While watching the film, the first thing that jumped out at me was the play of the Hokie front four. Rather than slanting and stunting heavily, as discussed in the French on the Bench Defense 101 series, the d-line played a more traditional style of getting upfield and attempting to make plays. Perhaps it was a function of the Bowling Green scheme, or Bud Foster realized that teams were using his slant tendencies against the defense (as discussed last week in my Pitt film review). I thought James Gayle and Tyrel Wilson played magnificent games, but both Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins didn't create much disruption in the middle, and J.R. Collins sometimes became over aggressive and lost contain on cut back runs.
A great example comes on the second Bowling Green offensive play.
As you watch, all four defensive linemen work to get one yard deep into the backfield straight ahead off the snap, and both linebackers are reading the play, anticipating a pursuit angle. This looks much more like playing Georgia Tech versus the heavy slanting to the strong side that the Hokies got burned with against Pittsburgh. For most of the game, this strategy was effective, but here, J.R. Collins loses his contain, and (as we discuss further below) Bruce Taylor doesn't read the play correctly from his backer position. Losing containment puts tremendous pressure on the defensive secondary. While the shutout is terrific, seeing defensive backs again as leading tacklers behind Tyler concerns me. The Hokies can not beat Florida State and Clemson if the safeties have to make a bunch of tackles in run support.
It will be interesting to see what adjustments Foster makes against Cincinnati. I expect that the Hokies will continue to slant hard play side, but it will be paramount that the backside contain, be it the end or the linebacker, stay at home to handle Munchie LeGaux.
After last week's dreadful performance, Bud Foster adjusted his nickel alignment this week. Gone was Donaldven Manning. Instead, Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller stayed at corner, Dietrick Bonner moved to cover the slot, and Michael Cole played at safety. The unit played some zone, but was much more effective in man to man, which Foster called on most passing downs. The middle linebackers occasionally dropped into short zones, but more often were sent on dog blitzes, forcing the quarterback to throw without a passing lane, or while on the run. While there were some ugly moments with this lineup (three communication breakdowns left receivers wide open, but drops and poor throws prevented big plays), the makeshift unit performed admirably.
Most of all, Antone Exum had a huge bounce-back performance. He was much more aggressive in run support, and his man coverage looked much more fluid, especially against intermediate routes. After I killed him in my column last week, I was thrilled to see such a spirited effort. He is critical if the Hokies have any hope of beating Clemson, as the Tigers will do everything they can to match up Sammy Watkins one-on-one with Exum and attack him.
Jarrett also had a standout game. The missed tackles frustrate me, but he has been a hammer and shows much better closing speed than Bonner. Bonner, who we heard was much more effective in run support, has seen his game drop off as Jarrett's game improves. Bonner was picked on as he played soft coverage, giving huge cushions. He was also very soft in run support, often running beside pursuit rather than aggressively attacking the ball carrier. Bonner will also be critical, as he will have to provide center field help against teams that attack vertically.
The maturing of Ronnie Vandyke
I think the greatest potential long term benefit of the Bowling Green game was the epic Wally Pipp-esqe moment of Ronny Vandyke replacing Jeron Gouveia-Winslow. I have stated very clearly that I do not think JGW has played poorly. His work supporting the run and blitzing has been much improved this season, and there is still a role for JGW on his team. Yet, those skills do not fit the immediate need that the Hokies have for a big, fast, outside linebacker that not only can be a playmaker, but also provide help in underneath coverage. Pitt exposed the Hokie weakness against short zones time and again, and teams like Clemson and Florida State that have dangerous weapons at tight end and running back pose a much greater matchup threat.
At the same time (and this is difficult), the film tells us that we have to temper our expectations as RVD grows accustomed to the speed of the college game. From the first snap, he was better at directly taking on and shedding blocks than JGW, and he was excellent in coverage. However, he was not the aggressive, attacking, dominant force we saw in scrimmages, suggesting that nerves and over-thinking may be tying up his feet a little bit.
Here we have a play from a series in the third quarter.
Vandyke is lined up as the whip linebacker to the top of your screen. Bowling Green runs a zone isolation play, and as conceived by the gap defense scheme, Vandyke is unblocked and in perfect position to get a one-on-one tackle of the running back in the 4-gap for a one yard loss. Unfortunately, RVD hesitates, as earlier in the game he bit inside on a play action fake of the same play and lost contain on the quarterback. He freezes slightly and misses a diving arm tackle. As result, the tailback gets a huge gain.
At the same time, his potential is unlimited. When he reacts, his closing speed is remarkable and something I can not recall seeing at the whip position. Later in the third quarter, Bowling Green is driving.
Bowling Green fakes the lead zone play and bootlegs again. This time, RVD takes the dive, then changes gears and explodes to the quarterback. This is remarkable change of direction and closing speed. He forces a rushed throw, which saved a touchdown, as the intended receiver was wide open on the goal line. Now compare the closing speed to JGW on a similar play in the first quarter.
The tape speaks for itself. He will have his rookie mistakes, but Ronny Vandyke is a star in the making for this football team.
The Aging of Bruce Taylor: Wine, or Rotten Fruit?
A question that has plagued me since the Pitt game involves Bruce Taylor. Has his injury created a situation where he just can't be as effective a football player, or are the skill's required to play backer not suited to his strengths? Taylor was much better utilized in this game, when he dropped into short zones with safety help, or when he was blitzing on the interior. His best direction is always forward, but the backer position requires him to be able to move laterally as well as straight ahead. I thought he played very well in this game, but a couple of plays raised red flags about how effective he can be against teams like Clemson and Florida State.
Here, we have a play early from the third quarter. Most often, the backer lines up between the defensive end and the three technique defensive tackle. Here, he lines up in their secondary alignment, where the backer lines up to the strong side over the H-back, similar to a traditional 4-3 strong-side outside linebacker or "SAM."
Besides his lack of lateral movement, the biggest weakness in Taylor's game is that he plays the backer position like the mike position. The mike scrapes (pursues) inside out, following the ball carrier. The backer often has contain responsibilities, especially against plays designed to cut back away from the whip linebacker. Here, Taylor anticipates the snap count and moves inside knowing that any handoff will move away from him. By doing so, he basically blocks himself by giving the H-back an easy angle to blindside him. At the point of contact, Taylor recognizes the counter and tries to get back to his contain angle, but turns his pads instead of getting depth and sweeping the blocker inside. He loses his angle, and a relatively benign play turns into a five yard gain.
Now, this doesn't seem like a big deal, but go back and recall the French on the Bench review of the Clemson game. The Hokie defense struggled against down blocking. The techniques of the mike and the backer —playing close to the line of scrimmage, moving forward to take a gap rather than read and scrape— resulted in angles that allowed Clemson's tackles and tight ends to deliver easy down blocks. Taylor seems ill-suited for that critical matchup, as Pitt ran roughshod by getting Taylor to flow inside and then get down blocked on counters.
This is pure conjecture on my part, but I would anticipate seeing both the backer and mike lining up significantly farther away from the line of scrimmage against Clemson. Those buck sweeps are slow developing. Lining up deeper gives the linebackers a better view of the play, and the extra distance gives more space to react and avoid blind side down blocks. I also believe the defensive ends will stand up more in order to effectively read the play.