Virginia Tech won its first home game of the season 27-0 on Saturday against Delaware. It was an entertaining game, probably more entertaining than head coach Justin Fuente would have prefered. Even in a shutout, Delaware kept the game competitive. The Fightin' Blue Hens had 12 first downs, only three less than the Hokies, and pushed into the red zone twice. Delaware's defense was more up to the challenge of facing a top 25, Power Five opponent than their offense was. The Hokies were held to 303 total yards, converted on just 3 of their 11 third downs and struggled to consistently rush the football.
Virginia Tech's Ground Game Concerns Continue
A win's a win and W's shouldn't be taken for granted, but Hokie Nation can't be thrilled about the lack of explosion from Tech's running backs. Jalen Holston was the only running back to average 4-plus yards per carry, and he got most of his burn deep in the fourth quarter after the game was decided. Travon McMillian and Deshawn McClease only had eight carries and 22 yards between them. Josh Jackson had 25 yards rushing, but his longest carry was only eight yards.
Some of the lack of success on the ground was dictated by scheme, and Fuente's apparent desire to keep Jackson healthy. Delaware kept enough defenders in the box throughout the game to make it impossible to outnumber at the point of attack without involving Jackson in the play. Rather than have Jackson carry the ball on zone reads, veers, or quarterback powers, the Hokies opted to try and work their way down the field through the air. Against an overmatched opponent who ultimately got blanked, limiting the risk of QB1's health was probably a wise move. When the Hokies did run the ball with Jackson, they used mostly perimeter run plays. Jackson ran a few inside zone and veer plays, but almost zero inverted veers or QB powers.
The lack of quarterback rushing plays allowed Delaware to outnumber the Hokies in the box. It also allowed Delaware defenders to flow to the ball more freely, chasing down the ball carrier without worrying about Jackson pulling the ball out and taking off behind them. As I've written before, Fuente's scheme depends on a defense being stretched thin over the entire line of scrimmage. Take away one aspect of the playbook and everything else suffers. However, despite the caution around running Jackson, the offensive line didn't dominate the line of scrimmage. Scheme can't be blamed for a lack of push. Delaware, a program playing in front of the largest crowd in their history, didn't look overmatched when Tech was trying to pound the rock. That's concerning, as is the lack of explosion from the stable of running backs. Great football teams need playmakers who can make plays that turn any defensive game plan obsolete. If the Hokies want to continue winning once ACC play begins, Fuente needs a running back to step up and impose his will.
Conservative Passing Game Yields Some Success
Josh Jackson played well enough for Tech to get the win, but he held onto the ball too long at times. I also thought he missed the opportunity to find some receivers who were open out of their breaks. This hurt Tech's short pass game, a facet they needed to excel at due to the aforementioned lack of quarterback runs. There were also missed opportunities to open receivers down the seam of the defense. Jackson's accuracy wasn't perfect on Saturday either. The most notable instance was when he overthrew McMillian running a seam route off an RPO, but there were other throws Jackson left on the field too.
I'm struggling to come up with a better description than "game manager" to describe Jackson's effort. He wasn't perfect, but he didn't do anything to put the win at risk. Sure, he could have been more aggressive on his three- and five-step timing throws, but in the long run he valued the football. Jackson missed some passes down the field, but he didn't throw any balls into double coverage or take lots of bad sacks or fumble. He did enough to win the game against a I-AA opponent. Against the best ACC teams on the schedule, Jackson will have to be more aggressive and more accurate, but for this week, he did enough.
The wide receiver corps took a step in the right direction. James Clark can flat out fly on the outside. On an early 1st-and-10, the Hokies got under center and ran a predictable two receiver play-action pass. I doubt any defender, especially the corner assigned to Clark, was surprised by the play, but that didn't stop Clark from cruising right past the man charged with covering him. Jackson put the football on him down the field but Clark couldn't haul it in. The result was disappointing, but Clark's ability to get open demonstrated there is potential in a Jackson-Clark connection.
Clark also looked dangerous when he was given the opportunity to get the ball via a screen. Clark's speed will make it hard to keep him off the field, especially for a coaching staff looking for an offensive spark. Sean Savoy looked like Tech's clear number two receiving option though. He had four receptions for 63 yards, including a 38-yard catch right before half. Savoy started in the slot and ran a slant-and-go route down the seam right past the safety. Jackson recognized his man was open a step late and under threw the ball, but Savoy made a fantastic adjustment to the throw and came down with the catch inside the 7-yard-line.
That play must have been extra sweet for Savoy after he dropped what would have been a walk in touchdown in the first quarter. Savoy and Clark, who also dropped a pass down the field in the first quarter, must get comfortable in Fuente's offense and start making plays for Jackson down the field if the Hokies want to compete for the ACC title.
My Favorite Play: Second-and-Goal, Jackson to McMillian for Six
For me, the most interesting play design of the day produced McMillian's touchdown reception before half. The concept isolated a Delaware defender on the perimeter and allowed Jackson to read his reaction to the play and make a safe throw for a touchdown.
The Hokies line up with three wide receivers to the field. Dalton Keene is aligned on the left side of the line of scrimmage as a tight end. McMillian is offset to Jackson's left (boundary) from the shotgun. The play is a hybrid between an inverted veer and a speed option. The blocking up front is pure inverted veer. The left side of the offensive line, Wyatt Teller, Yosuah Nijman, and Keen, all block down and seal defensive line and middle linebacker inside while leaving the defender on the end of the line of scrimmage unblocked. Braxton Pfaff pulls from the back-side of the formation and wraps around Keene's downblock. Pfaff's looking to hit the next defender that attacks Keene's outside shoulder. In this scenario, that would be CB Malcolm Brown (No. 1).
The play design and blocking action leaves the outside defender, Armen Ware (No. 45), all alone with an impossible decision to make. Does he attack inside to stop the potential quarterback carry or does he flow with McMillian to the sideline. The latter would leave Jackson free to waltz into the end zone off of Pfaff's block, the former results in McMillian wide open. Jackson capitalizes on Ware's hesitation and knows McMillian is too fast for Ware to make up the ground. He wisely passes to Travon who strolls in for an easy touchdown.
The Lunch Pail Defense Pitches A Shutout
After watching Saturday's game, I believe this is the best run stopping group that Bud Foster has fielded in a while. TIm Settle and Ricky Walker absolutely dominated the interior of the line of scrimmage. Delaware had some success early by attacking the alley defenders with read option plays and avoiding the middle of the field when possible. Foster mentioned after the game Delaware didn't run the quarterback in its opener, and although he anticipated the Blue Hens using the QB in the run game, it took Tech a while to iron everything out. Tremaine Edmunds had a fantastic game in large part because he was allowed to do what he does best, keep his eyes in the backfield and flow to the football. The defensive line got enough push to keep Tremaine clean and he spent his afternoon chasing ball carriers down all over the field. His insane athleticism makes him a tackle for loss machine. He added four more TFLs to his total, including 1.5 sacks.
Delaware is a well coached football team and they were able to execute at times even when they didn't have a lot of space to do so. Quarterback Joe Walker only completed 8 of his 17 pass attempts, so he wasn't unstoppable. However, he made a few very nice throws against tight coverage and he also picked up 64 yards on the ground (excluding sack yardage). Walker's lowest point of the game came while in Virginia Tech's red zone. Delaware tried to run a slant/wheel route combination off of a play fake (the same combination that West Virginia used successfully against Foster), but Tim Settle wasn't having it. Delaware's right tackle was tasked with blocking Settle, and Settle ate his lunch. Settle bull rushed into the pocket and got his right hand up in the passing lane, tipping the pass which fell into Terrell Edmunds hands. Edmunds would return the ball back to the Delaware 30-yard-line.
Foster's secondary is better suited to combat these type of pro-style offenses than they are against West Virginia-esque spread teams. The secondary is stacked with big bodies and confident tacklers. Mook Reynolds, Adonis Alexander, Terrell Edmunds, even young Reggie Floyd have all shown that they are confident coming forward and making tackles. Reacting to running plays and filling that alley between the defensive end and the cornerback is this secondary's specialty. After Delaware's early success running to the perimeter, Foster got more aggressive with bringing run blitzes into those alleys. Mook Reynolds finished with 11 tackles and a sack and Terrell Edmunds finished with 8 tackles and a sack as well. Both of those players came off the edge and wreaked havoc in the Delaware backfield.
Reynolds and Edmunds both looked better in pass coverage today than they did last week against West Virginia. That's not too surprising, West Virginia has better athletes than Delaware. Even still, it was encouraging not to see any receivers streaking free down the seam. In my opinion, this defense is better when Foster is aggressive and forcing the issue. Foster has good corners that he can rely on in coverage down the field, but his safeties and Reynolds are more productive when they can play near the line of scrimmage. Bringing pressure off the edge with either Reynolds, Edmunds, and Floyd is seemingly a great way to increase the likelihood of a big play on defense. Also, blitzing has the added benefit of reducing the amount of time non-cornerbacks must cover shifty receivers around the field. It's more favorable to have Terrell Edmunds cover a Go route than a double move.
Gut Reaction to 27-0
Despite my thirst for a larger margin of victory, I am content with the outcome of Saturday's game. The Hokies shutout the Blue Hens, which isn't easy in today's game regardless of the opponent. The defense looked stout against the run and was able to make some adjustments throughout the game to stop some early Delaware success. Offensively, this team isn't ready for the ACC schedule yet, although there were some flashes of potential. If Savoy and Clark can continue to mature and eventually make more plays down the field for Jackson, the Hokies will be much harder to defend. Jackson needs more experience before Fuente can maximize his physical tools, but I love how he protects the football. He doesn't put the ball in harm's way, although he will need to throw the ball down the field with more confidence as the season progresses. Jackson isn't a burner or a sledgehammer, but he has been opportunistic rusher so far. That trend will need to continue because Tech's rushing attack is still a concern without an apparent solution. The offensive line hasn't dominated on the ground against two of the softest defensive fronts it'll face all year, and the production of the running back rotation seemed to take a step back. One of the tailbacks needs to start breaking tackles and running with confidence. Until that happens, the Hokies will have to rely on the arm, and legs, of their redshirt freshman quarterback.