I have watched the film of the Hokies baffling loss to Maryland three times, and it is one of the strangest losses I have ever had to do a film review on. In the preview I pointed out that Maryland would have to do two absolutely critical things if it wanted to be competitive in the football game.
- The Terrapins needed to get the Hokies to abandon the running game, and then play man coverage behind a wide variety of blitzes and stunts from a multitude of alignments.
- With Bud Foster committed to man coverage, the Virginia Tech pass rush had to put C.J. Brown on the ground without him breaking contain.
I have never had less fun being right. Maryland put together two scoring drives—one at the end of the first half and another to start the second—largely on the back of Brown's scrambles that caught the Hokies in man coverage downfield. Offensively, as soon as the Hokies started to get some momentum back in the fourth quarter, Maryland was able to generate tremendous pass rush off a wide variety of stunts and blitzes that confused the offensive line.
For most of the football game, the Hokies appeared to be a much better football team. The Virginia Tech defense shut down Maryland until the final drive of the first half, and then gave the offense a chance to get back into the game after the opening drive of the second half. The offense went through stretches where they had the Maryland defense completely confused. But the inability to put Maryland away early, coupled with a couple of lulls on special teams and defense, left the Hokies trailing by two touchdowns after dominating most of the football game early on.
Yesterday I discussed the impact of Will Likely's punt return for a touchdown, but even after a baffling three-and-out by the Hokies offense, the defense came back on the field and forced a punt. With the ball and 1:18 left in the half, the Hokies should have had a 10-0 lead, instead it was a tie ball game. They were still clearly the better team. At this critical juncture the Hokies offense and defense each managed the end of half situation poorly.
The offense took the field with the ball at the 20-yard line. In this situation, scoring is secondary to protecting the lead. On first down, Loeffler called a strange passing route.
To the right, the slot receiver runs a short curl, and the split end runs a quick out. To the left side, the slot receiver runs a go route that occupies both defenders, and Byrn runs a quick out. Thomas is looking to the right (the wide side) the entire way, and doesn't have an open option. Instead of looking to the check down in the middle, Thomas throws the ball deep and high out of bounds. It appears to be a throw-away.
To me, the design is screwy. If you are looking to get a quick six yards on an out route, it makes much more sense for the first read to be Byrn running the quick out to the boundary. It is a short throw with a much better chance of success. A throw to the wide side on a quick out is dangerous, and if Maryland is in any defense besides an off Cover 3, there is almost no chance of it being completed. Even more confusing, if you are looking for a quick, low risk completion, why not utilize the crossing routes that had success the entire season? And, because it is a quick route and incompletion, less than six seconds go off the clock.
On second down, the offensive line gives Thomas plenty of time, but he locks on to a receiver on the left side and doesn't look to his check down (Trey Edmunds is open in the underneath middle zone). He ends up taking a sack, but at least it forces Maryland to use a time out. On third down, Loeffler plays it safe and calls a draw play. I doubt that it would have resulted in first down yardage, but the play was well blocked on the interior and Edmunds had some room. Unfortunately, Laurence Gibson fails to execute a throw technique block on the defensive end, derailing any chance for the play to succeed.
A throw technique is used by offensive linemen, especially offensive tackles, to cause edge rushers to go too far up field. The proper technique is to show pass, but turn slightly more to the sideline, inviting the edge rusher to attack your outside shoulder to get up field. When the rusher gets to your outside shoulder, you take your inside arm (if you are at right tackle you throw your left arm, if you are at left tackle you use your right arm) and shove the defender as hard as you can away from the line of scrimmage. If done correctly, this uses the defenders momentum against them, and they run past the pocket.
Gibson instead floats outside, taking away the outside rush lane and inviting Marcus Whitfield to take an inside angle. This puts Whitfield in perfect position to intercept Edmunds on the draw.
There is no reason that Whitfield should ever have inside position on Gibson against a draw play. It is an inexcusable breakdown (one of several that Gibson had). The Hokies end up losing five yards while only burning 20 seconds off the clock. I have been an advocate for Gibson receiving playing time over Benedict, but if he doesn't play an aggressive attacking game at tackle, it negates his primary advantage as a blocker. Gibson was timid on play-action (lessening the impact of the run fake) and indecisive on blitz pickups. If Benedict gets healthy this week, don't be surprised if he returns to the lineup. Coach Grimes could not have been happy with Gibson's play.
A.J. Hughes delivered a decent 41-yard directional punt that landed out of bounds. It limited the risk of another big return, but again very little time went off the clock. Maryland got the ball back with 52 second left on the clock and one timeout. Immediately, the Terrapins execute the same quick out that the Hokies called on their first down, except Brown's first read is to the quick out to the boundary. King makes the catch, makes Fuller miss (a defender needs to keep the play in front of him in two minute defense) and Gayle takes a roughing penalty. The opening play is essentially a step-by-step instruction manual for what not to do in a two minute defense. Then, C.J. Brown breaks two long scrambles as the Hokies pass rush contain fundamentals broke down (I will cover that later in the review). And, if that wasn't enough, Maryland caught the entire Virginia Tech front napping on a 3rd-and-goal quarterback sneak.
A quick review of the film shows that the Hokies were not ready for the snap on the quarterback sneak. J.R. Collins, who was not able to track down Brown after a nice rip technique rush move on the previous play, was slow to get across the line of scrimmage and get lined up. Gayle and Maddy barely had time to get into their stances, and Derrick Hopkins stood up before the snap as if he was expecting a timeout to be called.
I am not sure if someone was trying to call timeout, but both Maddy and Hopkins were blown up, while most of the Hokie defensive backs were just staring watching the play. It wasn't a proud moment for this good group.
In less than two minutes, the Hokies went from being tied 7-7 but having an advantage in play, to down 14-7 with Maryland getting the football back. Before some fans had a chance to get back to their seats with a turkey leg, the Hokies faced a 21-7 lead, and the negative energy in Lane Stadium was palpable. One short series of plays ultimately does make a difference when the margin for error is so small.
Pass Rush 101 Against an Athletic Quarterback
For most of the game, the Hokies defense played pretty well. Maryland used the threat of option to prevent blitzing, and with the exception of a couple of plays, the pass coverage was outstanding. The run defense was solid against both the option and base running plays. Yet, one loose end remained.
As discussed in the game preview, if the Hokies played man coverage, it was critical that the pass rushers contain Brown. If he escaped the pocket, it was a sure bet that Brown would big plays with his legs because the Hokie defensive backs would be turned around running in coverage downfield. It was critical that the Hokie front (and any blitzers) not lose proper leverage and contain on Brown.
Contain is a challenging concept to teach. Most of us understand that a defender that has contain responsibility must force the quarterback or runner back to the inside and not let them get to the sideline. Against a scrambling quarterback, the defensive line must also execute a contain pass rush. So, what is a contain pass rush?
A contain pass rush uses a similar concept as pocket protection. The goal is not necessarily to sack the quarterback, but instead hem him in and force him to throw, but throw quicker than he wants to. In a contain rush, tremendous pressure is put on the defensive ends. They must leverage pass rush, squeezing the pocket by pushing the tackles close to the quarterback, without either being pushed up field or losing outside leverage. If the end loses outside leverage, the quarterback can scramble outside. If the end gets too far up field, the quarterback has the tackle between him and the end, with only a blocked defensive tackle between him and open field.
It is a delicate balance that requires the defensive tackles to stay in their lanes and collapse the pocket, keeping the distance between them and the ends to a minimum. All four defensive linemen must keep their pads facing north-south. If the defensive tackles get sealed and the end gets too far up field, the quarterback has a huge lane to run in. If the tackles or ends get their pads turned, small holes turn into big holes. The margin for error (as Hokie opponents often learned against Tyrod Taylor) is minimal. Too aggressive, and the quarterback beats you with his legs. Too timid, and it allows the receivers extra time to get open down field.
Maryland found success against the Hokies aggressive pass rush by running their outside receivers deep, their inside receivers on out routes, pulling the linebackers out of the middle, and then allowing Brown to read if a scramble lane was available. On Maryland's two scoring drives, the Hokie defensive ends repeatedly got too far up field, leaving too much distance between them and the defensive tackles to keep Brown sealed in the pocket. Here is an example from the Terrapins first touchdown drive.
On this play, Maryland runs one receiver deep, a second receiver runs a wheel route, and their two slot receivers cross in the middle of the field and run to the sidelines. Both J.R. Collins and James Gayle run past the quarterback in the pocket and turn their pads to the sideline, effectively taking themselves out of any chance of recovery back to the inside.
With both linebackers running to the sidelines in man underneath coverage, the two defensive tackles are now on an island with Brown and two blockers. Maddy and Hopkins do an X stunt, and Maryland's guards switch perfectly and turn their pads to the sideline. The right guard pushes Hopkins past Brown, and Maddy can't quite cross back to the inside to support. Brown is off to the races.
For the first half, Brown was essentially the entire offense. In the second half, Bud Foster adjusted by using a spy or a contain blitz to keep Brown in the pocket. Maryland hit three big passes against the more aggressive look to score on the first drive of the second half, but until overtime the new strategy held Brown relatively in check. Part of that strategy included Foster playing his second team defensive line more than he has in the last several weeks. Still, on Maryland's overtime drive, the strain on the defensive finally showed up. Bonner and Trimble missed tackles on back-to-back long runs. And, after Brown botched a handoff, both Edwards and Collins lost contain and Brown sauntered into the end zone. The reality is, as much as we have lauded this front, they generate pass rush through quickness and deception. When placed in a situation where they need to physically beat the blocker (especially with a bull rush that collapses the pocket), they just have not been productive, especially since the Pitt game.
I think that those three seniors on the Hokies defensive line will tell you that this was not one of their best efforts. They now have Virginia, a bowl game, and possibly the ACC Championship Game left to cement their legacy as one of the top defensive line classes at Virginia Tech. Virginia's offense is remarkably similar to Maryland's scheme. The Cavaliers will sprinkle in read and triple option to prevent the Hokies from blitzing, and both teams have decent running backs and quarterbacks who can be productive on the ground if they are given space. They are not going to line up and be successful playing smash-mouth football. This group has had remarkable success against the Cavaliers. I hope they go out with a bang.
An Honest Assessment of the Offensive Performance
The most challenging part of this film review was trying to develop a cohesive opinion on the performance of the offense. There were moments of excellence, and they outnumbered the breakdowns. At the same time, the old boogeyman of execution failures on third down derailed any opportunity for sustained success.
When things were going well, Scot Loeffler utilized misdirection and a balanced blend of run and pass to confuse the defense.
On the Hokies first scoring drive, Loeffler opened with a bootleg with D.J. Coles aligned as the back side tight end. Coles faked a block, and then slipped out to the flat. After the Maryland nose blew up David Wang on the ensuing first down run, Trey Edmunds got a big gain on a well-executed screen pass compounded by a personal foul. After the penalty, Loeffler dialed up play-action again. The Hokies faked the zone play to the trips side. It was the same play discussed in detail in the Duke and Boston College film review, and it ended with a Logan Thomas strike to Kalvin Cline behind the linebackers.
With the goal line in site, Loeffler turned to Trey Edmunds, but again he used deception. Earlier in the season, Loeffler used Logan Thomas in a counter action to compliment the inverted veer. While the play didn't have a track record of success, Loeffler used it to create space for a big Edmunds run.
The play is a counter to the Inverted Veer, so Logan Thomas dives to the left, away from the run action of the running back. Andrew Miller and Laurence Gibson pull from the right side across the formation. Miller kicks out the outside linebacker, and Gibson turns up in the hole outside of the left tackle and hits the first white jersey he sees.
The pulling guards act as influence blocks. When the Maryland linebackers and the defensive end lined up on Gibson see Gibson pulling, they follow the guards to the football. Edmunds takes the handoff and three Maryland defenders that should have the best opportunity to make a tackle on him are running away from Edmunds without being blocked. This is almost perfectly executed, EXCEPT that Sam Rogers, who should likely crack back on the linebacker, completely misses him and runs to pick up the safety.
Edmunds is left one on one with the linebacker. Last season, the linebacker makes the play for a one-yard gain. Edmunds gives him a little dead leg and then bounces outside, leaving Cole Farrand (who had 23 tackles against Clemson) looking for his jock strap. Edmunds picks up 10 yards by getting his pads down and cutting up hard. On the following play, Loeffler runs the stretch play from the pistol, and uses the H-Back to seal the edge instead of cross blocking to pick up the back side pursuit. Jonathan McLaughlin takes the defensive end inside, and Caleb Farris initially gets beaten up field by the tackle, but keeps his leg drive going and ultimately rides him into the back field and away from the play. Rather than cutting up quickly like he did early in the season, Edmunds is patient, sets up the Farris block, cuts inside his block and then bounces outside McLaughlin for an easy touchdown.
From that point forward, the Hokies offense was maddeningly inconsistent. Over the course of the game, Loeffler's offense only managed to convert 4 of 16 third downs. There were multitudes of contributing factors. I am sure Mason will discuss the struggles of the wide receiver corps to get separation against the Terrapin corners. Most of the early sacks came on plays where the Virginia Tech offensive line blocked well, but Thomas did not find anyone open down field. On clear passing downs, the offensive line struggled with the variable fronts and exotic stunts that Maryland used (more on that in a moment), and the Terrapins got outside pressure off the edge from backups Andre Monroe and Quinton Jefferson.
Perhaps more subtle, but just as important, were the personnel decisions and short yardage play calling by the offensive staff. I understand that there has to be some form of running back rotation and that Trey Edmunds can't play every play. However, the backs have to be used in a situational manner instead of the mentality that each guy gets the duration of the series. J.C. Coleman, for whatever his strong points are, is not a short yardage back.
In the first half, Coleman played the third, fifth, and seventh series of the first half. The seventh series was a critical series for the offense. Maryland had regained momentum with the Likely touchdown, and a defensive stop would help build Maryland's confidence. On first down, Coleman has an outstanding cut back for nine yards. You couldn't ask for a more manageable down than second and one. Then, the wheels come off.
Loeffler calls what appears to be a sweep with an inverted veer action, but D.J. Coles (aligned as the H-Back) does not veer release. Instead, he tries to reach the defensive end, suggesting that this is a handoff to Coleman all the way.
It is a shame, because a huge hole opens up for Thomas thanks to an outstanding down block by Miller and Gibson. Farris is also leading through the hole to pick up the first linebacker scraping over to Thomas. On the edge, Coleman finds himself in the same situation as Edmunds, one-on-one with a defender playing him inside out. Edmunds was able to shake the Maryland defender and bounce, but Coleman keeps the same speed and isn't powerful enough to run over the defender.
I can understand the second down carry, but now it's third down. Maryland has momentum, and the confidence is growing in their defense. Loeffler has to get this first down, and as I have said for the last two season, in short yardage your running back has to defeat one unblocked defender. We have two years of film that clearly shows Coleman isn't that guy. If Edmunds needs a breather, use Caleb, or use the 6-6 quarterback. Even surprise them with a fullback dive to an athletic guy like Rogers or Wright. But, Loeffler instead calls Coleman's number again.
The Hokies run the stretch play left from the pistol. David Wang gets good lateral movement, and Coleman makes the correct cut right off Wang's butt. A small seam appears, with Laurence Gibson trying to get to the second level to break the run open. Gibson loses his feet, and Coleman doesn't move the linebacker an inch. Again, even though Gibson doesn't get to the linebacker, a good short yardage back will get that first down. Coleman doesn't, and as result Maryland controlled the game until the Knowles kick return.
In the second half, Edmunds only had six carries. As the Hokies became more and more dependent on the pass, Maryland started to use more and more unique blitzes. Most of the bootlegs ran earlier (which were predicated on Edmunds running the ball) disappeared. There was some play-action, but Maryland's defensive coordinator was blitzing every play and it generated pressure. Most of the successful stunts put Jonathan McLaughlin and Kalvin Cline at a speed disadvantage on the edge, forcing Thomas to get rid of the ball quicker in a game where most of the route designs were slower developing plays. Maddeningly, Loeffler chose to throw on a critical 3rd-and-1 to Sam Rogers in the flat rather than sneaking Thomas.
The Terrapins didn't have to account for the run, and they took that advantage in overtime. On the final Hokie offensive play, Maryland got a sack on an interior blitz to force a fumble. My Twitter feed exploded with criticism about David Wang, who ended up on top of Thomas and the defender. I wasn't so sure. Upon second look, there is clearly a communication issue between Wang and Caleb Farris, but it looked like Maryland's blitz design caused Wang to mess up his own blitz protection.
Pre-snap, Thomas motions D.J. Coles across the formation, creating a bunch trips formation left. Maryland responds with a unique defensive formation, featuring two down linemen and six linebackers and defensive backs right around the line of scrimmage. The same alignment gave the Hokies fits against Boston College. Ironically, the Hokies run the same fake corner-slant-flat combination route that D.J. Coles scored on against Boston College. Coles is well covered, but Byrn appears to be wide open in the flat.
Thomas never gets a chance to look at Byrn. You can see as Coles is motioning that Wang is pointing a defender out to Caleb Farris. It's an educated guess, but it appears that the protection has been called to the left, meaning that each offensive lineman should take the gap to their left side, and Edmunds will pick up the unblocked outside linebacker coming from the right.
The Terrapins trick Wang. A linebacker walks up on his left shoulder, and Wang focuses on him. At the snap, the linebacker jab steps and crosses his face to his right. The down lineman in front of Farris also crosses his face with a rip technique to the inside. The protection has been called left, so Farris lets him go, expecting Wang to pick him up.
Wang should be there, but he bites on the stand up linebackers fake. Instead of letting him go freely to Andrew Miller, Wang moves slightly to his right, losing any angle where he can pick up the tackle stunting across Farris's face. Wang catches himself and tries to recover, but Logan is buried before Wang can reset himself. It is tough to be too critical of Wang, as he only had one other noticeable bust the entire game and has performed way over expectations all season.
HokieNation, the coaching staff, and the team have two weeks to stew before Virginia. The players and staff are undoubtedly frustrated by their performance, and the bye week affords them a chance to get healthy, tighten up some of the fundamentals, and again look at the playbook and remove some chaffe. Bowl practice will give them an opportunity to get reps to the young players who will be looked to contribute at quarterback, linebacker, and both lines next season. The coaches will be looking to lock down the last couple of recruits in a solid recruiting class while addressing serious need areas (linebacker, safety, big play threat skill position players).
I know everyone is frustrated by the results. I just spent the better part of two days watching every play of Saturday's game multiple times, then wrote I well over 5,000 words about it. But, some of the comments I have read on the site have bordered on the inane. I can't believe I have read that the struggles down the stretch this season are the result of a "lack of anger" from the coaching staff? So, you are telling me that if Frank turns red in the face and screams a bunch, that will make this a national title contender? Yeah... It is unacceptable that the Hokies have not played in a national championship game since 1999? Newsflash folks: Here are the programs that have played in a BCS title game: Oklahoma (4), Alabama (3), LSU (3), Florida State (3), Ohio State (3), Florida (2), Miami (2), Texas (2), USC (2), Auburn (1), Tennessee (1), Nebraska (1), Notre Dame (1), Oregon (1), and Virginia Tech (1). Every team on that list is either: A) a traditional power in a rich recruiting ground, B) has extravagant resources available to the athletic department, and/or C) have featured some questionable recruiting practices. Of that list, it is VERY easy to make the argument that Virginia Tech is the most unlikely team with the fewest resources and the least access to elite talent to ever make a national championship game. I want that space in the trophy case filled as much as anyone, but we need a reality check. Being a 10-win team that plays an exciting hard hitting brand of football and that is in contention for a conference title IS A GOOD THING. It isn't perfect, but I feel much better about returning to that level than I did a year ago. And, if you don't and you want the program to be a true national title contender, get your checkbook out and start making huge donations to the Hokie Club and athletic department. Alabama wins because everybody in the state pours money into the program and they get great athletes and coach them up. Match their effort as a fanbase. Or, if you want to come here and decompress after the game, take some time to learn the game, understand what goes into preparation each week, and get some perspective. I write this column to try to add some perspective because I was sick and tired of this guy ruining football for me.
Do me a favor. Don't be that person. Thank you for the forum. Beat UVa.