If you're not getting better, then you are getting worse.
The Hokies were not able to use the Austin Peay game to build depth and rest some beat up players, and I think that three football games in 13 days really caught up to the Tech, especially the rough nature of the Georgia Tech game.
At the same time, this was a beat down of the worst kind. Clemson, Stanford, LSU, and Alabama had terrific football teams. I can't recall feeling this frustrated over a loss since Boston College on Thursday night a few years ago. Every concern raised here over the past two weeks was exposed in a drastic fashion. We knew the offense was not explosive. In order to be successful their execution had to be outstanding to sustain long drives. Yet on every critical play, one mistake—either blocking, reading a block, flub on a route, or horrid decision making/mechanics by the quarterback—derailed the play. Defensively, we knew that the secondary was one bruised shoulder away from being a disaster, and we saw that scenario play out in macabre fashion.
What we didn't expect, and perhaps most troubling, is the degree to which Pitt used Bud Foster's tendencies against him to completely outmatch the defensive front seven. As we will discuss in more depth below, Pitt ran variations of the same running play almost 50% of their snaps. The play allowed the Hokies to slant to the whip side, as if stopping a zone stretch play, and Pitt's tackle and H-back would seal the defensive end and the backer inside, forcing the Hokie safeties into one-on-one open field tackles against two outstanding running backs.
Foster failed to adjust, and repeated 7-12 yard gashing runs by Graham and Shell completely neutralized the Hokie pass rush. The lack of pass rush exposed the Hokies defensive backs, who were outmatched in their first real challenging situation of the season.
Schemes aside, this team lacks dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball. Yet, their best athlete on defense (Ronny Vandyke) isn't getting playing time. Offensively, you have a Shell clone in Trey Edmunds sitting back in Blacksburg, while the tailbacks getting playing time don't produce. Matt Arkema replaced the injured David Wang, and had several awful busts in the 3rd quarter on basic running plays that derailed the Hokies attempt to come back. However, Laurence Gibson only saw playing time on the extra point team. I can not fathom why the Hokie staff can not get their best talent on the field, especially when these players can address their weaknesses.
My positives are few and far between The special teams looked better, Brent Benedict played really well, and Ronny Vandyke showed a glimpse of the special talent he put on display in the fall scrimmages. James Gayle played a nasty game and should have drawn a half dozen holding penalties, and Luther Maddy gave Pitt fits. However, he lost his gap discipline more than I would have liked.
Now, it's time to shout a bit.
Again, what is this team's offensive identity? Well, last year that was a tough question to answer. This season, we have one definitive answer. THEY ARE NOT BULLIES. With the exception of the off-tackle short yardage play that I highlight below in my offensive line review, and the Scales veer dive, there was not a single downhill running play called. Everything involved a counter step, a delay, some finesse, and it backfired. For whatever faults they had in the past, against weaker teams the Hokies dominated the line of scrimmage. The east-west nature of the running game has even neutralized that natural aggressiveness.
The need for an aggressive, downhill running game with a workhorse back is palpable. Against Pitt, the Hokies needed a 20-25 carry a game back to come in after the first two Pitt scores and get 5 or 6 big first downs and let the defense settle in. Darren Evans essentially won the game against NC State by coming in and getting 4-7 yards a carry on a long drive to the end zone. The workhorse back is the great equalizer that prevents teams from gaining momentum. Even the coaching staff admits, through their distribution of carries, that none of the running backs who dressed in Pittsburgh are guys that they trust to win the game. Meanwhile, Pitt rode their true freshman, despite having an all Big East back return as a starter. It must be nice to have a 6-2, 215 pound stud freshman running back to grind up an opposing defense. Oh wait, Tech does, but he is sitting in a dorm in Blacksburg. Anyone that watched the two scrimmages in fall camp knows that Trey Edmunds and Rushel Shell are mirror images in ability, style, and power. Nevertheless, Edmunds sits, and the other guys fumble and run into the backs of blockers.
I have spent a significant amount of time on this site defending the offensive coaching staff, but this game made it clear that this staff does not know how to effectively run the spread/pistol offense. Three days in Texas does not teach you the feel for play calling, the techniques for blocking, or the pace needed to be effective. Instead, it produces a mess. We can all see the big things. Let me share with you a subtle thing that drives me bonkers.
Early in the first quarter, the Hokies ran a nice jet sweep to Marcus Davis. Davis ran from his flanker spot outside of the left hash mark, took the handoff in the center of the field, swept around the right end, and finished with a seven yard gain just inbounds on the right sideline. He was hit hard in the legs and ran nearly 30 yards to get 7 and a first down. On the very next play, Thomas goes play action, stares down Davis, and throws a 30-plus yard bomb to him.
Let's think about this. Davis has one major weakness, getting separation on deep balls. He had just ran almost 30 yards on the previous play, and he took a hard shot low on his legs. If the plays are scripted, why do you run him on a sweep the play before running him deep on a one-man route? If they are calling the play on the fly, shouldn't you be paying more attention to the flow of the game and come back to Roberts, perhaps with Davis running the jet sweep motion again to draw a safety up?
These are the little things which good play callers understand. Yes, they have to change things to break tendencies. But, they also must have a feel for the game, use the defense's tendencies against them, and know when to take chances. Instead, the Hokies staff looked like a lady at the black jack table yelling “hit me” on 20. It was a mess.
How did Jordan Jefferson kidnap Logan Thomas and wear his uniform? I have been a huge proponent of Logan, but he has regressed significantly. Pitt again exposed Logan's inability to see the blitz by anticipating the snap count and moving as soon as Logan looks at the center. Logan's mechanics were so off that sometimes he was throwing with a huge windup and finishing with his right leg kicked up like a flamingo. Other times, his back was arched way back and he was getting no push off his right leg, causing throws to float high. He again struggled with the read option. He made at least three glaring errors reading the option man, getting his back crushed for a significant loss. I don't know if the changes in offensive philosophy have messed up his footwork, but my eyes tell me that he has something wrong with his right ankle, hamstring, or knee. The lack of push off on his throws is glaring, and most of his runs look tentative. Last year, Logan was a bull in a china shop. This year he looks like he doesn't want to break the china. Let's take a look at some examples of these problems.
The Hokies are driving after a third-and-Logan sneak for 10 yards. Logan overthrows a deep out pattern, clearing Corey Fuller by several yards for an easy Pitt interception. What happened?
Logan feels some pressure in his face. If you freeze the shot at 11:07, all of Logan's weight is on his back foot. He then short-arms his release. He fails to drive down through the back of the football, causing the ball to drift high. Everything about this play is lackadaisical. He fakes the handoff to the wrong side (or Scales was lined up wrong and Logan didn't notice). His weight is on his back foot right up to the end of his throwing motion. And, he failed to finish because of the pressure. For a deep pass, this is a relatively easy throw for any NFL caliber quarterback.
Ah, but perhaps the pressure prevented the follow through (which shouldn't be a great excuse for someone with his talent, but let's excuse that throw). Rewind to the first quarter.
Above, Logan runs a waggle to his right. This time he has no pressure, but his weight again is on his back foot (his knee almost looks like it is going to buckle), his back is bent backwards, and he has an elongated wind up before the throw. He throws it well over Fuller's head on a curl route.
Again, later in the first, Thomas runs play action and throws deep to Davis.
Again, he has all day to throw, but his weight is on his back foot, and he bails out on the follow through. Here we have the same thing on this deep throw to Knowles in the third quarter.
Somewhere along the way, Logan's mechanics have been completely messed up. I am not sure if it as result of the new offensive scheme. I am not sure if it is a byproduct of the lack of cohesion with the receivers. I just don't know what has happened to a guy who I was so high on last year.
Logan Reacting to the blitz
Here, the Hokies are near the goal line after a nice drive. On third-and-three, Pitt blitzes the safety and their middle linebacker.
Again, the blitzers do not move until Logan looks at the center's back, then immediately the safety and linebacker start to move towards the line. Logan must improve this tell.
Thomas fails to see the late blitz movement and doesn't audible or change the protection. The back (Scales) goes to the right flat on a pass route. Becton takes the outside blitzing safety, leaving Wang one-on-two against the blitzing linebacker and the stunting defensive end. Wang picks the linebacker, and the end sacks Thomas. Still, the first fundamental of a hot read against the blitz is that the soft spot in coverage is the area where the blitz came from. Corey Fuller is wide open, right at the first down marker, right where the safety vacated. Yet, Logan is looking right, which tells me he still has no idea that a blitz is coming. The lack of awareness and vision is stunning for a quarterback who played as well as Logan did last year.
There were serious struggles with blocking fundamentals, especially from the left side of the offensive line. I believe this stems again from the multiple sets of blocking styles (zone and man) that require different techniques.
Let's examine a simple off tackle running play from the I-formation ran in the first quarter.
On this play (which is the Hokies bread and butter goal line play), the right tackle and tight end block down and double-team the 3-technique defensive tackle. The tight end then rolls off the defensive tackle when his pads are turned and moves down to the middle linebacker. The right guard pulls and kicks out the end, and the fullback leads through on the corner. The center, left guard, and left tackle all reach block the gap to their right, cutting off back side pursuit.
The Hokies have the perfect play called, as Pitt has over shifted to the twin receiver side. However, Pitt's defensive line strategy was to read reach blocking on the back side of the play, shoot the inside gap, and try to close off the slow developing plays from the back side. Both the back side end and the 1-technique tackle shoot the gap to the inside, blowing up the play as Holmes reaches the hole.
Poor fundamentals wreck this play. Let's start with Nick Becton. The defensive end starts out on his outside shoulder, yet at the snap, the end completely crosses Becton's face. Becton's first step should be hard inside, getting his head and left shoulder inside the path of the end. If the end is still getting across his face, he should cut him. This should be an easy block, as Becton has a good angle at the snap. But, instead of taking a sharp first step and getting his head past the slanting end, Becton stands up out of his stance without taking any kind of step. The end turns Becton's pads, takes a great angle, and meets Holmes right in the middle of the running lane. This is inexcusable for a fifth year senior.
I've been hard on David Wang, but I think that offensive line coaching and a communication failure let him down here. A guard reach blocking a 1-technique is the second most difficult block for any offensive lineman, especially if that nose is shooting the center-guard gap. Given the play call, an experienced center should call a “roll it” block.
How does a roll-it block work? As the center sees the alignment, he would make a verbal call to the left guard. At the snap, the center would block back on the 1-technique tackle, because he has a much better angle, he is in the path of the nose to the running lane. The guard then pulls around behind the center and tries to cut off the back side linebacker.
It seems simple doesn't it? Yet, after watching the film for the three games this season, I did not see VT run a back side roll-it a single time. In my experience, it is a basic tenant of any Pro/I offense. The lack of it being incorporated is either a huge failure in teaching by Curt Newsome, or this is a major communication error by Andrew Miller. When coupled with the poor fundamentals on reach blocks by both Becton and Wang, a play that should go for a huge gain turns into a loss. This happened far too often.
And Laurence Gibson can't play; The Matt Arkema file
Watch Arkema at left guard. It would be funny, except, it put the Hokies in second-and-long on the absolutely critical drive following Exum's interception.
Running Back or alternatively, "WHY TREY EDMUNDS SHOULD BE THE STARTING RUNNING BACK FOR THIS FOOTBALL TEAM."
I like Michael Holmes, but these backs are not explosive enough to make mistakes. The coaching staff pretty much admits that none of the four backs are dependable because none of them get enough carries to get into any kind of a rhythm. Coleman isn't an every down option right now because he can't break tackles. Holmes goes from aggressive to tentative in a matter of snaps. Either you see each back failing to make the correct cut to hit the hole, or they are way too easy to tackle. Here are two terrific examples of the lack of explosiveness that go beyond the fumbles issues we have seen.
The Hokies get a stop and get the ball back with enough time to gain some momentum. After a nice first down by Randall Dunn and a powerful 9-yard run by Thomas, the Hokies run pistol and give to Scales on the veer dive on second-and-one.
Scales gets the handoff, and darts towards the line. The linebacker is there to fill, but it should still be enough of a gain to get a first down. Yet, their only power back stops and dances in the hole. Are you kidding me? Scales (who looked good on the previous drive) has to get that first down.
Later, the Hokies go for broke on a fourth-and-one on a critical drive to get back into the game. The Hokies again run their off tackle power to the right.
Brent Benedict has an outstanding kick out block again, just like against Austin Peay. The right side of the line caves in the left side of the Pitt defense, although Martin loses his feet and the Pitt DE sheds him. Phillips then misses the block on the safety flying forward. Now, I understand that Phillips and Martin have both failed to execute on this play. Still, there is a large bubble in the defense, and Holmes ends up mano-y-mano with a Pitt defender, and the Pitt defender wins.
Every football coach will tell you, in short yardage, there will always be one defensive player that you can't account for, and your running back must beat him, either by running over him or making him miss. I don't have a doubt in my mind that Trey Edmunds gets that first down. I have a mountain of video evidence that none of the four backs that traveled to Pittsburgh could get that first down. Ultimately, that is very discouraging.
Defensive Front Seven
I think we can all agree that the most disappointing aspect of the game Saturday was to seeing the defensive line just get manhandled by the Pitt o-line. The Hokies struggled at the point of attack, but the biggest problem was the back side gap control of the defensive ends and outside linebackers. Often, the back side tackle for Pitt would allow the trailing defensive end to get just inside, and then the tackle would seal him inside. The Pitt backs would cut back and get up field quickly. The problems were compounded by horrendous run support by the Hokie defensive backs. Here is a great example from the first quarter.
All the blocking on this play looks like a zone run to the left. The Pitt o-line all zone blocks left. If you freeze at the 4:24 mark, you can see Tyrel Wilson and Bruce Taylor have both over-pursued to the right, giving the Pitt left tackle and guard great angles to seal off Wilson and Taylor. Rushel Shell (wow, it must be nice to have a 6-2 215 stud true freshman running back. Oh wait...) runs on the path of an interior zone run, but he plants his left foot and cuts back into the space vacated by Wilson. Meanwhile, Exum doesn't seem very eager to fly in and fill the gap on top of allowing the Pitt receiver to get to Jarrett for a block. Pitt outsmarted and out-muscled the defense upfront, and the Hokie defensive backs did a poor job of run support. This theme repeated itself throughout the day.
Two plays later, from a slightly different formation, Pitt runs the same play back to the left.
Again, the end (Corey Marshall) pursues inside and this time Pitt uses the fullback to seal him. Both middle backers are moving to the left, and Jarrett is slow to come up because he has man responsibility on the slot receiver. If you freeze at 4:49, Taylor (who had a horrible game) has been sealed inside and Marshall has effectively been trapped inside by the fullback. Jarrett and Fuller are both there, but Fuller just got his shoulder dinged on the prior play and seems to have no interest in tackling, and Jarrett takes a poor angle. A 4-5 yard run turns into a 10-yard play. Pitt clearly saw this tendency by the Hokie ends to over-pursue the play side gap, and they schemed to take advantage.
Pitt kept right on coming with the same play in the second half.
Here, J.R. Collins is collapsed inside and Taylor is blocked down inside. Cole comes up to make the play. Next play, same thing again, with Cole being forced to fly up and fill that outside gap. As the game wore on, Pitt focused more and more on attacking away from the whip side, taking advantage of Taylor at backer.
Even when Tyler moved to backer, the Hokies couldn't make the adjustment. Here in the fourth quarter Pitt comes right back with the same play, trapping Collins and Tyler inside leaving a huge seam for Shell.
It doesn't help when Exum can't shake off his block to make a tackle.
Nevertheless, the Hokies couldn't adjust because Pitt also had success running straight ahead. Every defensive end struggled, but Corey Marshall gets completely fooled on the snap count, and Kyle Fuller hurts his shoulder coming up in support.
For a guy I have lauded as a potential superstar, this is absolutely pitiful by Marshall.
Pitt took advantage of every weakness that I have raised on the Bench, especially against the linebackers. Bruce Taylor repeatedly was sealed inside and failed to get off blocks. Tyler was rendered ineffective by down blocks, just like the Clemson game. And JGW had struggles in coverage, but at least he was effective enough when Pitt ran right at him, Most of Pitt's running game was focused on staying away from the whip and stud end side.
Pitt also preyed upon the linebackers immobility in man coverage against their check down receivers. The Hokie blitzes were completely ineffective, and while they were wasted running into Pitt blockers, there was no underneath zone help for the safeties. Bruce Taylor struggled in space, and looks like a shadow of the linebacker we saw early last year. Foster did not help him by putting him in man situations. Both Tyler and Taylor looked awful on the Graham touchdown reception.
On this play, Pitt takes the boundary corner inside via man coverage with the H-back running a skinny post. Taylor has Graham in the right flat, but because Exum has been pulled inside by the skinny post Taylor has no help if the back turns up. Pitt ran this play earlier in the game and Taylor was not athletic enough to cover Graham when he turned up, but Sunseri had a bad under throw when pressured. Sunseri came back to it, and Taylor wasn't even close to being athletic enough to turn and run with Graham. He looked like Barquell Rivers, and that isn't a compliment. To compound things, Tyler also got sucked deep on a deep interior route, vacating his short zone. Pitt ran a wide receiver drag back side, and if Sunseri had chosen not to throw to Graham, the Pitt WR was wide open right across the middle for at least a 10-yard gain. It looked like amateur hour.
When your defense lacks athleticism, size, and playmakers, against both the rush and those big guys running seam routes, how can you not have Ronny Vandyke in the game somewhere? He could have been on the field at rover, or replaced Taylor on passing downs at backer. They needed him on Saturday, and for reasons I can't understand, they didn't use him, even after he handed them 6 points on his punt return block.
The game plan against the secondary over the last 4-5 years has been simple. Get the safeties in man coverage and put big bodies against them. I wish I understood Coach Gray's technique. For as long as I can remember, in man coverage, the DB's allow the opponent to get closer to their cushion than just about any other college program before they turn and run with the receiver. I am guessing that the logic is that the deep throw to a streaking receiver is a much lower percentage throw, and it allows the DB's to attack underneath routes. A bad side effect is that the DB's have to turn their back to the quarterback and run to catch up. I think all of us can remember plenty of times when a Hokie DB has looked flat-flooted, and either fails to catch up, or catches up but the receiver makes the catch before the DB sees the ball.
Tech sells out on a blitz, and Jarrett is on an island, gets beaten, and then turns, runs, and doesn't turn around to find the ball.
Luckily for Jarrett, the Pitt receiver doesn't make the play.
However, this scene repeated itself all game long, with every DB being victimized.
Bonner is caught flat footed when the slot receiver runs too close to his cushion and is easily beaten for a touchdown. Bonner has to be quicker in shifting to his backpedal when the receiver is threatening his cushion.
With young, inexperienced guys, you expect major growing pains. Foster's insistence on blitzing the whip, which forces the two slower linebackers into coverage, exposes the young guys, compounding their mistakes. I think we need to accept the fact that this secondary is going to have major issues all season, and without the pass rush to force mistakes, they will look even worse.
No one looks worse on film than Antone Exum. After watching him during fall camp, I expected some struggles with coverage, but I never expected him to lose his natural aggressiveness and ability to tackle in run support. Exum was dreadful on Saturday, often either failing to break down and make a solid tackle, but sometimes even failing to make an effort to get in on a play.
Exum is at safety, comes up in run support, and whiffs on Graham.
Exum coverage and tackle fail. This needs no commentary.
Exum gets beaten on a simple flag route by Mike Shanahan.
Exum was the hardest hitter on the defense last year, and had sideline-to-sideline range at safety. Now, he looks like he is scared to crack an eggshell. What is going on? He became more aggressive as the game went on, but for him to be beaten so badly by a tall, slow receiver on that late touchdown really makes you worry about Sammy Watkins in a few weeks. Yikes.
If there is any good news, it is that most of these problems are correctable. The Hokies are still in prime position to win the Coastal Division, and I have seen enough positives to think that this team can still run the table, although without a healthy Kyle Fuller it will take some major improvement. I think the Brent Benedict needs to be an every down player, and that the staff needs to figure out a way to get more playmakers on the field. Edmunds would make them a better offense. Vandyke (at whip, rover, or maybe even backer), and perhaps Dadi Nicolas makes them a more dangerous defense, even if they make mistakes. The talent they do have certainly can be utilized more effectively.
Here is to hoping that this week was an aberration, but everyone in that locker room, including the staff, needs to use the next two games to find an identity and correct these mistakes, or this ACC season could be one huge disappointment.