One the eve of Virginia Tech's matchup with the Miami Hurricanes, two major storylines emerged. First, there were concerns regarding the depth of the Hokies defense after a subpar performance against Syracuse coupled with reports that All-ACC defensive end Ken Ekanem and defensive tackle Nigel Williams might miss the game. Second, Tech's running game struggled in two straight performances. The ineffective ground attack put the Hokies in less favorable down and distance situations. As result, quarterback Jerod Evans was less efficient on more frequent third-and-long situations.
The Hokies responded with a resounding 37-16 win against the talented Hurricanes. The offense broke out of their funk by using misdirection effectively to confuse Miami's freshmen linebackers. The defense saw breakout performances from young d-linemen Travon Hill and Ricky Walker as well as stout play from Tremaine Edmunds and Woody Baron. Much of the defense's success came via a more aggressive blitzing game plan with lots of stunting up front.
Virginia Tech's Eye Candy Fools the Hurricanes Defense
Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen had an ideal matchup Thursday night — their misdirection oriented offense against a group of three freshmen linebackers who had a tendency to over pursue. It was likely that if Tech's offensive line could neutralize the Hurricanes' active defensive front, the Hokies would be able to fool the Miami linebackers.
All season, I've waited for the Hokies to run a counter-trey off their speed option action like Memphis utilized with great success against Ole Miss. For a frame of reference, here is a variation of the counter-trey by Memphis:
Note how Memphis' tailback opens up with a counter step to sell the speed option to the field side. Here is the Hokies' version.
The Hokies' offensive line zone blocks to the left and Miami's defensive line slants the same direction. Sam LB Zach McCloud (No. 53) has inside leverage responsibility on a possible inside breaking route by Cam Phillips, so he opens up in a coverage posture. The hard defensive line slant allows Miami to widen out on speed option with McCloud still in position to cover. Will LB Michael Pinckney (No. 56) blitzes to contain on the back-side. It's immediately evident that if Pinckney doesn't contain, the Hurricanes are out of position against the counter.
The success of this play begins with the fundamentals of Chris Cunningham. Cunningham is aligned as a tight end to the boundary side. Normally on an inside zone or speed option ran to the field from this alignment, Cunningham would step with his left foot and place his head and right shoulder inside of the defensive end for his scoop block. On the counter, he takes the same left step to cause defensive end Trent Harris (No. 33) to crash inside, but then he seals Harris by leading with his right shoulder. Unless Harris penetrates deep into the backfield, he is completely out of the play because of Cunningham's positioning.
Wyatt Teller and Sam Rogers pull back to the right side where the Hurricanes are now outnumbered at the point of attack. Teller pancakes Pinckney, Rogers turns up inside on the safety and Travon McMillian has a nice hole to run into.
McMillian executed good and bad on this play. His counter step doesn't sell the speed option well and he looks awkward reversing back to Evans to create a mesh point. Miami safety Jamal Carter (No. 6) doesn't bite on the speed option fake and beats Rogers' block in the hole. Carter would likely be two steps later on a good fake.
At the same time, McMillian gets downhill with speed and finishes the run with an attitude — something missing until the Hokies' final touchdown drive against Syracuse. McMillian started hitting holes aggressively and finishing his runs with power. McMillian's effort turns a five-yard run into an eight-yard run and sets up a much more manageable second-and-two (which ultimately was converted on en route to six). Hopefully McMillian is getting healthy and becoming more comfortable with the scheme. He is Tech's one clear game-breaker in the backfield.
Virginia Tech's offensive design created confusion, and Miami's defense was clearly fooled on the Hokies' final touchdown. Before the TD, here is a benign inside zone read from the second quarter.
The play is basic. The offensive line zone blocks to the right side. Sam Rogers aligns as an H-Back to the right and pulls across the formation to kick out or "wham" d-end Joe Jackson (No. 99). Pinckney fills the hole from his LB spot and McMillian gets a minimal gain.
Now fast forward to the fourth quarter. On Evans' nail-in-the-coffin touchdown run, the Hokies show the exact same blocking scheme. Defensive end Pat Bethel (No. 93) aggressively attacks Rogers to squeeze his trap block. Rogers dodges him and Bethel crashes inside to chase tailback Marshawn Williams. This effectively removes him from pursuit of the real ball carrier, Jerod Evans.
On the edge, Cunningham successfully seals Pinckney (No. 56). Safety Jamal Carter (No. 6) pursues Juice to the field. This leaves Rogers as a blocker and Evans as a runner alone against one Miami defender, cornerback Malek Young (No. 12). Young, a freshman, over pursues to keep outside leverage on Rogers. With all the other defenders running to Williams, Evans cuts inside for an easy jaunt to the end zone.
Virginia Tech's Youthful Aggression on Defense
The defensive film review was the most challenging thing I wrote all year, primarily because any concise review will not do all the possible things to comment on justice. Woody Baron played an exceptional football game and completely outclassed the interior of the Miami offensive line. Vinny Mihota delivered a gutsy effort after his shoulder popped out. Tremaine Edmunds best demonstrated the basic fundamentals of the backer position that I can recall since I started authoring these reviews. Andrew Motuapuaka was fantastic in coverage after being picked on against Syracuse. Mook Reynolds was also targeted frequently and struggled in coverage several times for the second straight week. Safety tackling was excellent some of the time, but there were some big Miami runs that were the byproduct of shoddy tackling.
I chose to focus on the more aggressive defensive scheme that Bud Foster utilized and coupled it with the performance of two young players who I believe will be household names when they leave Blacksburg: Ricky Walker and Trevon Hill.
Walker is a big defensive tackle (6-2, 282) that has a unique athleticism (so much so that in a matchup against Marshawn Williams in high school, Walker was moved to middle linebacker to ghost against Juice). He can win physical battles at the point of attack, and when needed he can "get skinny" to avoid blocks and get penetration.
On this play, Miami runs an inside zone read to the right packaged with a wide receiver screen to the wide-side of the field. The Hokies defensive line slants hard to the boundary, with Motuapuaka aggressively filling the bubble between Walker and Baron to force halfback Joe Yearby (No. 2) to cut back.
As Walker (the three-technique defensive tackle to the bottom of the screen) makes contact with Miami LT Trevor Darling (No. 73), he dips his right shoulder. That narrows the blocking surface available to Darling. Walker then has the balance and quickness to get through the hole and change direction to his right when Yearby cuts back. Outside, Hill is slow-playing the potential quarterback keeper. Kaaya's lack of running ability coupled with Hill's speed allows Hill to stay close to the running back's cutback lane. Once Hill confirms that Kaaya doesn't have the football, he squeezes the hole to support Walker. Between Walker, Hill, and Motuapuaka, this is textbook execution of Bud Foster's base defensive scheme against a running play.
Walker showed off that ability to get skinny when Foster debuted an "amoeba" defensive look for Kaaya. An amoeba front describes an alignment where the box defenders all stand up and align across the line of scrimmage. This confuses the offense's blocking scheme because it's more difficult to set protections and identify blitzes. On this particular play, the Hokies use Motuapuaka as a spy on Kaaya while Tremaine Edmunds blitzes behind a Woody Baron pick. Edmunds gets to the quarterback unscathed and Kaaya climbs the pocket to avoid his rush.
Unfortunately for Kaaya, Walker splits a double team with a swim move and plants him to the ground. In the secondary, the Hokies are again in man-free (straight man coverage with Terrell Edmunds aligned as a deep centerfield safety). This is a much more aggressive posture than Foster used against Syracuse on passing downs.
Tech's scheme laid the blueprint for the eight sacks delivered by the defense. However, Foster has talented players who also executed and won one-on-one matchups. I stated multiple times during their recruitment that a healthy Travon Hill would be a better player than Josh Sweat in college based on their high school films. While Sweat has been excellent early in his career at Florida State, as Hill gains confidence coming back from a knee injury, I see Dadi Nicolas like explosion coupled with more size and a heavier shoulder at the point of attack. On the final meaningful Miami offensive play of the night, Hill ended any hopes of a comeback with spectacular technique and bend.
Hill gets an excellent jump off the football. He uses his left arm to swat left tackle Trevor Darling's hands down, and then punches his hands down with his right arm. As Hill bends into the pocket, he rips up and under with his left hands and slips by Darling. He finishes by ripping Kaaya to the ground.