By French (he doesn't even own a bench), Mason (burrito manager), Joe (direct your grammar complaints here), and joelestra (stat man)
Virginia Tech Hokies (1-1) against East Carolina Pirates (2-0)
Time: Noon (12:05)
Date: Saturday, September 14, 2013
Place: Greenville, North Carolina
Stadium: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium (50,000)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: Virginia Tech IMG
Spread: Virginia Tech -7.5
Tickets: Virginia Tech Football Tickets (Sponsored)
Weather: 60-75 F
The Hokies travel to Greenville for their first nooner of the season. The Pirates are 2-0 with wins over two 0-2 squads. The Hokies have won the last 3 meetings in this series since a stunning 22-27 loss in 2008. This game will be a good test for both the Virginia Tech offense and defense. ECU averages 396.5 yards per game, while Tech is holding opponents to a buck-eighty-four.
Multiple computer rankings with the median ranking for each team indicated:
It is very early in the season and most, if not all, ranking systems still use a preseason expectation component, but clearly the computers are ranking the Hokies about 17 spots ahead of ECU. Also of note is that many ranking systems don't use I-AA games (that's FCS for the young folk) so only the Alabama game is included.
Next a look at how those rankings translate into the predicted final score, with the Las Vegas spread indicated:
Here the consensus seems to be that Tech will win, but likely not beat the spread. Again, the computers aren't particularly accurate. The opening line on the game was VT by 7, and it since moved to 7.5. It requires a substantial amount of lopsided betting to move a line off of a 3 or a 7.
Focusing on one rating system in particular—S&P+—the teams can be compared offensively and defensively:
S&P+ uses all games so the West Carolina game is included in Tech's ratings. To state the obvious the Hokies have thus far shown similar offensive ability as ECU, but have a substantial advantage on defense.
Another way to look at those ratings would be situationally, ECU's offense vs. Tech's defense and vice-versa:
This makes it more obvious that Tech's offense matches up equally with ECU's defense (so expect an average Hokies offensive performance), but the Pirates' offense should struggle against the Hokies' defense.
Keep an Eye On...
Shane Carden: Carden has had a great season so far. He's put up some absurd numbers in the offense Ruffin McNeill brought with him from Texas Tech. Regardless of who the competition is, an 80% completion rate with 638 yards is impressive. Will he be able to duplicate those numbers against Virginia Tech? Tech's secondary is young but it has shown a lot of promise and has made it's fair share of plays on the ball. Torrian Gray may be the best secondary coach in the country and he does as good a job as any teaching his players how to "route read". Against pass first teams, Gray's secondaries usually jump underneath routes and force the quarterback to complete lower percentage passes down the field. "We're going to try our best to eliminate the little easy throws, and make them throw the harder throws," said Brandon Facyson (6:29–6:37).
Whether or not Carden is able to hit his receivers on double moves down the field will determine if Tech is able to stay aggressive or is forced to keep their safeties back and watch Carden complete short pass after short pass.
Brent Benedict: Benedict replaced an injured Andrew Miller early in the Western Carolina game and was slow to adjust to the speed of the game. East Carolina is much more athletic up front than the Catamounts. Watch to see if Benedict can effectively reach block their nose tackle when the Hokies run left.
Tackling on quick screens: The ECU coaching staff will probably never admit it in public, but they probably expect to struggle to run on Bud Foster's defense effectively. One way that they've gotten around this in the past is to rely on their quick screen game to their wide receivers. Regardless of how the Pirates choose to block a screen, the Hokies will need to be quick to diagnose it and need to fly to the ball and arrive with violent intent. Historically, Foster's defense has had a lot of success defending the wide receiver screen, but ECU's receivers are playmakers capable of breaking tackles and taking the rock to the house.
Zeek Bigger and Brandon Williams: ECU will start backups at both inside linebacker spots because of injuries to the starters. However, they each recorded 9 tackles, a team high, against FAU. Let's see if Loeffler tries to exploit how they read and react by using Thomas as part of the ground attack, or if he picks on the the LBs over the middle, through the air.
ECU's O-Line in Pass Protection: FAU was able to pressure ECU QB Shane Carden with just 3- and 4-man rushes. The Owls used delayed blitzes a few times with success. FAU linebacker(s), who had no one to cover in their underneath zone, attacked Carden successfully late in the play along with the 3 down d-linemen. Point being, ECU's o-line barely broke even in the battle in trenches, and didn't excel at picking up blitzers shooting the gaps late. Can Tech's d-line have a dominating performance?
When Virginia Tech is on Offense
Are the Hokies the spread, triple option team the showed up against Alabama, or will they incorporate more of the pro-style offense like against Western Carolina? East Carolina isn't an opponent where the coaches want to limit the scope of their game plan given the Pirates ability to score points, so expect the offense in Greenville to be a true indicator of what a "Scot Loeffler" offense will look like during his tenure.
East Carolina utilizes three defensive linemen and four linebackers, but one linebacker usually aligns right on the line of scrimmage on the weakside in a two-point stance.
While the alignment is rather odd, the Pirates are incredibly quick and use a wide variety of blitzes on passing downs. A favorite technique is to drop the jack linebacker (their best pass rusher, pictured above) into coverage, but bring multiple extra pass rushers from the other side to outnumber the blockers. The Pirates are also excellent at rushing four, then bringing a linebacker late on long down and distance plays. David Wang will have a tough task setting protections this week in a loud stadium, and it will be critical that Trey Edmunds, and other tailbacks, pick up blitzes through interior gaps.
Other than the Edmunds and Mangus runs, the Hokies have not delivered many big chunk yardage plays in 2013. That puts a premium on execution every play, but ultimately, these are college kids and breakdowns will happen. However, the offense will need to occasionally make big plays to overcome the mistakes that derail 10-12 play drives. The Hokies must establish some kind of big play, down the field threat in the passing game, or even the most well executed running attack will sputter against eight- and nine-man fronts.
Through Tech's first two games of 2013, there has been one missing ingredient to a recipe for offensive success... Logan Thomas running the football. Thomas was the leading rusher for the Hokies last season, and while Loeffler and Grimes surely didn't want to repeat that stat, it's surprising that Logan has had such a small involvement in the rushing attack. In 2012 Thomas averaged over 12 rushing attempts per game, topping out at an incredible 29 carries against UVA. However, this season Logan has had only 5 rushing attempts. All 5 attempts occurred versus Alabama, and he amassed a whopping two yards (.4 yards per attempt).
Logan hasn't had his number called as a runner often this season, but he has been a factor in the shotgun and pistol ground game. He did run a few triple option plays where he made the correct decision to pitch the ball, and Trey Edmunds' long rush against Bama occurred partly because of the respect Saban's defense had to pay Thomas's feet. However, Loeffler can only bluff running Logan from the spread so many times before that tactic loses its effectiveness. Thomas's best asset has been his short yardage prowess, and even though it's admirable to want to keep him healthy, at the end of the day he's too powerful a weapon crashing through the middle of a defensive line to keep under wraps. Loeffler knows that he has some good outside running backs in Mangus and Coleman, expect him to run some inverted veer at ECU. It's a smart way to threaten the edge of the defense with some quick playmakers, and if the defense over commits and gets stretched out Logan can bring the pain. In a game where the Hokies offense needs to maintain possession to give it's defense needed rest, choosing to run Logan on 2nd-and-medium may be a better option than choosing to throw it to a receiving corp that's struggled.
After the hire of Loeffler and Grimes, there was a lot of talk about returning the Hokies offense back to its run-the-ball roots. While the execution in the run game has been a positive, the frequency with which the Hokies have lined up in a shotgun spread formation has been interesting. Seeing as how the new offensive staff has only had two games to get to know their team, there was bound to be a trial period where Loeffler experimented with the identity of the offense. Moving forward, Loeffler might focus on imposing the running game on smaller opponents like ECU. From under center the offensive line has gotten a pretty consistent push and, and with the recent plays Sam Rogers and Kalvin Cline have made in the play-action game, the Hokies can outflank overcompensating defenses. Now that all four tailbacks are available to Loeffler, rushing from the spread could be very exciting. Mangus, Coleman, and Caleb all have experience being flanked out wide so expect to see those three lined up as wide receivers before being motioned into the backfield for a handoff.
Thomas can also help the offense by consistently hitting his passing checkdowns. This, combined with a good rushing attack, will keep the Hokies from facing many 2nd- and 3rd-and-longs. If Virginia Tech can make smart decisions in the passing game, get Thomas involved in the rushing game, and keep their linemen rolling downhill with a pro-style rushing attack, then Bud Foster's defense should remain fresh enough to prevent ECU's offense from lighting up the scoreboard.
When Virginia Tech is on Defense
Against Western Carolina, Bud Foster played high risk 7-man fronts with no deep safety help against the spread offense of the Catamounts. Against East Carolina in 2011, Foster used a much more conservative approach. Will Foster force Pirate quarterback Shane Carden to hold onto the ball, or will he try to bring pressure and force Carden to make quick choices and inaccurate throws.
In 2011, the Hokies used a two-deep look almost exclusively against the Pirates in the second half. Some consistent themes emerged in Foster's approach.
To the field side, his nickel corner (or free safety against trips) would show press the slot receiver closest to the tackle. The field corner would play off approximately 8-10 yards, and against twins, the free safety would play deep behind the nickel.
To the boundary side, if there was a single receiver, the rover would play 10 yards deep and just outside the tackle. The boundary corner would mostly play off approximately 7 yards. If there was a slot receiver to the boundary, the backer would slide out to the inside shoulder of the slot receiver to the boundary, and the mike would line up over the center.
If the Pirates aligned in trips to the field side and one receiver to the boundary, the free safety comes up to press the interior slot receiver. The nickel alignment varies on the second receiver from the interior, and the field corner plays at 10 yards off the widest man. The rover moves to a deep position 10-15 yards deep from the center and acts as a robber, reading the quarterback and running to support. The boundary corner is on an island and only has help from the rover.
The inside linebackers cover short middle zones, looking to undercut crossing routes or picking up the running back out of the backfield
From all these alignments, the defensive backs will sometimes align in a press coverage man-to-man look, and then back out when the quarterback looks at the center. They will mix in man, but Coach Foster used soft zones most of the game.
East Carolina attacked the Hokies by forcing the defensive backs responsible for deep zones to choose between covering multiple vertical routes. In 2011, the Pirates fooled the Hokie defense by running a smash route against a two deep zone, and then slipping the tailback vertical behind Bruce Taylor in a short zone.
The corner route against the cover-2 forces Eddie Whitley to cover it deep, as Jayron Hosley is playing short hook route in the short zone. Bruce Taylor has no help deep, and is supposed to turn and run with the running back if the back threatens his cushion. Taylor gets caught flat-footed with no safety help as the back challenges the soft spot in the deep middle of the defense. Fortunately for the Hokies, the back dropped the ball.
Air Raid offenses tend to use wider splits from the offensive linemen. In order not to be sealed inside, the defensive ends must align on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, so the wider alignment puts pass rushers James Gayle, Dadi Nicolas, and J.R. Collins further from the quarterback. Just purely from alignment, even beating a blocker cleanly off the edge still allows the quarterback time to get off a quick throw.
Pass rush must come from Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy inside. Each will have plenty of room to operate and East Carolina's interior pass blocking looked weak against Florida Atlantic. Carden isn't much of a running threat, so pressure in his face should be effective. Also, anticipate that if Gayle, Collins, and Nicolas get some sacks, most will be on stunts through the inside gaps, with the tackles slanting to the outside. It will also be interesting to see if Foster blitzes his inside linebackers much. He kept Bruce Taylor and Tariq Edwards mostly in underneath zone coverage in 2011.
What Virginia Tech needs to do to Win
Stop the run. After a 24 point first-half against the Hokies in 2010, Bud Foster's defense has limited the Pirates to 13 points over the last six quarters of action. In 2011, the Hokies held the Pirates to -15 yards rushing and only 127 yards passing.
ECU's coaches do not want the Pirates to become one dimensional against the wide variety of coverages and blitzes employed by the Hokies. Against Florida Atlantic, the Pirates used tight ends, two running back sets, and ran numerous power lead and trap plays from the shotgun formation. Their favorite running play is a power play where a lineman pulls and turns up into the hole against a linebacker.
While their running game doesn't generate big plays, they run the ball well enough to set up bootleg plays. Against Florida Atlantic, quarterback Shane Carden was much more effective down the field on play action versus straight pass pro. If the Hokies can force East Carolina to become one dimensional, it allows Tariq Edwards and Jack Tyler to be much more engaged in underneath zone pass coverage and blitzing.
Run the ball. This might be the week when Logan gets the green light to carry the rock and punish defenders playing soft inside the box. Establishing the run will better setup Tech's play-action pass, which is a vehicle to big plays in the passing game, and will free up the outside on the option.