The narrative will vary from writer to writer this week, but the Hokies physically dominated the favored Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in front of a packed house at historic Bobby Dodd stadium. Virginia Tech's defense manhandled Georgia Tech's o-line and completely screwed up the distinct rhythm of Johnson's flexbone option offense. Logan Thomas had his best game of the season throwing accurate short to medium passes and moving the sticks with a punishing running game in between the tackles. The score may have been close, but the reality was that Georgia Tech was never really competitive in this football game. Bud Foster's scheme, coupled with his most talented defensive team in years dominated, and Logan Thomas shut up some naysayers with confident execution in the passing game.
Something Old and Something New from Bud Foster
As previously discussed, Foster has taught a variety of different alignments and techniques to stop Paul Johnson's offense over the years. The common themes in his approach have been 1) to defend the Yellow Jacket passing game with some form of cover 2 defense and 2) focus on taking away the dive and the pitch in the triple option and force the quarterback to be the leading ball carrier.
Foster's philosophy for the 2013 matchup followed his successful formula. Vad Lee lead the team with 18 carries and despite several nice gains, he took a beating. If the Hokie defense was in a base look, the defensive end would crash inside. The unblocked defender (usually the outside linebacker to the play side) took the pitch man, and the quarterback was forced to keep the ball. Usually, the quarterback gains anywhere from 3 to 6 yards, but the keeper rarely produces a big play because the middle linebacker and both safeties are there to bracket the quarterback on all sides. Let's watch as the defense defends a counter option with this basic approach.
James Gayle crashes inside on the dive (attempting to disrupt the down block of the right tackle), and then fights back outside to prevent being sealed by the trap block of the offensive lineman. Kyle Fuller is left alone with the quarterback and the pitch man. Fuller flattens out to pitch, while staying close enough to the QB to keep his running lane narrow. Lee makes the correct read and turns up. Jack Tyler has aligned himself deep enough to read the play, and he uses that distance to move laterally faster than the tackle can get to him. Tyler avoids the down block, scrapes across, and makes a solo tackle on Lee for a minimal gain.
That accumulated wear and tear took a toll. By the end of the football game, Lee had been hit often, sapping him of energy and confidence. Any worry I had in the outcome of the game ended when, on the final Yellow Jacket drive, Lee seemed to struggle to get his offensive aligned early in the drive, then on the final third-down he fumbled and dropped his mouth guard as he approached the center.
A coach doesn't want his quarterback to have that look on his face in the midst of a critical late game drive. Lee (who is very talented and will present the Hokies a significant challenge in the future) was under intense pressure from the defense all day, and nowhere was that more evident than when the Hokies disrupted his mesh point with the fullback.
Experts on defending the triple option will tell you that the most effective defense of the option is to disrupt the mesh point with the fullback. The mesh point is the area where the quarterback puts the football into the stomach of the fullback and reads the first unblocked man on the defensive line to determine if he keeps the ball or hands it off. Timing at the mesh point is critical. Pull too quickly, and the defense ignores the dive and flows to the quarterback and pitch. If you are forced to ride the fullback too long, the quarterback loses pitch relationship with the quarterback and the fullback loses forward momentum.
Foster has had his greatest success stopping Georgia Tech when his defensive tackles were able to shoot through the center-guard gaps and pressure the quarterback as he establishes a mesh point with the fullback. In order to do this successfully, the defensive tackle must be quick enough to beat the down block from the guard AND he must have enough balance to not fall when cut blocked. If you don't have that special kind of player, your defensive tackles essentially become blocking doubles as they get double teamed all game long. See J.R. Collins rough night against GT in 2011.
Foster has that special kind of tackle in Derrick Hopkins. As the game progressed, Hopkins repeatedly shot through the center-guard gap and disrupted the timing of the fullback mesh point. Hopkins used a variety of techniques, but his anticipation of the snap count and his ability to maintain his balance were his most effective tools as he defeated cut block after cut block. Let's take a look at a critical third-down-and-three play which set up the 4th-down stop that essentially ended any realistic chance for the Wreck to win the game.
Hopkins aligns as a one-technique inside the left guard. As the left "A" back goes in motion, Hopkins anticipates the snap count and beats the guard's attempt to cut him. As the triple option is going to the right, the center is blocking play side and can't assist the guard. The guard cuts Hopkins, but Skip has the balance to put pressure on Lee, who makes a poor read and hands the ball to the fullback. Hopkins then has the strength to trip the fullback up for no gain, even as he loses his balance. This is the spectacular, yet subtle play that wins football games. Paul Johnson decides to go for it on a 4th-and-a-long-2 instead of having a first down or perhaps a 4th-and-inches if Hopkins doesn't make the play. On fourth down, Foster again anticipates that Johnson will call the dive or the midline option, and he throws a curveball, blitzing Tariq Edwards into the outside dive lane and letting James Gayle widen out to take pitch.
If the Yellow Jackets call the toss sweep, they will get a big play, but Foster guesses correctly, and Hopkins, Edwards, and Tyler make a huge stop. It looked just like the late game stop in 2011 on replay.
Besides having the size, speed, and talent to beat Georgia Tech with solid assignment football and superior athleticism, Foster, as he seems to do, added a new wrinkle to his scheme. Early in the football game, he altered his base defensive structure, and chose to blitz Kyle Fuller as the whip linebacker through the tackle-guard gap on the wide side of the field, while Gayle flattened out to take the pitch.
The concept is the same as the base look. Foster commits his defensive tackle and the next man wide to stopping the dive; in this blitz look Fuller is the next man in. If the option is into the blitz, Fuller takes the dive and the defensive end on his side takes the pitch man, leaving the quarterback to the inside out pursuit of the safety and mike linebacker. If the option goes away from the blitz, Fuller is in prime position to force a turnover from the blind side if he can beat the down block of the tackle. Either way, the pressure coming through the guard-tackle gap disrupts the mesh point, but unlike a traditional blitz, doesn't leave an undefended space with the end taking pitch and Fuller's speed throws off the timing of the offensive tackle.
Foster opened the football game running a variation of the Fuller blitz every defensive play on the first Georgia Tech drive, and most of the plays on the second drive. As the Yellow Jackets adjusted, the Hokies used the blitz sporadically while mixing in their base concept described above. But, the psychological damage was done. The Yellow Jacket offensive tackles started to anticipate their own snap count, and as result jumped offsides at an alarming rate (even when Fuller was not showing blitz).
Kyle Fuller's blitzing paid immediate dividends. On the first drive of the game, Fuller disrupted Lee on several plays, then timed his blitz just right to beat the tackle cleanly.
Note, Fuller doesn't try to tackle the quarterback or the fullback. To achieve the "freeze effect" halting the linebackers pursuit, Lee has to extend the football into the fullback's stomach. Fuller sees the ball extended, and knocks the ball away. On the outside, the Hokies are playing a combination coverage, with Brandon Facyson playing the short zone. Once run has been established, Facyson comes in from the back side in perfect position to cover the fumble.
Brandon Facyson and Combo Cover-2
The entire Hokie defense had a terrific performance, but nobody was involved in more impact plays than Brandon Facyson. Facyson's fumble recovery led to the first Virginia Tech touchdown. He forced a fumble on the second drive, but the offense recovered. He was in perfect position to recover a fumble to kill Georgia Tech's only touchdown drive, and he made a spectacular interception to end another deep incursion into Hokie territory. Take a moment to savor how Facyson's explosive closing speed will result in many more interceptions over the next couple of years.
With Kyle Fuller moving inside, Foster made the decision to move Facyson to boundary corner, with Kendall Fuller playing field corner. It was an interesting risk, as Facyson has appeared to be more comfortable playing soft zones and looking into the backfield instead of pure man coverage that is normally associated with the boundary corner. But, Facyson's size and anticipation lent itself to defending the Yellow Jacket's big receivers as Lee focused mostly to the boundary side of the field on throws to the sideline.
Foster again used a scheme that fit his core principles for defending the flexbone, but best utilized his current personnel. As discussed last week, Foster normally featured cover-2 or inverted cover-2 zones behind his front-seven. Both schemes effectively gave him 9 men in the box once keys indicate that the offense will run a running play. This week, Foster changed up his scheme somewhat, and used what I will call a "combination" cover-2 defense.
The concept is fairly simple. On the field side and boundary side, one defensive back each takes a short zone and one takes a deep zone. However, Foster would flip flop which DB would take the short zone (and therefore run support) and which on would act as a deep safety. On the field side, Kendall Fuller would immediately back off at the snap and play a deep half, with Detrick Bonner flying forward to take the short zone and run support (inverted cover-2.) Meanwhile on the boundary side, Facyson would align well inside the split end, and come forward immediately in run support, while Kyshoen Jarrett retreats into a deep zone.
The true beauty of the look is the variability. Each side of the field can act independently of the other. Both sides can run inverted cover-2 or straight cover-2 based on formation and tendency, but there is always one player in position for run support and one deep coverage man. With each side constantly adjusting, it becomes incredibly difficult for the wide receivers and wing backs to key in on the defender that they are assigned to crack back, option stalk, or cut, as they are never sure if the safety or the corner is coming forward to take the pitch man. Again, it is a simple adjustment easily executed by a secondary that has safeties and corners equally comfortable in coverage and run support, but it makes life miserable for blockers.
Foster mostly used an inverted cover-2 on the wide side of the field, with Bonner at free safety coming forward in run support and Kendall Fuller dropping deep. Georgia Tech was able to sneak the slot receivers behind Bonner on a couple of plays, but for the most part Bonner recovered well. On the boundary side, Foster used straight cover-2, with Facyson playing run support and Jarrett playing the deep zone. Given how Jarrett is such a solid tackler in the box, it was a surprising adjustment, but Foster's brilliance demonstrated itself as Facyson made play after play blitzing off the corner.
It is still a bit too soon to declare Facyson "the next Brandon Flowers," but the coverage ability, closing speed, excellent form tackling, and ability to create turnovers as a true freshman is stunning. I assumed that Kendall Fuller would ultimately be the boundary corner because he is so fluid in turning and running in man coverage, but Foster has had tremendous success with big, physical corners and players who can play off coverage and jump routes. Facyson is the bigger body that Foster prefers to use for both off coverage and run support, and his break on the football is spectacular. Having two elite corners for at least the next two and a half seasons with talented players like Riley, Chuck Clark, and Cequan Jefferson as depth and safety prospects like Holland Fisher coming in, this secondary should be special for a long time.
Logan Thomas and the Just Enough Offense
Logan Thomas played his best game this season on Thursday night. Thomas was accurate in the short to medium passing game while serving as the primary running threat despite an abdominal injury. With a minimal number of possessions, Thomas lead the offense to scores on four out of ten drives (it isn't Logan's fault that Journell didn't make that kick), with two drives including the victory formation at the end of the game and the Hail Mary at the end of the half.
Loeffler leaned heavily on Thomas, so much so that there Hokie running backs only had four combined carries in the first half. I am not sure if Loeffler's strategy to use Logan as the primary running back was the result of the injuries incurred by Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman, but the strategy worked early on.
Loeffler opened the game identifying good matchups in the passing game, and it was clear that the matchup he wanted to attack was the Hokie receivers against outside linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days. Through formation, Loeffler got Hunt-Days matched up in man coverage on Willie Byrn and D.J. Coles on back-to-back plays to score a touchdown.
On the opening play, the Hokies use four wide receivers, and Hunt-Days has man coverage on Byrn in a right slot. Byrn runs an in-cut, plants, and turns it back to the outside. Hunt-Days has no chance without outside zone help that has been run off by a deep route from the split end.
If you continue the clip, you will see Coles lined up as an H-Back. Loeffler again has Hunt-Days covering a receiver through alignment. Thomas fakes a zone stretch right and the offensive line sells the run beautifully, and then David Wang curls back to take the unblocked edge rush. Coles runs a backside drag against the flow of the linebacker run support, and Hunt-Days (who has bitten on the fake) has no chance to keep up. It is beautiful design; a naked bootleg without the roll out.
Throughout the night, the Hokies returned to short crossing routes against the Georgia Tech linebackers to move the chains. Coles, Stanford, Byrn, and Knowles all made big plays by getting yards after the catch on similar routes, and with each guy being utilized at different times, the defense was unable to key on a "go-to" receiver. Georgia Tech played zone coverage, and Loeffler continued to run crossing routes with each of his top four guys. Kalvin Cline also continues to make plays, and Loeffler is becoming more and more comfortable in running Cline on more vertical routes.
Logan Thomas and Caleb Farris and the Power Running Game
As noted earlier, Scot Loeffler essentially ignored his running backs in the first half as he repeatedly called the inverted veer to the right. On the play, the right side of the offensive line zone blocks the inside gap with the tight end (aligned as an H-Back) taking a veer step to the outside. Left guard Caleb Farris pulls to his right, and turns up into the bubble, leading on the inside linebacker. The fake handoff on the sweep to the tailback stretches the defense out, and Logan reads the unblocked defender and follows Farris into the hole. Farris had some massive collisions with the Yellow Jacket linebackers (and occasionally trapping the defensive tackles) as Loeffler called the inverted veer again, again, and again. Farris had an outstanding football game and looks much more athletic and mobile than last season.
His most impressive block came on an very unlikely touchdown run. Following the Facyson interception, the Hokies had driven inside the Georgia Tech 10 yard line. As expected, Loeffler again called inverted veer. Ted Roof calls the perfect defense against the veer, with the outside linebacker blitzing the right guard-right tackle gap and the defensive end widening out to make Logan read keep and run right into the blitz.
Despite the perfect defensive call, two absolutely beautiful blocks open up a huge lane. Brent Benedict follows his blocking rules and catches the blitzing linebacker right in the hole. Benedict has had moments where he has looked tentative in space, but here he catches the linebacker flush and pancakes him right into the ground.
Farris pulls around Wang, Miller, and Benedict's excellent down blocks, turns up field, and drives into the Georgia Tech middle linebacker who is filling the bubble created by the Benedict pancake. Farris is athletic enough to engage a defender who is 60 pounds lighter and should be much quicker, hit him squarely, and keep him off Thomas. Last season, nobody on the Hokie interior line executes that block. Farris doesn't get the pancake, but this is a beautifully executed play.
However, the success of pounding Logan inside just is not sustainable without some threat from the tailback on the sweep outside. As the game progressed, the Yellow Jackets started to sell out against the quarterback keeper, and Logan was not making any kind of read. I am not sure if Edmunds injury played that big a role, or if Coleman and Mangus just didn't strike Loeffler as being a good call. Regardless of the rational, the quarterback keepers were not effective as the game wore on besides the long Thomas run in the 3rd quarter. I have to imagine that there was some kind of matchup advantage in pounding Thomas, but Edmunds, Coleman, and Mangus have to get more effective touches or Thomas will have trouble finishing the season.
The difficulties in running the football were aided by some offensive line trouble. As the second half progressed, David Wang sat out some snaps as Laurence Gibson moved to right tackle, Benedict moved to left guard, and Farris moved to center. I have advocated for this grouping often this season, but the group was repeatedly beaten by Ted Roof's blitzing scheme and was completely ineffective running the ball. Wang has struggled with his injured shoulder, but his presence at center allows Farris to play at his best position of guard. Gibson may have to wait another season to fight for a starting job.
While some writers focused on the poor rushing numbers in the running game, Trey Edmunds found a way to contribute despite not getting carries. Edmunds had a terrific game picking up blitzes, and when he was not on the field, the Hokie passing attack sputtered. Loeffler used both J.C. Coleman and Joel Caleb on passing downs in the third quarter, and both were woefully ineffective stopping Roof's designer blitzes.
Here, Benedict has moved to left guard and Farris has moved to center. J.C. Coleman is in at tailback. The defensive tackle aligned in front of Benedict stunts inside, and Benedict steps inside to help Farris.
As result, a lane has opened for the inside linebacker and outside linebacker to blitz. Benedict should have probably stayed in his zone and picked up the inside blitzer, but with two coming, Coleman has to stop the interior blitzer first and give Logan some semblance of a pocket. J.C. has not had any meaningful snaps since the Western Carolina game, but he is very tentative stepping into the inside linebacker. With a full head of steam, the linebacker runs through Coleman and makes the snap. J.C. must get that linebacker on the ground to be effective as a 3rd down back.
With Edmunds still hurting, Loeffler utilized Joel Caleb on a passing down on the next drive. Caleb, who has only had one touch since the Western Carolina game, also looks tentative and completely misses the linebacker.
From that point forward, most passing downs featured Edmunds in the game. Edmunds has excelled this season picking up blitzes on the interior. He still occasionally struggles to get blitzes coming off the edge, and there have been some communication issues on the protections between him and Jonathan McLaughlin. But, Edmunds physical presence has been a huge upgrade over the pass blocking provided by the Hokie backs last season.
The Hokies should be proud of this victory. Every year, playing the Yellow Jackets is a physically brutal affair. Virginia Tech played outstanding assignment football on defense to go with their athletic superiority. On offense, the Hokies were more efficient when they had opportunities to score, and they did a good job of keeping the defense off the field with the short passing game and Logan's bulldozer runs. Next week, North Carolina comes to Lane Stadium and the Tar Heels represent a very different kind of challenge. Junior tight end Eric Ebron presents all kinds of matchup problems, and much like the Yellow Jackets, Herd, and Pirates, they will try to pick on the Virginia Tech safeties with Ebron in man coverage. UNC also decimated the Hokies with counters out of the spread formation, and the Tar Heels are the best team on the schedule at running screens to their tailbacks. Defensively UNC has not looked terrific this season, but the Hokies must establish their tailbacks as credible threats on the edge to open space up for Logan Thomas on the interior. With Thomas already banged up, and Mark Leal not the same threat as an interior runner, offensive continuity depends on the Hokies ability to run their base offense.
The most important Hokie this week is the trainer. Over past seasons, the Virginia Tech defensive front has struggled in the games following the Georgia Tech game. The defense played fewer snaps than normal, but the cumulative impact of those cut blocks makes it difficult to recover leg strength. Those Hokie defensive linemen (not to mention banged up offensive guys) need to spend this weekend getting treatment and taking care of their bodies. A win over UNC is critical with Miami and Pitt both looking to present a serious challenge to the Hokies defense.