Editor's Note: We're going to try to bring you the very best reviews of the games this season found anywhere online. The embedded YouTube video is the complete game, condensed with all commercials removed courtesy of Dozer. It has been coded to start and stop at the times being referenced. If that doesn't work, the time referenced in the play is listed below. --Joe
Welcome to our first film review of the 2012 season. The Hokies came into their opener against Georgia Tech preaching a new attitude on offense after prominently featuring the no huddle, spread, and pistol in preseason scrimmages. Georgia Tech, with Al Groh's 3-4 defense missing several key cogs and lacking depth, seemed like the perfect opponent for a breakout offensive performance after years of struggling in nationally televised openers. By the third quarter, it seemed as if those lofty aspirations had gone up in smoke as the Hokie offense repeatedly stalled against the Yellow Jacket defense.
I know that, watching at game speed, the list of culprits was long, with epithets directed at the usual suspects of O'Cainspring and the offensive line, as well as the wide receivers inability to get separation. Even our own Heisman hopeful drew some ire as I watched from home. Then, when the stakes were at their highest, the offense scored 16 points on three consecutive drives that the Hokies absolutely had to have it, with Logan making impressive throw after throw to get the comeback win. I went to bed foggy, thankful for the win, and looking for a blood transfusion.
Imagine my surprise when I watched the film, and realized that almost none of my initial assumptions were accurate. The offensive line wasn't dominant, but for the most part achieved at least a stalemate up front. I saw very few missed assignments. While the offensive system is still a hodgepodge of different formations and fundamental elements, the play calling utilized a true system approach, with appropriate counters being in place to keep the defense off balance. Also, we saw the coaches utilizing multiple formations and personnel groupings on each series. The wide receivers have some issues, especially with getting separation, and if there is a fair criticism of the coaches and the receivers, it is the lack of vertical passing attempts to prevent the Georgia Tech safeties from crowding the line of scrimmage. When Thomas hit Knowles deep, it wrecked Al Groh's entire defensive concept. For the most part, we saw the same offense against Georgia Tech that we were so excited about in scrimmages. So, what really went wrong?
When Logan Thomas said he played, "like garbage," we looked at his lack of accuracy, which resulted from a complete breakdown of his mechanics in the pocket. Upon review of the film, it became apparent that Logan Thomas was the primary reason that the offense stalled starting with the D.J. Coles injury right up until the Cody Journell missed field goal drive late in the game, and accuracy wasn't the only problem.
The first major issue that appeared on film was a failure by Logan during his pre-snap read to recognize blitzes by Georgia Tech and audible into a better play. After the first-half Georgia Tech touchdown, the Hokies repeatedly ran right into the teeth of a zone blitz. Here are a couple of examples:
Following GT's first-half touchdown, the Hokies were able to regain field position with a solid throw to Marcus Davis on a slant and several nice Michael Holmes runs. A couple of short plays left the Hokies with a manageable third-and-four, just outside of field goal range. Mike O'Cain called a speed option to the wide side, a play that was very effective, although rarely used last year.
At the 8:24 mark of the video, Logan completes his pre-snap reads and looks for the snap. At that moment, both the strong side safety AND the strong side inside linebacker come flying to the line on a blitz. There are 5 seconds on the play clock, so there is very little time to audible, but an opposite or fire call (meaning: instead they could have changed the play and ran a zone read to the weak side, or Logan could have ran up the interior without a line adjustment.) Also, the tight end motion should have probably tipped Logan that there was some kind of zone blitz.
At 8:27, you can see the outside linebacker stunt inside. Normally he would be the option man, but Nick Becton is forced to absorb him.
The safety takes the outside lane, and Ryan Malleck desperately tries to get a body on him (which he probably shouldn't do given that he has a veer release and he should get the back side linebacker trailing the play, who ends up making the tackle). At this point, the blitzing inside linebacker coming through the outside gap and probably should be treated as the option man. Logan probably should put his head down and accept that it is a loss play, but he does a very dangerous pitch that Michael Holmes gets a marginal gain on.
Time management became the challenge. Getting the snap off right as the play clock winded down allowed the defense to time their blitz and get an advantage off the ball.
The second issue that derailed the Hokies offense in the critical second quarter was a series of poor reads by Logan on the read option. Here, Logan's failure to read a blitz in his pre-snap read is compounded by not making the correct read on the option man.
After completing a pass to Corey Fuller to put the Hokies in terrific field position again. The play is the belly read, the same one that torched the Hurricanes in 2011. Here, Logan snaps the ball with 24 seconds on the play clock, so there is time to audible even though it is not necessary.
Logan is looking at the center, and the safety and the outside linebacker (who is lined up like a nickel corner on the slot) both start creeping towards the line of scrimmage.
Meanwhile, O'Cain is trying to break a tendency of running to the tight end, so Malleck has not motioned over to be in position to handle the blitz. The play is a true zone read, with zone blocking up front and no pulling guard. When Logan and Holmes reach their mesh point, Logan reads the defense and decides to give the ball to Holmes. Bad decision.
With the benefit of replay, looking at the 9:34 mark we can see that the Yellow Jackets have two blitzers, unblocked, flying into a direct line with Holmes assigned path on the play.
At the same time, we have six blockers (OL and the TE) to account for the three defensive linemen and the two inside linebackers, and the playside inside backer is moving away from the center of the field. The correct read is to keep and run right off the left guard's butt.
At this point the problem is compounded by very unaggressive offensive line play. At the 9:35 mark of the video, the ball is at the mesh point, yet only one offensive lineman (Nick Becton) is on the positive side of the line of scrimmage.
David Wang allows the right defensive end (who is lined up inside eye of Painter) to stunt completely across his face and get up field, which is UNACCEPTABLE in a zone blocking play.
Freezing at 9:36, we see that Becton has completely demolished the right inside linebacker, and Andrew Miller and Michael Via have delivered an effective combination block on the nose tackle, with Miller moving on to the left inside linebacker.
If Wang gets a head on the DE, there is a MONSTER hole for Logan to run in. Also, that the rogue left inside linebacker is now double teamed. Logan's poor read, coupled with a poor effort by Wang, turns a terrific playcall that had the potential for a 10+ yard power smash by Logan into a 4 yard loss for Holmes, a terrible down and distance situation, and they are now out of field goal range.
Finally, Logan's mechanics and decision making seemed to fall apart as his frustration grew. To close out the drive, the Hokies call a waggle play that Logan had tremendous success with at the end of last year, especially against the Yellow Jackets.
Logan rolls to his left, but despite getting no pressure, he fails to set his feet. Meanwhile, Marcus Davis has beaten the GT corner deep on a double move. Logan under throws the ball by 10 yards (or he overthrew the out route by Fuller) and a sure touchdown turns into a net punt of 15 yards.
I really think part of the problem was all the moving parts and pre-snap responsibilities of the new offense. In the first half, each play had motion after motion, and I think Logan got a bit overwhelmed. As second half got underway, the Hokie coaching staff simplified the game plan and called more of the bread and butter play calls, then Logan became more comfortable, and he looked much sharper. He even looked better during the poor series in the third quarter. Roberts and Davis just dropped balls. Then, when Logan hit the deep ball to Knowles, the Yellow Jacket safeties were forced out of their shallow zones, and the slants and curls started to open up.
The good news for Logan Thomas is that all these problems are correctable. I think the coaching staff can help him by limiting some of the pre-snap movement to allow him to focus on the defense. Also, he needs to work on his body language that allowed Georgia Tech to time their blitzes so well. When his head focuses on the center, that is a green light for the blitz. He doesn't see the adjustment once he looks at center. He needs to be sharper with his reads, and that is often a by-product of no-contact practices where there is no physical reminder of a mistake on an option read. Mechanics will come with trust in the new receivers. We saw it start to develop with Fuller and Davis. Roberts has to be better.
As I said in my opening, the offensive staff shouldn't take the beating that we thought they deserved when the final whistle blew. The pistol worked well. When Logan didn't make a poor read, the GT linebackers were on their heels reading the play, allowing the offensive line to get angles. Holmes and Coleman both ran well (again, with the exception of being run right into a blitz) on both quick hitting interior power plays and the counter option from the pistol that we highlighted on French on the Bench. Play action from the pistol and gun was a bit shaky, and Logan has to look beyond that first read in the flat. While I still like having one offensive philosophy, the coaches effectively ran a system where one play served as an effective counter to the next, and, they mixed personnel groups on each series rather than coming out and running I all series until 3rd-and-long.
Offensive Formations per Drive in First-Half
|1st Half Totals||11||23||9||0||3|
Hokie Offensive Formations per Drive in Second-Half
|2nd Half Totals||3||11||13||2||4|
Of course, there is room for improvement. What are the areas where the coaches can help their offensive players?
The pistol was well utilized, but we didn't see the uptempo pace of the offense and the no huddle nearly as frequently as we saw in scrimmages. That pace gets defenses on their heels and prevents changing of personnel groupings, and it simplifies the playbook down to the top "bread and butter plays." It is no coincidence that Logan Thomas has looked better in the 2 minute offense, as those are the best passing plays in the playbook that he is comfortable with. O'Cain may have stayed away from the no-huddle in an effort to control time of possession, but I expect to see much more no huddle against Austin Peay, even if the Hokies use a vanilla game plan.
Also, the Hokies went to no huddle at strange times. Outside of the two minute drill, it seemed like every time the Hokies went no huddle, it was following a bad play that put them in awkward down and distance. I am unsure of what they were looking to accomplish with that strategy.
Any option that features Logan as a runner must start with him moving towards the line of scrimmage. Logan Thomas is a great player, but if he isn't moving forward at the mesh point, his first step is too slow to get going to be much of a threat. He is perhaps the best power running QB in college football. Don't take him out of his comfort zone.
Offensive line coaches must emphasize leg drive and head position more. The offensive line had very few busts, but very few times were they dominant against what is regarded as a so-so defensive front. I spent a significant amount of time in my film study focusing on why the Hokies got so little movement.
First, leg drive. David Wang is going to be my example here. He is a magnificent pulling guard, and usually has the best body position when blocking. But, he goes through stretches where when he makes contact, his feet completely stop moving. Wang will even HOP to get himself into blocking position, but those feet are stone dead. The hardest part of playing offensive line is keeping your feet chopping upon contact. Being able to create movement up front is crucial to play to the strengths of the running backs.
Second, all of the linemen tend to block with their palms and their head up and centered in the chest instead of getting their head across to the play side. This prevents them from effectively scooping the back side. With both tackles being critical to the effectiveness of the read option, working on effectively scooping the back side pursuit is a critical area of improvement.
They must effectively utilize Michael Holmes and J.C. Coleman. The two combined for 17 carries against Georgia Tech, while Logan Thomas really carried the rushing load early. Perhaps some of those first few licks had a hand in the shaky start throwing the ball. Holmes and Coleman both looked better running straight ahead with subtle sharp cuts off blocks than using pure speed to get outside. The pistol veer dive was OK, but the counter was fantastic, and the sprint draw and straight power from the I and the ace formation both produced 4-12 yard runs. They must get work early, and while they are not as explosive as David Wilson, they are good enough to allow play action to facilitate big plays in the passing game.
Perhaps most critical, Mike O'Cain must take more shots down field. This team does not have the playmakers to get big broken plays, and Al Groh knew that. Throughout the second and third quarters, GT had their safeties flying forward. Every single DB was within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage, yet the passes were slants, curls, and screens inside that 7 yard box. That makes for a bunch of crowded, dangerous throws. Once Knowles beat GT for the deep touchdown (off play action from the I no less), Georgia Tech loosened their coverage and the underneath routes became open for the game tying drive. Dyrell and Marcus are talented enough that they should be able to win some battles on go routes, yet I counted just two (the bad underthrow to Davis and the give-up waggle on third-and-long in the second) before the Knowles dagger. Stretch that defense out.
The great news about all these problems is that they are all easily correctable with repetition and attention to detail. I don't think there is any way this offense can be as explosive as last season, but I think that the tools are there to be a dominant time of possession group that can control a game and dictate to the defense. Once the read plays get better timing and the kinks up front get worked out, I think this group will be a much better short-yardage, goal line, and red zone team. I expect a more vanilla game plan, with a ton of focus being put on the base offense and running back production. If this offense can come out and get up huge early without resorting to their "ACC game offense," we can expect great dividends later in the season. This will also be a terrific opportunity for Coleman and Holmes to prove that they can get 25-30 carries a game, and the young receivers and linemen can get some much needed game experience to improve depth.
*Yes, I did not touch on the defense. I think the consensus is that the defensive front seven had a tremendous game, and both Kyle Fuller and Kyshone Jarrett were excellent in the secondary. I will address some small red flags in the comment section focused on 1) the lack of a four man rush late in the game; 2) Antone Exum in run support; 3) linebackers and pass coverage.