Well, it certainly wasn't pretty. As I feared, the Thundering Herd put a scare into the Hokies on Saturday. I don't think anyone was particularly satisfied with the performance, but the outcome leaves the Hokies at 3-1 as they begin ACC play against Georgia Tech on Thursday night.
Before I watched the film, I seriously considered not doing a review this week. The game featured almost every good and bad thing that you could possibly see in a football game, and the performance was so erratic, with so many highs and lows, that it was difficult to really evaluate everyone. BeamerBall produced two blocked kicks and a punter scramble for a first down. But special teams also missed several field goals, had a short punt that Marshall turned into points, and again was absolutely atrocious blocking on the kickoff return teams. An elite defense got gashed time and again, while also producing 8 tackles for a loss, four sacks, and forcing three critical turnovers. Kendall Fuller perhaps saves the game with a critical interception, but got eaten up on inside slant routes. Kyle Fuller blocked a punt and took away the short side of the field early, but was beaten twice on double moves, one overthrow, but one put Marshall close to field goal range to win the game. (Fortunately for Kyle, Rakeem Cato tried the same play to the wide side of the field, and while he fooled Brandon Facyson, he didn't fool Kyshoen Jarrett.) The offensive line tipped the spear to the tune of over 200 yards rushing, but then struggled on some key short yardage plays, only to turn around and clear the path for the game winning touchdown. Logan Thomas went from electric, to terrible, to lucky, to a powerhouse in just under 4 hours. Just typing that gives me a frightful headache. But, the Hokies got the W, and 48 hours later, with my blood pressure going back below stroke levels, I decided to drill down and sample a little of the good, bad, and the ugly.
How to Rush for 200 Yards and Evoke the Ire of the Fans
Without looking at the numbers, how many of you would have guessed that the Hokies rushed for over 200 yards on Saturday? The in-game eye test certainly would have not lead me to that conclusion. Instead, I focused on the near misses in the option game, and of course the struggles in short yardage now almost two full years after the legend of "Third-and-Logan" was born.
I am not going to sugar coat things here. There are two weaknesses in the Hokie blocking scheme that are preventing a huge rushing day. Most of the blocking at the point of attack, especially on the veer dive from the pistol, ranged from solid to outstanding against the Herd. Hokie offensive linemen pounded the Marshall front-four at the point of attack, leading to lots of chunk yardage running plays. Why have there not been more big plays? First and foremost, Virginia Tech occasionally struggled to cut off backside pursuit. That isn't surprising. Asking a guard or tackle to cross a defensive lineman's face who already has a big advantage based purely on alignment is the toughest block in football. Still, to effectively run this style offense, those blocks have to be executed. Far, far too often a hole developed at the point of attack only to have a defender come close the play down from the back side.
Second, the tight end play, specifically the blocking, is incredibly inconsistent right now. Last week the outside stretch play (and as result, the bootleg) was an afterthought, and this week again we saw very little stretch action and only one bootleg. On film, Kalvin Cline and Duan Perez-Means look terrific blocking on one play, and then the next play they are grasping at air. If Loeffler can't depend on the tight end position to seal the edge or veer release and block appropriately, it significantly limits his ability to run both the triple option and the stretch series.
Third, Logan Thomas is starting to keep the ball on read plays, but it still isn't as fluid and sharp as it should be at this stage of the season. Several wrong reads cost the Hokies huge gains, but, Loeffler's use of multiple versions of read option kept the defense guess, which created holes for other different players to make plays as the game wore on.
According to my very unofficial log, the Hokies featured mostly veer read option early in the game. The veer read option involves the offensive tackle and guard to the play side to double team the defensive tackle, with the offensive tackle peeling off to block the linebacker. The tight end steps away from his block in a veer release, leaving the defensive end unblocked (but trying to influence him to move outside and widen the hole.
The quarterback reads the unblocked man. If the end crashes, quarterback keeps. If the end stays wide, quarterback gives to the dive. The missing piece has been Logan Thomas establishing the keeper to keep defensive ends honest. Against Marshall, he took advantage.
The defensive end crashes hard on the dive. Thomas pulls out of the mesh point and follows Means for 10 yards. As the game went on, and Logan started to establish himself as a legitimate threat to read the end, it opened up the dive and other plays.
As the first half progressed, Loeffler started to call the veer less and less. Instead, he incorporated the same trap/wham action with a tight end or a fullback crossing the face of the formation. The line blocks the play the same as the veer, but when the defensive end looks for the dive, he gets trapped by the fullback or tight end coming from the blind side. The Hokies had varying degrees of success with the trap, but it produced the biggest run of the day by Trey Edmunds.
I am most impressive by Trey recognizing that the hole was wide and hitting it. I think early in the year Edmunds has been too likely to make the safe read inside, and he has left some big plays on the field.
Finally, the Hokies utilized the inverted veer made famous by the Logan Thomas game winner against Miami in 2011. Loeffler relied more and more on inverted veer as the game progressed, especially in short yardage situations. It was effective against Marshall, because unlike last season, Loeffler makes sure that it is a true read play. Chris Mangus had several effective carries sweeping outside from the inverted veer look, and as result, on those critical Logan Thomas runs in overtime, Marshall's linebackers had to respect the threat of Mangus on the edge rather than crashing the inside. Let's examine an early run by Mangus.
Here, Logan runs inverted veer from two backs, and this run is possibly a straight handoff all the way, as Logan does not fake the dive hard into the line. Mangus gets nice blocks on the edge, and finishes with a nice 9-yard run.
It wasn't always so pretty. Here, we have a poor read by Thomas on the inverted veer to Mangus, right after a big run by Trey Edmunds.
If you freeze right after the mesh point, look at the huge hole that the offensive line has opened up.
Mangus isn't helped by a poor effort by Duan Perez-Means on his seal block, but for the most part, Means, Cline, and Redman were better blocking than they had been in the last two games. There are still scary moments, but they are getting more comfortable.
After being brutalized on two critical short yardage downs in the late stages of the game, the offensive line started to control the line of scrimmage in the second overtime. While they controlled the interior gaps, the o-line did a better job, in part because the Marshall linebackers had to respect both dive and wide runs on veer and inverted veer. Here is Thomas on an inverted veer.
It is critical to notice how the linebackers focus on Mangus, even though almost everyone in the stadium knows that Logan is keeping the ball. All three interior linemen turn their assigned defenders to the outside, and Logan has an excellent running lane. On the final two runs, including the 2-point conversion, those same, much maligned players opened up giant gaps without the benefit of the fake. In the war of attrition, they ultimately won.
Following the game, there were complaints about Scot Loeffler "calling plays like Stinespring." Here is a breakdown of the running game (unofficial, based on my own count).
- 10 true veer options from the pistol formation
- 11 trap or wham options using the fullback or tight end pulling across the formation to trap a lineman or linebacker
- 10 inverted veer option runs
- 10 inside or outside zones (from I, single back, and pistol).
Not only is that almost perfectly balanced, but each was used appropriately to set up the other. The veer sets up the trap. The inverted veer stretches the defense out so Thomas can attack the interior. With a couple of notable exceptions (4th -and-1 from the shotgun... have mercy on my poor heart), the running attack was varied, worked as a system to establish multiple options on each play forcing the defense to defend the whole field, and generated numerous big plays. I don't recall many games last season where the offense rushed for over 200 yards and have 10 runs of over 8 yards.
It isn't perfect, and the Hokies left some big plays on the field. But, this is what the team is. They will have to grind for yards and put together long drives, and when you depend on college kids to execute over the course of a long drive, there will be breakdowns in execution to derail it sometimes. The Hokies just don't have the playmakers in the passing game to get the quick strike scores that would complement what is turning into a pretty good rushing attack. To go from pretty good to very good, there has to be better blocking on the backside of plays, and the pass blocking had some scary moments. But, this is a process, and given how poorly this group has been coached in the past coupled with inexperience, they performed pretty well except for a couple of real boners on Saturday.
Beating the Hokie Defense: Gap Fits, Attacking the Slots, and A Running Quarterback
As discussed in the preview, Marshall's game plan followed the "How to Beat the Hokies" blueprint. Rakeem Cato looked to get his best wide receivers open from the slot against the Virginia Tech safeties and Kendall Fuller, and then attack deep using a variety of four vertical concepts. The wet field gave Marshall a distinct advantage against man-to-man coverage. On a wet field, a wide receiver knows the route, but a defensive back has to react. When you factor in Cato's accuracy on those underneath patterns, the Hokie defensive backs performed admirably in very tough circumstances.
Here, Marshall runs a simple pass combination to the wide side of the field.
The split end runs a stutter and then go route deep, which freezes Facyson, and then requires any safety help to come over the top. That leaves Kendall Fuller on an island. Fuller has to play an inside-out technique to take away the slant. He plants at the identical time, but Shuler is quicker off the break and Cato is accurate with the football. Fuller does everything right, but the wet field, Cato's accuracy, and his trust in Shuler makes a terrific play look mundane.
Cato is one hell of a quarterback, and he played a magnificent game. Even though it is against his tendency, Cato ran just enough read option to deaden the pass rush and force the crash defensive end to stay at home. He hurt the Hokies with his legs as the defensive tackles and linebackers rushed too far up field, leaving Cato plenty of room as the Hokie defensive backs are running in man coverage. His accuracy was terrific, and until the Hokies started to manufacture pressure, it appeared he would have a career defining win in Blacksburg. More on that pressure in a moment.
We knew that Marshall would have some success throwing the football, but it was their running game that sparked them early. The Hokies appeared to have a great deal of trouble with traction early on, and often looked incredibly tentative in run defense. In the Bud Foster umbrella concept, if one defender gets pushed across his gap, it leaves a huge hole, and Marshall's small but incredibly fast tailbacks exploited those holes early.
Let's take a look at a long run from Marshall's first touchdown drive. Here, Marshall runs a zone play from the shotgun.
The Herd left tackle allows Dadi Nicolas to get up field, and then engages him to the outside. Woody Baron is double teamed, and Nigel Williams gets up field but doesn't move laterally to fill the gap. That leaves Tariq Edwards, in space and with a tackle bearing down on his blind side, to fill a gaping hole. Edwards tries to resist the down block from his back side, but loses traction and wipes out.
One slip, magnified by a small error in gap fits by the defensive tackle, and suddenly Kyshoen Jarrett is all alone with a tailback and several blockers headed in his direction. This happened several times to the Hokie front-seven, each time resulting in big gains. It is a high risk, high reward philosophy that the weather dampened on Saturday.
Fortunately for Bud Foster, Mr. J.R. Collins took over the game.
Collins stat line would be a fantasy footballers dream: 9 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Most importantly, he raised his game when the Hokies needed stops.The fourth quarter was the J.R. Collins show. He started things off with a speed rush that forced Cato to throw an out to the wide side of the field, resulting in an easy interception for Kendall Fuller.
Hokies didn't go for it on fourth and inches, but Collins doesn't mind. On first down, he beats the left tackle with an outside feint into a hand slap rip move for a sack.
That was followed by a 3rd-down outside rip move that leaves the Marshall tackle stunned. The pressure forces Cato into another near interception. When the Hokies DESPERATELY needed a play when their backs were against the wall, J.R. Collins forced a fumble in overtime. Also, kudos to Derrick Hopkins, Luther Maddy, and Kyshoen Jarrett for making big plays down the stretch. Hopefully Jarrett did not aggravate his hamstring injury on the game saving interception at the end of the fourth quarter. It wasn't pretty, but the defense made the plays they had to make to win the game.
This week, Paul Johnson's flexbone squares off against Bud Foster's defense. The Bees have an improved passing attack and new wrinkles that will be previewed on Wednesday's special on the Rambling Wreck. Foster has four days to make adjustments to the option scheme, which limits his ability to blitz and puts tremendous pressure on the secondary players ability to tackle one-on-one in space. Foster always adds some new wrinkles for Johnson's offense. This should be one hell of a chess match on Thursday.