Normally, my film previews are straight-forward high level overviews of Virginia Tech's next football opponent. I identify opponent's strengths, reveal challenging matchups, and suggest potential strategies on how the Hokies can take advantage of weaknesses. I don't make predictions, although I would be lying if I said that I didn't think the Hokies would beat UNC, and that I was stunned that they lost to Duke.
But, this is Hate Week, and this 2013 Commonwealth Cup has presented a unique case study of Virginia's offensive unit and maligned offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild. Fairchild's criticism of Virginia Tech's campus prompted a response from Hokies running back coordinator Shane Beamer. Perhaps Fairchild should devote more time and energy to studying his own personnel and tendencies. Unlike a competent coach, who understands how to morph a scheme to maximize the strengths of his players and hide their weaknesses, Fairchild seems insistent on leaning upon the short passing game to win football games.
If the record didn't scream it from the bell tower, the statistics drive home the point that Virginia's short passing game has been their biggest barrier to success. According to the Miami-UVa broadcast, the Hoos have forced 19 turnovers this season, but only have scored 12 points off them. Hoos quarterback David Watford has completed an average of 21 passes per game (19th nationally) but averages an abysmal 5.1 yards per attempt. Nine UVa receivers have caught more than ten passes, but only two average over 10 yards per catch. The system relies on a high level of execution and accuracy. Most throws are within 5-8 yards of the line of scrimmage, and there is a premium placed on accuracy and good decision making by the quarterback, minimizing drops, and getting yards after the catch.
If you turn on the film, you quickly learn that the Hoos personnel doesn't fit their system at all. David Watford is an incredibly athletic quarterback who has a cannon for an arm, but he struggles with accuracy and mechanics. He is indecisive not only throwing, but running, and then out of nowhere he will throw a pass that defies explanation. It is unfair to make him a high volume passer, because the more passes he attempts, the more those problems derail drives or result in turnovers.
Here are a couple of examples. First, Watford opens the Miami game with a quick screen to the right to a motioning Kevin Parks.
Watford isn't rushed in any way. He executes the fake, and his head movement should mirror Tracy Howard jumping into the throwing lane. There is no reason that Watford should throw this football, but he does anyway, and if you continue the film, he doesn't look particularly concerned about it.
As the game progressed, Miami got very little pressure on Watford, but even with a copious amount of time, he still struggled with accuracy. The following play typifies the fallacy of Fairchild leaning so heavily on the passing game. At this point, UVa is driving. Kevin Parks has rushed for well over 100 yards in the first half, but the Hoos trail as result of the opening play pick six. Fairchild calls a simple delay pattern for the tight end, who blocks as the boundary receivers run off the corners and then releases to the flat.
Watford has no pressure, but airmails the simple throw high and outside. Tight end Zach Swanson (6-6, 255 pound junior) compounds the problem by not making the tough catch and deflecting it high. Miami intercepts the pass and scores on the ensuing drive. Two offensive mistakes gave Miami 14 points, and the Hurricanes lead by 8 at the half of a game that the Hoos completely dominated.
The drops magnify the problems of Fairchild's offensive approach. The lack of big plays means that the Wahoos can't afford to make mistakes on first and second down. They need to catch those short five yard passes and move the ball on the ground to set up third-and-manageable situations. However, UVa drives are consistently short circuited by dropped passes. Senior Tim Smith serves as the primary Hoo deep threat, but after watching two games, he tends to have alligator arms when defenders are lurking around a potential completion.
Darius Jennings also had multiple drops against Miami, and usually dependable Jake McGee had a critical drop. Several drops occurred on third and less than five and would have resulted in a first down. Meanwhile, the Hoos averaged nearly five yards per carry leaning heavily on Kevin Parks, and the potential is there for Watford to make many more plays in the option game with his strength and athleticism.
So, Why Worry? The Specter Of The Terrapins
With all these problems, you would think that UVa, with a struggling quarterback, a coordinator who is bound and determined to throw the football despite those struggles, and lots of dropped passes would make a perfect recipe for an angry Hokie defense that hasn't played a terrific game since destroying the Pitt Panthers. Why does watching this film make me worry? I am nervous because I also watched the film of Maryland vs Virginia Tech.
For all their weaknesses, Virginia has every element in place to run the same kind of offense that gave the Hokies fits against the Terrapins. Maryland effectively used the option to limit blitzes by the Hokies. Their offensive line effectively tied up defenders rather than dominate them. C.J. Brown used his athleticism to make plays with his feet, especially against man coverage. Maryland got just enough big plays from young gifted receivers to punish the Hokies when they incorporated a spy early in the second half. And, the Hokies struggles covering punts against Boston College, Miami, and Maryland are well documented. Virginia has the ability to do all these things, if Steve Fairchild leans more heavily on his running game and the Hoo players decide to give a true effort on Saturday.
It all starts up front with a solid offensive line group. The UVa offensive line is much better than Maryland's, even with a freshman starting at right tackle. Bud Foster has normally generated terrific pass rush against UVa, but outside of Luther Maddy's three sacks against Miami, the Hokie defensive line has created very little pressure since the fourth quarter of the Duke game. The Hokies secondary thrives when the defensive front creates pressure and chaos, and Watford's struggles present a prime opportunity if the front can generate pressure. Against Miami, the UVa offensive line only allowed one sack or tackle for a loss (a sack and forced fumble for a touchdown on UVa backup quarterback Greyson Lambert late in the fourth quarter). Watford rarely received any pressure throughout the game and had several opportunities to get the edge on the option when the UVa offensive line completely crushed the edge, but he inexplicably gave Parks the ball anyway.
UVa has the potential to be a strong rushing offense. The line is huge, and all three Hoo backs are diminutive yet not afraid of contact. Kevin Parks excels at using his blockers to hide from the defense and then explode through seams. Despite his lack of size, he finishes his runs falling forward and is an effective short yardage runner. UVa's most effective running play is read option, and both Morgan Moses on the left and freshman Eric Smith on the right are very effective blocking down on the veer.
Here, Parks gets the ball on the inside veer.
The interior of the line gets great hat-on-hat push, and Parks sneaks into the hole and has time to juke back and forth to set up blocks. He is very patient, and his second stutter allows Morgan Moses, who has already driven the defensive tackle across the formation, time to come off his double team and slip to a second level defender. Parks bounces off that block for an extra couple of yards.
Watford has all the potential to be a terrific threat on the edge. Here, the UVa right side completely collapses the Hurricane defensive line, and Watford makes a terrific read to generate a big gain.
I am not sure why Watford doesn't run more often. Fairchild uses him regularly on the bootleg, and he sometimes scrambles for extra yardage, but he seems very indecisive for when to go. If I was Fairchild, I would set a goal to run the ball at least 40 times on Saturday, and use Watford on designed quarterback runs where the receivers run off the secondary deep. Will Fairchild have the patience to lean on the strength of the offense? I am sure the UVa fan base has their doubts.
If Fairchild needs to compliment the running game to keep Foster's defense off-balance, he can turn to Parks in the passing game. UVa loves to throw to their running backs off play-action, with both Parks and Taquan Mizzell scoring touchdowns against the U. Here, Parks shows how he can be used on third down to move the sticks.
This is a one-man route, with Watford looking to Parks the entire way. The UVa receivers run off the corners, and Parks floats to the flat. Fairchild trusts that Parks can beat the Miami linebacker one-on-one. Parks should be dead to rights on the play, but he breaks the tackle of the linebacker and then has a violent collision with the Miami safety just past the marker.
While the veteran Virginia receivers sometimes have alligator arms, 6-3, 200-pound freshman WR Keeon Johnson gives UVa a similar down the field threat to Amba Etta-Tawo. Johnson is a big body and has good speed. Here, he runs a deep curl route, a very effective route against the Hokies Inverted Cover 2 and Cover 3 defenses.
Johnson was being redshirted midway into the season, but UVa struggled so much with creating a down the field threat that Mike London inserted Johnson into the lineup. He has a bright future with UVa. If the Wahoos can establish play-action off the veer, Johnson gives UVa a threat downfield. Despite the occasional drop, senior tight end Jake McGee will be a tough matchup for the Hokies safeties and linebackers in the redzone. McGee as you recall caught the game winning touchdown in the waning seconds against Miami last season.
Finally, the poor punt coverage has been a major factor over the last three games for Virginia Tech. Neither Dominique Terrell or Tim Smith have been consistent this season, but Smith broke a long punt return against Miami to set up a Cavalier field goal. The Hokies must shore up the center of their kick coverage, and punter A.J. Hughes has to have an MVP-caliber day with his directional punting in order to support the defense if the Hokie offense struggles.
Keys to Victory
Bud Foster has developed a winning formula against UVa over the last nine seasons. His gap defense scheme had been tailor-made to stop the Cavaliers zone blocking one-back offense. Now, Steve Fairchild utilizes spread looks and option. Foster will counter with an inexperienced secondary decimated by injuries. For the Virginia Tech defense to squash any hope of a Wahoo victory, Bud Foster must find a way to limit the UVa running game and get pressure on David Watford. Over the last two seasons, Hokie victories were keyed by using stunts that forced UVa's quarterbacks to get rid of the football before they were prepared. Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims struggled against Hokie pressure, and without the aid of effective play-action, they could not punish the Hokie secondary in the drop-back game. James Gayle has always played his best games against the Wahoos. Matched up against a freshman right tackle, the Hokies need Gayle to have a dominant game after an inconsistent senior season.
To allow the Hokie defensive line time to pressure, the secondary and linebackers must limit UVa's ability to get chunk yardage on quick short throws to tight ends and running backs. Against Maryland, the Hokies played mostly man coverage. With a limited down the field threat I expect the Hokies to play a very shallow zone that allows the Hokie corners to look into the backfield and jump screens. Watford will give Virginia Tech chances to score points on defense, and those screens present a tasty opportunity for pick sixes.
Finally, the Hokies need a solid effort on special teams. The kickoff return team finally broke a long return against Maryland. Frank Beamer needs the punt return team to positively affect field position with the occasional nice return and fair catches when a return isn't possible. Finally, the gauntlet needs to be dropped on the punt and kickoff coverage teams. The defense is losing a bunch of starters after the bowl game. Coverage needs to be a de-facto tryout for the guys who want to step up and be contributors next season. If the Hokies get up early, I don't want to see seniors like J.R. Collins or Tariq Edwards on kick coverage. We need to see a young player step up.
This Commonwealth Cup is a critical tipping point for the Hokie program regardless of the struggles of the snobby neighbors to the North. UVa made inroads after last season, and the Hokies have to close out recruits at critical positions like defensive tackle, wide receiver, and linebacker. Many of those targets will be watching closely, and style counts almost as much as the score. If Virginia Tech wants to close out the Decade of Dominance in style, they need a dominant defensive effort this weekend.