Against Miami, the offense did what I expected them to do all season long. An offense that controls the clock and focuses on picking up first downs. An offense that protects the football and puts Foster's defense in favorable positions. An offense that scores in the red zone. An offense that runs the ball. Loeffler trusted his offensive line, and in the second half he leaned on Edmunds and Coleman to get first downs and keep the ball away from the big play Miami offense. This is what I envisioned when Loeffler was hired.
If you haven't read French's review of the run game yet... what the heck is wrong with you? It's a celebration of the first game this season where the rushing offense truly "broke out". I won't try and improve on the run game analysis (it's not possible), but I will say that the ground game's maturation came at the perfect time.
Foster's aggressive and high-risk approach to defense has a long and successful track record. Foster uses his unique scheme to take away an opponent's rushing attack and force them into passing situations, where Torrian Gray's complicated coverages combined with a good pass rush can force turnovers. Rather than conceding an easy four yard gain on first in order to prevent big gains, Foster prefers to force the offense to complete a difficult long pass. Against inferior athletes, this will lead to some dominating performances (see Duke, Pitt, Western Carolina). When playing the top tier CFB teams though, Foster's defense will have games when the other team beats the odds and has some big plays. Saturday night was one of those games, and if not for the Thomas and company's big night, could have led to the end of Tech's ACC hopes.
Gray's secondary has been brilliant all season long. Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, both true freshmen, have looked like All-ACC performers. Before he got hurt, Kyle Fuller was playing as well as any cornerback I've seen at Tech. Unfortunately, after Miami's second play from scrimmage went to the house, it was obvious that Kyle still wasn't feeling 100 percent.
Kyle comes across the field on the screen and is in position to make the tackle but looks indecisive as he slows down. When the WR makes a cut away from Kyle, he lacks the explosiveness to get back up to speed and make the play.
It's a shame, because a healthy Kyle Fuller (the best open field tackler at corner I've ever seen) makes that play 10 out of 10 times. Miami's wide receivers are too explosive to have a gimpy player on the field, and I don't remember Kyle Fuller being back after this play.
Antone Exum got a good amount amount of playing time early in the game and was effective in pass coverage. Here he is coming back and making a nice play on the ball on 3rd down.
Of course, the injury bug continued to hit the deepest cornerback rotation in college football as later on Exum would have to be helped off the field with an ankle injury. This left the two true freshmen corners to play against a very athletic receiving corps and a quarterback armed with a big arm.
The success that Kendall Fuller is having is starting to get ridiculous. I didn't see a single completion against his coverage in the Miami game. The guy may be the best coverage corner in the NCAA. In addition to his coverage skills, Kendall's not afraid to get involved in the run support game.
Miami actually designs this play to run the ball at Kendall. They know that Josh Trimble, playing at the Whip, is going to force everything back inside and Tyrell Wilson will slant to the inside against this front. With a fullback picking off the scraping linebacker, Miami is gambling on their running back being able to win his matchup against the corner coming to fit in the hole. Kendall does his job though, and Miami finds themselves in a third-and-long. Later in the same quarter, Miami tries to win that matchup a second time. Once again, Kendall brings down the runner.
Running into the boundary, Miami gets nothing. Dadi Nicolas is able to slant past the offensive tackle and get in the backfield. Miami's offense does a great job at dealing with this threat, as the tackle and fullback essentially switch assignments. The fullback does a tremendous job at throwing a shoulder at Dadi to seal him inside and the tackle gets to the next level to take the scraping linebacker. Kendall again waits for the RB to cut inside of Trimble's force. When he does, Kendall jumps in to make the ankle tackle. Kendall isn't as physical as his brother Kyle, and he's not as consistent in the open field (to be fair, who is?), but he does have a knack for sneaking his way through a minefield of blockers and finding the runner. Combined with his lockdown coverage, the kid is on the path to greatness.
Facyson the Freshmen
Let's be honest, Brandon Facyson didn't have his best game on Saturday. After Exum got hurt, Facyson was on the field almost every play the rest of the game. Miami targeted him multiple times and had success, with two of their longest plays happening against his coverage.
Facyson has played so well that it's easy to forget he is a freshman. He is bound to make mistakes. In a game where he was asked to cover very talented receivers without much safety support, we shouldn't be surprised that he wasn't perfect. I'm sure that Facyson will learn from the mistakes, and Tech fans are lucky that the valuable lessons they'll provide came on a day when the offense scored 42 points. If it wasn't for the offense's big day, we might be talking about how those two mistakes cost Virginia Tech the game.
The first mistake came when Facyson was in single coverage on the outside. Based off of Jarrett's cushion on the bottom of the screen and the location of Bonner in the middle of the field, it appears that Foster is a Cover-1 man scheme. With Kendall locking down the slot receiver in man coverage and the linebackers covering the TE/RB's, Bonner is left deep to focus on middle-breaking routes by the outside receivers. Bonner is only there to provide deep middle support, and it's up to the outside coverage defenders (Jarrett and Facyson) to prevent any completions down the sidelines.
Jarrett and Facyson must maintain outside leverage to force the routes back towards their safety help. Their footwork is the giveaway of their responsibilities; watch as both Jarrett and Facyson open up out of their backpedal with their back to the sidelines. Facyson simply can not let the receiver beat him to the outside. He's got no help there.
With experience Facyson will realize that if the receiver is able to break his route off in front of him, that's alright. It's 2nd-and-14. Rally to the football, make the tackle, and stop them on third down.
Instead, Brandon made a freshman mistake. The receiver chops his feet as though he's going to run a short route and Facyson bites, losing his leverage. When the Miami player starts back upfield, he is able to get in between Facyson and the sideline. At this point Facyson is out of position to stop a deep fade towards the corner, and when Morris puts the ball on the money Miami is in position to punch it in two plays later.
It's a costly mistake, but one that Facyson will learn from. In fact, Miami isn't the only team that's had the opportunity to burn a VT corner on the outside with a double move. Remember Marshall? Cato had the chance to complete that throw many times, but didn't have the arm strength or accuracy that Morris has. Getting burned will actually help this Tech defense moving forward, as they'll recognize the importance of trusting the scheme and staying true to their secondary rules. Brandon will learn you can't out athlete everyone, even if you are one of the most talented freshmen in the country.
In the third quarter, Facyson got beat deep again.
Unlike the last play, there's not a lot of teaching for Coach Gray to do on this play. Facyson is in the right coverage and he's in position to make the tackle... he just makes a silly mental mistake. I appreciate him trying to make a big play, but given the situation, up 18 points late in the third quarter, keeping his feet, and making the tackle is prudent. I'm sure that in the film room Torrian will simply tell him "Next time, don't do that". There's not much else to say. Facyson did everything right except for his last second choice to try and pick the ball.
I don't want to get too down on the freshmen though. He still made his fair share of plays, including this beauty.
It's easy to fall in love with Facyson's skill set. He looked like a special player the first time I saw him play in the summer scrimmages. With the ball in the air, he has the fastest closing speed I've seen in a while. The last clip is of a perfectly thrown ball to a large and fast receiver, but Facyson (who is in single coverage) hunts him down and breaks it up without having to even turn his head. Crazy.
The Big Boys
Miami fans can claim that the game might have gone differently if they had Duke Johnson available, but I doubt it. The defensive line, specifically the tackles, played brilliantly all night against Miami's run game. Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy have been absolutely dominate this year and that trend continued Saturday night. Time after time they shed blocks and beat their man at the point of attack, either making the play themselves or setting up a teammate in the process. Here's Gayle reaping the benefits of playing with an all-time Hokie great.
Gayle makes the play, but all he had to do was walk the play down from behind. Starting with the first game of the season, the Hokie front line has destroyed teams trying to run zone stretch plays. Here, Al Golden is hoping to get their running back to the edge but look at Hopkins demolish his double team. He ends up almost five yards in the backfield!
Crawford has zero chance of getting to the sideline and cutting up field, so he has to stop his momentum and try to cut back. Foster's patented "free hitter" on this play is Gayle and he cleans up the mess. That's one easy tackle for loss.
Here's Hopkins again, just eating up the offensive line.
Derrick flattens the left guard. The guard is trying to get just enough of Hopkins to slow him down and then get a block on Tyler, but Hopkins is having no part of it. At the snap, Hopkins prevents the guard from cutting across his face by pushing him into the backfield, then continues to keep the guard off of Jack Tyler all while chasing the RB down the line of scrimmage. This creates a huge hole in the middle of the line, so big that Tyler actually overruns the play. Crawford does a good job at fighting through the arm tackles and fighting forward to get into a 2nd-and-short. After an incompletion on second down, Miami tries running it to convert on 3rd, but Hopkins again dismisses that notion.
This time on the zone play, the guard is able to get across Hopkin's face to get to the linebacker. Hopkins doesn't let this stop him though, as he hustles down the line to stop the running back dead in his tracks. It's almost unfair. Hopkins is playing out of his mind right now. He is so good, I don't know what you can do as a running team other than just give up on the zone run. If you run it at him, he's too strong to allow a double team to seal him inside. Hopkins will spill the runner to the backside every time. Run the zone away from him and he's fast enough to chase the play down.
A defensive tackle that plays this well in Foster's scheme will take a defense from very good to elite. Hopkins is asked to do a lot, and when he delivers he makes everyone else around him that much better. Enjoy the last few games people, because what Hopkins is doing is beautiful.
Looking forward, Nigel Williams appears poised to play at a high level as well. He doesn't get many snaps (Hopkins is playing so great that it's tough to take him off the field) but when Williams does he usually impresses. The way that he fights through the downblock by the center and gets into the backfield looks very similar to Hopkins.
The future is bright for the Hokie's defense.
I don't blame those who got frustrated watching Thomas's inconsistent play this year. It's not easy watching a player seemingly make poor decision after poor decision. However, Saturday night's performance should leave little doubt it people's mind that Thomas is the best man for the job. All he needs is a little help from his friends, and there's little that this offense can't accomplish.
After the game, I was struck by how few plays Thomas made. Statistically this was one of the best games of Thomas's career but it didn't feel like he was throwing frozen ropes deep down the field or rumbling for first down after first down. After rewatching the game, I realized the reason that I felt that way was because Thomas didn't have to take too many risks. His accuracy and good decisions when throwing short, combined with Loeffler's persistence in the running game, kept Thomas from having to do too much.
Thomas looks deep down the field on a play-action pass, doesn't see anyone open... so he makes the smart play and drops it off to pick up what he can. He gets six yards out of the completion and keeps the team on schedule.
Thomas on a bootleg. Demitri Knowles is in the slot, and the Hokies run the classic "post and wheel" combination. Knowles has a step on the safety, but Thomas isn't interested. He takes the easy dump off to Coles and lets D.J. pick up yardage. Safe, conservative, smart. Thomas trusting his teammates and the system, instead of trying to beat Miami all on his own.
Miami came into the game with the same exact strategy that most teams have used with success against Tech (although like French I disagree with their tactical decisions, particularly in run defense) . Miami decided to defend against any big plays by keeping everything in front of them, force Tech to have long drives into the red zone, and hope they either stall in the red zone or turn the ball over. On Saturday, Virginia Tech was able to punish the defense for its conservative approach by getting the ball to it's playmakers and watching them make plays. Logan acted like a pass-first point guard, distributing the ball to his scorers and keeping the defense off balance.
Wide Receiver Maturation
When playing against a defense that is playing conservative and laying back, a wide receiver's job isn't to "get open and catch the ball". Everyone should be able to do that. A wide receiver's job is to get open, catch the ball, then make somebody miss. Joshua Stanford is starting to turn into the playmaker that I thought I saw during the summer scrimmages.
Thomas has been converting third-and-longs all season by great low percentage throws. Against a talented Miami secondary, on this third-and-long Thomas decides against attempting something risky and just lays it off to Stanford. Joshua catches the ball and then makes something spectacular happen.
This is the risk of playing an unaggressive defense. Defenders have to make tackles in space. Obviously, a defensive coordinator expects his players to rally to the football and get the ball carrier to the ground, but he also knows that eventually someone on the other team is going to make a play of their own. This Hokie offense has been lacking in big plays coming from their wide receivers, but I think we may finally be turning the corner, especially Stanford. He's not only making plays after the catch but he's turning into a player Thomas can count on to get open and make the play on a ball that isn't thrown perfectly.
This is a ball that Stanford was having problem catching early in the season. Now, he's starting to aggressively rise up and attack the ball with his hands rather than letting it get into his body.
Remember back in 2008 when Danny Coale, Jarrett Boykin, and Dyrell Roberts were all starting for Tech as young players? They didn't show up and start making plays from day one, it took a while! Hell, that team only had two wide receiver touchdowns all season. How do I know? I looked it up (http://www.cfbstats.com/2008/team/742/receiving/index.html) Both of those touchdown receptions were by Boykin, but the first one didn't come until November 22! (http://www.cfbstats.com/2008/player/742/1019191/receiving/gamelog.html) My point is, these receivers are improving and are starting to make more and more plays with the ball in their hands. If Logan continues to make those high percentage throws and trust his teammates to do some work, the offense will continue to improve.