I am not sure, even considering the loss to Duke, that I have watched a Hokies game this season and worried about the future. However, I was concerned in the aftermath of the loss to Boston College. For me, this season is always has been about establishing what the offensive identity will be for 2014 and beyond. If they went 13-0 or 6-6, it didn't matter. This needed to be a rebuilding season where Scot Loeffler proclaimed to the world ,"When you play the Hokies, we are going to do X, Y, and Z. Try to stop us." At the same time, Steve Addazio entered a similar situation at Boston College, and perhaps Addazio had even less talent to build on. Boston College is certainly without the dominant defense that Loeffler has in Blacksburg. Yet, Addazio decided, win or lose, the Eagles will pound the football. Boston College will run the football with a lead. They will run with the football when behind. They will run the football regardless of which defense is trying to stop them. And, they will be good at it, so when they run a screen, a quarterback draw, or a one man route on the outside, the defense will be so focused on the run that they can't defend it. Time and time again, the Eagles ran power plays, lead plays, and counters, sometimes using 9-men on the line of scrimmage, but always blocking players down, and pulling linemen and tight ends to create numerical mismatches on the back side. They didn't run anything in the running game that should have surprised anyone, but they executed successfully.
It's easy to be critical of Logan Thomas. His throw right into Kevin Pierre-Louis' numbers for Boston College's game-changing touchdown defies any logical explanation, regardless of who busted assignments or what kind of defense the Eagles ran. His inaccuracy at inopportune moments (see repeated five yard out patterns to Charley Meyer down the stretch), his bouts with inexplicable inaccuracy, and some poor decision-making continue to rear their ugly heads.
But those errors are highlighted even more because right now, Logan is being utilized as the only offensive weapon of significance. Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman are being used exclusively as change ups to Logan. Defenses are ignoring normal keys and selling out against the Hokies primary read plays, often forcing Logan not only to make the correct read on an unblocked defender, but then account for one or two additional unblocked defenders that the offensive line can't account for. The expectation for Logan Thomas to carry the football 20-plus times a game, as well as endure any contact after he throws the football, and also be expected to be consistently accurate and explosive in the passing game is too much. Despite the size, the power, and the arm, he isn't Cam Newton (Grimes) or Tim Tebow (Loeffler), both of those guys were much less effective when not properly complemented by big play threats at the scat back position. Logan's teammates have come to his defense because they know that everything is on his shoulders. He is taking a physical pounding, he has all the responsibility of a multiple offense that changes weekly with the exception of the inverted veer, and he is taking mounds of verbal abuse on campus and from the armchair quarterbacks in the stands.
Loeffler's passing scheme is a huge upgrade from Mike O'Cain, but I just don't understand his use of the running game. Joe highlighted the lack of effectiveness of the read plays in his column. Perhaps he feels that this is the best path to winning, but using Logan as a battering ram isn't working. It is too reliant on trickery and influence blocking, and it is a far cry from Coach Beamer's mandate to be a power running team from the spring. And, it isn't building towards the future. It doesn't matter if the 2014 quarterback is Mark Leal, Brenden Motley, Bucky Hodges, or Andrew Ford, I can guarantee none of them are going to run the football 20 times a game. This isn't what the offense will look like next season, therefore the entire core group besides Coles, Miller, and Thomas, will be starting from scratch in the spring.
The State of the Running Game
I have to piggyback on Joe's commentary on the read option. I understood the way that Loeffler utilized the read option in all varieties against Alabama because it took the Crimson Tide out of some of their exotic run blitz packages. And, I understand that Logan Thomas is a unique weapon as a runner who can get tough yards between the tackles in the option game. But, teams are scheming to stop the inverted veer, and as result, the running game has been rendered ineffective.
Let's examine a play from early in the game that demonstrates why the Hokies had so much success on play action from the inverted veer, but couldn't sustain the running game.
Here, the Hokies run inverted veer, with J.C. Coleman getting the football on the sweep. The Boston College defensive end crashes inside, causing Thomas to read give. Coleman gets the ball, only to discover that Boston College has called a run blitz.Kevin Pierre-Louis (#24) blitzes and is in position to scrape outside on Coleman and inside if Thomas keeps. The safety, who is aligned on Knowles in the slot, also blitzes right into Coleman's run. Coleman's speed gets him to break the contain blitz for a minimal gain. The concept of the read option (reading one unblocked defender) turns into dealing with three unblocked defenders when the defense only has to defend a small portion of the field.
However, the Hokies did have tremendous success with play-action off the inverted veer action because BC was so committed to stopping it. Here's a screen shot from the play overlayed with routes.
BC vacated the space behind the linebackers time and again to stop the inverted veer, leaving deep in's, slants, and skinny posts wide open underneath the safeties, and as the game progressed, the Hokies Josh Stanford and D.J. Coles burned the Eagles on those routes time and again. To his credit, Loeffler adjusted and found ways to take advantage of what the Eagles were giving him (although Logan's first fumble came when the Eagles sat on the deep slant and he couldn't find another receiver). Loeffler featured some other counters, including a quarterback counter and a screen away from the counter action (demonstrated here by Willie Byrn and an outstanding block by D.J. Coles).
But, the reality of the running game from the shotgun with the read option is this:
- When running the inverted veer, defenses only have to defend half the field, which is tipped either by jet sweep motion or the alignment of the tailback. That means, on the inverted veer, BC had to defend the guard tackle gap (indicated as the bubble created by the down block of the play side tackle and guard. The back side guard pulls and leads through this area); one defender has to play contain to take away the jet sweep, and the pass defenders must take away the slot receiver to the play side, who will almost always run a deep slant/skinny post or in route. Thomas is not quick enough for the counter play to force the defense to pay much attention to anything on the back side.
- On the veer, the unblocked "read" defender is taking away the dive, and Thomas isn't quick enough to bounce it outside before the pursuit catches up. Again, this is a play made effective by both running options being credible threats, and Loeffler has not given any Hokie running back carries to make the defense over-commit to the dive, and the quarterback isn't going to hurt a defense badly to the outside. The wham action that had success versus Alabama and Marshall was non-existent in this game, and in the rare instance when it has been used in ACC play, it was used as play-action (see Kalvin Cline's first catch against Pitt.)
- On the true read option, the Hokies had a little bit of success (Thomas' long run yesterday), but it has not been prominently featured and if the back side defensive end doesn't regard the tailback as a credible threat (and why would they given the limited number of carries they have received.
Against teams that can play good man coverage behind those blitzes, or teams that have a front that can win individual battles against the offensive line, those play-action reads are not going to be there. Boston College, with limited offensive skill position players, has found a way to be physical and win games. By all accounts, that is what Loeffler came here to do. His offensive line didn't have their best day (but as discussed in the preview, Boston College was going to generate some pressure with their eight-man front alignments on passing downs), but they controlled the Eagles front on running downs. There has to be a quick hitting power element to the Hokies game that doesn't allow safeties to come in late and make tackles even though every offensive lineman has landed a successful block. The Eagles did it. The Hokies have not.
Magnifying Troubles in the Red Zone: A Touchdown That Shouldn't Have Happened
It might be difficult to wrap your head around, but the Hokies first touchdown of the day actually put a glowing light on the multiple problems in the running game right now. Because the different varieties of veer option have become so prevalent, especially in short yardage situation, defenses are run blitzing certain alignments and ignoring influence blocks. Also, spread formations are allowing the defense to outnumber the Hokies at the point of attack. In any goal line/short yardage situation, an offensive play caller understands that there will be at least one unaccounted for defender, and most often two. You negate those unblocked defenders most often by either using quick hitting plays where you attempt to outnumber the defense at the point of attack, negating back side pursuit. Or, you have to count on your player carrying the ball to physically win a one on one battle with an unblocked defensive player.
Let's examine the Hokies first touchdown.
Loeffler called a veer option dive from the pistol formation. First, let's examine alignment. The Hokies come out in a pistol formation, with Trey Edmunds eight yards from the goal line. The strength of the formation is to the right, with Kalvin Cline aligned as an H-Back, D.J. Coles on the line in the slot, and another receiver in a flanker alignment to the sideline. Boston College has eight defenders in the box, and at the most the Hokies have six blockers.
Second, let's examine play design. The Hokies run a standard veer option dive, with the quarterback reading the defensive end on his right to determine if he gives the ball or keeps.
On the play, Cline executes a veer release, which is an outside step designed to influence the defensive end to widen with the tight end, preventing the tight end from sealing him inside. If the influence block works, the end widens, and the tailback has a larger seam to dive into up front. If the end crashes, in theory the quarterback should keep and the tight end can leave the end unblocked and outnumber the defenders on the edge.
Third, let's examine how Boston College defends the look. The Eagles run an X stunt with the linebacker and the defensive end against Jonathan McLaughlin on the left hand side of the defensive line. On the play, McLaughlin is supposed to secure the gap to the inside of his right shoulder and then turn back to try to cut off back side pursuit.
Kasim Edebali (#91) steps to the outside at the snap, and the inexperienced McLaughlin, who had trouble with the senior Edebali all day, went with him. The outside linebacker Steele Divitto comes from the outside and plunges through the gap where McLaughlin should be. He comes through unblocked on the play. To the strong side, the Eagles inside linebacker is stacked behind a one technique defensive tackle, just slightly on his outside shoulder. Andrew Miller and Brent Benedict block down on both the tackle and the inside linebacker perfectly. Along with Wang and Farris, they collapse the middle effectively and certainly well enough that a quick hitting play would result in an easy touchdown.
Here, the alignment and play design fails the Hokies. Edmunds has to run 9 yards to score a touchdown. The defensive end and the outside linebacker to the right of the Hokie formation completely ignore Cline's influence block to the outside. They can afford to do so because the Hokies have not run a quick veer release tight end dump pass in short yardage all season (more on that in a moment) and Logan is not quick enough off the read to fake the hand off and get around the end to the outside even though he is crashing hard on the dive.
At this point, Boston College now has three unblocked defenders inside the box. One is coming from McLaughlin's missed assignment away from the play, and two are coming directly through the hole that Edmunds should be running into as result of ignoring the influence block. Meanwhile, Cline essentially is in air, blocking nobody (although he has completed his assignment), and the Hokie receivers and those covering them are non-factors. Trey scores because he overpowered three tackles at the goal line, and Miller, Benedict, and Wang got solid push on the play side. If it is 3rd-and-goal from the two versus 2nd-and-goal from the half yard marker, Cody Journell is lining up for a field goal.
To Loeffler's credit, he punished the Eagles late in the game by calling a Y Dump off play-action for a touchdown. This should force defenses to at least consider accounting for Cline on a veer release in short yardage.
On the play, Loeffler uses the inverted veer run action. EVERYONE IN THE STADIUM thinks Logan is keeping on the play, including the outside linebacker who crashes inside Cline's veer step on the run fake. Cline takes a step to the outside and up field, and is all alone. The Y Dump is a classic part of any team's offense that uses the option, and teams will need to account for it in the future.
Defensive Back Force Technique
The Eagles controlled the line of scrimmage against Bud Foster's defense, and their commitment to power football forced defensive backs like Kendall Fuller, Antone Exum, and Detrick Bonner into the unfamiliar position of run forcing.
As I highlighted back in my pre-season analysis of the whip and rover positions, the run force technique is a fundamental where an assigned defensive back comes up in run support. In my experience, every defender from defensive ends and outside linebackers to corners and safeties are taught to take on a pulling offensive lineman with their inside shoulder and initiate contact as quickly as possible to squeeze the size of the hole. In this technique, two things are imperative.
- The defender can't show the blocker his numbers (chest). If he turns and faces the blocker, he opens up the hole, and the defender loses the ability to plant a leg and achieve a base.
- Second, the defender must take on the block with his inside shoulder, but keep his outside shoulder free. This gives him the angle in case the runner tries to bounce it outside.
There were numerous plays where I perceived to see breakdowns in this technique. I could have picked any number of plays focused on Bonner, Exum, Fuller, Trimble, Jarrett, Edwards, or Tyler.
When looking at those breakdowns, the most dangerous mistakes are those that turn out well, because players then are tempted to try it again. Let's take a look at an example from early in the game.
Here, the Eagles run their standard counter trey, with the left guard and the left H-Back pulling. On the play side, the Eagles block everybody down, leaving Bonner to take on the pulling guard. At the moment of impact, Bonner lowers his inside shoulder, stepping up field in the process.
Bonner gets lucky, and manages to get a hand on the running back, tripping him up, BUT by going up field the hole is wider if Williams can avoid the trip. Perhaps, Coach Torrian Gray teaches his defensive backs to avoid the contact and make the play, but that would not be consistent with a gap fit concept defense. I also understand that a 6-0 190-pound safety taking on a 300-pound guard isn't an even matchup, but if Bonner doesn't get a hand out to trip Williams, this is a big play ready to happen.
As the game progresses those breakdowns became more prevalent, as shown by Bonner taking on the fullback.
As I saw different Hokies running around blocks instead of playing proper technique, I could sense that a big play was coming. Finally, the dam broke.
Following the 4th down incompletion to Charley Meyer, the Hokies desperately need a stop while the Eagles looked to run down the clock. BC ran their bread and butter power play with a fullback lead and a guard pulling. Exum came up to play force technique, and both Bonner and Tyler scrape to fill the gap where the guard is looking to pull through. Everyone is in the correct position, but the fundamentals break down. Here's a freeze frame at the critical moment.
Instead of playing proper force technique, Exum turns his pads. This widens the hole slightly. Tyler takes the inside gap (attacking the inside shoulder of the pulling guard. Bonner, inexplicably, also takes an inside angle, leaving the gap between Exum and the pulling guard wide open. The guard in effect blocks both Tyler and Bonner. He is in position for a block on Tyler, but essentially he sticks his arm out to dissuade Bonner. Bonner should be able to cross his face easily and at least make contact with Williams. Instead, after 60 minutes of pounding football, Williams goes untouched to the end zone.
Still, it is difficult to be overly critical of any one player. The Eagles were very physical up front, and there were plenty of plays where very good Hokie players were manhandled by Boston College's offensive line. I was shocked that Bud Foster didn't utilize Dadi Nicolas at whip very often, nor did he consider an alignment where perhaps a corner or the free safety could have been replaced with an extra linebacker. Instead, he used the 46 alignment with Jarrett playing a linebacker spot and Tariq Edwards and Josh Trimble aligned outside, and BC used wide splits and sometimes a nine-man offensive line to spread out the Hokie front with alignment, and then out physical their smaller defenders on the edge. The Hokies went through stretches where they made enough plays to force punts, but the Eagles dictated the tempo the entire game. The defensive line wasn't disruptive. The Hokies didn't sack Chase Rettig, and only made two tackles for a loss the entire game. The Hokies leading tacklers behind Jack Tyler were Jarrett, Bonner, and Kendall Fuller. That gives you a clear indicator on how well the Eagles offensive line handcuffed the Hokies front. Kyle Fuller and Brandon Facyson were also conspicuous by their absence. It is clear that the defense misses their run support and ball-hawking right now.
I was really enjoying this season, but the last two weeks have been gut-wrenching. I can deal with wins and losses, because I am more interested in the creation of a foundation where the offense compliments the defense and develops their own identity while the defense dominates. These two losses feel more like last season, where the offense lost direction and the defense had great moments, but couldn't make the big stop. Miami looms next on the schedule, and the Hurricanes will likely use a very similar game plan to Boston College featuring Dallas Crawford in the place of Duke Johnson. The Hurricanes also have the best defensive front-seven that the Hokies have faced since playing Alabama. The U also has a massive offensive line that has decimated the Hokies front the last two seasons. The gauntlet is on the ground. We will see who steps up.