Perhaps the most manic relationship between the staff and the fanbase this season was between new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and those that wear orange and maroon. Loeffler was hired after coordinating a dreadful offense at Auburn. That poor year stands in stark contrast to Gus Malzahn's offensive revival that has Auburn on the verge of a national championship. Based on his season at Auburn, many fans didn't have confidence in Loeffler turning around an offense that sputtered under the combined leadership of Bryan Stinespring and Mike O'Cain. With an offensive unit depleted by injuries, defections, and inexperience at the skill positions that was expected to adopt a complex, multiple scheme, Loeffler faced a major challenge right off the bat. How did he fare in his first season on the job, and is this the true Scot Loeffler offense?
The Hokies finished the season on a positive note with a decisive if ugly win against the pretenders from the University of Virginia. Congratulations to the seniors who finished their career with four wins against the bow tie neighbors to the north. Nothing about the 95th edition of the Commonwealth Cup was pretty, but the Hokies succeeded in achieving victory with a combination of superior effort, some trickery, and a significant helping hand by a University of Virginia offensive staff which managed to do everything but hand Bud Foster their playbook with a silver bow prior to kick off.
The Hokies did not finish the game unscathed. Trey Edmunds had an outstanding game, but was lost until fall practice with a broken tibia early in the fourth quarter. Brandon Facyson, who UVa did not seem interested in challenging with the exception of a go route prior to the Edmunds touchdown run in the second quarter, suffered an AC joint sprain. Now, Virginia Tech enters bowl season looking for a way solidify depth because of injuries, while also using the extra weeks of practice to identify which players are most likely to replace the ten key contributors who will be playing their final game for the Hokies.
It is clich to say that football is a game of inches or moments, but it often proves to be the case. Saturday's game against Maryland provided a wealth of frustrating moments, but ultimately two special teams plays haunted the Hokies as they muddled their way to overtime. Walk-on kicker Eric Kristensen dinged a 3-point attempt off the left post that would have given the Hokies a 10-point lead, and the Hokies punt return team gave up a touchdown return to freshman Will Likely that completely took the air out of Lane Stadium. If either play goes differently, perhaps the Hokies pull out a win in a game where they definitely were not sharp. I can't be critical of Kristensen. He was thrust into an impossible situation, and he hit both attempts solidly. Against an average opponent, the Hokies should not have been in a position where kicker needed to win the game. However, special teams as a whole continued to stink. Little was accomplished in the return game. And the coverage teams again struggled as they did against the Hurricanes and Alabama.
It was more enjoyable to watch the film this week after two gut-wrenching Sunday's in a row. After a shaky start, the Hokies benefited from several Miami special teams turnovers and the running game finally complimented the ever-improving passing attack. Also, some of the burden of picking up short yardage was lifted off Logan Thomas' shoulders, and you saw the result. A huge part of Saturday's success can't be documented with X's and O's. Some might say that Virginia Tech benefited by some lucky bounces, but A.J. Hughes stuck his head in on a bigger, stronger, and faster player to knock the first ball loose. Derek DiNardo chased down the Artie Burns to strip the ball from behind. Kalvin Cline punched the Stanford fumble away from a Miami defender so D.J. Coles could dive on the loose ball. Demitri Knowles hustled after the play to be in position to recover the Byrn fumble in the end zone. Trey Edmunds made several Hurricanes miss on a critical third down conversion when he was dead to rights on a pass in the flat. These were all effort plays. The Hokies offense outworked the Hurricanes defense.
I am not sure, even considering the loss to Duke, that I have watched a Hokies game this season and worried about the future. However, I was concerned in the aftermath of the loss to Boston College. For me, this season is always has been about establishing what the offensive identity will be for 2014 and beyond. If they went 13-0 or 6-6, it didn't matter. This needed to be a rebuilding season where Scot Loeffler proclaimed to the world ,"When you play the Hokies, we are going to do X, Y, and Z. Try to stop us." At the same time, Steve Addazio entered a similar situation at Boston College, and perhaps Addazio had even less talent to build on. Boston College is certainly without the dominant defense that Loeffler has in Blacksburg. Yet, Addazio decided, win or lose, the Eagles will pound the football. Boston College will run the football with a lead. They will run with the football when behind. They will run the football regardless of which defense is trying to stop them. And, they will be good at it, so when they run a screen, a quarterback draw, or a one man route on the outside, the defense will be so focused on the run that they can't defend it. Time and time again, the Eagles ran power plays, lead plays, and counters, sometimes using 9-men on the line of scrimmage, but always blocking players down, and pulling linemen and tight ends to create numerical mismatches on the back side. They didn't run anything in the running game that should have surprised anyone, but they executed successfully.
It's easy to be critical of Logan Thomas. His throw right into Kevin Pierre-Louis' numbers for Boston College's game-changing touchdown defies any logical explanation, regardless of who busted assignments or what kind of defense the Eagles ran. His inaccuracy at inopportune moments (see repeated five yard out patterns to Charley Meyer down the stretch), his bouts with inexplicable inaccuracy, and some poor decision-making continue to rear their ugly heads.
One of the narratives stemming from the Duke game from media outlets and fans alike is criticism of Scot Loeffler. On Tuesday, Daily Press scribe David Teel tweeted that the Hokies were, "averaging an #ACC-worst 21.5 points per game. On pace for program's most anemic season since 1989's 18.5.". Others have commented on both on Twitter and within our community that the offense has regressed under Loeffler. I think both viewpoints lose track of the bigger picture.
It's Sunday morning here in Abingdon, and after a night of grinding teeth and muttering curse words in my sleep, I awoke to find the film of the Duke game sitting in my inbox. The loss was not just critical in the current chase for the Coastal Division title, but is perhaps even more damaging to program perception. Even though Duke is a vastly improved football team, nationally they are regarded as a traditionally weak program. The Hokies giftwrapped the game on a silver platter even though Duke gave them every opportunity to, not only win the football game, but win in a comfortable, albeit not pretty fashion, similar to wins over Georgia Tech, Pitt, and UNC. It was a perfect cauldron of injuries, bye week rust, distractions, suspensions, bad decisions, bounces, fundamental breakdowns, and an opponent that fought like hell.
Watching the film, I was overwhelmed by numerous breakdowns by players who have produced critical plays all season, and at the same time I was left scratching my head at some of the game planning and decisions. Throughout the bye week, we heard that the running game would be cleaned up, and that players on both sides of the ball had an opportunity to heal for the stretch run. Instead, the offensive playcalling often seemed to play right into the strength of the Duke defense, and some defense senior leaders delivered quiet performances. Even when the Hokies dialed up the perfect call, things seemed to go Duke's way. Accordingly, this week's film review will require two parts. The next installment will feature the offensive game plan and coaching, and I want the extra time to really take a good look at the read option game and understand the diminishing returns. As for today, I want to focus on the breakdowns by some of those experienced players. I pride myself on trying not being overly critical of players, and instead trying to focus on technique and the application to the success and failure of the plays. I want every player in the Virginia Tech uniform to succeed, and nobody is happier than me when one of the players who I have been critical of comes back to make a huge play. I will gladly eat that humble pie.
Last week, Shane Beamer mentioned that the coaching staff would spend the bye week "self-scouting". The staff likely evaluated individual performances by personnel and used statistical analysis to identify play calling trends. Statistical analysis can help provide insight into what plays were effectively executed, which ones may be chafe, and what pages of the playbook are best to turn to in critical situations during the meat of the ACC schedule.
Aside from the kick and punt return teams, the running game has been the biggest concern of the Virginia Tech fan base. I used the downtime to do my own deep dive on the Virginia Tech running game, focused on Alabama, Georgia Tech, UNC, and Pitt to try to unravel anything that can be done from a personnel/playcalling/scheme perspective to make the running game more effective. Most of my observations aligned closely with Mason's breakdown of the Pitt film last week. Yards are being left on the field as result of the occasional offensive line, tight end, or wide receiver missed assignments, poor reads on option, or being outnumbered at the point of attack. In addition to those observations, a couple of other critical realities emerged, and the staff will need to adjust accordingly to defeat the remaining teams on the ACC schedule.
Since I began the French on the Bench series, I have discussed certain concepts and rules that Bud Foster follows regardless of the opponent.
- The corners flip-flop. The boundary corner goes to the short side of the field, and the field corner goes to the wide side of the field. If there is not a wide receiver to the boundary, the boundary corner aligns on the outside shoulder of the tackle or closest eligible receiver.
- In a 4-4 look, the rover aligns to the passing strength of the formation and the free safety away from the passing strength.
- In the 46 look, the backer goes to the passing strength and lines up on the line of scrimmage. The rover replaces the backer as a strong side inside linebacker. The whip stays aligned away from the passing strength.
- In the 4-2-5 with the whip in, the whip plays to the field side and the rover plays to the boundary.
- In nickel, the nickel covers the slot receiver to the wide side of the field. The rover covers the slot to the boundary side.
I'll start this week's film review with an admission. I did not watch the Hokies beat the Tar Heels live. I listened to the game on AM radio as I took my family to the Outer Banks for a week of fishing and boiled shrimp. As I listened to Bill Roth's and Mike Burnop's call, I felt many of the same emotions that HokieNation was feeling on Saturday: elation as the offense clicked on all cylinders early; hint of worry as the defense didn't seem quite as dominant as expected against a quarterback making his first start; frustration with the Hokies inability to ice the football game in the 3rd quarter as well as the lack of rushing yards. I went to the film to look for answers, at the same time, when I reviewed my Twitter timeline after enjoying a good dinner in Kitty Hawk, I was surprised at how dissatisfied many seemed to be with the win. UNC beat the stuffing out of the Hokies last season, and to turn around and get a convincing win after the physical pounding of the Georgia Tech game makes this a huge victory. Yes, there is room for improvement, but the film clearly indicates that Virginia Tech dominated this football game and the coaching staff and the fan base should be thrilled with how the team continues to improve.
Blocking and the Running Game: Stats Do Lie
A quick look at the stat sheet, the Hokies only netted 48 yards on 34 carries for a putrid 1.4 yards per carry. As a result, the natives got restless, and I read numerous complaints about the offensive line. I expected the film to reflect a major regression by the offensive line, but instead I quickly saw that the Virginia Tech offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. Based on my rewatch, there were only three complete busts from the offensive line through the entire game (one on pass protection) and when keyed in on individual matchups, every Hokie offensive lineman was physically dominant.