After Virginia Tech beat up North Carolina 34-3 last season, there was plenty of talk about the role weather played in the win. Mitch Trubisky, the second overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, was harassed all game by Bud Foster's defense. He only managed to pick up 58 yards through the air and threw two interceptions to zero touchdowns. Many pundits and UNC faithful claimed the "hurricane" the game was played in was responsible for UNC's offensive ineptitude, rather than Foster's defensive game plan. This dismissal of the legendary defensive coordinator's work rubbed the Hokies the wrong way, and the sunny forecast on Saturday was the perfect opportunity to get revenge. The Hokies beat the Tar Heels 59-7, despite only gaining 383 total yards of offense, because of another dominant day by the Lunch Pail Defense.
This was a classic "BeamerBall" game for Justin Fuente. By halftime, Virginia Tech's defense scored twice and the special teams added a TD too. Tech enjoyed a 35-0 lead at intermission even though the offense only accounted for two touchdowns. The defensive line for the Hokies played particularly well, especially the defensive tackle duo of Tim Settle and Ricky Walker.
Ricky Walker's scoop-and-score was the first scoring play of the game, and it was a sign of things to come. Foster called a zone blitz, one which he has employed frequently throughout the season.
Mook Reynolds, who is aligned over the slot receiver to the field, blitzes while Vinny Mihota drops into zone coverage to the boundary. Foster got creative in coverage to the field to make up for the blitz. He rotated his two safeties (Reggie Floyd and Terrell Edmunds) into man coverage while his two corners dropped into a two-deep zone. Mook comes off the edge unblocked and gets a free shot at UNC quarterback Chazz Surratt but can't bring him down. Surratt gets away and attempts to make a throw down field, but the bone-dry football slips from his hands for a fumble. Ricky Walker pounces on the football and strolls in for a touchdown.
This could have been a big play for UNC though, and its design should look familiar to Hokie Nation, as it's one seen from Fuente multiple times this season. The Tar Heels are trying to run a QB Power RPO to their running back. It looks like a QB Power play because they pull their back-side (right) guard and their H-Back to lead the way, but watch the running back leak out of the backfield. He releases past the linebackers and is looking for the pass. With Floyd and Edmunds rotating over to cover the receivers, there are no defenders in the middle of the field to stop the back. If Mook hadn't gotten to Surratt so quickly to disrupt the timing, this could have been a big play. Later in the game, Mook sees this same play and makes another great play.
On this 1st-and-10 last in the third quarter, UNC actually connects on the QB Power RPO. Just as before, they pull the back-side guard and the H-Back to suck the defense in. Tailback Michael Carter (No. 8) releases up the field and past Terrell Edmunds, who is coming forward to tackle the Surratt. Surratt wisely throws to Carter and Carter appears to be in the clear. Reynolds has his eyes in the backfield and recognizes the play. He comes off of his receiver to make the tackle. Without the quick reaction from Reynolds, Carter may scamper in for a long touchdown. Foster mentioned this play in his post-game comments.
"Our kids did a nice job," said Foster. "They came out and they hadn't shown that quarterback power pass like our offense runs. They hit us to kind of help them set up that score in the end."
Walker's fumble recovery for a touchdown was just the beginning of the BeamerBall revival. On UNC's next drive they stalled out and are forced to punt. Greg Stroman doesn't get touched on this 91-yard punt return.
The only player that had a chance was punter Tom Sheldon and he never got close. Tech dominated the special teams play all game long. Oscar Bradburn kept UNC pinned deep in its own territory for much of the day and Deon Newsome came up with a blocked punt early in the third quarter.
The third and final non-offensive touchdown for the Hokies was a 69-yard interception return by Reggie Floyd.
UNC tries to counter the Hokies aggressive press coverage look by calling a play-action pass. Larry Fedora wants to target the man coverage to the boundary, and UNC does a good job of sliding protection to give quarterback Brandon Harris time to make the throw. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, Andrew Motuapuaka recognizes the throwing lane and slides into the hole to challenge the throw. Motuapuaka manages to get a hand on the ball and Floyd snags the tip and follows his blockers into the end zone.
The 4-8 Defense Puts on a Show
The play of Settle and Walker has been incredible all season long. The pair once again controlled the line of scrimmage and combined for 9 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 5.0 tackles for loss. Those two lived in the Tar Heels' backfield and kept the offense in poor down and distance situations, even when UNC seemingly had the correct play called.
On this second-and-10, Fedora called a QB draw RPO.
The Hokies are in a Cover-1 scheme. There's man coverage on the outside and Floyd is deep as the high safety. Surratt has the option to throw the football if he gets zone coverage, particularly to the field-side. However, he sees the man coverage and wisely decides to run the ball. UNC actually has the numbers advantage in the box and should pick up decent yardage to get into a third-and-short situation. Their center and tailback each leak out to pick up Tech's linebackers while the defensive ends get up field to try and rush Surratt. UNC's two guards are left to try and handle Walker and Settle. Walker works across the face of the left guard and penetrates into the backfield. Surratt steps past Walker's rush and begins to head up field, but is met by Settle who used a swim move to get across the right guard and into the rushing lane for the TFL. Walker and Settle were unblockable in one-on-one situations all day long and how much pressure they can put on opposing offensive lines will help determine how the rest of the season transpires for the Hokies.
Virginia Tech's Offense Does Enough
While the Hokies' defense and special teams outscored the Tar Heels all on their own, Fuente's offense chipped in with some touchdowns of their own. Josh Jackson threw for just 132 yards, but he did toss three touchdowns and once again went the entire game without throwing an interception. Jackson is at his best when he can manage the game and simply take what the defense is offering, and he appeared as poised as ever once he was handed a lead by his defense. On top of that, his young receiver corps looked more confident than ever. Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah, and even Samuel Denmark all made impressive plays. Cam Phillips also had a memorable day as he secured his position as Tech's career reception leader (212)
Tech opened up the game in a 5-wide formation. UNC gets stretched horizontally as they try to defend across the board. As a result, the Heels end up leaving the middle of the field open. Savoy, who is matched up with freshman safety Myles Wolfolk (No. 11) in the slot, runs a crisp slant route into that open space. Jackson makes the correct read and gets the ball to his receiver on time and on the money. Savoy catches the ball with his hands and immediately gets up field, breaking the arm tackle of Wolfolk in the process. The shoestring tackle by safety Myles Dorn (No. 1) is the only thing that prevented Savoy from scoring a long touchdown.
Since the beginning of the season, Jackson has dramatically improved in these five-wide West Coast passing schemes. He recognizes the open man much quicker and has impressed with his accuracy on those short throws.
Speaking of improvement, Savoy has solidified himself as the number two receiving threat on this team. He is hungry to make a play every time he touches the ball, and his explosiveness with the ball in his hands is undeniable. As he matures he will learn to use that explosiveness to get open, and he will develop more consistent hands with repetition, but for now it is enjoyable to see Fuente and Brad Cornelsen find different ways to get the ball to him.
For my money, Kumah is the next receiver poised to breakout. With his size (6-2, 220) and body positioning, he could become a solid possession receiver and down field threat.
I haven't seen him exhibit blazing speed, but routes like the one above give me confidence that he will become a regular contributor for the next few seasons. On this 2nd-and-4, UNC lines up showing a Cover-2 look, but ends up blitzing Wolfolk from the slot. Jackson spots boundary safety J.K. Britt (No. 29) rotating towards the middle of the field, and he recognizes he has single coverage to the boundary. Kumah does an excellent job of creating separation against press coverage by initially heading outside and then swimming back across corner M.J. Stewart (No. 6) to get inside leverage. Kumah breaks off his route and gives Jackson a target to hit, which Jackson does despite pressure coming right up the middle of the pocket.
Kumah beat man coverage last week by running a couple of slant routes against Boston College, and he utilized the same route in the red zone to give Tech their fifth touchdown of the day.
UNC blitzes in the red zone with only a handful of seconds left in the half. Kumah is once again aligned to the boundary and he faces single coverage. He runs a slant route and positions his body in between the corner and the quarterback. Kumah subtly breaks down as the ball comes to him. He slows his momentum and keeps his inside position on Stewart all while allowing his shoulders to open up and receive the ball. UNC makes two tactical mistakes on this play. Their first was blitzing a freshman quarterback in the red zone is an unnecessary risk. I believe they would have been better off sitting back in coverage and seeing if Jackson can make the right read. The second mistake was in using off coverage to the boundary, as it made Kumah's inside release way too easy. If you're going to blitz in that situation, at least play tight coverage to the boundary so that the quarterback won't have an easy quick hitting route to find across the middle.
My Favorite Play: Cam Phillips' 8-Yard TD Reception
Phillips had five catches for 49 yards which is impressive if you factor in Tech's lack of first half possessions (thanks to defensive touchdowns) and huge second half lead. Opposing defenses are starting to pay closer attention to Phillips now that Tech's in the middle of the ACC season and Fuente is going to need to get creative to find ways to get Cam open. Fuente broke out one of my favorite route combinations in his playbook, the wheel-slant combo.
This play is a great way to scheme a playmaker open against man coverage with deep safety help. UNC is in a basic Man-2 look, with man coverage and two deep safeties. Tech leaves a tight end and a running back in to give Jackson plenty of time to wait for the routes to develop, although UNC ultimately doesn't blitz its linebackers. Kumah is aligned to the boundary and runs another slant, but UNC's linebackers take away that throwing lane. Savoy is in the slot and Phillips is the wide receiver to the field.
With UNC's Man-2 scheme the corners aren't going to switch any crossing routes, instead they rely on their safeties for help. At the snap Savoy runs a wheel route towards the defender covering Cam — CB K.J. Sails (No. 9) — with the intention of creating a rub. Cam takes his time at the snap, taking a couple steps up field to freeze Sails and then cutting underneath Savoy's rub. Safety Myles Wolfolk (No. 11), Savoy's defender, follows the wheel route and Sails gets picked off by Savoy before he gets a chance to get under the rub. Safety Myles Dorn (No. 1) might have prevented a Savoy touchdown in the first quarter, but he gets caught looking in the backfield and reacts too late to the route combination. Dorn isn't in position to break on the play and to try and separate receiver from ball, and Cam skips into the end zone once he makes the catch.
Putting a Bow on the Blowout
It is easy to watch this young Virginia Tech football team and focus on the areas that need improvement. The deficiencies aren't hard to spot and it's been discussed how the running game is consistently inconsistent, the passing game lacks a deep threat, and the defense can be too aggressive for its own good. Fixating on these issues can cause anyone to lose sight of what's truly special about this team.
The Hokies are on the rise and are playing a lot of young talent right now, young talent that is maturing on a weekly basis. The Hokies' special teams units have been fantastic all season long. The defensive line has no senior starters, but yet is one of the most dominant run stopping units in all of college football. The receiving corps features an all-time great player in Cam Phillips and another, Sean Savoy, is ready to make his own mark. Under center is Josh Jackson, arguably the best freshman quarterback in the country. Fuente is building something special in Blacksburg, and we saw more proof Saturday afternoon.