Alabama's won the last two national championships and are favorites to win again this year. Alabama has a Heisman candidate at quarterback, an NFL-ready running back, and a rock solid defense. Hokie fans knew that the competition on August 31st was going to be stiff, but what we didn't know was how capable our players would look on national television. Coach Frank Beamer and his staff learned a lot about what this football team is about Saturday night, and so did we.
The offensive line is already improving on last season's debacle. As French wrote on Monday, Jeff Grimes' unit more than held their own against a front-7 that will likely be in the discussion as "best in the nation" by the end of the season. The push off the ball the o-line was able to get while run blocking exceeded my expectations. Pass protection wasn't as good, but it showed promise and is normally the part of offensive line play that needs the most work during the beginning of the season anyway. As the season progresses, expect our offensive line to continue to improve and gel together. It appears that the hire of Jeff Grimes is starting to pay dividends already. I'm excited to see what he will accomplish once the kids that he recruits are brought into the program.
Obviously, the wide receivers struggled. There's no way to sugarcoat it, they flat out "dropped the ball" (see what I did there!) on Saturday. One thing that especially worried me was the lack of separation the receivers seemed to be getting from the Alabama secondary in the short game. This is due, in part, to the talent Nick Saban has at his disposal on the defensive side of the ball. It's no easy task getting open against a bunch of 4- and 5-star athletes. However, greater effort, explosion, and consistency is needed from Moorehead's group if Tech is going to be an elite offensive program this year.
I believe that the wide receiver play will improve as the players grow. For one thing, there is no way that scholarship players of this caliber will continue to drop balls that hit them square in the hands at the rate with which it was occurring on Saturday night. It's unthinkable for it to continue.
Demitri Knowles can fly (we saw that when he ran right past his man on a double move that Logan missed for an easy touchdown) but if he can't catch the ball better than this Moorehead will someone, anyone, who can. This is a great example of how things went wrong for Loeffler at Auburn. He'd draw up a great play, find a way to get a playmaker open, and poor execution would make it all go for naught. Even though this play ends in a humiliating drop, it still gives me hope for what this offense can accomplish. Loeffler designed a great play, the offensive line dealt with a blitz well, Logan Thomas made the right read, the receiver got open... all that was missing was the final piece of the puzzle: the catch.
Let's not focus on the drop though, instead let's take a look at how the Hokies managed to get one of the fastest players on the team matched up against a linebacker in single coverage. If they can continue doing that, the offense will prosper throughout the remaining schedule.
Logan is asked to make a simple read here. Edmunds runs towards, then up, the sideline on a classic Wheel route. He is the initial receiver. If Alabama's linebacker #32 (All-American C.J. Mosely) doesn't chase Edmunds, Thomas should throw it to his running back for a large gain (similar to Ryan Williams's long reception vs Alabama in '09). Since Mosely makes the correct play and vacates his space on the field to chase Edmunds, Demitri Knowles is locked into one-on-one man coverage with linebacker Tana Patrick. The throw is slightly behind Knowles, but surely a ball he expects himself to catch 100% of the time.
Wait, Tana Patrick? Who? Exactly. Loeffler found a way to isolate one of the team's most athletic players on a backup linebacker, and the ball actually hit said player in the stomach. This is a recipe for offensive success in the passing game.
Later in the game, Loeffler was able to get Knowles open again, this time deep behind the defense.
I've been saying since Loeffler got hired that he does a great job at finding ways to get his WR's open down the field, especially off of play-action. Alabama is in a cover-3 look off of the play fake and when Stanford runs a route through the middle of the field, the deep safety jumps forward to cover him. That leaves Knowles in a matchup with a cornerback. Knowles does a great job with his double move then uses his speed to run past his defender. Knowles has tremendous speed, if Moorehead can teach him the intricacies of the WR position (subtle things like catching the ball) then he has a chance to be an important member of this offense moving forward.
Bud Foster, Best In The Business
In my opinion, Bud Foster is the best defensive coordinator in the country. His game plan against Alabama was brilliant, as usual. It's not just his "X's and O's" dominance that make him a genius though, it's his ability to make his players understand their roles and execute their jobs which make Bud Foster the best in the land. When a defensive player knows exactly what is expected of them, they don't have to second guess their reads. They can tighten up their chin straps, trust their instincts, and fly around the field making plays. Jack Tyler, an unheralded walk-on, has become a complete monster on the field by playing with reckless abandon. His intelligence and knowledge of Foster's schemes allows him to play without his mind tying up his feet. Tyler isn't the biggest or fastest player in the country at his position, but because there is no hesitation to his game he is able to arrive at the football faster than other more athletic players. Here is a great example.
Foster sends Jack Tyler on a run blitz here and Tyler is able to get a big tackle for loss on a 3rd-and-1 play. Tyler picks the perfect hole to run through and arrives with such violent intent that the fullback has no chance to get a block. Tyler blows right through the fullback's attempt and grabs a hold of Yeldon, allowing Tariq Edwards to help with the gang-tackle.
What happened though? Why was Tyler able to run untouched through Alabama's offensive line? Breaking down the play reveals how Bud Foster baited Saban's staff into running the ball directly into a run blitz.
This is how both teams aligned pre-snap. Let's focus on the play-side of the formation. Bud Foster has been slanting his front away from his Rover, Jarrett, almost all day on rushing plays. The aggressive slants have forced T.J. Yeldon to try and cutback again and again, usually right into the waiting arms of a patented Foster "free-hitter". Saban's staff tries to use this aggression against the Hokies, by having the guard block down on Hopkins and double teaming him with the center. They hope that the play side DE will do the usual slant to the outside shoulder of the tackle, creating a hole for the fullback and running back to run through.
This plan allows Alabama to create extra space, since the DE slants himself out of the play. All the tackle has to do is shield the DE from the hole and the fullback has a one on one chance against a linebacker. The fullback doesn't even need to win that matchup, if he fights the linebacker to a draw his running back should be able to fall forward for the first down.
It's a common tactic in short yardage situations. Double teaming a defensive tackle may not allow you to get the downfield blocks necessary for a huge gainer, but it greatly increases your odds of picking up a first down. Alabama's offensive coordinator knows this. Unlucky for him, Bud Foster knows it as well. So what does Foster do? He puts his defensive tackle in an alignment where he can easily get double teamed. This will create an alley for the running back to run through... and also an alley for Jack Tyler to run through.
Tyler has to be smart enough to know which hole to attack and he's got to be reckless enough to attack it before it exists. Watch how he begins to move forward and attack the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. Tyler doesn't know for sure that the guard is going to block down on Hopkins, he just trusts that Foster hasn't asked him to run face first into a grown man weighing almost 80 pounds more than him. If Foster is wrong and the guard attacks Tyler, Tyler is almost certainly going to be mauled. There's a reason Tech's "T-Time" drills didn't feature many offensive linemen versus linebacker matchups.
Foster, as usual, is right though. Tyler launches himself at the guard and when the guard blocks down, a huge crease opens up in the line. Tyler has so much forward momentum by the time he reaches the Fullback there is little doubt to the outcome of the play even before Tyler makes the tackle.
A New Hope
Nobody likes losing, especially not after being accustomed to winning for so long. It still hurts like hell to see Frank Beamer's Hokies lose a game, even if it's against a team as talented as Saban's Crimson Tide. Still, this loss doesn't feel as bad as the ones from last year. Those left me feeling empty and hopeless. At least after rewatching the game this time around, there were positive things to write about. Bud Foster's defense is even better than I thought it would be, especially against the run. The defensive line will be great all year long, and Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards will be tackling machines. The secondary is very talented and will only continue to improve as Kendall, Riley, and Facyson get more experience. Loeffler's offensive group isn't quite there yet, but it's not far off either. Alabama's front-7 is better than any other on Tech's schedule this year, and the offensive line still managed to hold their own. Trey Edmunds is the real deal. He will be the next great Virginia Tech running back.
The wide receivers obviously have a long way to go. I'm not going to pile on here, because I believe this group will get better. I believe in what Moorehead is about as a position coach, and Loeffler's willingness to take blame for the WR play in his post-game interview leads me to believe that he'll be keeping a watchful eye on that unit as well. Until that group improves Loeffler will have to rely heavily on that offensive line getting a good push up front early in downs. If the passing game develops into a consistent weapon for him to wield this season, the Hokies have a great shot at an ACC Championship Game appearance.