The Hokies threw the ball all over the field on Saturday, often lining up in a four or even five wide formation to do it. Loeffler was branded as a run-first pro-style play caller, but on a day when his offensive line failed to get much push against a smaller, quicker defensive front, Loeffler resorted to spreading his opponent out to move the ball. It appeared as though Loeffler came into the game wanting to rush the ball early and often, but when the zone rushing scheme failed to fully blossom, Loeffler didn't hesitate to pull a 180. By the time the dust had settled in North Carolina, the Hokies had passed the ball 43 times out of a possible 77 plays, their pass-to-rush ratio being almost identical to ECU's.
For the most part, Loeffler had success with this strategy. Despite throwing the ball so much, the Hokies held onto the ball almost 13 minutes longer than the Pirates did. They also gained 258 yards through the air, and Logan completed 58% of his passes. Thomas still struggled with accuracy at times, but he was sharp on many 3rd-and-long throws. It's been said before, but there is a lot of potential for this passing attack and it's because of the guy under center. He was much better at finding his underneath receivers and not pushing the ball down the field when it wasn't necessary. If the offensive line is able to keep the pressure off of Logan, as Logan gets more comfortable making his reads, Loeffler will find ways to keep the passing attack one step ahead of the opposing defense.
Ready, Set, Play-Action?
Without a doubt, the biggest question I had during and after the game was why didn't Loeffler choose to use more play-action pass from under center? The biggest culprit for the lack of rushing success was undoubtedly poor execution by the offensive line, but if ECU was forced to respect Tech's play-action game I think it would have loosened up the ground game a little. I only saw two instances of Virginia Tech faking a handoff to a tailback from under center before a throw. One play resulted in a sack (I think that was a little unlucky, ECU just happened to have the perfect cornerback blitz called and Logan got hit almost as soon as he turned around). The other resulted in the touchdown to D.J. Coles.
The play works exactly how Loeffler drew it up. You can see the entire defense has their eyes in the backfield, including the safety responsible for stopping D.J. Coles. Why didn't Tech do any play-action from under center in the first half? Did Loeffler want to save those play-action looks for ACC play? Did Loeffler not trust his offensive line to block long enough? Was he worried about putting Logan in harm's way? The game left me with more questions than answers in regard to Tech's play-action game, although I believe that those mysteries will be solved come ACC time.
Even without asking his linemen to block a little longer by calling a play-action pass, Loeffler could have potentially increased his rushing numbers by calling more passing plays from under center. If linebackers have to worry about protecting the middle of the field from slants, then they will be a step or two slower reacting to the run. Now Logan probably prefers to throw short from a spread formation rather than a pro-style one like the I because the footwork and his reads are easier, so I understand why Tech threw almost exclusively from the spread. However, choosing to do so does mean that Tech sacrificed an opportunity to soften up a rushing defense. When conference play starts though, the Hokies will need to threaten the pass when under center if they're going to rush the ball.
Keepin' It Simple
Passing from four and five wide sets isn't the rocket science that a lot of people make it out to be. In a lot of ways, having that many wide receivers actually makes the quarterback's job easier. If a defense chooses to play man coverage, the quarterback can pick the best personnel matchup for the offense. If a defense decides to play some form of zone, the quarterback can pick a single defender to read and make his decision based on that defender's movements.
The game on Saturday was full of examples of Loeffler using a spread formation to make Logan's job easier. Here is Logan completing a pass down the field to D.J. Coles. He is able to make a strong, confident throw to Coles because of the simplicity of his task.
Logan's read here is on the field side safety. If that safety drops into a robber coverage, then the boundary safety must rotate over to defend the seam. That means that Logan knows that Coles can out leverage his corner to get open on a comeback route.
D.J. Coles is left one-on-one to the boundary. Good, quick read by Logan.
Logan runs the same play later on. He is still reading the field side safety, and how the safety reacts will determine who Logan is throwing the ball too. When the safety creeps forward in a robber coverage, Logan again goes back to the boundary to attack the one-on-one coverage, this time to completing a pass to Stanford.
Later on in a third-and-long situation, Thomas sees the field safety drop into a deep coverage. He makes the correct read, waits for the safety to get run off by the seam route, and hits Knowles in front of the field corner. Keep in mind this is the exact same route design as the previous two clips, but because Logan's read reacted differently Logan had to throw it to a different receiver.
I don't want to over simplify this concept though, a ton of game planning goes into the read and subsequent reaction. Logan has to know what the defense's tendencies are against the route combination. Different defensive coordinators will play this differently, and Loeffler will want to attack them differently. Determining which defender to read happens right before the snap. Logan has to know heading into the game who he is reading on this play to get the desired outcome. There have been many great quarterback prospects who were capable of learning all the pre-snap reads, but never made it onto the field. If a QB can learn those pre-snap reads, his work is only half done. Once the play is occurring, diagnosing the read in realtime is and making the right decision based on his actions is an entirely different task. That is called the post-snap read. Logan has had some issues with his post-snap reads in the past, and although he had a decent game on Saturday that issue resurfaced.
On this play, Loeffler went to the play-action from the pistol. Logan's first read is Stanford on the deep route. ECU does a nice job at rotating a safety over to pick up Stanford, but that leaves a huge hole in coverage towards the boundary. Cline (who got a lot of work again on Saturday) runs a nice route into the middle of the field and is wide open. If Logan is quicker to recognize that the safety picks up Stanford's route, then he can drop it off to Cline underneath and probably pick up a first down.
Instead, Logan takes too long and a second of indecision allows the defenders to close the window underneath Cline, almost leading to an interception. The angle from the end zone shows just how open Cline was on the play.
Logan Is Improving
Did Logan Thomas play a perfect game? No, he didn't. But, Thomas is growing more comfortable in Loeffler's offense and managed to move the ball well enough with the short passing game that the Hokies won despite not breaking the 60-yard rushing mark.
So how did the Hokies manage to eat up so much clock, considering almost every run got stuffed? Logan and his receivers executed Loeffler's short yardage passing tactics. While getting some much needed practice working on the short passing game, the Hokies held onto the ball and got their defense some much deserved rest. Here was a tactic Loeffler used time and again to pick up short yardage.
In a five wide set, the Hokies run a triangle combination in front of Logan. Willie Byrn and Kalvin Cline run routes to occupy the underneath linebackers short of the line-to-gain, while Stanford runs an In/Curl route and sits in front of the corner and safety. I wrote about Loeffler's use of triangles in his passing game during the offseason, and it's nice to see it used effectively here. The only way to defend this from the defense's alignment would be to have a linebacker rotate in front of Stanford's route, but that would leave either Cline or Byrn open to catch the ball in open field. Here's an example.
The first time ECU's 3-4 defense rushed a MLB against this play, they left Logan with an easy throw to Stanford up the middle.
This time, the defense rushes an outside linebacker. The middle linebacker takes away Stanford's route at the "top of the triangle", but he loses the leverage necessary to defend Willie's route towards the sideline.
Loeffler had success with getting guys open with this concept all day. Here's one last example, just for fun.
Successful In-Game Adjustments
Loeffler does a nice job at adjusting to what the defense is throwing at him. One of those adjustments resulted in the longest pass play of the game, Knowles' 30-yard TD grab.
The Hokies actually took a timeout before this third-and-long play. Loeffler took the opportunity to draw up a play that would catch an ECU cornerback with his hand in the cookie jar. In order to fully appreciate the play, we'll need to rewind the tape and look at a similar third-and-long earlier in the drive.
On this 3rd-and-6, you can see ECU go into a four deep shell. The field safety drops deep to provide help to the linebacker covering the slot receiver, while also helping the corner on any route to the inside. The corner has responsibilities for the deep routes along the sideline. However, ECU's CB #3 plays the out route very, very aggressively. As soon as the WR hits the 3rd down marker and cuts to the outside, the CB jumps the route. This is a great way to prevent the WR from getting a first down, but it does leave the CB susceptible towards double moves. With Knowles speed, Logan's arm, and the safety being too far towards the middle of the field (because of his slot receiver responsibilities), Loeffler sees a way to punish the CB for jumping his 3rd down route.
After the timeout, Tech lines up in a four-wide 2x2 formation, same as they did on the 3rd-and-6 play earlier. This time though, the TE is flexed near the line of scrimmage, allowing him to block and give the route enough time to develop. As an eligible receiver, the field safety has to momentarily stay in the middle of the field to see if he'll go out on a route. By the time the field safety realizes that the TE isn't going anywhere, the plan is already in action.
At the snap Knowles runs to the 3rd down marker (as he did before), runs the beginnings of an out route (as he did before), but this time he cuts up field on an out-and-up route. CB #3 jumps Knowles first move, no doubt hoping to shut down the route again, and is too slow to recover when Knowles runs right past him. The safety tries to rotate over but Logan's arm is too strong and the safety has far too much distance to cover. The angle on this replay shows how badly the corner bit on Loeffler's fake out route.
The cornerback learns his lesson and starts giving Knowles the proper respect. Knowles isn't the biggest receiver, so he can struggle as a short yardage possession receiver. However, if he can demand corner give him a large cushion by making plays down the field when his underneath routes get jumped, it'll help Knowles be a factor in the short yardage game. Here is Corner #3 again later in the game. This time, he's giving Knowles a nice soft cushion to work with. Knowles doesn't even need to run a crisp route to receive the easy pass for a first down.
The Hokies offense isn't as far away from being a successful offensive team as the numbers would suggest so far this year. The lack of explosive playmakers at wide receiver will probably prevent Loeffler's unit from putting up huge numbers, but if the offensive line can figure out why they struggled so much against ECU (after looking powerful vs Alabama), then this offense can complement the defense very well. If the Hokies start adding variety to the ground game (seeing some counters would be nice), and if Logan Thomas can consistently hit open receivers in the short yardage game, then they should put up more than enough points to help their defense secure plenty of victories.