East Carolina has been a thorn in the side of Virginia Tech for years, and despite their recent struggles, it always feels good to watch the Hokies give the Pirates a good shellacking. Virginia Tech had a massive afternoon, scoring 64 points while holding ECU to just 17. The yardage difference was as contrasting, the Hokies outgained the Pirates 675 to 281. Justin Fuente has one more game to fine tune things before ACC play starts. Yet, if Tech can perform next week against Old Dominion as well as they did this week, Fuente will have to be happy with how his young team is progressing.
Defensive Hiccups, Then Domination
The absence of starting cornerback Adonis Alexander was notable early on as East Carolina was able to find success by attacking down the field. The Hokies gave up two big pass plays on each of ECU's opening drives
ECU hit this 41-yard completion to TE Steve Baggett (No. 86) on their opening drive off of play-action. ECU fakes a handoff to the running back while Baggett aligned as an H-Back fakes a block on Tremaine Edmunds before sneaking up the middle of the field. Edmunds allows Baggett to brush past as he fills to defend against the run. Quarterback Gardner Minshew sees his target streaking free and hits him in stride. ECU would punch it in for a touchdown a few plays later.
ECU hit the Hokies deep again on their second drive. ECU had an RPO called (notice the o-line getting downfield against the run) and Minshew decided to pull the ball from his running back and take a shot down the field. Greg Stroman was aligned to the field over WR Trevon Brown (No. 88). Stroman recognized the RPO but loses the Brown's position while peeking in the backfield. Brown runs past Stroman on a go route and forces Reggie Floyd to rotate over and try to make a play on the ball. While Floyd has looked fantastic this season when coming forward to deliver a blow, his inexperience in pass coverage shows here. Floyd takes a bad angle on the pass, undercutting the throw. Floyd is so far out of position that not only does he miss out on a pass breakup, he isn't able to prevent Brown from strolling in for a 76-yard touchdown. That's a teaching moment for sure.
East Carolina would finish the first quarter with 213 yards. They would finish the game with only 281. Bud Foster's secondary (including Floyd) played much more sound after the first quarter, especially down the field. Foster was also able help relieve the pressure on his secondary by applying some pressure of his own. Bud brought more blitzes than he did in the first two games, utilizing a fair number of zone blitzes in particular. I saw him dropping Trevon Hill and Vinny Mihota into coverage in the flats often while bringing heat from other areas of the field. This helped Tech amass eight quarterback hurries and two sacks, in comparison to ECU who managed one sack and just three hurries.
Tech's biggest area of concern for me defensively will continue to be the pass coverage in short yardage situations, particularly in the red zone. ECU scored their first touchdown on a slant route combined with a vertical slot route, a concept that West Virginia had lots of success with in the first game of the season. On first-and-goal, ECU throws an incomplete fade into the corner
While Minshew badly misses the throw, watch the two routes to the top of the screen. Slot receiver Quay Johnson (No. 23) gets vertical and runs a corner route while Davon Grayson (No. 85) split outside fakes a fade and then comes underneath the slot on a slant. He is wide open. ECU sees the opportunity and calls for the exact same play on second down. This time around, Minshew connects with Grayson for the touchdown.
That is something Foster needs to get cleaned up. We've already seen West Virginia exploit the slant/vertical combination and now we've seen ECU do the same on consecutive plays. In my opinion, Foster needs to find a way to help Stroman. Asking any corner to worry about the fade and the slant is too much, especially when Tech faces ACC caliber wide receivers. I imagine that once Clemson rolls into Blacksburg, Foster will find some way to slide a defender into that throwing lane.
Big Steps Forward for the Offense
The Hokies' offense looked way more confident than the unit that took the field against Delaware. Tech consistently moved the ball on the ground and that's an exciting proposition. The offensive line got good push on the interior of the line and rarely allowed penetration. Braxton Pfaff and Kyle Chung — the right side of the o-line — were particularly impressive. They didn't play perfect games, but the two most inexperienced players on the line got their assignments right and locked their defenders up most of the time.
Tech's running backs reaped the benefits of the improved run blocking. Travon McMillian (11 carries, 72 yards) and Deshawn McClease (11 carries, 55 yards) were both productive, running with purpose and falling forward. If this offense is going to be elite, it still needs someone to break tackles and create explosive plays, but the running backs improved their play as they kept the offense ahead of the chains.
Tactically, I was impressed with the way Fuente and Brad Cornelsen handled the run game. As usual, on the interior they used a good mixture of inside zone and power blocking schemes to keep ECU's front-seven from getting too comfortable. Fuente also showed split zone action quite a few times by bringing Dalton Keene across the face of the formation to clean up the back-side. On the outside, the Hokies tried to use their wide receivers on sweep plays, but those runs were generally ineffective. Fuente turned to the speed option to pick up yardage on the perimeter and found some success there.
On the 2nd-and-7 above, the Pirates have two deep safeties, including one that's aligned over an already covered Cam Phillips to the boundary. Virginia Tech sees the double team on Phillips and runs a speed option away from the safety, giving the Hokies a numbers advantage at the point of attack. LT Yosuah Nijman leaves the play-side defensive end unblocked, sucking him upfield and allowing Josh Jackson to pitch to McClease. Nijman cuts off the back-side linebacker while Keene works on creating the cutback lane. Keene tracks the middle linebacker, keeping his body in between the middle of the field and the defender. McClease cuts off this block and scoots in between the alley created by Keene's and Nijman's second-level blocks to pick up 16 yards.
The Hokies relentless chipping away at the ECU defense wore the Pirates out physically and emotionally. In the first half Tech had one drive go for 11 plays, another go for 12, and two more go for 13. Cornelsen called plays to take what the ECU defense was willing to concede, and his players executed at a very high level. The biggest benefactor of Cornelsen's game plan was Cam Phillips. Phillips had an amazingly productive day: 14 receptions for 189 yards and three touchdowns.
ECU gave Phillips big cushions to work with throughout most of the game. Phillips took advantage of the cushion by running crisp curl and out routes, and he trusted his redshirt freshman quarterback to get him the ball on time. Jackson threw Phillips the ball early and accurately allowing Cam to pick up some decent YAC.
This is a simple play that Tech ran multiple times designed to exploit ECU's soft coverage on Phillips. As slot receiver C.J. Carroll comes across the formation, Phillips gets left all alone in single coverage to the field/bottom of the screen. The ECU defense is concerned with three things: 1) Stopping the sweep, 2) Any QB Power off the sweep, and 3) Anything deep. The linebackers and safeties react to the motion and keep their eyes in the backfield until they are sure it's a pass play. The corner covering Cam won't have any help deep, so he gives Cam a huge cushion. This leaves Phillips free to run an uncontested intermediate out route. This coverage was typical for any play-action in the first half, and Phillips took advantage of it. Jackson was very polished in the short pass game as well. He was running the same vanilla game plan as last week, but he was able to impose his will on the opponent and not reward them for playing conservative coverages.
I wasn't just impressed with Jackson's work underneath, his success finding people down the field was also encouraging. Phillips found space deep after ECU tried to play him a little tighter to start the second half. Jackson saw Phillips, and showed that if he is given time and an open receiver he has the ability to burn opponents.
Jackson fakes a handoff to McClease at the beginning of the play and Keene steps up to help in pass protection. ECU's linebackers and boundary safety initially step up to help against the run and then drop back into shallow zones. This leaves ECU with their two corners and their field safety in a Cover 3 zone against Tech's three receivers. James Clark, split wide to the field, runs a go route up the sideline while Sean Savoy runs a post route. Savoy's post route occupies the safety, which allows Phillips to operate in single coverage to the boundary. Phillips fakes an outside route off the line, allowing him to get inside leverage on the corner. Cam's leverage and speed gives Jackson the angle to make a throw before the safety has time to rotate off of Savoy's route and help.
Virginia Tech would run the exact same play two drives later for a 45-yard touchdown.
My Favorite Play
Jackson seemed uncomfortable against a Delaware defense the Hokies should have walked all over. He was slow with his reads and inaccurate on his throws, causing the offense to stall and underperform. Against ECU, Jackson was the exact opposite. He was poised and in control of the offense, showing the confidence to hit those same throws he missed a week ago. No play summed up the difference between the two performances better than Travon McMillian's 70-yard TD reception.
That pop pass is identical to the one that Jackson badly overthrew last week. It's technically an RPO, watch how aggressively Pfaff gets upfield on his block, but it's designed to get McMillian open up the middle of the field. The offensive line blocks it as a normal QB power while the McMillian cuts up field. Jackson is reading the Mike linebacker, if he fills to defend the power then McMillian should pop open behind. Jackson makes the right read and takes his time, confidently leading McMillian up the seam. Once the ball gets in McMillian's hands, no one is going to catch him from behind.
It's hard to feel anything but confidence in Virginia Tech after a decisive 64-17 victory. It took the Hokies a quarter to get into the flow of the game, but we saw everything this week that we wanted to see last week against Delaware. The defense absolutely dominated, and held ECU to under 75 yards in the final three quarters. The defensive line stuffed the run and didn't let the quarterback escape the pocket. The secondary played its tightest coverage of the season and Greg Stroman, wearing Frank Beamer's number 25, picked up an interception. Offensively, the Hokies did anything they wanted without tipping their hand to future opponents. The game plan was vanilla, just like it was last week, but this time the offense executed. The running game was methodical. The passing attack was precise. Josh Jackson showed that he has the ability to throw the ball down the field and Cam Phillips showed us we may have all slept on his vertical abilities. Each week the Hokies are doing exactly what they need to do, improve. Virginia Tech's game plan next week should be as simple as this week's. If the Hokies can execute that one as well as they executed this one, then things will get interesting once Fuente dives deep into his playbook.