Virginia Tech fans have good reason to be anxious when their Hokies travel up north to play the Eagles. Chestnut Hill has been a tough place for the Hokies over the years, and Tech's lost some games at Boston College they should've won. And while the Hokies secured their first ACC win of the season on Saturday, the Eagles kept the score closer than anyone in maroon and orange would've liked. The Hokies dominated for most of the game, particularly on defense. Bud Foster and company employed a high-pressure game plan and limited the Eagles to just 2 of 15 third down conversions. The offense lost Cam Phillips early in the game (ankle sprain), and with their star playmaker out, Tech only put 23 points on the scoreboard. The offense struggled with BC's defensive front, but Josh Jackson was able to pick up 322 yard in the air and lead his team to an important conference victory.
A Dominant Lunch Pail Defense
Boston College's offense has been dreadful this season (T-No. 121 scoring offense, No. 116 total offense), and most predicted that trend would continue once Foster's unit rolled into town. The Hokies' defensive line manhandled the Eagles all game long, especially on the ground. Ricky Walker and Tim Settle were simply too big and too quick on the interior for BC to block. Those two lived in BC's backfield, shooting gaps and tackling the ball carrier before he could get going.
On this 2nd-and-12, Boston College attempts an outside zone run to set up a manageable third down. The idea behind this outside zone play is both fullback and tailback read the block on the play-side defensive end. In this case, the DE is Houshun Gaines. If Gaines goes underneath the offensive tackle's block and heads inside, the fullback leads the way on the perimeter for the tailback to bounce the run outside. If Gaines gets outside the blocker, then the fullback leads the way for the tailback to cut back into the interior of the defense.
The Eagles never get to their initial read on Gaines because Settle blows the whole play up. Settle explodes off the ball, keeps his outside arm free, and gets in the tailback A.J. Dillon's (No. 2) path to the perimeter. This forces Dillon to cut up field to prevent a tackle for loss, but Walker's already cut off the cut-back lane. Similar to Settle on the front-side of the play, Walker is too fast and too strong to allow the left tackle to get across his body. This is a perfect example of how Settle and Walker have stymied inside and outside zone runs all year long, and the Eagles had no more success running on the interior than any of the other Hokies' opponents this season.
Without the benefit of a sustainable rushing attack, Scot Loeffler had to rely on the arm of his own redshirt freshman quarterback, Anthony Brown. Unfortunately for Loeffler and Brown, Foster's rush defense kept the Eagles in 3rd-and-long situations. That provided Foster the freedom to be creative and overwhelm the young quarterback with lots of different looks to process. The Hokies were able to generate substantial pressure on Brown, and Tech's corners added fuel to the fire by locking down the BC receivers.
The Eagles are in a fourth-and-short situation here, and Loeffler knows he is outmanned up front. Loeffler decides to run a rub route against man coverage. His hope is Reggie Floyd will lose his man in traffic, and that'll Brown an open receiver to hit for a conversion. Loeffler even rolls his quarterback out to give him a better angle and shorter distance to make the throw.
However, Foster sniffs out the play and calls for nickel-whip Mook Reynolds to blitz right into Brown's face. Mook's pressure prevents Brown from stepping into his throw properly, and the pass sails past the intended target.
In my mind, this is a quintessential Bud Foster play call. He knows his opponent's tendency — Loeffler loves this rub route to the slot receiver in short yardage situations. As such, Bud uses a blitz and tight coverage to force the offense to complete a low percentage throw. That's why teams are converting fewer than 25% of their third down conversions against Virginia Tech this season (No. 8, 24.74%, 24 conversions on 97 attempts). Foster is going to put offenses into uncomfortable situations and force them to execute against the odds. The teams that do execute, win. The teams that don't, and most of them don't, lose.
It should be noted that Reynolds played exceptionally well on the perimeter. I've written before about the importance of Reynolds' role in Foster's scheme, and when he plays like he did against BC things get very difficult for the offense very quickly. Mook was aggressive against jet sweeps, and his tenacity on the edge halted most of those plays that came to his wide-side of the field. He was especially effective against screens, which further limited Loeffler's options to stay ahead of the chains.
Virginia Tech's Young Receivers Shine
In the absence of Phillips, the Hokies had to rely on their young receivers to step up and make plays. As the game wore on, and it became clear the BC defensive front would make it very difficult to run the ball, receivers Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah, and Dalton Keene provided the spark that kept Tech's offense going. Jackson sprayed the ball around to his young receivers, and I thought he looked more in command of the offense than he has all year. He was purposeful in the short pass game, and delivered the ball to his receivers quickly as they were coming out of their breaks. Earlier in the season, Jackson had a tendency to wait for his receivers to pop open before releasing the pass. Against BC, Jackson instead led his receivers and got the ball to them early for yards after the catch opportunities. Jackson also impressed me with his decisiveness in the intermediate pass game. One of Jackson's throws that really caught my eye was Tech's first touchdown.
This clever RPO sprung Savoy open on a slant route behind a linebacker and in front of a deep safety. Initially, Virginia Tech threatens the defensive front with a split zone run. Ultimately though, Jackson pulls the ball from Travon McMillian and throws a bullet to Savoy. It's one of the most impressive throws of Jackson's young collegiate career. He hits Savoy on the slant perfectly in stride and leads him away from the deep safety.
The defender Jackson is reading on this play is the safety to the boundary, Will Harris (No. 8). This is a pass first RPO. Jackson is always going to throw the ball unless Harris floats into the middle of the field and takes away the passing lane to Savoy. If that happens, then the offense has a numbers advantage in the box and should hand the ball off. I've written before that Jackson could be a special quarterback in Justin Fuente's system, but only if he showed the confidence to deliver on these type of plays. Up until now, he has been hesitant to put the football in harm's way, rarely attempting to fit it into these type of windows. Now the time has come for him to take the next step. If Jackson is going to lead his team to an ACC title game, he must start trusting his eyes, arm, and young receivers working down the field.
Here's another example of Jackson decisively fitting the ball into a window down the field.
This third-and-long completion grabbed my attention because it was one of the rare times a Hokie quarterback completed an intermediate route in recent memory. Jerod Evans had success throwing go routes and back shoulder fades to Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges, but he wasn't tasked to throw many deep curls or deep in routes. This kept the pass structure simple for Evans and highlighted his strengths. Jackson, who doesn't have the rushing power or vision that Evans did, will need to connect on these type of routes. The offense is going to stall more this year without a consistent rushing threat, and there is no Ford or Hodges to kickstart a drive with a jump ball. The Hokies' receivers will need to get comfortable finding the windows in zone coverage, sitting in that space, and then working back towards the football to make a play. Paxton Lynch had success under Fuente with these routes, in no small part due to his NFL caliber arm. Jackson can make these throws if the offensive line gives him time, and he should trust himself to make these throws more often.
Eric Kumah was pressed into action after Phillips was sidelined, and he did not disappoint. He looked strong and poised for his first extended game action, I suspect we'll see more of him moving forward
If Jackson and his receivers can connect like this with any consistency during ACC play, then Hokie Nation will breathe a lot easier. The initial formation of the above 3rd-and-2 is a 2×2. Before the snap, Dalton Keene motions out of the slot which allows Jackson to diagnose the coverage. When Jackson sees the linebacker follow Keene across the field, he can confidently assume that he is getting press man coverage on Kumah to the top of the screen. Jackson gets the snap and looks off the deep safety, waiting a half beat before looking at the receiver he's already decided to target. Kumah impresses me with his body positioning on this slant route. He doesn't explode off of the line, but he is quick enough to get in between the cornerback and the ball. Kumah also does an excellent job at turning his shoulders to Jackson, providing his quarterback a bigger target to hit. Brad Cornelsen is going to need to find a way to beat press coverage this year, and he had to utilize quite a few tactics to defeat press coverage against Boston College. Seeing Kumah find success on slant routes against aggressive coverage gives me hope that he can be part of the answer at that position moving forward.
Running Game Woes
Despite the success Jackson had throwing the ball and the defense had shutting down Scot Loeffler's attack, the offensive line was unable to impose their will on Boston College. The o-line's struggles caused issues in the red zone, and Joey Slye was asked to kick three field goals, the longest being just 34 yards. Boston College helped themselves against the run by being physical up front, but a lot of the running game issues came from missed assignments.
This is one of my favorite play calls of the game, but poor execution led to it's failure. The Hokies have a numbers advantage to the boundary and call a speed option to double-down on their hand. Defensive end Wyatt Ray (No. 11) is left unblocked. Ray attacks inside and Jackson pitches to McMillian on the perimeter. The Eagles utilized man coverage to the boundary, so Kumah, the receiver split to the boundary, just has to run a go route and he clears the cornerback with him. The last thing needed to secure the edge for a long McMillian run is Yosh Nijman's block on linebacker Kevin Bletzer (No. 49), who ended up making the tackle. With Nijman letting Ray go, he should be working up to the second level immediately. Boston College is a well coached defensive team, and the Eagles know where the ball is going as soon as it's snapped. However, Nijman should still take a better angle to block Bletzer, who is scraping to the outside. This is a missed home run opportunity, the same as an overthrown ball or a dropped pass.
I don't mean to single out Nijman, there were plenty of missed assignments and poor run blocking fundamentals throughout the game. The Eagles were one of the worst ACC teams against the run heading into this game (T-No. 116, 234 rushing yards per game) and the Hokies allowed them look to like Clemson at times, particularly in the second half. This offense isn't going to start blowing opponents off the line of scrimmage, but they need to at least get to their assignments and engage their defenders. If they do, Fuente and Cornelsen have shown they can be creative enough with their playmakers to get chunk plays.
All in all, the Hokies went into an ACC opponent's house, won by double digits, and looked like the much better team. They suffocated the Eagles defensively and moved the ball through the air well enough to win, even with their star receiver hurt. Fuente now has a bye week to do some self scouting, get his team healed up, and (maybe most importantly) recruit. Jackson has an extra week to work with his young receivers some more, and I'm excited to see if they continue to improve upon this week's breakout performances. If Jackson continues to become more decisive in the pocket, the rest of the ACC Coastal should be concerned.