Anxiety peaked moments before kickoff of the latest Hokies-Mountaineers battle for the Black Diamond Trophy. With Virginia Tech's loss of generational receivers and a record setting quarterback, even the most ardent Justin Fuente supporters and believers had to have plenty of reservations prior to the game. West Virginia's unfamiliar 3-3-5 defensive scheme was an additional challenge for first-time starting quarterback Josh Jackson and Tech's young skill position players to overcome.
The Hokies' offense got off to a clunky start, and I thought that was a result of offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen tasking Jackson to do a bit too much in the passing game. For example, the RPO on second-and-goal of the opening scoring drive did produce an open receiver in Cam Phillips. However, the mechanics — running right to sell the quarterback run and throwing back across his body to the inside — caused Jackson not set his feet. As result, he couldn't hit a wide open Phillips on the delayed slant.
Earlier on the same drive, Jackson was forced to run after his first read, Cam Phillips, was double teamed, and he was pressured as Kyle Chung was pressed backwards into the throwing lane. The easier read and matchup was seemingly C.J. Carroll on a stick route in the left flat, and he was wide open at the first down marker.
Cornelsen and Jackson found a rhythm as the game progressed, as throws off successful run action presented wide open targets and easy completions. As Jackson began to execute smoother, Cornelsen played a masterful chess game with WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. Time after time, Cornelsen had the patience to run plays that weren't designed for huge success in order to set up opportunities for big chunk yardage
Setting Up West Virginia's Defense for the Dagger
During the course of the game, the inverted veer-jet sweep series appeared to be the most reliable set of plays for the Hokies. Jackson looked his most explosive on two quarterback keepers where a huge hole opened up in the middle, and the jet sweep was a reliable yardage gainer.
When I went back and watched the video, I realized that on normal down and distances, West Virginia focused on defending the sweep, regardless of any nuanced blocking changes. Cornelsen used the jet sweep and some wrinkles in the blocking scheme to set up big running lanes for his quarterback.
On a typical Tech inverted veer last season, the H-Back veer released outside of the play-side defensive end. The quarterback usually optioned said defensive end (or an inside linebacker as an adjustment). Most of the time the quarterback reads the edge player aligned on the H-Back or tight end. If the edge defender crashes inside, the quarterback gives the ball to the jet sweep or running back. If the edge defender stays wide to defend the sweep, the quarterback keeps the ball. Most often, the back-side guard pulls around the center and leads up on the linebacker to add an extra lead blocker for the quarterback. As you can see on this touchdown versus Clemson, Sam Rogers releases outside of the Clemson defensive end. The end is unblocked and widens out on the sweep. Jerod Evans turns up inside.
On most of the jet sweep/inverted veer runs against the Mountaineers, Dalton Keene, Chris Cunningham, or a tailback were actively blocking the WVU edge defenders instead of leaving them unblocked for Jackson to option. When Jackson gave the ball to the jet back, the Hokies didn't pull the back-side guard. When Jackson kept the football, the back-side guard pulled around the center and turned up on the linebacker. These subtle differences suggest Tech ran predetermined jet sweeps and quarterback powers — along with actual inverted veer and its read — in a possible effort to ease Jackson's decision making. Of course, all the run action is very similar and without sitting in on Tech's Monday morning film room, it is impossible to know which are which.
Check out this jet sweep and note Teller does not pull as he would normally do on inverted veer.
On the play-side, West Virginia bandit safety Toyous Avery (No. 16) widens out to force the sweep inside. Rather than letting Avery go unblocked to be optioned, Dalton Keene widens out and drives him to the sideline. Will linebacker Dylan Tonkery (No. 10) fights across Chris Cunningham's attempt to seal him inside. Cunningham does just enough to keep Tonkery from filling the running lane. Mike linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton (No. 3) fits into the gap between Tonkery and Avery; Steven Peoples lays a strong isolation block on him. Note this block. As the season progresses, the tailback as a blocker, and how that impacts the tailback rotation, will be a repeated discussion. Sam linebacker Xavier Preston (No. 5) scrapes across, but can't keep up with Sean Savoy on the sweep.
Savoy ends up with a solid 5-yard gain to keep Virginia Tech "on schedule". Although, what matters more is how the play impacts blocking matchups. Note that all three linebackers are running to the top of the screen completely fixated on the jet sweep. The boundary corner and the deep safety both run to the jet sweep. That leaves three down linemen and spur safety Kyzir White (No. 8 on the back-side here) to account for Josh Jackson and five blockers.
Last season, if that kind of hole and opportunity inside presented itself, Cornelsen would have leveraged Jerod Evans numerous times on inverted veer or quarterback power carries. On Sunday, Cornelsen judiciously took advantage of West Virginia's weakness in covering the quarterback when the Hokies needed a big play. For most of the game, Jackson only kept the ball in short yardage situations, including his touchdown run and this fourth-and-one QB power. In short yardage, Gibson knew that Cornelsen loves to run the quarterback keeper off of the jet sweep motion. As a result, West Virginia defenders were much more aggressive defending the quarterback in those situations.
However, if West Virginia saw an inverted veer/jet sweep look on a normal down and distance, they continued to over-pursue on the jet sweep. Early in the fourth quarter, Cornelsen sensed an opportunity for a big play, but he tested the waters to see if the Mountaineers would still overreact to the sweep on a normal down and distance. He ran a jet sweep to the boundary with little chance of success.
As before, the second-level West Virginia defenders all over-pursue. Had he kept the ball, a huge hole awaited Jackson, with Wyatt Teller in perfect position to run Preston out of the center of the field. With Cornelsen now convinced that the keeper would pop, he finally sprung the trap as the Hokies desperately needed a score to break the tie.
To the defense this is an inverted veer, but I believe it's predetermined Jackson is keeping the ball before it is even snapped. He half-heartedly forms a mesh point, and Savoy doesn't run like he might get the ball. I really think the only reason Jackson's head is even slightly turned is, not to read the linebacker, rather to make sure he pulls the ball without fumbling. Although, backup mike LB Brendan Ferns (No. 7) is left unblocked to attack the sweep. He'd be the option man against this even front, and it's possible Jackson is doing just that. Again, it's impossible to know for sure.
McMillian and Keene both block the edge defenders, and Teller pulls. Gallo and Pfaff pin the interior line to the inside. Avery attacks the sweep and is abandons the quarterback running lane. Jackson pulls the ball out of Savoy's stomach and has nothing but green pasture in front of him.
The familiar inverted veer backfield action reinforced by previous jet sweep runs put WVU out of position and broke the 'Eees here. Perhaps the most satisfying part of the play is to watch the West Virginia free safety, Dravon Askew-Henry (No. 6). Askew-Henry chases Savoy all the way across the field. He is in perfect position to intercept Jackson after a modest gain. Yet, despite a weak fake by Jackson and a change in the blocking by the Virginia Tech o-line, Askew-Henry goes running right past the hole and removes himself from the play.
Cornelsen also used the jet sweep motion to open up the passing game. As I noted in my preview, the West Virginia high safeties reacted to run action and that Oklahoma used motion to take the safety out of position to pop some screens. Cornelsen designed a play-action pass to take advantage of the safeties aggressiveness.
From the same formation, Jackson fakes the jet sweep and steps backwards. Avery bites hard on the jet sweep, leaving corner Hakeem Bailey (No. 24) one-on-one with Cam Phillips and no safety help.
As I documented last season, Fuente and Cornelsen's play design isn't necessarily revolutionary. However, Cornelsen excels by establishing a specific threat via repetition, making the defense conscious to defend it, and then capitalizing by showing the same action, but with the ball actually going somewhere else for a big play. One play series, from one formation, repeatedly hurt the Mountaineers because Cornelsen knew how to set up the defense. The victory at FedExField was a master class in understanding the defense and how to manipulate it with this series approach.
Other series of plays also had an impact. Jackson's two completions on sprint out passes, the toss play, and the speed option set up the Deshawn McClease counter run for a touchdown. And, while I saw significantly fewer wide receiver screens than I expected, the tunnel screen series also set up a touchdown.
This variation of the tunnel screen involves the outside receiver cutting back to the inside behind the line of scrimmage towards the quarterback. The slot receiver runs outside and tries to pick off the outside corner. The offensive line releases their blocks and runs outside to pick off the secondary. The receiver then runs through the "tunnel" between the offensive line and the pass rushing defenders who are chasing the quarterback.
With a major third-and-nine pending, and only one (very ugly) wide receiver screen attempt by Tech thus far in the game, Cornelsen turned to Cam Phillips and the tunnel screen. Jackson motions McClease out of the backfield over to the boundary slot. At the snap, McClease runs out to the boundary flat and Phillips bends behind him back towards Jackson.
McClease shields corner Hakeem Bailey (No. 24) to the outside. Phillips slips to the inside to make the catch, and then slides behind Eric Gallo and Wyatt Teller. Teller and Gallo combine to pancake Tonkery. Kyle Chung can't get out to cut off Benton from his mike LB alignment. However, Phillips is able to slip through and make Benton miss to finish off an improbable conversion.
Bailey was slow to react and beat the block of McClease. Cornelsen anticipated that the corner would be more aggressive that cross block if he saw it again. Sure enough, the next time the Hokies showed a tunnel screen look on the outside, both defensive backs aggressively attacked. With excellent field position following James Clark's long kickoff return punctuated by a personal foul on a late hit, Cornelsen decided it was time to roll the dice. From the familiar two-back set that produced all those big plays from the jet sweep series, Jackson showed a tunnel screen to the twins side. Sean Savoy broke inside, with Phillips going out to "block" on the outside corner.
Phillips "misses his block" and slips behind CB Elijah Battle (No. 19). Free safety Dravon Askew-Henry (No. 6, aligned on Phillips in the slot) also jumps forward. Phillips is wide open for an easy catch and then outclassed the remaining Mountaineers for a huge momentum turning touchdown.
Two Tight End Sets and the Impact of Dalton Keene
Last season, the Hokies seemed to align the H-Back more on the wing. Against the Mountaineers, Dalton Keene was often aligned as a traditional fullback, more than what we saw from Sam Rogers last season. Keene was often on the field with Chris Cunningham in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, and two receivers).
Keene had some freshman moments, most notably when he whiffed on Kyzir White blitzing of the edge on an important third down conversion. He played tentatively and that isn't shocking for a freshman playing his first game against West Virginia's weird defense in that crazy environment.
Keene also showed why he is so valuable. As a lead blocker, Keene going half speed completely stopped the feet of many a West Virginia blitzing linebacker. With his ability to stop defenders, it allowed Cornelsen to run significantly more base running plays. Few quarterback options meant less burden on Josh Jackson.
Keene's presence was felt right away. On this play, the Hokies run an inside zone. The Mountaineers best defender, spur Kyzir White (No. 8), blitzes off the edge.
Keene has to cut White off. Keene's form isn't great. His feet stop and plant when he delivers his block, which for those of you have read my work for a long time understand that planting your feet is the kiss of death for maintaining a block. However, when Keene makes contact with White, White's feet stop dead and you can see his legs buckle. The right side of the offensive line gets a good push as they effectively lock up with the Mountaineers second level defenders. This allows Steven Peoples to get downhill and plug forward for a first down.
Effective H-Back play requires both thump and smarts. In order for the split zone read to be effective, Keene has to be physical enough that edge players will crash harder to keep from being blown up. As the Hokies attempted to run out the clock, Cornelsen called on the split zone read. Defensive end Reese Donahue (No. 46) crashed hard to the inside.
Keene sells the block on Donahue. Then, he shows the quick feet to bend outside of Donahue and turn outside and seal bandit Toyous Avery (No. 16) to the inside. Jackson pulls the ball out of McMillian's stomach and finds all kinds of room on the boundary. Keene needs experience. However, his physicality and athleticism is a game-changer for this offense. I think his ability to impact the game with his receiving skills will take some time to come around. His run and pass blocking is already paying dividends.
Virginia Tech's Potential Tripping Points on Offense
This is a young offense, and I dare say that after a roller coaster first half, the offense played better than most expected. That doesn't mean there are not challenges. These are a couple tripping points the Hokies need to improve on before ACC play starts.
The offensive line played well. However, while West Virginia's scheme and second-level athletes create problems, I believe the Hokies won't play many defensive lines worse than the Mountaineers' d-line in conference play. The Hokies were able to single block the three down linemen most of the game. The next three weeks will give Virginia Tech's offensive line group an opportunity to showcase their cohesion against a more traditional even front against Old Dominion and Delaware, along with a wonky odd front from Tech's old friends down in Greeneville.
If there was a glaring weakness once Jackson found his footing, it was the lack of a receiver to take the top off the defense. Cam Phillips played one hell of a game. However, the Hokies offense got bailed out by the Mountaineers' defensive backs taking interference penalties. Phillips only pulled in one deep ball and didn't get behind the defense in regular pass pro situations after his first deep ball catch. Phillips is probably better suited to work short and intermediate routes. Savoy made several solid plays. Eric Kumah had a couple of targets and couldn't separate. Chris Cunningham made a big play off play-action. C.J. Carroll had one first down catch. He was otherwise. This offense desperately has to establish a deep threat and more depth at the receiver position.
Delaware comes into Blacksburg as a significant underdog. The Blue Hens went 4-7 in the FBS Colonial Athletic Conference and defeated in state MEAC rival Delaware State 22-3 in week one. Liberty and James Madison both showed how dangerous it is to underestimate any opponent. However, on a short week, I expect that the Hokies will simplify their scheme. The coaching staff will look to get some confidence in the playmaking ability of their young skill players. As the offense works to identify those options outside, the veteran offensive line will be called upon to dominate the Blue Hens and create breathing room early.