Virginia Tech Hokies (6-3, 3-2) at Miami Hurricanes (7-1, 3-1)
Time: 7:06 PM
Date: Saturday, November 9, 2013
Place: Miami Gardens, Florida
Stadium: Sun Life Stadium (76,100)
Radio: Virginia Tech IMG
Spread: Miami -6.5
Weather: 73 - 82 F, 40% Chance of Rain
As Charley Wiles said earlier this week, "We're 8-1 or we're 6-3, we still got to beat Miami." If the Hokies can limit turnovers and continue to play tenacious defense, they can pave their own path to Charlotte.
Players to Watch
Allen Hurns (#1): I don't think Al Golden will put the ball in the air frequently unless they trail late in the game, but when Stephen Morris looks for a big play, 6-3, 195-pound senior Allen Hurns will be his go to target. Last season, the Hurricanes attempted to get one-on-one matchups with Exum covering Hurns. Hurns turned Exum inside out for a touchdown, forced some flags, and beat him several times on deep dig routes off of play-action. With Phillip Dorsett out, Hurns will be the only receiver on the field on most downs.
Olsen Pierre (#91): While defensive end Anthony Chickillo is the most productive defensive lineman for the Hurricanes, Pierre, a 6-5, 305-pound junior, has the potential to impact the game the most. He is also a very talented big body who gave the Hokie interior fits last year. The Hurricanes bounce back and forth between a three- and four-man front, and if the Hokies insist on running inverted veer from the spread, success on the play starts with effectively blocking down on Pierre.
Stephen Morris (#17): Miami's 6-2. 218-pound senior quarterback has the tendency to turn the football over. This season he has 10 interceptions to go with 12 touchdowns, and in drop back passing situations he is indecisive and uncomfortable. In his first start, Morris fell victim to Jayron Hosley in a robber coverage. If the Hokies can put Miami into third-and-long situations, their defensive backs should have opportunities to create turnovers.
Dadi Nicolas: Since their 8 sack performance against Pitt, the Hokies have just a single sack in their last 8 quarters of play. Charley Wiles has been emphatic that Dadi Nicolas will play more against Miami (4 sacks this season). Will the sensational sophomore help re-energize Tech's defensive line to get after a turnover prone quarterback?
Again, The Power Running Game
It is pretty simple to break down the Hurricanes offense on film. Miami has a huge offensive line, and they want to run the football. Their bread and butter play is a zone lead from a power set. Most running downs, you will see one receiver, a tight end, an H-Back, and a fullback in front of the tailback. The front will zone block to the strong side, and Dallas Crawford will cut off of either the fullback or the uncovered play side offensive lineman. The Hurricanes compliment this power zone play with essentially the same plays utilized by Boston College. They will run a power play, leading a fullback and pulling a guard through the back side. They will occasionally utilize the counter. They want to get a lead and let the offensive line lean heavily on the defense.
Miami can use the Boston College approach of bringing in extra linemen, but their tight ends are good enough blockers that Miami will sometimes "cover" them with an outside receiver, making them ineligible to go out for a pass. This allows the Canes to identify the best run support corner, align to his side, and then tie him up with a receiver, but can also cause confusion in gap fit assignments for the safeties.
From this formation, Miami likes to run the same power play that Boston College ran time and again.
Miami isn't as fundamentally sound as the Eagles front, but boy, they are big, and it doesn't take much more than getting square on a defender to take them out of the play.
The biggest difference from Boston College to Miami is the tailback. Andre Williams was a bruiser. Dallas Crawford is 30 pounds lighter, so you expect him to be a speed back. Don't be fooled. Crawford is a bruising running back who uses his speed to hit seems, but then puts his pads down and finishes runs. He isn't the home run threat that Duke Johnson is, but he has the speed to make plays and the durability to carry the ball 30 times a game and keep plugging away. Crawford had a spectacular game subbing for Johnson against North Carolina. After coming back from a big deficit, Miami got the ball back from UNC down 3 and on their own 10 yard line with four minutes left in the game. Instead of spreading UNC out and trying to throw the football, Al Golden called on Crawford to win the game for the Canes. On the ensuing 13-play drive, Crawford got 8 carries, all from a two tight end set, and finished the drive off with a touchdown. There wasn't any flash. It was pure power and effort.
The Hokie defense has struggled to stop the run against Miami the last two seasons. With a pledge by Charlie Wiles to get Dadi Nicolas on the field, and hopefully a healthy Kyle Fuller, we will see the Hokies best defensive lineup in action for the first time this season. If they want to win this football game, the defense must be the disruptive force we saw early in the year.
The Hokies played an awful game at Miami last season in a funeral-like atmosphere. The Hurricanes abandoned the running game, struggled to prevent Logan Thomas from running the football, and took a significant number of critical penalties. Twice in the 3rd quarter, the Hokies had driven the ball into scoring range only to implode. What was the difference in the football game? The Hokie special teams were abysmal, especially early. In the first half Miami blocked a punt, broke off a long kickoff return, and Cody Journell missed an extra point. The blocked punt was particularly troubling, as Miami has a history of blocking punts against the Hokies.
Last year, the Hurricanes blocked a kick off a standard pressure. Miami lined up an 8-man front, and adjusted the strength to the right. The Hokies personal protector, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, stepped away from the Miami strength. Still, it should have been a relatively routine punt despite some push up the middle.
Unfortunately, the snap seemed to fool AJ Hughes and he bobbled it. As result, he took a slight stutter step before putting his foot to the football. The extra step brought him closer to the middle pressure from Miami and an interior rusher got a hand on the football.
These small breakdowns were endemic of a lost season for the Hokies last year, and small fundamental errors have crept into the Virginia Tech film the last couple of weeks. Coach Beamer prides himself on special teams, and often says that special teams is the quickest way to make an impact play. However, the Hokies have not generated big momentum turning plays on special teams all season. It is critical that the Hokies don't give up points on special teams, and they may need a blocked kick, punt, or a return for a touchdown to win this game. Where will that big play come from? We have not seen it yet this season.
Players Make Plays
No matter how many times I write an article demanding that Tech starts running the ball from under center, the Hokies probably aren't going to look drastically different this season. At this point, they are who we think they are.
"Hokie in SC" made an excellent point in the comment section of my In Defense of Logan Thomas piece. Even if Loeffler now realizes that basing the entire run game on the read option was a mistake, it might be too late to make a drastic change. With only a weeks worth of practice, keeping a game plan that is similar to last week's, but with minor tweaks probably gives Tech its best shot at a win. Tactically it might not be the ideal choice, but the players will almost certainly be more comfortable using a read-based running attack at this point, if only because that's what they've been doing for weeks now. Considering the success the offense enjoyed last week (ignoring the turnovers), Loeffler might be best served in the short term by only making small adjustments to his overall Thomas-based strategy and hoping that the team improves their execution.
All season long, the Hokies have struggled in the red zone. Unless the unexpected occurs and the Hokies start pounding the football at will, that part of the field will remain a trouble area. One thing the offensive skill players for Tech could do to help their team is to start making explosive plays. Being able to score on long plays is a sure way to bypass pesky red zone defenses. Defenses know this, and most teams this year have been willing to play "bend not break" style defenses against Thomas. If Miami's secondary keeps Tech's receivers in front of them, makes the tackle, the odds have been in the defense's favor to hold Tech to a field goal.
A defense sitting back and keeping everything in front of them doesn't eliminate all opportunities to score on a long play. It just means that in order to do so, a skill player will have to make a defender miss when he gets his opportunity in the open field. The running backs need to do a better job at getting yards after contact in general. We all know that Trey Edmunds is able to rip off big runs if given a lane to run past the first line of defense (my main reason for wanting him to get more carries... but I digress). If he can find a way to break more tackles at the line of scrimmage and get to the second level, maybe his speed and power can get him into the end zone.
The wide receiver play has improved as the season has progressed, but the lack of explosion from the group post-catch still disappoints me. Defenses have been willing to give the outside receivers a large cushion, which is why Thomas has had consistent success finding them on in routes on intermediate throws. The receivers need to look for YAC more aggressively when making those catches. If the corner isn't going to let the receiver run past him, then he needs to come back for the ball and make a play on the way to the end zone. Hopefully Stanford made permanent progress last week in that regard, as he had one run after catch that was particularly impressive. If he starts doing this more often, defenses will have to consider either playing tighter coverage or giving Thomas less time to find him by blitzing. Either option opens up more chances for big plays down the field.
The running backs and wide receivers aren't the only players who need to do more when running with the ball in their hands though. Logan Thomas hasn't been explosive when rushing this season. Yes, part of this is because the defense is keyed on him and yes, part of this is probably because he's been worn down. Still, if he's going to lead the team in carries he needs to be able to rip off a long run or two. Loeffler can help him by mixing up blocking assignments some to take out defenders responsible for the QB on the read play, but at the end of the day Thomas is going to have to make someone miss and then hit the jets.
If Virginia Tech is forced to score touchdowns exclusively while operating in the red zone, they'll struggle against Miami. Big time players make big time plays, but unfortunately for Frank Beamer's squad there hasn't been a ton of big time plays for the offense this year. With the season more than halfway through, all those young skill players need to start coming into their own. X's and O's only go so far. At some point, you need a player to do something like this...
What Virginia Tech Needs To Do To Win
Did you know that Virginia Tech has gained more yards than their opponent in every game this year, except against North Carolina? UNC only gained 35 more yards than the Hokies, but they also turned the ball over 3 more times. "Total Offense" is easily one of the most overrated statistics in all of football. Turnover margin and red zone TD efficiency, those are the two numbers you need to look at at the end of a game. If your team wins those two, they're golden.
Thomas can't afford to be careless with the football for a third week in a row. Virginia Tech will not win this game if he is. Early in the ACC schedule, Thomas did a really good job at playing within himself and not getting crazy with the ball. He didn't throw an interception for over a month. My point is, Thomas has shown he's capable of being smart with the football. Of course, his receivers haven't been blameless either. A couple of Thomas's recent interceptions have come on plays where he's put the ball on the receiver and the receiver didn't bring the ball in. That can't happen against Miami.
Virginia Tech's defense is tied for second in the nation with 17 interceptions this year. Miami has thrown 12 interceptions this season, placing them in a tie with Virginia Tech and a bunch of other schools for 104th worst. Torrian Gray's secondary is primed to have a big game, if they are healthy enough to get the job done. Even if Kyle Fuller isn't ready to go on Saturday, the three other corners (Exum, Kendall, and Facyson) are capable of making plays. Exum didn't look like his old self on the field yet, but this could be the perfect game (and opponent) to open up the daycare. When that switch comes on, this secondary will be frightening. Interceptions are a team affair, and the ball hawks will need good pressure from their pass rush, but I believe the Hokie front-four is up to the task. It sure would be nice to not only see Tech win the turnover battle, but to see the defense turn one of those turnovers into a touchdown.
In the red zone, the Hokie defense will have to dig in against a big Miami offensive line. The defense can't allow itself to get pushed around. Miami's Dallas Crawford is a talented back, although he's not as big a load as Andre Williams. In the red zone, the front-four will have to use their quickness to get around the offensive line and try and disrupt the run before it gets started. If they fail to, Crawford's vision and Miami's superior size could cause problems for the Hokies in short yardage situations. If Thomas does stumble again and give the 'Canes good field position, this defense needs to find a way to hold Al Golden's offense to three.
How do you score in the red zone without a good running game from under center? Tech has ran Thomas in the red zone quite a bit this season (mostly on designed runs instead of the usual reads though). Loeffler has also been clever in finding different ways to get receivers open for touchdown throws. Look for DJ Coles to get targeted in the red zone again this weekend, and don't be surprised if Cline gets another look. Although throwing down near Miami's goal line is probably gives Tech the highest probability of getting six, it increases the odds of an interception significantly. Getting touchdowns instead of field goals is crucial, but Thomas has to find the balance between trying to make a play and trying to force one. If the throw isn't there, Thomas needs to acknowledge that and give Journell a shot at further redemption. If Loeffler does give the ball to one of the running backs, it would be nice to see them punch it in with some authority.
Virginia Tech is still capable of getting to the ACC championship game and ruining FSU's shot at a national championship. They need to take care of business against Miami though. Thomas had a terrible game vs Duke, but after rewatching the Boston College game I came away convinced that Loeffler is correct.
Loeffler on Logan: "The fact of the matter is if you eliminated 2 or 3 plays, all you guys would be talking about how great he played."— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) November 7, 2013
He had the one terrible interception, there is no excusing that. The other interception was a pass that was tipped by his receiver, one fumble came from a blind side sack, and another came on a 3rd-and-10 with less than 2 minutes to go in a game his team was down by 7. Thomas was trying to scramble and make a play to get a first down when he got hit from behind and fumbled. If Thomas doesn't throw that mind-numbing pick six and gets lucky and has a teammate falls on one of his fumbles, Virginia Tech wins that game against Boston College. There's no doubt in my mind.
If Virginia Tech wins Saturday, they have a great shot at getting to the ACCCG. Duke plays NC State, Miami, Wake Forest, and UNC to close out the season. I'm not saying there's no way they win out... but there's no way they win out. I think we can all agree that Thomas is good enough to beat Miami. Whether he likes it or not, a large portion of Logan Thomas' legacy will be determined by how he plays Saturday. He needs to go out there and have a great game while protecting the football. If he does that, the Hokies probably win. If he doesn't, they probably lose. Win or lose, this game will be a huge factor in deciding how people remember him 20 years from now.