The Hokies finished the season on a positive note with a decisive if ugly win against the pretenders from the University of Virginia. Congratulations to the seniors who finished their career with four wins against the bow tie neighbors to the north. Nothing about the 95th edition of the Commonwealth Cup was pretty, but the Hokies succeeded in achieving victory with a combination of superior effort, some trickery, and a significant helping hand by a University of Virginia offensive staff which managed to do everything but hand Bud Foster their playbook with a silver bow prior to kick off.
The Hokies did not finish the game unscathed. Trey Edmunds had an outstanding game, but was lost until fall practice with a broken tibia early in the fourth quarter. Brandon Facyson, who UVa did not seem interested in challenging with the exception of a go route prior to the Edmunds touchdown run in the second quarter, suffered an AC joint sprain. Now, Virginia Tech enters bowl season looking for a way solidify depth because of injuries, while also using the extra weeks of practice to identify which players are most likely to replace the ten key contributors who will be playing their final game for the Hokies.
Effort Plays in the Running Game
While Logan Thomas connected with Demitri Knowles on several big plays in the passing game, it was the hard running of Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman that wore down the vaunted UVa front. As I discussed in my preview, Hoos defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta believes in a scheme where his defensive line shoots gaps to defeat zone blocking or force the offensive line to double team, freeing the linebackers up to make plays unblocked. Scot Loeffler countered with a variety of tactics, most notably using Jonathan McLaughlin flexed to the right in an unbalanced look and the use of reverse and counter action. I will discuss some of Loeffler's offensive strategy more later this week.
In the running game, Loeffler used both the inverted veer and the outside stretch play from an inverted veer action to move the ball on the ground against the Hoos front-four. The effect was twofold. On several early runs, the Hokies took advantage of the UVa defensive line getting straight up field by getting to the corner. As the game wore on and the UVa defensive line adjusted and tried to pursue laterally, the east-west movement wore down the thin group of starters.
Early in the game, the Hokies got big runs from both backs even when UVa got terrific penetration. Here, Edmunds gets the ball on the stretch play from the ace formation. Loeffler pulls a page from Boston College, with Caleb Farris flexed over to the right tackle (with Gibson as a "tight end"), Miller still in at right guard, and Alston Smith in at left guard.
A Virginia linebacker and defensive end Jake Snyder both get deep penetration and appear to have the angle on Edmunds. But, Edmunds is patient (unlike early in the season when he often cut inside before the hole developed) and strings the play out. Miller, who is beaten but sticks with the play, gets just enough of Snyder to throw him off balance. Edmunds makes a hard cut off of the stumbling Snyder. Downfield, Farris, Gibson and Darius Redman have both driven UVa defenders to the sideline, and Jonathan McLaughlin comes all the way across the formation from his left tackle spot to take out a UVa safety. Edmunds makes another cut off McLaughlin and takes last year's 3 yard loss and turns it into a 10 yard gain. It isn't pretty, but the effort blocks by Miller, Farris, and McLaughlin and Edmunds patience followed by explosive and decisive cuts resulted in a big gain.
The more UVa stretched to the sideline, the less penetration they generated. Here, Edmunds gets the ball on an outside stretch play.
The Hokies zone block to the left, but Thomas fakes the inverted veer to freeze the UVa linebackers. McLaughlin drives the vaunted Eli Harold to the sideline. Instead of shooting the gap, Urban tries to scrape down the line but Farris matches him and then turns him out to the sideline. Edmunds makes the decisive cut and then rampages up field for a huge gain. Technique and effort again beat the athleticism of the excellent UVa front.
J.C. Coleman also had his best game of the season running the football. Late in the game with his offense needing a first down to force Mike London to burn timeouts, Coleman's hard running burned valuable time. Here, Coleman gets the call on the stretch play to the right.
UVa blows up the play initially. The Hoos get penetration at the point of attack, and the Hokies offensive line can't get off their double team to pick up middle linebacker Henry Coley. Farris tries to reach Coley from his left guard spot, but has no angle to get his head in front of Coley. Coley fills the hole, but Farris doesn't quit on the play. He continues to pursue Coley, and clobbers him from behind as Coleman sets up the block for him. Coleman gets a marginal gain, but he pushes the pile until he ultimately falls forward for a nine yard gain.
Edmunds loss will really be felt in the passing game. Edmunds was strong again in blitz pickup, and he made perhaps the biggest play of the game with his touchdown catch at the end of the first half.
The Hoos use a three man defensive front, and align Coley to the right and another linebacker to the left, showing blitz. Coley comes, and Brent Urban (aligned at nose) drops into coverage. The Hokies pick up the blitz and Edmund leaks out, headed to the left flat. Edmunds freezes Urban (who also picks a UVa defensive back) and Thomas hits him in stride to the left flat. (Kudos to Thomas for a good throw under pressure.) Edmunds breaks two tackles (and you can be the judge if Willie Byrn gets away with a block in the back) and roles into the end zone. He is the biggest Hokie tailback. He is the most fluid with making cuts. He is the best pass receiver. He may be the fastest back, and he is by far the best in blitz pickup. He will be sorely missed.
Coleman had his best game running the ball, but he continues to struggle in pass protection. I am not sure why Loeffler just doesn't flex him out every play so the defense has to remove a potential blitzer to account for him. Here, the Hokies have a critical 3rd-and-7 in UVa territory.
Jonathan McLaughlin has had an excellent freshman season, but I have noted that he struggles with speed rushers who can come back with a hard inside move. After setting up McLaughlin most of the game, Harold gets McLaughlin to set up for an outside rush and then rips hard inside. Coleman is in PERFECT position to help McLaughlin and chop Harold down, but after it is clear that Harold has beaten McLaughlin, Coleman hops left back behind his tackle. Why? I can't fathom what he was thinking unless it was a pure reaction to the possibility of getting steamrolled by Harold. Whatever the reason, he picks McLaughlin so he can't get back in the play, and Harold gets an unabated killshot on Thomas. If Coleman wants a chance to win back the starting job next season, he can not be a liability in pass protection.
Significance of the Quarterback Change
Despite numerous highlight reel plays, Loeffler's offense again petered out in the redzone. Once again, the Virginia Tech defense needed to keep UVa off the scoreboard for the Hokies wanted to win. In their outstanding second half effort, several unsung heroes stepped up. Former walk-on Josh Trimble generated terrific pressure on a series of blitzes. Der'Woun Greene Greene, Chuck Clark, and Donovan Riley were called upon to play in man coverage and didn't get beat in the fourth quarter. But in spite of their efforts and a herculean performance by Kendall Fuller, the Hokie defense got a huge assist from UVa's Mr. Magoo-like offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild.
I went on record in my preview of the UVa offense that Fairchild could expect success by running read option with Parks and Watford, and then use a very conservative passing game where Watford would throw high percentage passes or be able to use his speed to move the chains. For three quarters, Fairchild ran the ball more often than he did against Miami, and Watford made a couple of plays on the edge with his legs. More importantly, the option and Watford's ability as a runner limited Bud Foster's ability to blitz. As result, the Hokies got very little pressure on Watford. If I had been the UVa playcaller, I would have incorporated more power, the occasional play-action, and more designed quarterback draws on third down to keep the Hokies off guard.
On throwing situations with Watford in the game, the Hokies used a tentative game plan. If there was a blitz, the Hokies would drop someone off as a spy. On many third downs, the Hokies only rushed three, and used Tariq Edwards as a spy, as shown here.
Two plays doomed Watford's chances of finishing the game. First, his overthrow on 4th down near the end of the first half was a disaster. In that situation, with an interception essentially serving as a punt, you have to give your wide receiver a chance to make the play. Instead, the Hokies drive for a touchdown. Later, Watford threw a series of inaccurate passes back to back without getting much pressure, and Fairchild made the call to go with Greyson Lambert.
This baffles me. If throwing the football is so critical to winning, why wasn't Lambert rotating in earlier in the game? What element does he give you that can change the game? By making the change, Fairchild cast his teams chance of success on a redshirt freshman with little experience and a gameplan that plays to the weakest part of the UVa offense.
For Bud Foster, seeing Lambert warming up was like waving fresh deer tenderloin in front of a hungry rottweiler. On Lambert's first series, Foster blitzed on 2nd-and-10, which drew a false start penalty. He blitzed on 2nd-and-15. And on third down, he blitzed using a new look: a 3 man defensive front with Edwards and Tyler lined up at the edge and Josh Trimble lined up in the middle.
On the blitz design, James Gayle threatens the inside shoulder of the right guard and then works outside. Luther Maddy at nose draws the center left, and Trimble explodes through the resulting hole. Tyler and Edwards both threaten the edge, but ease off into spy positions and come late to support if the quarterback gets out of the pocket.
For the rest of the game, Foster blitzed almost every play. He only used two basic pressures. He used a criss-cross inside linebacker zone blitz, with Edwards and Tyler crossing inside, the defensive tackles stunting outside, and both ends dropping off into short zones, as shown here.
Then he would take Hopkins off the field and come back with the 30 front and Trimble in the middle.
Lambert not only fell apart in the pocket when pressured, but his receivers were blanketed downfield by essentially the Hokies second team secondary. When he does get the ball off, he focused on the boundary side, which was being patrolled by Kendall Fuller. This was a bad choice. Fuller intercepted a pass and defended several more. Unlike UVa's supposed blue chip defenders, Mr. Fuller answered the bell in Scott Stadium.
Steve Fairchild is watching this unfold. He is a Division 1 college offensive coordinator, and he sees that Lambert is flustered in the pocket. He sees that his receivers are not getting open downfield. He should be able to feel all the momentum sapping out of the stadium. And, instead of correcting the problem by going back to Watford after the first series, he stuck with Lambert. He embarrassed the kid by putting him into an impossible position to succeed, and he was too prideful or stupid to realize he made a mistake and left him out there, potentially costing the Hoos any opportunity to get back into the football game. Even more confounding, how do the Hoos offensive leaders like Morgan Moses, Jake Snyder, or Kevin Parks, or a veteran coach like Tom O'Brien, or the head freaking Head Ball Cop himself, not go to Fairchild and get them back to Watford and the running game? Worst case scenario, at least Watford can get outside of the pocket and buy some time so the receivers could get open? If there are any UVa fans left (and I know there are not many of those folks who are public with their support), perhaps they should express their concern about a play-caller who spends more time thinking up digs for his opposition instead of a game plan.
So, bragging rights in Virginia remain in Blacksburg for another season, and now the Hokies begin Stage Two of their rebuilding project: bowl practice. The Hokie staff has to close out the last handful of critical recruits and spend time ensuring that current verbal commitments and potential early enrollees are handled with care. The practice schedule must be created with getting as many repetitions for next year's starters as possible without hurting the conditioning of the seniors. The coaching staff has to review film over the past 12 games and develop a depth chart and strategy for the spring. It is a critical time. Can the Hokies continue to build the program back to prominence, or will Coach Beamer's team take a step backwards with the loss of Logan Thomas and almost the entire defensive front seven? 2014 starts today.