I'll start this week's film review with an admission. I did not watch the Hokies beat the Tar Heels live. I listened to the game on AM radio as I took my family to the Outer Banks for a week of fishing and boiled shrimp. As I listened to Bill Roth's and Mike Burnop's call, I felt many of the same emotions that HokieNation was feeling on Saturday: elation as the offense clicked on all cylinders early; hint of worry as the defense didn't seem quite as dominant as expected against a quarterback making his first start; frustration with the Hokies inability to ice the football game in the 3rd quarter as well as the lack of rushing yards. I went to the film to look for answers, at the same time, when I reviewed my Twitter timeline after enjoying a good dinner in Kitty Hawk, I was surprised at how dissatisfied many seemed to be with the win. UNC beat the stuffing out of the Hokies last season, and to turn around and get a convincing win after the physical pounding of the Georgia Tech game makes this a huge victory. Yes, there is room for improvement, but the film clearly indicates that Virginia Tech dominated this football game and the coaching staff and the fan base should be thrilled with how the team continues to improve.
Blocking and the Running Game: Stats Do Lie
A quick look at the stat sheet, the Hokies only netted 48 yards on 34 carries for a putrid 1.4 yards per carry. As a result, the natives got restless, and I read numerous complaints about the offensive line. I expected the film to reflect a major regression by the offensive line, but instead I quickly saw that the Virginia Tech offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. Based on my rewatch, there were only three complete busts from the offensive line through the entire game (one on pass protection) and when keyed in on individual matchups, every Hokie offensive lineman was physically dominant.
So, why only 48 net yards? As most commentators noted, UNC's entire defensive concept was built around stopping the running game, especially when Scot Loeffler started calling the game more conservatively in the 2nd half. UNC's initial alignment featured six and seven men in the box versus the Hokies spread, however before the snap corners and safeties were jumping into the box. Except on 3rd-and-longs, almost every Virginia Tech offensive play was contested against a minimum of 8 (and often 9) men in the box. The Hokies strongest running plays for much of the season feature influence blocking (where an offensive lineman's movement is used as a false key for a defender, causing them to anticipate a different play and vacate the location where the ball is actually going) and when a defense uses blitzes to account for areas of the field rather than reading keys, those plays do not work as well.
Here's an example of a well blocked play that wasn't successful because of a run blitz where the defenders are not reading keys. On a second and five, the Hokies run the inverted veer.
On the true inverted veer, the tight end (aligned flexed to the right) takes an outside step, called a veer release. The purpose of the veer release is to force the defensive end to also step wide in order to avoid being sealed inside. Kalvin Cline takes his outside step, however the defensive end is not reading him. He crashes through his inside shoulder, and gets up field far enough so that if Logan gives to Edmunds on the sweep action, he will be there waiting. Logan correctly reads sweep.
To the inside, the UNC strong safety blitzes and heads straight to the hole for the quarterback. Again, the Hokies system counts on that safety playing more outside-in, which allows Cline a better angle to seal him off his veer release. Instead, the safety doesn't widen out, and Cline has a poor angle to make the block.
The rest of the play is perfect. The strong side of the offensive line seals the defense inside. Caleb Farris pulls from his left guard spot through the bubble created on the right side and is in position to seal the middle linebacker inside. Remove the blitzing safety and there's a huge hole. UNC's defensive coordinator happened to make the correct call for this play. If that safety comes up to fill, rather than a pre-determined blitz, this is a big play. Cline wasn't to blame. He executed his technique and gave appropriate effort, but the veer release influence block effectively took him out of position to make the block that would have sprung the play. That is football. Sometimes the defense guesses right.
Also, as result of Sam Rogers' injured ankle, Scot Loeffler was forced to use some personnel groupings in the second half which limited his ability to execute the game plan that worked so well in the first half. Jerome Wright got work at fullback and made two plays in the passing game, but after only playing tailback in high school Wright isn't much of a blocker. Loeffler rarely used Wright on running downs, which limited running formations to two tight-end sets with Cline and Redman. This narrowed the playbook.
Furthermore, after watching the film, I have drawn the conclusion that the greatest strength of the Scot Loeffler offense is also one of the reasons that the running backs have struggled a bit. As Mason discussed well, each week the running game has transformed. Against Alabama we saw a ton of veer and option from the spread and pistol. Against Western Carolina, we saw the pro set and the basic zone stretch offense. Against East Carolina we saw more veer from the spread, and against Marshall the Hokies used the trapping tight end on those read option plays. Against Georgia Tech, the Hokies ran inverted veer almost exclusively. This week, the Hokies used similar formations, but instead of zone blocking or trapping with the tight end, Virginia Tech ran the power play from the pistol and spread extensively, down blocking to the play side and then pulling the guard on the opposite side around and leading up on a linebacker.
As a defensive coordinator, it must be a nightmare to gameplan against a running game that completely changes identity each week, but there is a negative impact on the offense as well. Impressively, despite using numerous different techniques (a pet peeve of mine), the offensive line is doing a spectacular job of successfully executing all of these different schemes. However, the film showed that the running backs left a ton of yardage on the field while repeatedly missing large holes. That suggests to me that perhaps the ever-changing offense isn't giving the Hokies inexperienced running backs an opportunity to develop a rhythm and get a feel for where holes are going to develop.
Make no mistake; there were numerous opportunities for big plays. Let's take a look at the power concept that Loeffler incorporated early and often against the Tar Heels.
This power play is similar to the old Dallas Cowboys power lead that paved the way to the Hall of Fame for Emmitt Smith, where the Dallas offensive line blocked down, the fullback kicked out the end, and the guard on the back side pulled and lead through on a linebacker. This uses the same concept from the spread. The blockers on the play side block down, and the back side (left) guard pulls and leads through.
Here, the Hokies have an effective gain on the opening offensive play, but Trey Edmunds could have made a more explosive play. Let's freeze the film.
Edmunds takes the conservative approach and hits the safer interior hole. But, Edmunds should be reading and cutting off of Caleb Farris' lead block on the linebacker. Farris' head is on the outside shoulder, so Edmund's cut should be to the outside. Also, the closest unblocked defender is closer to the inside hole, and there is much more room for an explosive play to the outside.
This happened several times with both Edmunds and Coleman. Both seemed impatient and tried to get up field quickly without seeing where the hole developed. On the first play of the critical drive following the Kyle Fuller interception, Edmunds again missed a nice hole.
The Hokies run their read option with the tight end trap block. Edmunds follows the tight end like a lead play, but the tight end wham usually creates a counter action where the hole develops away from the trap block. Several of Edmund's biggest runs, including the critical long run against Marshall, came when he bent the run back, but he missed an opportunity here.
Freezing the film a huge hole opens up to the left.
David Wang has sealed the defensive tackle to the right. Both linebackers have over pursued to the right. Caleb Farris and Jonathan McLaughlin have sealed to the outside on the left, creating a huge cutback lane. But, Edmunds goes to the right, right into the teeth of another UNC corner blitz.
The Little Things: Execution at Critical Moments
Those three third quarter three-and-outs that kept the Tar Heels in a game that they had been dominated in were frustrating. Those three drives were derailed by three poor center-quarterback exchanges, and Logan Thomas made his only really poor read in the passing game by throwing to Willie Byrn short of the first down marker when Kalvin Cline was wide open on a delay route at the sticks to his right.
As discussed earlier, UNC's defensive coordinator also demonstrated good instincts and dialed up the correct blitzes to stop a couple of critical runs. With a noon kick off, warm humid weather conditions, and battered legs from the Georgia Tech game, the Hokie defense began to show signs of wear and tear in the third quarter.
Kyle Fuller's 4th down interception gave the Hokie offensive one last chance to ice the game, and Virginia Tech responded with an excellent drive. Logan Thomas engineered a 40-yard drive that didn't result in a score, but drained almost 7 minutes off the clock. The drive gave the defense an opportunity to rest, and even if Switzer doesn't muff the punt, the Hokies essentially won the game with that drive. After the muff, Loeffler finally demonstrated the attitude of dominance that I have been so eager to see from this offense. Loeffler called power leads from the ace (one back) formation with the left guard pulling to the right on six consecutive plays, then finished the touchdown drive with a lead play back to the weak side. The Hokie offense basically telegraphed where they were running, and moved the chains (don't point out the facemasking penalty, as Edmunds gets the first down if defender doesn't grab the facemask) on their way to a touchdown. It was football at its brutal, bloody, and simple best.
Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. UNC's defensive line was not a particularly strong unit, so you expect the Hokie offensive line to get movement up front. There are still some struggles on blocks from the tight end's and fullbacks. I continue to worry about pass protection against quality speed rushers (although Benedict and McLaughlin, the latter played his best game as a Hokie, only allowed one sack.) But, at this point in the season, I am very pleased with how well the Hokies are blocking.
Continued Redemption of Logan Thomas, Passing from the Inverted Veer, and Real Pass Structure
Logan Thomas struggled early in the season, but he has flourished as his receivers developed. His pocket presence has improved significantly (note two beautiful throws after moving up in the pocket to avoid pass rush on 3rd down). Logan has been much more accurate, and his big arm allows the Hokies to attack the wide side of the field with deep out routes, which opens up throwing lanes on the inside.
Logan also has open receivers to throw to. Perhaps even more than game planning, Scot Loeffler's most impressive trait is developing a passing structure that uses play-action and influence (or "rub") routes to get his receivers, who have struggled getting separation, open on a regular basis.
Mason discussed how Loeffler incorporated play-action off of the inverted veer running action that we all know too well. This is a VERY welcome addition to the offense (and one that is two years too late.) Opposing defenses have started to load up on the inverted veer. The Tar Heels devoted multiple defenders to stopping Logan Thomas on the dive, and always sent at least one (and sometimes two defenders) wide to stop the sweep. That leaves 5 defenders to cover the rest of the field, opening up all kinds of possibilities from play-action.
Let's take a look at the Hokies first touchdown drive. Logan Thomas has a solid rush to convert a 3rd-and-2 (included on the film clip) and then Thomas lines the Hokies in a similar formation and uses the same run action on first down.
UNC checks to a cover-2, which allows both the slot defender and the corner to the play side to force the sweep action, and both linebackers are fixated on Thomas. This leaves one deep safety, and if both receivers attack vertically, the safety has to choose one, leaving someone wide open. Loeffler calls a go route for Knowles, and runs a deep out by Byrn in the slot.
Freezing the shot, you notice that the safety is in serious trouble. Both UNC defenders aligned on the receivers crash on the run. Byrn and Knowles are both streaking towards the lone safety.
The safety takes the deepest threat, leaving Byrn all by himself on the deep out. Thomas has the big arm to make the long throw, and the offensive line gives Logan plenty of time to execute the fake and get rest to throw.
Play-action off the inverted veer also worked against man coverage. Here, Loeffler uses the hint of a pick play to open Josh Stanford on a deep slant.
Without UNC in man coverage, the safeties and linebackers must attack the line of scrimmage quickly to stop the inverted veer. Byrn and Stanford both show option stalk, then Byrn works to the outside (appearing as if he may possibly pick the corner covering Stanford.) Stanford then changes gears and slants to the inside. Logan gets pressured from the back side, but steps into the pocket to make a pretty throw to Stanford.
For far too long, the Hokies passing game structure made no sense. Receivers relied almost exclusively on individual timing routes or scramble drills to make plays. How often in 2012 did we see Logan's first read as a 7 yard curl to the right, with his second read being a 7 yard curl to the middle? By the time he checked off the first receiver, the second receiver had finished his break and was no longer open. Passing plays were not set up in a logical way where one route was used to take a defender out of the spot where they wanted to go with the football, and the timing of those plays didn't result in receivers being ready or open to make the catch when Logan went to his second read. This went on for years, making the Hokies way too reliant on their quarterbacks making "Superman" plays in scramble situations to move the chains.
Scot Loeffler has been a breath of fresh air. Pass routes are complementary, and Thomas has reads where defenders have to choose between two receivers to cover. No matter which read the defender makes, someone will be open. Boise State tortured the Hokies with similar concepts in 2010, and it feels so good to finally see route structure create the same opportunities for Hokie receivers now.
Let's take a look at the first D.J. Coles touchdown. UNC shows zone at the snap.
Coles is aligned in the slot. At the snap Coles leaks to the outside of the slot defender, who has a safety helping deep to the outside. That defender can't let Coles undercut him with the slant route. The Hokies have Kalvin Cline delay into the left flat, and the slot defender (with Coles no longer a threat on the slant as result of his outside release) bites on Cline. Coles bends his route back to the inside and Thomas makes the easy throw and catch with the passing lane vacated by the slot defender in the zone.
This all seems so simple, but the same route last year doesn't have the tight end leaking out. With that defense, the slot defender would be looking into the backfield and would likely follow Logan's eyes to the football. I'd expect the same throw to result in an interception. (I can't see it on film, but I'd bet that Logan gave a little head fake towards Cline to get that slot defender to bite just enough.)
All in all, I regard this as the most satisfying win of the season so far. UNC's offense presented the worst matchup for the Hokies of all the remaining opponents on the schedule, and the noon kick coupled with UNC's poor performance against East Carolina set up a scenario ripe for the Hokies to overlook the Tar Heels. Instead of playing poorly, the Hokie offense had their best performance of the season. Every skill position player contributed in the passing game, making Virginia Tech challenging to defend, and the offensive line continues to execute the game plan effectively. The defense bent, but didn't break, and continued to help Virginia Tech win the turnover battle. If Coach Beamer can shore up the punt return, kickoff return, and field goal teams, the Hokies appear to be headed to a showdown with Miami with the Coastal Division title at stake. Pitt, who has won four straight versus Frank Beamer, looms as the potential spoiler to a great season. After the embarrassment at Heinz Field last year, motivation should not be much of a factor.