holmes more of a workload? To me, the dependability of the running game creates a safety blanket that allows the offense to get comfortable. I saw tons of jet sweeps, a variety of passes, and very few straight gives to Holmes. He has a knack for finding soft spots and getting yards that David Wilson never showed. At the same time, Holmes isn't going to break a ton of tackles inside and does tend to bounce. Perhaps this is why the coaches have not allowed him to be the workhorse?
Here we have a first-and-goal run by Holmes in the second quarter.
The Hokies run an interior power play, pulling the left guard to lead up in the hole off tackle to the right. The hole opens up beautifully, with great down blocks by the strong side and excellent kick out blocks by the fullback and the H-back. The play is designed to go right off tackle, with the outside defenders being kicked to the outside, yet Holmes bounces the run outside. Against Austin Peay, it got a couple of yards, but against ACC teams, you have to hit that hole.
At the same time, Martin Scales isn't the goal line answer. Here, Scales gets the first of two goal line runs on the first scoring drive.
At 3:49, he reaches the pile, which has been pushed back 4 yards by the offensive line. He has a clear cut lane to the right, where Painter has pancaked the end and Malleck has sealed the linebacker. Instead, Scales just runs into the back of the pile. He's barely touched by a Peay defender and is tackled
If Edmunds is a guaranteed redshirt, then get Holmes some carries and use Coleman as your change up. Make ACC teams believe that the running game is enough of a sustained threat to bite on play action.
Secondary Play: The Exum Files
The defensive secondary was not challenged much, but when Peay tried to pass, they went after Antone Exum. Exum managed to give us some nervous moments, while still looking hesitant in run support. Exum was in man coverage to the boundary all day, and only the Governors lack of execution prevented him from having a really bad day.
Peay runs a stop and go and at 5:52, Exum stumbles coming out of his backpedal to turn and run. Only a TERRIFIC effort by Bonner to get over and break up the play prevents Exum from giving up a touchdown. Can Bonner get there against a Sammy Watkins?
Exum then struggled against intermediate inside routes. Here a poor throw behind the wide reciver bails Exum out.
But later on a 10 yard in-route on third down Exum is beaten cleanly and he grabbed the WR for a pass interference.
Exum was also tentative in run support. His missed tackle on the AP touchdown drive looks nothing like the hard hitting safety we saw last year.
Yet, Exum is certainly capable. Here he displays terrific coverage on an out and up.
Frankly, it surprises me that Gray and the coaches haven't used Exum more in press coverage, where his size and physicality can make life hell on split ends, just like Jimmy Williams.
The rest of the secondary was solid. Jarrett wasn't elite covering tight ends in the short flat, but he is proving to be a monster in run support while also proving valuable on punt return. Bonner is a little weaker in run support but better in coverage and has excellent range from the free safety spot. Kyle Fuller barely got a work out, as AP stayed away. Manning nabbed a highlight reel interception late, but the Hokies did not go nickel a single time with the starting defense.
Jeron Gouveia-Winslow took a step backwards against Austin Peay. Peay looked to isolate JGW, forcing him to take on pulling guards. Instead of forcing the guard/fullback, JGW has a bad habit of jumping around the block. Sometimes it works, but often, it causes JGW to lose gap control, especially when the blocker maintains contact. Here we have a terrific example.
Peay runs a basic counter trey lead with an offensive lineman pulling from the back side and the fullback attempting to seal the end man. JGW attempts to avoid the block by diving inside, but the fullback is athletic enough to adjust and collapses JGW. The pulling guard gets around the trash and moves upfield, where Bonner is coming forward to fill the now wide open running lane. The guard eats up Bonner, and Jarrett has to trail the play to make a tackle after a big gain. With a big, but not particularly quick defensive line, ACC teams will look to run at JGW and force him to take on blocks.
Later in the second half, Peay comes back with the same play.
This time JGW is more aggressive, attacking the fullback before the fullback is ready. Still, JGW loses outside contain and gets caved inside, and the tailback ends up getting a nice run.
By comparison, take a look at Ronny Vandyke against the same play.
At the snap, Van Dyke recognizes the pulling guard and the fullback coming for him. Instead of catching or attempting to olé the blockers, Vandyke bursts forward. He meets the fullback and guard almost at the same time in the backfield, almost knocking the fullback on his hindquarters. Vandyke does this while keeping his outside arm free, a critical component against a team that tries to kick you out for buck sweeps like Clemson. Vandyke's effort blows up two blockers, and Jack Tyler scrapes to make a solid tackle for a loss. THAT is beautiful defensive football.
Just for added measure.
RVD gets upfield, sheds the pulling lineman, and crushes the back on a sweep. Glorious. This kid is an absolute superstar in the making at whip as long as the staff gets him the snaps to build their trust.
I think, outside of the pass rush, which was mitigated somewhat by quick throws, but still wasn't what you would expect in this matchup, we got about what we expected from the starters.
Maddy and Antoine Hopkins both looked beat up, and lost gap control a couple of times which allowed Kitts to get some runs on the read play. Otherwise, solid but not spectacular all around. Defensive tackle depth is now a worry given Harley and McCray's shaky performance late, but Dadi Nicolas stunned even the most optimistic observer with his dynamic performance. While the stats folks were not so kind, I counted 2 TFL's, 2 hurries, and 2 holding penalties drawn by Nicolas in limited snaps. He has a Cols Colas disruptor vibe to his game that could be the solution to the Hokies robotic pass rush so far this season.
Thanks everyone for the read. I look forward to the discussion, and any questions!