The Hokie defense faced a new challenge this week, combating an East Carolina offense that featured quarterback Shane Carden, almost an 80% passer with 7 touchdowns and no interceptions in two wins against Old Dominion and Florida Atlantic. To combat this foe, Bud Foster used a mix of defensive pressure with a variety of coverage looks, but almost always featuring a press alignment on slot receivers and corners aligned 7-10 yards off the ball.
Perhaps most stunning was Foster's trust of his true freshman defensive backs in one-on-one coverage situations. In 2011's matchup against East Carolina, with an experienced secondary (Hosley, Kyle Fuller, Cris Hill, Antone Exum, and Eddie Whitley), Foster played almost exclusively with two deep safeties and the mike and backer dropping into underneath zones. On Saturday, against a potent offense, Foster placed Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson on islands with limited or no safety help deep, or linebacker help against crossing routes. The results, thanks to the tremendous football acumen of the secondary coupled with a defensive front-seven that engulfed Pirate quarterback Shane Carden, proved to be too much for the Air Raid to defeat.
A Slow Start
On the first series of the game, it looked like ECU's Air Raid had a distinct advantage. The Pirates had four successive big gains on a long run, a Jack Tyler roughing penalty, a pass to the flat for the tailback, and then a touchdown on a skinny post off of play-action.
Watching the film, it quickly became apparent that the problems were not the result of an effort issue on the first drive. Instead, East Carolina benefited from having two strange defensive calls, a bad penalty, and a possible pregame adjustment that backfired.
Let's start with the long run. East Carolina ran the same power play discussed in the preview, where the left guard pulls and leads up to the inside. J.R. Collins aligned over the left tackle, and read the guard pulling to the right. As many teams teach, Collins abandoned his edge contain to crash flat down the line, following the guard to the football.
Unfortunately for Collins, Derrick Hopkins and James Gayle get good penetration to jam the play up at the point of attack. The back has nowhere to go but bounce back to Collins side. Normally, Collins would be crashing down to the exact point where the tailback paused to cutback, resulting in a 2-yard loss, but, Collins is moving flat down the line tracking the guard. Because that approach runs counter to the normal defensive end technique for the Hokies, I am going to guess that the defensive line (because East Carolina ran the ball so rarely) was taught to take a more conservative down the line approach since Virginia Tech regularly could only muster five or six players in the box. On this play, it backfired. The back runs to where Collins would normally be and ends up getting a 10-yard run.
Now let's look at the wide receiver screen. On this play, ECU has trips to the field side, with Bonner taking the inside slot, Fuller on the outside slot, and Facyson on the split end. In 2011, Bud Foster rarely blitzed ECU, but Saturday he was much more aggressive. In this look, in man coverage, Bonner would have the inside slot, and Tyler should have the fourth receiver to the field side (in this case, the tailback.) Instead, at the last moment, Tyler adjusts to a 46 alignment, with him on the edge coming on a blitz.
The Hokies are now outmanned to the field side if the running back leaks that way. As the play develops, Tyler goes up field and takes himself out of the play. Bonner is now in an impossible position. Both Facyson and Fuller are in turn-and-run man coverage. Bonner has the inside slot, and has to make a choice. He either has to abandon the potential slant route by the slot and run hard to the flat, or he has to stay on the slant and hope that Facyson or Fuller get off their blocks to make the play. The slot receiver doesn't help Bonner, as he first acts like he is going to block and then stutters away. His inept play adds to the confusion. Bonner can't recover, and the screen springs for a long gain.
Based on the design of the defense, I am guessing that Bonner was playing the short zone in the triangle concept discussed last week. Edwards would have taken the slant, but that is a tough matchup for Edwards. Bonner may have been caught over thinking, and in the process got tangled up inside on the play. Still, regardless of coverage, the decision to send Tyler left the Hokies outmanned to the field side. East Carolina had the right play called at the right time against the blitz.
East Carolina looked to play-action for their first touchdown. Again, the Hokies have a press alignment on the inside slot to both sides. The deep man in the triangle to the field side is Bonner, with Kendall Fuller on the slot and Facyson deep to the outside. At the snap, Facyson and Bonner are playing a Cover-4 look (each taking a deep quarter) and Fuller is playing short zone.
The Pirates fake the power play, which causes Kendall Fuller to bite forward. Bonner is playing deep, so the quick slant behind Fuller, who is biting up on the run fake. is wide open. The Pirates have stumbled into the perfect play, and Bonner's effort to try and deflect the pass late (and as result tackle around the shoulders) falls short. It is a shoddy finish to an ugly start for the Hokies.
Pass Rush and Brandon Facyson Flip Momentum
After a brutal three-and-out, and a quick first down by the Pirates, there were comparisons to the debacle in Pittsburgh last season. Then, the defensive line took over the game, helped by terrific downfield coverage. Two quick forced throws got the defense off the field, and the offense took advantage to tie the game at seven.
I have been very eager to see teams try to pick on Brandon Facyson. Facyson wasn't as highly touted as 5-star recruit Kendall Fuller, but he demonstrated elite closing speed out of breaks while intercepting a pass and nearly two more in an outstand performance at the August 17th scrimmage. Facyson plays mostly well off the receiver to the field side, which allows him to watch the quarterback and break quickly on short passes.
Facyson showed off that closing speed with a seemingly innocuous play on a short curl route. Facyson lines up eleven yards off the flanker to his side.
Recognizing the soft coverage, the receiver makes an adjustment and curls at the 40-yard line.
At this point Facyson has identified the curl and stopped his back pedal to break forward on the route. He is almost seven yards from the receiver when the ball is released. The receiver doesn't get another inch. That is incredible reaction time and closing speed.
On the next play, Facyson channels Jayron Hosley's 2010 interception of Stephen Morris to beat Miami. Again, he is in off coverage, indicating that he could be in a deep third zone or playing man.
The quarterback sees Facyson's alignment, and throws a post route (with the slot receivers acting as decoys to tie up what he thinks will be the zone defenders.) Facyson shows a zone back pedal, reads receiver's cut, and beats the receiver to his spot on the post. Freshmen should not be able to do that. Foster's design tricked the quarterback, and Facyson had the talent at corner to make Carden pay for the mistake.
Facyson did get burned jumping a curl route in the second quarter, but he almost intercepted that play, dropped an interception that would have been called back on an offsides, got both hands on another deep throw, and finally picked off a deflected pass in the second-half. I can't recall seeing such an outstanding performance by a true freshman defensive back. What a find by Torrian Gray and the rest of the Hokie staff Facyson is proving to be.
The rest of the first-half featured some great plays by the Hokie defense and some busts. The Pirates last solid drive was the final drive of the first half. The Pirates completed several short passes that were aided by missed tackles, and moved into field goal range. Then, James Gayle made what I thought was the biggest play of the ballgame.
The Pirates have second-and-one from the 31. Gayle aligns a bit wide to the field side.
Gayle beats the right tackle with a pure speed rush and a hand slap, then sacks Carden for a seven yard loss. The sack was Gayle's first of the year, and seemed to suck the life out of the Pirate offense. On the next play, ECU took a motion penalty, and then on third down Nigel Williams (again, another freshman getting important snaps) forced an errant throw after a scramble. The Hokies were able to go into the half at 7-7 on a positive note.
The third quarter was pretty much a record on repeat. East Carolina completed some quick passes against Jarrett and Bonner, but could not put a drive together due to terrific down field coverage and a suffocating pass rush. Bud Foster got pressure from all four defensive tackles, and Collins, Nicolas, and Gayle cleaned up the mess if Carden tried to escape the pocket. Foster added to the confusion by repeatedly bringing both Edwards and Tyler on a variety of blitzes and leaving his young corners and safeties on islands. The Pirates could not get receivers open deep.
Kendall Fuller's ability to cover the slot makes everything go. The easiest route for a quarterback to throw is a crossing route, and that route develops quickest from the slot. If the nickel corner can't take away a quick slant or crossing route from the slot, a defensive coordinator must keep at least one linebacker in the middle of the field to take away the easy short throw for the quarterback. Fuller's unique ability to turn and run with slot receivers (ECU played their leading receiver Justin Hardy almost exclusively in the slot) allowed Foster the flexibility to send Tyler and Edwards to collapse the pocket. Let's examine how this skill resulted in the final interception of the day.
The Pirates line up in their Pistol I-formation. They fake the interior power play, and Kyshoen Jarrett flies to the front in what appears to be a run blitz. From the other side, Kendall Fuller has man press coverage on the slot receiver, who runs a crossing route right into the space that Jarrett has vacated. Meanwhile, Dadi Nicolas beats the left tackle to the edge, and pressures Carden after a play fake.
This could be a big play for Fuller, but Edwards read Carden's eyes, recognized quickly that the Pirates are not running, and has dropped a step. Fuller finds a second gear, and cuts off the crossing route to the inside (a spectacular display of instincts and closing speed). Nicolas forces a quick throw by Carden, and Edwards makes a spectacular play to snare the ball as it zips past him. BUT, even with Edwards outstanding play, notice where Kendall Fuller is on the release. If the throw is accurate, he is likely to intercept the ball. That is a big time play by the freshman.
The Hokies get the ball back, and over the final agonizing five minutes, the offense ran most of the remaining time off the clock. Huge sacks from Derrick Hopkins and James Gayle culminated in a safety, and effectively end the football game.
If the injury bug stays away, this defense will get better and better throughout the season. Facyson and Kendall Fuller have proven that they are elite talents and can play right now without being protected, despite their young age. The defensive line can get pressure on stunts, blitzes, and regular four-man rush situations. The linebackers and defensive linemen are nailing their gap fits to the play side, allowing the free hitters from the back side to make tackles. Foster, for perhaps the first time since around 2006, has all the pieces in place for an excellent defense.
East Carolina also provided us as fans a roadmap for how teams will attack this defense. ACC opponents will put their top receivers in the slot, and try to get matchups against Bonner and Jarrett. I noted only a handful completed Pirate passes against Facyson and the Fuller brothers. The rest of the work was done against the safeties, who played well after some early struggles. Also, because the Hokies gap system calls for the weak side defensive end to crash hard to the inside on dive and zone plays, athletic quarterbacks who are quick enough to capitalize will hurt Virginia Tech on zone read keepers, as Shane Carden demonstrated.
This defense really could prove to be a once in a lifetime unit. Right now, there are not many areas where offensive coordinators can watch tape and find an area to attack, and if the Hokies make a mistake, they have playmakers in place that can turn the game around quickly with a sack, tackle for a loss, or an interception. Quarterbacks beware.