Designing a game plan to stop the Hokies offense must be a nightmare. Scott Loeffler's unit has shown so many different formations, personnel groupings, and schemes that it's impossible for a defensive coordinator to know what's going to happen on any given play. A tight end, fullback, and running back all come in to the game? The Hokies can line up with five wide, or in a diamond pistol formation, or under center. Loeffler said he wanted to run a multiple offense, well there's no doubt that he's established multiple ways to move the ball. He's also played a crucial role in helping Frank Beamer add five more wins to his already impressive career total.
Everyone knows that Frank Beamer (and Loeffler and Grimes) want to run the ball. For the past decade every defensive coordinator that rolled into Blacksburg to oppose Tech had one goal, stop the run at whatever cost. Almost any success Virginia Tech has had rushing the ball this season has been from a spread formation, so it shouldn't be a surprise that UNC focused on stopping the run from the pistol and shotgun early. What was a little surprising though was the game plan Loeffler had to defeat that tactic.
Logan Thomas set the tone for the day early by hitting Willie Byrn on this play-action pass. Watch the bottom of the screen, where Virginia Tech's two wide receivers are lined up. The two cornerbacks see the fake Inverted Veer and immediately step up field, allowing the receivers to run past them. This leaves one safety to cover two receivers, and when he takes the deeper of the two routes Thomas hits Byrn for the first down.
Why was this play so successful though? Why did the cornerbacks bite so hard? This is a play structure that Tech has used in the past, and this is the first time I recall Logan Thomas throwing out of it. Here is Virginia Tech running out of this formation against Georgia Tech.
For a defense, these two plays look absolutely identical right up until Logan pulls his arm back and throws the ball. The personnel on the field are the same, the alignment is the same, the pre-snap motion is the same, even the ball fake to Coleman is the same. This really puts the defense in a bind. If they don't attack the run then Loeffler is content to nickel and dime his way down the field, running down the clock and the Hokies defense gets to stay nice and fresh. If they do attack the run, they have to hope that Thomas doesn't carve them up. Lately, that's a bet that defenses have been losing.
This play worked not only because it was something that the Hokies hadn't show before from that formation, but because so much of what the Hokies do now in the rushing game is based on the threat of a QB keeper. Take a look at the three plays prior to the completion to Byrn.
The first play is what looks to be a designed sweep to Coleman, although it could very easily be turned into a QB dive behind the pulling Andrew Miller. The next two plays are QB keepers up the middle, with the third one going for a first down. When a team is having success running the football on you, it's very hard to stay disciplined. This isn't the last time that Tech would find a player open after faking an Inverted Veer.
After getting beat the last time, UNC switches up the run responsibilities on the Inverted Veer from this formation. Instead of having the cornerbacks come up in run support, they drop a safety into the box. This still leaves Stanford in single coverage and he runs an excellent route to get open down the field. Thomas steps up in the pocket and delivers a frozen rope right to Stanford.
Everyone's favorite fullback Sam Rogers was open on a delayed route here, although Thomas just misses him. Hopefully by now you can see why I was clamoring for the Inverted Veer to be a staple of this offense early in the season. It places such a strain on the middle and the edge of the defense that, eventually, something is bound to break. Loeffler will have to continue adding new wrinkles as the season progresses to stay ahead of the competition, but so far he's done a good job at keeping defenses off balance and in check.
More Formation Adjustments
Let's take a closer look at that Coleman run from earlier. This is another great example of how Loeffler is using different plays out of the same formation to make it difficult for defenses to game plan.
Tech lines up with Sam Rogers, Coleman, and Edmunds all in the backfield. Now based on their skill sets, if one of those three is going to get an Inverted Veer hand off, it's going to be Coleman. UNC did their due diligence and knows this to be the case, so they take a linebacker and put him on the edge of the formation opposite of J.iC. The linebacker is in a good position here to either make a tackle on JC or force him to take a wider angle to the sideline, allowing his teammates to chase Coleman down.
Loeffler takes note of this alignment and has a counter in store for UNC. In fact he seems quite excited to use it, as it is the very first play he calls on the next drive.
The Hokies line up in the diamond formation again, and again UNC spreads a linebacker out wide to the opposite side of the formation. This time, rather than trying to block the well positioned linebacker on a sweep Loeffler runs away from him. Rogers and Edmunds lead block on the opposite side of the line that UNC was expecting a sweep and now the defense is out numbered at the point of attack. The play isn't a big gainer but it does pick up seven yards and puts the Tech in a 2nd-and-short.
This isn't the first time a team has run this type of counter when a defense over reacts to a potential sweep play. Percy Harvin had a lot of success at Florida getting to the edge and turning up field. It wasn't long before defenses were predicting which way he'd run based on his alignment. Urban Meyer, the spread rushing guru, punished those defenses with this clever counter.
Loeffler spent some time at Florida while Urban Meyer was there. So far it seems as if a large portion of the QB running game has come straight out of Tim Tebow's playbook, and why not? Tebow may be the greatest power running QB of all time, and Logan Thomas has a similar rushing style.
UNC's run defense
UNC has a lot of talent on defense and their coaches get paid too, so it's not surprising that by the time the second quarter rolled around they already had a good game plan to defend both the Inverted Veer and this Coleman Counter.
UNC still has the linebacker on the edge of the perimeter opposite of Coleman, but the two linebackers are now mirroring Rogers and Edmunds. When they see Rogers and Edmunds head the opposite way of Coleman, they stay at home and are there to make the play when Coleman cuts back. Obviously the next progression for Loeffler would be to run a zone play away from the outside linebacker, since the strategy of defending against a sweep leaves the defense outnumbered in the box. I never did see them try to run a zone play from the diamond formation though. Not sure if Loeffler wanted to leave it for another day or if he didn't trust his offensive line to make the blocks, but if defenses are going to leave only six in the box against this formation the Hokies need to be able to base block this.
Too Much Inverted Veer?
UNC had a good game plan against the Inverted Veer all game long and Logan Thomas wasn't ever able to really get going. While UNC didn't hesitate to drop extra defenders into the box, the real reason that they had so much success against it is because of the way they were keying off on the running backs position in the backfield.
The UNC defense knows that on an Inverted Veer, the running back will come across the face of the quarterback to get the hand off. On Saturday, time and again they would base the strength of their defensive formation off of the location of the running back. UNC can now force Thomas to keep the ball by getting their defensive up the field in a hurry to cut off any potential hand offs to the running back.
Having an opponent react this strongly to a single play is a good thing because it opens up the possibility to attack them in other areas. I wrote above how the Hokies attacked this defense through the air, but what about on the ground? The Hokies can't just give up on the run every time an opposing team drops a safety in the box, or else teams will start bluffing by having a safety start in the box and then drop out into coverage.
My personal choice would be to use the speed option away from the dropped safety. If you look at the way UNC set up their defense and then cut the formation in half, you'll see four defenders to Logan's right and three to his left. Attacking the left side of the formation (away from that extra defender) would allow the Hokies to leave the defensive end unblocked. If he takes Logan, then pitch it to the running back. If he takes the running back, Logan heads up field. The Inverted Veer and speed option are perfect compliments to each other because it prevents a defense from overloading one side of the formation based on the running backs alignment.
At the end of the day, Virginia Tech isn't going to see its rushing numbers increase until the offensive line is more consistent. Too many times the big guys up front either aren't getting any movement when they hit a defender. Maybe this offensive line isn't capable of pushing defenders all over the field. Maybe it's time to start changing our expectations of what this line will be able to accomplish on the ground. After all, there are plenty of offensive linemen who aren't starting in the NFL for reasons other than a lack of "want to".
I'm not ready to give up on the front-five though. We all saw the push that they got against Alabama and I think that this unit is capable of doing some really good things. They've already shown to be effective in pass protection. Once the lightbulb comes on for them in the ground game this offense could be very good. The only thing holding it back is a consistent push on running plays.
D.J. Coles: Red Zone Connoisseur
We've talked about how Loeffler has used different formations and motions to disguise his rushing plays but there was one play that really caught my eye down in the red zone Saturday. It was D.J. Coles's second touchdown of the day, and it was about as easy as they come. The Paperboy starts to the top of the formation and motions towards the middle to give the Hokies a tight bunch. When the ball is snapped Coles heads toward the pylon and is wide open to catch Logan's toss and walks in for the score. Easy money.
This play looks awfully familiar... oh that's because we saw it go for a touchdown two weeks ago! Remember Marshall? Paperboy catching the tipped pass for the game tying score?
Down in the red zone the Hokies run the same route package that they did vs Marshall and were able to disguise it by starting out in a different formation. In the Marshall game, Byrn was located to Logan's left and then motioned all the way across the formation before running the route to the pylon. Against UNC, the Hokies start with all three receivers to Logan's left and then motion Byrn down. Coles, the intended target, never moved until he started his route. By waiting until the last moment to bunch his wide receivers, Loeffler didn't give the defense any advance notice about what was coming. The Tar Heels secondary was in no position to make a play and this time D.J. Coles ran the route to the perfect depth and Logan threw it with the perfect velocity.
The Hokies have come a long way on offense over the first six games of the season. Every game they've looked better than the last. Now that ACC play is in full swing, the Hokies true offensive identity is starting to take shape. Defenses will be kept off balance all year by Loeffler's unpredictable play calling and formation usage. Logan Thomas has had two good games in a row throwing the football, and his wide receivers are becoming more reliable. If the Hokies can stabilize their offensive line and get a more consistent push up front, they will be in great shape to get to the ACC Championship Game. Oh, and with the recent commitment of four-star defensive tackle Ricky Walker the Hokies recruiting class got even stronger. There's something special going on in Blacksburg.