Virginia Tech football took an ugly turn in 2012. The offense struggled to run the football. The defense struggled to stop the run. Miami, Pitt, Duke, and Boston College all posted physically dominant wins over the Hokies.
On Saturday, Virginia Tech delivered a throwback performance to a time when the Hokies were the bullies of the ACC. The defense executed their assignments and then physically whipped Boston College at the point of attack. Eagles quarterback Patrick Towles couldn't find any open receivers down the field, and couldn't scramble into space like C.J. Brown and Chad Voytik. Tech's defensive performance was coupled with a textbook dissection of a good Boston College defense. The Hokies ran with power. The Hokies attacked the edge with speed and used misdirection to tire and confuse linebackers Connor Strachan and Matt Milano. The Hokies stretched the field with Isaiah Ford while Jerod Evans worked run-pass options to Bucky Hodges and C.J. Carroll underneath. The Hokies made the Eagles look like an FCS school. It was the best all-around performance from the Hokies since the 38-0 triumph to seal a Coastal Division title against UVA in 2011.
Speed Option and Play-Action Pass Productive for the Hokies in Short Yardage
It is quickly becoming apparent how well a Justin Fuente designed running game can confound an opponent when properly executed. Fuente worked inverted veer and bootleg away from jet sweep motion early to produce the game opening Travon McMillian touchdown catch. A couple of screens finally popped open. Jerod Evans' running game mechanics befuddled BC linebackers. The vertical passing game off play-action produced some results.
A tendency is beginning to emerge though. When the chips are down and the Hokies need a critical chunk play on the ground, the most successful consistent choice has been the speed option. Fuente loves to run the speed option into trips (two wide receivers and a tight end).
The speed option was the Hokies' best play after the first quarter against Tennessee, and Boston College was determined to stop it. Early, the Eagles slow played the option to take away the option pitch.
On this play, the Hokies are aligned with Chris Cunningham on the line of scrimmage, C.J. Carroll in the slot, and Bucky Hodges out wide. On the line of scrimmage, the Hokies are going to zone block hard to the left. Cunningham is tasked with sealing the field-side inside linebacker and Yosh Nijman is assigned with reach blocking the defensive end to seal him inside.
On the outside, the blocking is mixed up to cross up the defense. Hodges runs a go route, while Carroll runs to the sideline to widen out the nickel corner. This creates space for Evans and McMillian to turn up field quickly and keep pitch relationship.
However, Boston College has the right defense called. The defensive end widens on his first step to make it impossible for Nijman to reach him. Cunningham, who was called for a bogus personal foul on the same kind of play for blocking a linebacker in the thigh against Tennessee, blocks high and can't maintain his block.
Although, instead of optioning unblocked OLB Matt Milano (No. 28), Evans remains patient and notes that Nijman is still engaged with d-end Wyatt Ray (No. 11), even if Nijman doesn't have proper position. Note how Ray and field-side LB Connor Strachan (No. 13) have widened out midway through the play. A small bubble forms inside Nijman and Evans sees it. He cuts inside and finishes the run with power. Instead of a loss, Evans picked up a first down when the Boston College defensive call could have forced a negative play. Those types of ugly wins keep drives alive. This is a terrific play by Evans.
Once Evans established he was a threat to keep (two keepers produced two first downs on the speed option), the pitch suddenly became much more open.
Fuente will run the entire playbook with every running back, and as result Marshawn Williams got his chance to be the pitch man. This is the same play structure. Cunningham veer releases to the linebacker. The offensive line zones hard to the right. The slot receiver releases to the flat and then turns vertical. The split end runs the corner off.
This time the Eagles are in a 30 front. The defensive end (No. 97) is flexed inside of right tackle Jonathan McLaughlin. McLaughlin does a tremendous job of widening out and then getting up field to cut off the inside linebacker scraping across to support the play. Augie Conte scoops the defensive end so well that he almost overruns the end to the outside.
Observe the impact last week's penalties had on the scheme. In Bristol, Cunningham was called for a block below the waist on a speed option. His technique was picture perfect on that play. He released wide and put his inside shoulder on the outside thigh pad of the Tennessee linebacker and got flagged.
With that penalty in mind, Cunningham goes chest-to-chest with the linebacker on both of these options. On both, the linebacker is able to shake his block after initial contact to prevent a big play. I thought Cunningham's Tennessee block was beautiful; but if the officials will call a thigh-level block illegal, Cunningham needs to keep his head outside of the linebacker's outside arm in order to finish the seal. With all that said, his blocking has improved every game.
Virginia Tech's Offensive Synergy
With the speed option established as a solid short yardage call, Fuente opened up another piece of his Memphis playbook: the speed option run-action disguising a sprint out pass. The Eagles were so fixated on the option that the similar run-action opened up two easy touchdowns.
On this touchdown, Cunningham aligns to the boundary, then motions across the formation. Watch LB Ty Schwab (No. 10) yell at his counterpart Strachan. At the snap, Strachan charges forward to take the option.
This time, Cunningham releases to the flat. Strachan is in the backfield. The trailing inside linebacker (Schwab) has absolutely no chance to catch Cunningham. Hodges and Phillips both initially turn inside to show a crack block, and then Phillips breaks to the back corner as either a secondary option for Evans or a blocker. Evans sells the option and flicks the ball to Cunningham for his first touchdown as a Hokie.
On the next series when the Hokies faced with a second-and-goal, Fuente went back to the fake speed option.
This time around, Rogers is the motion man. Divine Deablo and Isaiah Ford both run quick turn-ins to set a pick on the play. Deablo makes a heady play. He sells the quick in route hard, and then makes sure he turns back to the end zone to avoid contact and a penalty for a pick. That is the kind of attention to detail that I have not seen enough of the last four seasons. It may seem inconsequential, yet that kind of play pops out to coaches on film. It also means that opponents have to be aware of Deablo working open in the back of the end zone on the fake option.
Ultimately, this play design shows the stark contrast between Fuente and Brad Cornelsen's scheme versus what Scot Loeffler brought to the table. Loeffler's passing game design was top notch and often produced results with minimal talent. At the same time, Loeffler never seemed to stick with what was working and build off of it to get other things open. Fuente's plays build on each other. The inside zone gets the speed option going. The speed option opens up the quarterback sprint out and the counter. Hokie Nation is just starting to get a taste of what's to come.
The strength of the Hokies passing game is the run-pass option. Here is an example of why it works.
Up front, the Hokies run what looks like an isolation. Nijman turns the defensive end to the outside. Teller and Gallo double team the defensive tackle. Steven Peoples folds behind Nijman to isolate on the linebacker, and Rogers follows him into the hole.
The offensive line blocks this just like a running play. Evans has to make a quick sight read to determine if he will give the ball to Rogers or throw the quick post to C.J. Carroll.
Evans has two keys: 1) the play-side linebacker (Connor Strachan, No. 13), and 2) the outside linebacker (Matt Milano, No. 28) who is closest to Carroll. At the snap, Strachan sucks in on the isolation and Peoples wipes him out. Evans pulls the ball, and now Milano has no inside help. Carroll bends to the post, and Evans hits him in stride with a perfect throw.
With all this in place, the simple inside zone with the H-Back isolating on the linebacker opens right up for the aforementioned second TD.
Peoples motions over to create trips to the boundary. The slot defender widens out, either to sit on a quick pass or help with the speed option and the sprint out pass. Nijman turns the defensive end out. Teller whips the defensive tackle. Peoples folds behind Nijman to seal the inside linebacker. The end result is a huge hole for McMillian to waltz into the end zone.
The deep to intermediate drop-back passing game is the weakest element of Tech's offense. As I noted all summer, Fuente's passing game is built around one quarterback read. If it isn't open, the quarterback goes into a scramble drill. So far, Evans has hesitated to pull the trigger in these passing situations (usually third-and-long).
The Hokies have trips to the field. Cunningham and Carroll are off the line of scrimmage and both run vertical routes to run off the safeties. Bucky Hodges is split wide to the top and runs a 10 yard in route. In man coverage, Hodges should be open, especially against outside leverage.
The timing just doesn't look right here. Hodges is slow off the line of scrimmage, and doesn't break very sharply to the inside. Evans plants his back foot before Hodges breaks inside. Evans also seems to be looking into the middle of the field, even though it looks like the entire design is to get Hodges open and Ford is double teamed on the boundary.
At some point, Evans and the offense need to connect on third-and-long completions. Penalties and execution errors can creep up in big spots to put the offense behind the sticks. Eventually, quarterback draws will become less and less effective as defenses realize that Evans won't test them on intermediate throws. This area needs to improve.
Virginia Tech's Defense: Gap Fit and Win
Virginia Tech's defense orchestrated a masterpiece against the Eagles. Boston College couldn't get anything open down the field. The defensive line fitted their gaps and then beat blocks to make plays. Both Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka were in the right place at the right time on most snaps, and put the Eagles ball carriers on the ground.
Perhaps most exciting is the Hokies were dominant with their basic defensive scheme and philosophy. Yes, they mixed and matched assignments. However, every single defensive run call saw the defensive line fitting their gap and an edge defender either forcing or spilling the play to an unblocked free hitter. The difference between Saturday and 2015 is that on Saturday the Hokies physically dominated one-on-one battles while correctly executing the scheme.
The vast majority of the defensive snaps produced a result to be thrilled over. Here are a few looks at how the defensive front is winning battles after fitting.
On this play, the Eagles overloaded the boundary for a pin and pull outside zone.
Vinny Mihota gets penetration at the snap. Instead of caving inside against the tight end's down block, Mihota puts his left arm into the tight end's chest and pushes him outside. This spills the play and causes the back to lose some momentum. Terrell Edmunds comes up off the edge and neutralizes the down block of the wing back.
Everything in this scheme is designed for Tremaine Edmunds to be the free hitter from his backer spot. Edmunds was tentative against Tennessee. Here (and most of the game) he flows smoothly to the alley and avoids blocks. When the gap opens, he shoots into it and finds the running back waiting. This is textbook for what is expected from the backer position when the rover spills on the boundary side.
Nigel Williams has had an All-ACC caliber start to his senior campaign. Re-watch and focus on the chaos he causes inside. Williams stones the reach block of the guard and then tracks the pulling tackle to the football to support Edmunds. Last season, the defensive line fit and then often watched the play if it went away from them. This season, all the defensive linemen are getting off blocks and pursuing hard to the football. It is beautiful to watch.
In this last clip, Boston College tries to jumpstart their trademark smash-mouth style of play.
The Eagles' o-line zone blocks to the right. The H-Back on the back-side releases to the flat to widen out Mook Reynolds. The fullback bends back to wham on the defender responsible for the cutback.
Trevon Hill, Ricky Walker, and Tim Settle have none of it. Hill fits behind the play and then gets to the contain edge space that Reynolds has vacated. Hill is physical and has the offensive tackle on his heels from the snap. Walker and Settle both slant to their left and then penetrate one yard into the backfield.
It is key to watch Walker and Settle closely. They aren't twitching and shooting into the backfield like we saw last year. Both guys step with their left foot, post the blocker, and minimize the amount of space that forms between them. The BC blockers can't drive them out of the hole to create a bubble play-side.
On an inside zone, if a bubble doesn't form play-side then it will usually pop up as a cutback lane. That is exactly what Bud Foster wants. A bubble forms between Walker and Hill. Motuapuaka reads the play properly and attacks downhill. Sure enough, he finds the running back trying to cut back because Walker and Settle have cut him off. This seems like an easy play. Yet, last year Motuapuaka often would sit back and wait for the back to work to him, or he would scrape to his left and leave the cutback lane uncovered. This is solid mike linebacker play and Motuapuaka delivered it with regularity against BC.
Motuapuaka looked much more comfortable filling in between the defensive line fits this week, and the second team defensive line was just as disruptive as the first group.
Beware the Pirates' Booby Trap
Former Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery leads the dreaded East Carolina Pirates into Blacksburg. The Pirates own a two-game winning streak against the Hokies and have shown no fear of playing in Lane Stadium.
Montgomery makes East Carolina even harder to defend. ECU's running game is more diverse and incorporates elements of Duke's QB running game which gave the Hokies fits last season. QB Philip Nelson led the Pirates to 445 yards of offense in a win against NC State. Nelson engineered 519 yards of total offense against South Carolina, but four turnovers scuttled a near upset bid.
Boston College tested Virginia Tech's strength and scheme. The Pirates will test the Hokies' ability to overcome negative plays on offense and the ability to cover and contain in defense.