Well, that was cathartic. After back-to-back seasons of frustrating losses to East Carolina, the Hokies served up a dominant 54-17 victory against the Pirates. Virginia Tech scored in all three phases of the game, and the enthusiasm (and relief from the Hokies' veteran players) was palatable.
Jerod Evans seemed more comfortable in the passing game. He threw a half-dozen beautiful deep balls that led his stable of receivers perfectly. Cam Phillips' blocking was significantly better, and he was rewarded with a 55-yard touchdown catch. The defensive line, including second stringers Trevon Hill, Ricky Walker, and Tim Settle continued to dominate up front. The linebacker play, especially that of Andrew Motuapuaka, continues to improve. Special teams coverage and kicking units won the field position battle and generated points. Hokies in attendance witnessed great memories.
Tech's performance also wasn't quite as sharp as it was against Boston College. East Carolina's stunting defensive scheme freed up free hitters to disrupt the Hokies' running game. There were a handful of breakdowns in coverage principles that produced two long touchdowns. There were tackling deficiencies in the second half. There is room for improvement, which could be a scary proposition for ACC Coastal opponents.
Zone Coverage and the Bandit
After spending the last several seasons playing man and man free against the East Carolina Air Raid passing attack, Bud Foster utilized a significant amount of zone coverage on Saturday.
More eyes on the football allowed the defense to converge on quarterback Philip Nelson when he was able to break contain. This prevented some of the long backbreaking runs on third down Hokie fans have become accustomed to since 2012.
In third-and-long situations, Foster often utilized a dime look. Anthony Shegog came in for a defensive tackle to play "the bandit" linebacker. His alignment varies based on the defensive call.
On this play, the Hokies are running a cover 3 zone deep with five defenders underneath. Shegog aligns to the boundary in a press posture. He will bump the wide receiver and then defend the short flat.
ECU runs a variety of out routes to the trips side right at the first down marker. The Hokies have a perfect bracketed zone across the first down marker, and Nelson has nowhere to go. Vinny Mihota and Ken Ekanem both get edge pressure, and Nelson is forced to leave the pocket before he can scan back to the boundary side.
Nelson pulls the ball down to run, note the positioning of Shegog, Motuapuaka, and Tremaine Edmunds. Last season, they would either be in man coverage and running with their receivers or they would be blitzing. Now, they have their heels on the first down marker and eyes in the backfield. Edmunds and Shegog make the tackle. Motuapuaka is there with outside leverage in case Nelson can somehow bounce off the tackle to his left. And Nigel Williams is hustling back into the play where he could have possibly factored into the tackle. The end result is a marginal gain for the Pirates, a punt, and Tech's defense getting off the field on third-and-long. Third-and-long stops happened far too rarely for the Hokies last season.
This next play offers an even better look at the coverage element to the zone. The Hokies have dime personnel in the game with Shegog on the boundary and a double eagle front to defend a critical Pirates' third-and-goal. East Carolina runs a crossing route with boundary receiver Zay Jones (No. 7) and inside slot receiver to the field Quay Johnson (No. 23) in an effort to cross up Tech's linebackers. In previous seasons against the Pirates, Tech struggled against rub and crossing routes.
Both Shegog and Motuapuaka do a beautiful job of staying in their zones to pick up the crossing routes. Nelson has nowhere to go and has to pull the ball down, soon after he is sacked by Ekanem and Shegog. Tim Settle swatted the following field goal attempt and the route was on.
Defending the Run with the Dime
East Carolina head coach Scottie Montgomery was the offensive coordinator at Duke last season. On his watch, Duke killed Virginia Tech by spreading the Hokies out to outnumber them in the box, and then running the football. One adjustment this season is Tech's bandit linebacker isn't always out in coverage. This gives the Hokies six defenders in the box instead of five to defend the run.
I don't recall seeing this defensive alignment last season. Motuapuaka is aligned on the edge to the field. Mihota is in a four-technique on the inside eye of the right offensive tackle. Woody Baron is on the nose. Ekanem is the three-technique DT on the outside eye of the left guard. Tremaine Edmunds is aligned as the edge player to the boundary. Shegog is the mike linebacker. The Hokies are almost playing a bear front with dime personnel.
The Pirates run an outside zone to their right. Motuapuaka and Mihota both slant to their left in order to contain and force the ball back to the inside. Baron fits in the gap to his left. Shegog does a masterful job of identifying a bubble in between Ekanem and Baron and meets the running back right in the cutback lane. Ekanem is fitting the next gap, and Edmunds has back-side contain. Everyone executes their assignment beautifully and Mihota goes beyond just fitting properly and sheds his block to support the tackle.
Return of Summers
In last season's rainy affair in Greenville, James Summers plodded for 169 yards against the Hokies. Most of those yards came on designed QB runs and power blocked plays.
With Nelson mostly ineffective, the Pirates utilized Summers as both a quarterback and a tailback to try to get their offense going. Not surprisingly, Montgomery utilized the same quarterback power that was effective the previous year.
The Pirates block down on the right side. The left guard pulls to kick out Mihota. Summers shows pass and then follows his blockers into the hole.
Foster responds with an alignment adjustment that he also used against Tennessee. The Hokies slide to an odd front. Unlike the dime 30 front, the Hokies still have both defensive tackles in the game. Unlike the bear front, the boundary defensive tackle (Nigel Williams) is playing a four-technique on the inside shoulder of the right tackle instead of a three-technique on the outside shoulder of the right guard. There isn't an edge player to the field. Ken Ekanem is aligned with his hand down on the outside shoulder of the tackle. This front essentially overloads the Hokies defensive line away from the strength of the formation in anticipation that the quarterback power will come that way.
At the snap, all the basic tenets of Foster's defensive scheme still apply. Mihota storms up field to force the play inside. By taking on the guard's trap block early, he shrinks the space that forms between him and the inside gap fits. Williams still follows his keys and slants inside. By being lined up on the tackle instead of the guard, he minimizes the size of the bubble between him and Mihota. He also takes away the angle for the tackle to slide off his down block to the back-side linebacker.
Tremaine Edmunds fills the bubble. He is aggressive and sticks the blocking back in the hole. Although, I am not entirely convinced he is attacking with the correct shoulder. His support is coming from Motuapuaka on the inside. Edmunds attacks with inside shoulder and spills the back outside, This leaves more distance for Motuapuaka to cover in order to get into tackling position. If it's a mistake, it was made aggressively. Still, unless Motuapuaka was out of position, Edmunds may not get a positive evaluation on the play.
Back on the inside, Woody Baron beats the down block cleanly and tracks the guard to Summers. Motuapuaka is in position to make the tackle for minimal gain. Terrell Edmunds beats his block to support. Baron's disruption is terrific, and Mihota and Williams exhibit sound technique. Motuapuaka is in perfect position. Edmunds possibly makes a minor technique error and still jams up the hole with an aggressive physical challenge to the blocker. This is good football.
Hokies Offense: From Slants to Sluggos
The Hokies continue to expand its offensive playbook. Thus far this season, Justin Fuente, Brad Cornelsen, and Jerod Evans have established the quick slant as their most reliable route. Against ECU they added a twist, Cornelsen sent the running back into the flat to pull the linebacker out of Evans' throwing lane.
Isaiah Ford aligns to the boundary by himself. Evans has Travon McMillian offset to his left. At the snap, McMillian heads to the boundary flat. The East Carolina linebacker comes forward to account for McMillian.
McMillian's route vacates space for Ford to run the slant against man coverage. Ford plants his outside foot and cuts to the inside. With the linebacker chasing McMillian, Evans has a nice clear throwing lane to drive the ball into Ford, who makes a nice catch.
With the slant established, Cornelsen decided to take a shot down the field. The Hokies face a third-and-three, a down and distance where the slant and speed option have been reliable play calls. Cornelsen instead calls a slant and go route, also known as a "Sluggo".
On this play, McMillian remains in to max protect. Cornelsen's design can afford to omit McMillian from the pattern because Ford isn't going to run the slant into the linebacker. Ford comes off the ball and takes two strides, then opens his inside/right shoulder like he is going to cut to the inside for a slant right at the first down marker. Instead, Ford pushes off his right foot and turns outside and up the field. Evans leads Ford beautifully. This allows Ford to catch the ball in stride before the safety can get over. Ford's body control and ability to sell a route fake really makes him a unique weapon.
Tech's Speed Option Variations
During the post-game interviews, Fuente expressed some frustration with the inability to convert some third-and-short situations. As I noted after Tech beat Boston College, the speed option has been a critically important tool in short yardage throughout the season.
East Carolina came in prepared to slow play the speed option and take away the pitch man. This messed up the timing of the play and forced Evans to keep the football. The stunting and slanting Pirates defense also messed up the blocking schemes up front.
On this play, Cornelsen attempted not to show speed option through formation. Instead of using the trips formation or motioning the H-Back across to trips, he leaves the H-Back on the back-side and motions Marshawn Williams from the left to the right. It doesn't fool ECU.
The Pirates slow play the option. The slot nickel stays wide, and takes the pitch until Evans commits to keeping the ball.
Things are not helped by what seems to be a blocking mix up on the line of scrimmage. Jonathan McLaughlin immediately heads off to the second level. It seems like Augie Conte is supposed to zone and seal the defensive end. After a big initial wide step, Conte tucks his right shoulder and turns up field, this leaves defensive end Demage Bailey (No. 97) unblocked. Outside, Cam Phillips lets the nickel go to be optioned and delivers a really nice crack back on the scraping strong safety. Options usually leave one unblocked defender. Either McLaughlin was supposed to chip the defensive end, Conte blew the reach block, or Phillips was supposed to option stalk the nickel. Without the benefit of being in the film room, it is hard to tell who busts.
When the Hokies got the seal block on the edge, the Pirates slow play to pitch was rendered ineffective. On this play, H-Back Steven Peoples motions to the play-side, and OLB Dayon Pratt (No. 1) widens out along with him.
Yosuah Nijman and Wyatt Teller zone to seal the edge of the Pirates' defensive line inside. When Evans sees the Pratt move wide, he tucks the ball and turns up field for a nice first down.
Opposing defenses will continue to focus on the speed option as a bread and butter short yardage play. Last week, the offensive staff changed things up with the sprint out pass to the flat off run action. This week, Cornelsen showed two new plays to account for off speed option action, a throwback screen to the tight end and a reverse pass.
The throwback screen was beautifully designed. The Hokies have Cunningham aligned as a tight end to the right side, so Tech has three receivers/trips to the field. Phillips angles inside just like he would on a crack back block. Cunningham steps inside, and then slips back to the left. Evans and Sam Rogers both take a hard lateral step to the right just like a speed option, and then Rogers blocks the edge defender.
THREE East Carolina defenders charge up on the option fake, while the back-side linebacker blitzes on the back-side. Cunningham is all alone, and Evans leads him nicely. This is beautiful design, and because this throwback is on film, defensive coordinators will reinforce that their back-side linebacker has to stay stationary to account for screens, throwbacks and reverses. That takes one additional player out of pursuit to the trips side.
Speaking of reverses, there were gasps when Ford missed Cunningham on a sure touchdown off of a reverse. Did you notice that the play came off of speed option action as well?
This time around, Cunningham is aligned as a tight end to the left. Sam Rogers motions to the right to give Tech three receivers to the field. The offensive line, Evans, and Williams all sprint hard to the right side to sell the speed option fake. Ford takes an inside step like he is cracking back to the inside, and then runs the reverse. Cunningham releases his block and heads down field. Corner Corey Seargent (No. 5) is completely fixated on Ford. Cunningham is wide open for an easy touchdown and Ford overthrows him.
Fortunately, Ford made a beautiful catch on the very next play. The reverse also puts a new nuance on film that ensures that defenses can't sell out against the speed option. That makes the option more effective, and if defenses still decide to sell out, they will be burned badly by Cornelsen and Fuente's wrinkles.