The Hokies continued their winning ways. They were victorious again on Saturday, beating the pesky Pittsburgh Panthers. The defense dominated and the Hokies offense did just enough. Logan Thomas had another solid game, passing for 239 yards with zero turnovers. He also had good success on third down, helping Tech convert 8 of 19 opportunities. The Hokies struggled getting into the end zone, despite venturing into Panther territory multiple times, and once again the running game never got going.
After the game, like many fans, I was disappointed with the rushing attack. With maybe the country's best defense, Loeffler's group needs to be able to run the ball. It's not necessary for the offense to drop 40 points a game, but it does need to score when in the red zone, avoid three-and-outs, and milk the clock when holding a lead. The short passing game isn't going to be consistent enough to accomplish those goals. Thomas has had success in long passing situations the past few games, but being in 3rd-and-long because the ground game isn't working isn't a good formula for success. If the Hokies can improve their ground game, this team will turn into true ACC contenders.
The Offensive Line To Blame?
Whenever an offense struggles to run the ball the first reaction everyone has is to blame the offensive line. And why not? Historically, the teams with the best offensive lines have the best rushing attacks. Those guys up front have one job, and that's to keep defenders off of the guy holding the football. If the runner can't get a yard past the line of scrimmage without running into a tackler, most of the time the offensive line failed to do their job. However, after watching the game multiple times it became evident that the line can improve, but wasn't solely responsible for the poor rushing display.
On occasion, the offensive line is clearly at fault for a running play going nowhere. Here is an example.
Tech goes to an unbalanced line. Normal left tackle Jonathan McLaughlin lines up on the right side of the formation as a tight end next to Brent Benedict, who is at right tackle. On this play, the Hokies are going to run a counter to the weak side of the formation and pull the right guard Andrew Miller to lead block for Edmunds. Benedict has the responsibility of scoop blocking the defensive tackle lined up over top of Miller. It's a tough block, one where Benedict has to explode to his left and get his head in front of the defender. It requires quickness, and Benedict only manages to get his left shoulder on the Panther before the Panther gets the penetration to blow up the running attempt. If Benedict can make that block, then the Hokies have a shot at a touchdown. Tech would later settle for a field goal on this drive.
Here's another play where the o-line should have performed better. Left guard Caleb Farris reaches for the defensive tackle but falls to the ground without making contact. The defensive tackle walks into the backfield and hits Edmunds before he has a chance to get anything going.
Good Blocking Up Front, Miscues Elsewhere
Those two poor blocks were the exception and not the rule though. There were plenty of times when the five big guys did their job but the rushing play still failed. On this play two things go wrong for the Hokies, neither one of them the fault of Grimes' group.
This is a basic sweep play, with two linemen pulling out front for Edmunds. The first problem is Kalvin Cline getting beat by the defensive end. Cline's job is to seal the defensive end to the inside and not allow him to flow towards the sideline. Cline is a true freshman, has been pleasantly productive in the passing game, but doesn't have the Gentrification needed to match up with that defensive end. However, if he makes that block this run probably picks up at least five yards.
Edmunds deciding to bounce the run outside rather than cutting it up and taking what he can get is the second issue. The two offensive linemen are in a good position to kick out both defenders, allowing Trey to cut behind them. With the defensive end getting past Cline and pursuing from behind, Edmunds avoids the contact and tries to beat him to the edge. The perimeter defenders are maintaining their outside leverage though, and Edmunds can't get anything out of the run.
Here's another example of the offensive line not getting a chance to make their blocks.
Cline gets beat again, this time to the inside and he gets pushed deep into the backfield. The defensive end's penetration actually pushes Cline into the path of David Wang, which prevents Wang from beating running back Joel Caleb to the perimeter. If not for the obstacle in his way, Wang would have been in a great position to take on the defender that ultimately tackled Caleb. With more experience, Caleb may have chopped his feet and slowed down enough to allow Wang to get ahead of him but instead, Caleb blows past his blocker and runs right into a defender. These two plays are perfect examples of running plays failing on the perimeter despite decent blocking up the middle.
Kalvin Cline was asked to block on the perimeter a lot. Although he is a gifted receiver, Cline is struggling to handle the defensive end on this sweep play. That's a shame, since this sweep is a great compliment to the Inverted Veer. The linebackers can't flow too quickly towards the sideline or they risk Logan keeping it and running right past them up the middle. If Cline is able to hold his position against that defensive end, the Hokies will have success with this play in the future.
The Read Game
Grimes' unit actually played pretty well in the rushing game. The mass majority of running plays that went for short or negative yardage occurred on the edge, away from the offensive line. When the Hokies did run through the interior, the line usually found the correct men to block and got a decent push. The runs that were sent to the perimeter failed for a number of reasons, none of which were the fault of the big guys up front.
As has been the case over the past couple weeks, the Hokies spent most of Saturday in shotgun or pistol formations. The rushing game consisted almost entirely of Veer (from pistol) and Inverted Veer (from shotgun). The Hokies had some success with the veer in the third quarter, but the first half was a mess. Logan Thomas did have a good game overall, but when running veer he had a few bad reads and took poor angles when running the football early.
On this play Thomas makes the correct read to pull the ball but he tries to bounce his run outside rather than picking up what yardage he can.
Thomas only has to get two yards. For all quarterbacks on the veer, the rule is simple. If the defensive end takes the running back, "pull and replace". "Pull and replace" means take the ball away from the RB and attack the line of scrimmage where the defensive end started the play. Thomas sees the "keep" key and correctly decides to pull the football back, but he doesn't replace the defensive end. Instead, he heads too far outside. Logan's greatest asset when running is his power, not his speed. When the he keeps the ball on a veer play, Thomas could maximize his production by heading north-south as quickly as possible.
Gibson had a pretty good game at right tackle when he was in. Here he does a great job at blocking down and then peeling off to pick up a linebacker on a veer play. If Thomas replaces the defensive end instead of trying to bounce it again, he can cut inside of Gibson and pick up good yardage.
To his credit, after halftime Thomas started hitting those angles much better and started picking up good yardage on the Veer. The blocking by the offensive line is no different for him for him up front. Watch left tackle McLaughlin do an excellent job at blocking down then getting enough of a linebacker to spring Thomas for nine yards. The only difference is the decisiveness with which Logan cuts up field.
The Hokies also struggled to make the correct read on the Veer play at times. Late in the game, the defense holds on a fourth down play and give the offense the ball on the Panther's 35-yard-line. The offense runs on the field, then promptly get behind schedule after a poor read on the veer.
The offensive line does a fine job here. There is no penetration along the line, Benedict at right tackle even does a good job at fighting off through the defensive end to get a block on a linebacker. Thomas has to read the defensive end and hold on to the football though. He gives it up to Edmunds who has very little chance of getting positive yardage. If Thomas keeps it and follows his blockers to the perimeter he can start the drive off with a good pickup on the ground.
Slow Playing The Inverted Veer
The Panthers did a great job at stringing out the Inverted Veer throughout the game. Pittsburgh's defensive ends would stay at home forcing Logan to hand off to the running back, then try and chase down the play from the back side. They would also have their play side safety crash down to attack the outside alley the running back was running towards. Pittsburgh intended on creating a wall on the perimeter which would slow Coleman down enough to allow the inside-out pursuit of the middle linebacker and defensive end to catch him.
Coleman was sometimes quick enough to cut it up field and pick up decent yardage, but he wasn't quite fast enough to threaten the defense with large runs. Loeffler tried to counter the horizontal flow by running some Inverted Veer action, but blocking the defensive end with a flexed tight end/fullback. With the OLB and the safety flowing to the perimeter, the Hokies had the number advantage in the box and Logan picked up decent yardage up the middle. The offensive line did a good job blocking these plays in the third quarter.
Cline does a good job with his defensive end assignment this time, and Farris gets a pancake block on the middle linebacker. This run could have gone for more yardage, but Byrn struggles with the outside linebacker. The OLB holds up Thomas just enough to allow the safety to come over and clean up. Later on in the same drive they would try it again, but get unlucky when Sam Rogers picks up a holding penalty on his down block.
How To Improve
The Hokies have had occasional success in the rushing game, but are far too inconsistent for Loeffler to just pound the rock. If Virginia Tech played Pittsburgh again and called the same exact plays, they could probably double their rushing total if they executed better. If Logan takes the correct angles on those veer runs at the beginning of the game and makes all the right reads, the Hokies pick up a few extra first downs and can continue running the ball instead of throwing. If Kalvin Cline can do a better job at sealing the defensive end on the sweeps, then Edmunds and Caleb put the Hokies in running downs instead of 2nd/3rd and long. If only, if only, if only...
I have been as big a fan of Loeffler's offensive game plans as anybody. Despite the modest offensive output the Hokies have had this year, I've spent almost every game review showing why I believe that his tactics are much better than what we've seen in Blacksburg in the past. He has clearly already made Logan Thomas a better QB, not only because Loeffler brought a grown-up passing scheme with him, but because he has quickly earned Thomas' confidence. Thomas has better mechanics than ever before and his accuracy has unquestionably improved as the season has progressed.
However, I do think that there are some things that Loeffler could do in the rushing game that would improve Virginia Tech's numbers. Loeffler has done a great job at building a spread attack around Thomas's mobility, but he seems to have fallen in love with the read game. Almost every single rush from the shotgun or pistol was a Veer or Inverted Veer play. As noted earlier, he did try some sweeps with Coleman to the outside, but rarely Loeffler used his tailbacks to attack the interior of the defensive line.
The read option game is all about timing and quickness. Coaches have to spend a lot of time teaching the footwork and mesh point to the quarterback and running backs. If the quarterback is step slow making a read it's going to blow up in the team's face and put the offense behind schedule. I'm not saying the Hokies should stop running the Veer and Inverted Veer, but I'm saying the Hokies should be using it less frequently. Running veer and inverted veer this frequently puts the Hokies at a disadvantage in two ways, one schematic and one practical.
Schematically, when a defensive coordinator knows an offense is going to run a certain concept over and over, he can confidently spend the time in practice to come up with multiple ways to defend it. This makes it harder for Loeffler to both identify what the defense is doing and to call the appropriate counters.
Practically, even if the defenders are outnumbered at the point of attack, they've seen the same play so many times that they can rely on their instincts to compensate. Watching the film, it became obvious that Pitt was waiting on Logan to make a decision and then flying to the football. By using the same read plays over and over, the defense got better and better at recognizing what the Hokies were trying to do and beating their man to get to the ball. The funny thing is, Loeffler doesn't even need to rely on the read option as much as he is. There are other, quicker hitting running plays from the shotgun and pistol which would serve as perfect complements to both plays.
Zone Runs From The Spread
Remember when Loeffler and Grimes spent all that time practicing their zone blocking scheme? Go back and read my reviews of the open scrimmages, I was practically pulling my hair out because that was the only running play they ran. Why don't we see that blocking scheme anymore?
It wouldn't be that hard to implement a zone rushing game from the shotgun formation. All the rules that the offensive line learned for zone blocking from under center would still apply. This would be a great way for the offense to attack the middle of the field with their running backs while also slowing down the inside-out pursuit on inverted veer plays.
Let's look at the difference in the pursuit angles linebackers and safeties have to take on an inside zone run vs an inverted veer play.
If Tech runs both of these plays, then the linebackers and safeties won't be as quick to diagnose the play and get in their appropriate gap. The backfield action looks exactly the same, with the running back crossing the face of the QB and receiving a hand off. Bundling the two concepts (inverted veer and inside zone) actually makes both better. In my mind, this is a "no brainer".
From the Pistol, the Hokies are facing a similar problem with their veer package. The defensive ends are consistently taking the dive, allowing the linebackers to aggressively flow towards the sideline on Thomas's keeps. Virginia Tech should be running far more dives than they are. If the linebackers aren't going to attack the line of scrimmage, then a power dive play is open all day. Zone blocking would work just fine, although bringing a linemen across to trap an unblocked defensive end or pulling a tight end into the hole to block a linebacker would be even more effective.
The best rush of the day for the Hokies came on just such a play. Watch both linebackers react late to the run. Attacking outside and inside gaps with your running backs will create that type of hesitation in every defense.
Despite the struggles in the rushing game, let's not get too disappointed with our Hokie offense. As fans we always want to see our team put up 50 on our opponents, but don't forget what made Frank Beamer the active leader in career wins: BeamerBall.
If I could summarize BeamerBall in two words, it wouldn't be "Special Teams" or "Dominant Defense" or even "Conservative Offense". No, BeamerBall is about one thing and one thing only: Field Position. Frank Beamer believes that the most important thing in football is controlling field position, and he's probably right. If you have two separate but completely equal teams, the team that ends the game with the better average starting field position is more likely to win.
Beamer tries to steal field position away from opposing teams through superior special teams and an attacking, turnover producing defense. His offenses employ the same "field position first" mentality. In the second half of the game, it was obvious that the Hokies offense went conservative. They ran Logan up the middle more, a play that isn't explosive but consistently picks up positive yardage. Tech rarely threw it down the field since Pitt kept two safeties in the game. Instead, Loeffler focused on the underneath passing routes when he got behind the chains. The only time he really risked an interception was on the third and long plays, and even those routes were the relatively safe "IN" routes.
Despite this conservative approach the Hokies came very close to blowing Pitt out. Let's not forget this throw down the field to an open Willie Byrn that could have easily gone for a touchdown, if Thomas hits him in stride.
That could have made it 17-0 through one quarter. Instead, the Hokies punt two plays later. That wasn't the only shot down the field that Thomas missed Byrn on.
This pass play would have put the Hokies on the Panther's 35. Instead, the Hokies punt three plays later. Here's another play that left points on the field for the Hokies.
Based on well he's played the last three games, you'd expect Thomas to complete at least one of those. If he makes any or all them, it's a different ballgame.
The Hokies are very, very close to being a really, really good all-around football team. If Thomas continues to improve his consistency, and Loeffler can find a way to work some interior runs for the running backs into the game plan, the Hokies will be in fine shape.