Virginia Tech Hokies (7-3, 4-2) at Maryland Terrapins (5-4, 1-4)
Time: 12:30 PM
Date: Saturday, November 16, 2013
Place: Blacksburg, Virginia
Stadium: Lane Stadium (65,632)
TV: ACC Network
Radio: Virginia Tech IMG
Spread: Virginia Tech -16
Weather: 48 - 61 F, Partly Cloudy, 20% Chance of Rain
Virginia Tech doesn't control its own destiny to Charlotte, but the Hokies cleared a major hurdle by dominating Miami on the road. Regardless of what happens with Duke and the rest of the ACC, the Hokies will need to win their remaining two games. Maryland is a beat up squad, and if Tech can run the ball as effectively as last week, they should be able to handle business on senior day.
Speaking of seniors, Bud Foster said this about Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum Wednesday night, "I think Fuller and 'Tone will be gametime or emergency situations right there. I hope we don't need that." The ripple effect being Der'Woun Greene at safety in nickel package, while Detrick Bonner is the nickel man. Given Bonner's recent struggles, Greene's youth, and Foster's preference for the nickel package, that'll be a scenario to watch.
More importantly, it's terrible luck for Exum and Fuller not to strap it up on their senior day. They're two Hokies who gave their all for Virginia Tech, and two players who I really enjoyed watching for different reasons. It was exciting to see Kyle Fuller step onto the field as a true freshman and make every open field tackle ever. I got excited over Exum the big hitter, but I appreciated Exum who switched positions and worked himself into a terrific corner more. I expect the applause for them to be deafening.
Players to Watch
Marcus Whitfield (#41): Whitfield is the best healthy football player on the Maryland roster right now. He's a 6-3, 250-pound senior, and is listed as an outside linebacker but he plays a variety of roles for the Terrapins. Most often, he aligns as a weak side outside linebacker in the Terps 3-4 defensive alignment. However, on some three-man fronts, he will align to the strong side in an effort to create confusion. Also, when Maryland uses a four-man front against spread/multiple wide receiver looks, he will slide down and play a pass rushing defensive end with his hand down. Whitfield has 7.5 sacks on the season, but just two since Maryland started playing ACC teams. Still, he is a high effort guy who is always around the football. Given how the Hokies struggled against some variable fronts and linebacker blitzes against Boston College, keep a close eye on Whitfield.
The Backups: Perhaps the biggest issue for Maryland from a personnel perspective isn't who is on the field, but who won't be in uniform. Star wide receivers Stefon Diggs (83.9 receiving yards per game) and Deon Long (69.9 receiving yards per game) are sidelined with season ending injuries. Cole Farrand, who had 23 tackles against Clemson the week before, missed the Syracuse game (head injury). Farrand's replacement at linebacker, former quarterback Shawn Petty, only contributed six tackles against Syracuse's power I scheme. Freshman receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, a physical freak, contributed 6 catches for 109 yards, but had several drive-killing drops that killed chances for the Terrapins to score points.
Virginia Tech transfer Ricardo Young has been moved from quarterback to wide receiver to bolster depth and athleticism at the position. Considering Tech's secondary is banged up, if Maryland can't take advantage of those backup defensive backs, then it's a huge advantage for Virginia Tech.
C.J. Brown (#16): "To me, C.J. gives us the best opportunity as we go into the Virginia Tech game to win," said Randy Edsall. Sound familiar? Brown, a fifth year senior, returned from injury against Syracuse and was ineffective against the Orange's blitzing defense. Brown attempted 40 passes yet only gained 211 yards. He threw two interceptions, lost one fumble and averaged 0.3 yards per carry. While he had several very impressive completions, he also had several throws and option reads which defy explanation.
Here, the Terrapins trail Syracuse by a touchdown in the second quarter. Maryland has already missed a field goal after a nice drive, and had a second drive stall after a big sack. It is critical they get some points on the board. Brown throws to the boundary receiver on a post route.
The Orange show Cover Two, and Brown thinks he gets the deep boundary safety to jump the slant route. Instead, Syracuse has that safety playing a short zone, and is rolling the deep field safety back to play a Cover One in centerfield. Brown's fake actually brings that safety closer to the football, and he glides over to make an easy interception underneath the post route.
The Terrapins seem to over-rely on his athleticism and the read option, and his play suffers as he takes hits. At the same time, Brown has a big time arm. Unlike other games where Bud Foster has been able to avoid defending parts of the field because the opposing quarterback could not make all the throws, Brown has the arm to attack the Hokies deep, even to the wide side of the field (where Miami had success last week). If the Hokies play man coverage and blitz (as I expect them to), it will be critical that the pass rushers contain Brown. If he escapes the pocket, he can make big plays with his legs.
Assignment Football; Contain the Option
Against Syracuse, the Terrapins utilized a significant amount of read option and traditional speed option in an effort to keep Syracuse out of their designer blitz schemes. Brown is athletic, and tailback Brandon Ross has excellent speed and power. In order to limit blitzes, the Terrapins compliment their pro-I running game with read and triple option from the pistol. Triple option can include a normal dive, keep, pitch option, or a read option with a receiver staying in the flat if the quarterback selects to throw it. Most defenses play base looks against option teams and count on their defensive backs and linebackers to play solid assignment football and make tackles.
Brandon Ross is most effective when he can get the football on read option from the shotgun. With Maryland spreading out defenses, Ross can use his speed to get to the second level diving quickly through seems.
As noted above, Brown can make plays with his arm and on the edge, but sometimes he makes poor decisions in the option game that can result in turnovers and big plays. Here, Maryland runs a read option to the left. Brown keeps, and when he realizes that the keeper is covered, he flings the ball late to his receiver in the flat.
It is close to a backwards pass, and he gets his receiver crushed.
Here, the Terrapins attempt a speed option from the diamond formation. Earlier, Brandon Ross had two nice runs after receiving the pitch, but here, Brown makes a late pitch and results in a big loss.
The Hokies occasionally struggled against read option against Marshall and Duke, but they have not faced a team that runs triple option since Georgia Tech. The spread will eliminate some of Foster's ability to blitz, but the Hokies defensive backs will be counted on to make numerous one-on-one tackles in space. If the Hokies can contain the option, I am not sure Maryland can line up and run power at the Tech's front-four.
Victimize the Passing Attack
Force Maryland into third down passing situations and expect a punt the next play. Brown and his offensive line have struggled mightily against late developing blitzes. Here, Syracuse aligns two men over the field side receivers. To the inside, they align two linebackers and a defensive back off the line of scrimmage, but occasionally stepping forwards showing blitz.
Syracuse d-line shoots through the gap to their left, drawing the left guard and tackle to step inside. One linebacker rushes right into the left tackle to tie him up. The stunt also has a defensive back blitzing on the left side, which draws the Maryland's tailback away from the delayed blitz by the outside defensive back. Brown seemingly has time to throw a check down, but instead doesn't seem to see the blitz until late and gets eaten up.
With his young receivers, Brown can sometimes be indecisive, but he has a big time arm. His receivers made some plays against zone coverage. Brown prefers to throw to the boundary side against soft off man coverage, however here he hits his receiver on a curl route against a soft man, which is very similar to Brandon Facyson's preferred coverage when playing the boundary.
Facyson has taken some chances against other quarterbacks, but Brown has the arm strength to beat his quick reaction time. However, if Facyson (and the field corners) effectively press the Terrapin receivers, I think that Maryland will struggle to throw the football.
Out-Will the 3-4
Maryland runs a 3-4 base defensive front similar to Alabama, with their best pass rusher (Marcus Whitfield) aligned to the weak side. Against some spread looks, Whitfield will drop down as a pass rushing defensive end, creating a four-man front and a basic nickel look (two linebackers and five defensive backs) behind it.
Their most interesting adjustment is against power sets. Syracuse used a significant amount of two tights I formations. Maryland responded with a 50 front (three down linemen and two outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage). Behind the three down linemen, three linebackers align stacked behind the defensive tackles.
With this alignment, the Terrapins look for their down linemen to occupy as many blockers as possible, with the outside linebackers playing contain. The stacked linebackers are free to roam and pursue the play. As with Duke's 4-4 front, this defense is susceptible to the inside zone plays. Syracuse had tremendous success with their backup tailback running inside zone.
The Maryland backup inside linebackers, who were pressed into duty due to injury, are not great at getting off blocks. If the stretch blocks by Tech's tackles can create seams like they did against Miami, Trey Edmunds should have some nice lanes on the inside.
As noted above, injuries and the string of losses have resulted in erratic tackling by Maryland's secondary. They are not a particularly physical bunch, despite playing a significant amount of man coverage. Here, the Terrapins appear to be confused and only have one defender near two Syracuse receivers, making this an easy throw and catch on the screen.
Note, Syracuse receiver Brisly Estime at 5-9, 170 pounds, is stiff-arming Terrapin defenders for a big gain. Maryland was plagued with poor tackling by their secondary against Syracuse, and the Hokies are coming off a game where their receivers had their best blocking effort of the season.
Maryland's body language was that of a defeated team against Syracuse. Outside of the very solid front-three and outside linebackers, the defense had poor tackling fundamentals and did not appear to be too keen on taking on the physical Syracuse running game. Even though it will be tempting to attack 5-7 freshman corner Will Lively, I think the Hokies can break the will of the Terrapins with the running game early. Teams that have utilized more man-to-man coverage and 3-4 teams have given the Hokies trouble this season, and Maryland has enough exotic looks in passing situations that a young offensive line may struggle with blitz pickups. Maryland's defense also kept their offense in the ball game until the fourth quarter despite four consecutive offensive turnovers. If the Hokies can dominate with the running game and keep out of obvious passing downs, they negate Maryland's ability to blitz and that should lead to positive results.
Flexibility of the H-Back
Last week, Virginia Tech got the production out of the running game that it's been looking for all season. If the Hokies are going to continue pushing for a chance at an appearance in the ACCCG, then they'll have to get similar execution on the ground against Maryland. A strong rushing attack always helps a quarterback by making the defense respect the play-action game, as well as keeping the offense out of too many 3rd-and-longs.
Improved execution run blocking on the perimeter was a key component to the Hokies success against the Hurricanes. Sam Rogers and Kalvin Cline were asked to do a lot of different things in the pass game and the run game, and if Loeffler recycles his game plan from last week then I expect those two freshmen will be featured this week as well. Scott Loeffler loves using the H-Back because of the flexibility the position brings to the table. It's hard to find an athlete that is physical enough to block consistently and skilled enough to be a threat in the pass game, but if a coordinator is lucky enough to have one or two, then he can really play games with a defense.
In football, running the ball is all about creating gaps along the line of scrimmage while defending the run is about controlling those gaps. The H-Back, a player that is flexed off the line of scrimmage in the backfield, is usually a tight end or fullback. Flexing the player off of the line allows the offense to motion him to the other side of the formation quickly before the snap or easily bring him across the formation for a great kick-out blocking angle after the snap. The versatility of the H-back gives the offense an advantage in creating "extra" gaps.
The extra gap the H-Back threatens makes it difficult for a defense to account for all the gaps, especially on the perimeter. We saw Miami struggle to account for all the blockers on the perimeter early in the game when Edmunds ran in behind Roger's pancake block.
Later on, Loeffler used the H-Backs to cut across the formation and take out the back side pursuit on zone runs.
This is effective, because it gives Rogers a great blocking angle and it messes with the Miami linebackers' eyes. Watch the linebackers on that run, they barely move from the time the ball is snapped to when they are blocked. Their hesitation in coming forward is in part to the threat of Coleman cutting back behind Rogers block. If Rogers doesn't come across the formation to cut that backside defender down, then the linebackers would be able to attack the line of scrimmage more aggressively. Instead they have to stay true to their gap fits, which allows the linemen to get a hand on them.
Contributing to the linebackers hesitation to come forward is the threat of the bootleg, using an H-Back as a receiver. After the run above, Loeffler called this bootleg pass the very next play.
The multiple gaps that an H-Back can create, as well as the constant threat of a bootleg, is extremely challenging for a defense to defend. Playing the H-Back position and filling all those roles is no easy task though, and Hokie fans are just now starting to see Rogers and Cline be able to execute the way that Loeffler needs in order to get the ground game going. If they continue to play at a high level and create matchup problems for defenses, then there's no reason the running game can't be as productive as last Saturday.
What The Hokies Need To Do To Win
Run the ball, run the ball, run the ball. That is what I want to see. If we have learned anything this season, it is that Logan Thomas is at his most effective when he is paired with a consistent and persistent ground game. A ground game that features actual running backs, not a quarterback. The use of zone read and inverted veer is important for this football team, but it can't be what the offense hangs its hat on. If Loeffler trusts his offensive line and his wide receivers early and often, I believe that Virginia Tech can move the ball on the ground against this Maryland squad. If the Hokies regress offensively and start relying on Logan Thomas to do everything, there is a real possibility that Thomas could turn the ball over multiple times.
The players around Logan need to do what they did last week. They need to execute the game plan when it comes to the basics (blocking, hitting the right holes, catching the ball), but they also need to continue to keep "making plays". Especially the skill players. Stanford has had two phenomenal games in a row and he's made special plays with the ball in his hands in both. I'm wondering what other players are going to follow in his footsteps. Is it time for Coleman to finally break a couple of long runs? Is Edmunds going to take one to the house like he did against Alabama? Is Mangus, the player who looked quite explosive early in the season, going to make an appearance at some point? Is Knowles going to run past the secondary and make a difficult catch down the field? It's getting late in the season and these freshmen aren't "freshmen" anymore. Who is going to join Stanford in solidifying their roles in this offense for next season?
Defensively, the Hokies have to find a way to limit big plays. Miami wasn't incredibly successful against Foster's unit, but they did manage to get big chunks of yards on more than one occasion. With the possibility that Exum and Kyle Fuller don't play, the pressure will be back on the "youngbloods" Kendall and Facyson. They've proven by now that they are certainly capable of shutting down opposing wide receivers, they just have to maintain that excellence for four full quarters. Bonner will probably have to play nickelback if Maryland goes spread. He has had struggles in single coverage as a Hokie (last week he got really lucky when the Miami receiver dropped a long walk-in touchdown reception), but he is arguably the most important piece to the Hokie secondary. Few players are as versatile or are asked to do as much as he is, and that's not even including all of the calls that he makes on the field. If Bonner and the rest of the secondary can avoid the mental mistakes that plagued them against Miami, Tech's defense should be poised for a big game.
The Hokies can't rely on getting two turnovers on long returns this week. They desperately need to get the kick coverage teams fixed. When a team struggles in covering kicks, you can guarantee that'll come back and bite them at the least opportune time. If Beamer doesn't work out the kinks in the next two games, there's a chance that will cost his team a shot at the ACCCG. Even if Maryland and UVA don't have enough firepower in the return game to hurt Tech, I promise that Florida State does.
Frank Beamer has said it all week long, that victory over Miami doesn't mean anything if they don't take care of business this week against Maryland. I can't stand the Terrapins, and I would love nothing more than to stomp them out the last time we play them before they bolt out of the ACC. One of my all time favorite games is the beatdown Darren Evans gave Maryland one fateful Thursday night. I want to see Loeffler come out angry. This team needs to feed the beast they created last week, they need to run the ball time and again. Pound the rock and beat Maryland into submission. If Virginia Tech really wants to be the toughest team in the ACC, they need to start game planning accordingly.
Let's run the ball down their throats.