As ominous skies threatened Blacksburg, the Hokies faced a dangerous trap game. The opportunity to face undefeated Miami loomed on the horizon, but Duke, 2-2 in the last four against Virginia Tech, stood in the Hokies' path. The Blue Devils entered the game struggling offensively. However, a dangerous defense coupled with capable quarterback Daniel Jones made the Blue Devils much more dangerous than their record indicated.
Instead of playing down to their opponent, the Virginia Tech defense and special teams delivered a standout performance. Time after time, those units provided the Hokies' young offense with a short field. And while the Hokies' offense often found themselves with the ball in Duke territory, Tech struggled to sustain drives. The lack of efficiency when opportunities in the vertical passing game presented itself allowed Duke to focus on stopping the Hokies' running game. Despite these challenge, Josh Jackson, Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah and the offense responded to a short field at the end of the half with a beautiful two-play drive that showed the promise of "what could be" once the offense can establish some consistency in the passing game.
The Lack of a Vertical Threat Hurts the Run Game
Duke runs an aggressive blitzing defensive scheme that produces a ton of negative plays. Duke tallied 68.0 tackles for loss this season, and is tied No. 18 nationally with 7.56 TFL per game. Sustaining long drives would be a huge challenge for any green offense. When the weather and negative plays factored in, a slog was in the forecast.
The pattern played itself out predictably. Virginia Tech managed to break some nice runs when they got a hat on hat and Duke's blitz ran defenders out of position. At other times, three-yard gains felt like a major accomplishment. Overall when the Hokies struggled in the running game, two principal factors hampered their success: lack of a vertical threat and poor combo blocking.
Duke showed absolutely no respect to the Virginia Tech vertical passing game. The Blue Devils went press man-to-man and one or both safeties regularly flew into the box to support the run. Even when the Virginia Tech offensive line blocked a play perfectly, Duke would have one or two unblocked defenders in the box.
Duke's strategy was evident from Tech's first offensive play from scrimmage. The Hokies faked a jet sweep to the left and then handed the ball off to Steven Peoples on a split zone back to the right side.
The play was blocked well across the board. Dalton Keene isolates on linebacker Ben Humphreys (No. 34) in the bubble between Kyle Chung and Braxton Pfaff. Eric Gallo and Pfaff combo block and turn the pads of stud defensive tackle Mike Ramsay (No. 99). Gallo works his head outside of Ramsay to turn his pads and Pfaff floats off to cut off linebacker Joe Giles-Harris' (No. 44) back-side pursuit. Chung turns out defensive end Victor Dimukeje (No. 41). Keene delivers a solid block on Humphreys.
Yet the play only gains three yards because two of the three Duke safeties — Alonzo Saxton II (No. 21) and Jeremy McDuffie (No. 9) — both converge on Peoples. Duke has an eight on six advantage while playing a deep cover three shell. Unless the running back wins against the safeties (which this group of running backs doesn't have the combination of size, speed, strength, and vision to do), the chances for success are limited.
It is worth noting that had Jackson kept the ball, he and Savoy would've ran almost completely unencumbered around the left side. Duke completely disregarded Jackson as a running threat on the edge. I think you will see offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen take advantage of that if teams scheme similarly to Duke in the coming weeks.
With Duke flooding the box with safeties, there were opportunities to hurt the Blue Devils through the air down the field. Cornelsen attempted to take advantage of the Duke scheme a handful of times. Cam Phillips was able to cash in on a back shoulder fade on the opening drive of the third quarter.
James Clark also managed to draw a pass interference penalty. Those limited successes did not hurt the Blue Devils enough to hold the Duke safeties. Take this 2nd-and-four for example. Josh Jackson has Eric Kumah one-on-one against press man-to-man coverage. Corner Mark Gilbert (No. 28) is tasked to cover Kumah and he's playing inside leverage technique. Kumah has a size (6-2, 220 vs 6-1, 175) and strength advantage, but cannot make the play.
To the boundary, Saxton II blizes. That leaves Cam Phillips one-on-one with corner Bryon Fields Jr. (No. 14). Phillips runs a slant and go ("sluggo") and beats Fields cleanly deep. Jackson never even looks at him. This kind of missed opportunity allowed Duke to continue sending their safeties. The lack of sustained success in the running game prevented the Hokies from extending their lead.
Combination Blocking Woes
The most inconsistent part of Tech's running game is the lack of combination blocking consistency. For those new to the column, a "combo block" is a zone blocking concept where two offensive linemen double team a defensive lineman. Once the double team generates movement, one offensive lineman will peel off and pick up a defender at the second level (often a linebacker or safety).
When the Hokies running game had success against Duke, the combo blocks up-front were sound. This inside zone to the boundary on 1st-and-10 is an excellent example. Pfaff and Gallo combo on defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo (No. 54).
Pfaff chips down and turns Tangelo's pads. This allows Gallo to slide his head across to the outside of Tangelo. Pfaff then climbs to linebacker Giles-Harris and drives him almost ten yards downfield. Wyatt Teller does a nice job of picking up Humphreys on a blitz through the back-side A-gap. Duke doesn't have safety support because the Hokies have three receiving threats to the field which occupy two safeties. On top of that, Duke is robbering their centerfield safety on a potential RPO slant (which later almost produced an interception that Cam Phillips fortunately broke up). The end result is a nice 9-yard chunk run.
Tech's combination blocking goes haywire when a pair of offensive linemen stay on their double team for too long. An example is this inside zone on 1st-and-10. Pfaff and Chung combo Ramsay (No. 99) aligned as a 3-technique, while Gallo and Teller combo 1-tech DT Edgar Cerenord (No. 92). Neither Pfaff nor Gallo slide off their block to pick up Giles-Harris. The result: one of the best linebackers in the ACC is unblocked in the A-gap.
If Pfaff has responsibility to peel off on Giles-Harris, Chung bears some responsibility on the play. Pfaff's double team turns Ramsay's pads. However, Chung's contact point is the outside shoulder of Ramsay. If Pfaff peels off, Chung will drive Ramsay right into the hole. Chung has to take a flatter angle, and place his right shoulder inside of Ramsay and turn him to the outside.
Given the weather, and the quality of the defensive talent at Duke, Saturday's output wasn't terrible. That being said, considering the number of short fields and turnovers generated by the Hokies' defense and special teams, the offense should have been more productive. The remainder of the schedule is littered with defenses that can pose challenges. Miami has athletic linebackers that can use traffic to avoid blocks and still fit their gaps. Georgia Tech's defensive line eats up double teams so middle linebacker Victor Alexander can stay clean. Pitt loves to press on the outside and force offenses to beat them vertically, and Virginia loves to send Quin Blanding into the box as run support. Establishing more of a vertical threat and becoming more effective on combination blocks are critical to improving offensive output over the remaining schedule.
Making Life Miserable for Daniel Jones
After a virtuoso performance versus North Carolina, the Hokies' defensive front completely negated the Duke read-option run game that has given Bud Foster fits the last two seasons. With the running game ineffective, Duke was forced to become one-dimensional and Trevon Hill, Ricky Walker, and the rest of the Hokies' defense dropped repeated hammer blows on talented quarterback Daniel Jones.
With the running threat of Jones, the Hokies relied much less on the slants and whip blitzes that Foster called frequently against UNC. Instead, the Hokies used more individual edge speed rushes than I can recall seeing this season.
A speed rush is only effective if the edge rushers can bend inside to the quarterback once they use their speed to get an angle on the offensive tackle. A good speed rush path looks more like an "L" than a "/." If an edge player cannot bend inside, the offensive tackle can drive them behind the quarterback's pocket, which leaves huge running lanes. Tech defensive ends at the end of the Beamer era often had terrific speed. Yet, they struggled to bend inside and finish plays. This often led to historic rushing numbers for quarterbacks on draws and scrambles.
Trevon Hill had a monster game rushing off the edge. His ability to bend (much like Chris Ellis a decade ago) sets Hill apart. With Ricky Walker and Tim Settle caving in the inside, Hill is being blocked one-on-one and dominating.
On this third-and-eight, both Hill and Vinny Mihota speed rush off the edge. Ricky Walker rips up and under left guard Zach Baker (No. 69).
Hill's first step off the ball forces left tackle Christian Harris (No. 70) to turn laterally and face the sideline. Hill bends inside and rips under Harris' outside arm to keep from being pushed behind Jones. On the opposite side, Mihota beats RT Robert Kraeling (No. 77) cleanly with a rip move. Hill hits Jones from behind and Mihota delivers a violent shot to Jones in the chops. To his credit, Jones stays on his feet until Walker, who fights through a blatant hold, comes in and cleans up.
Throughout the game, Hill and Walker generated pressure. Houshun Gaines also got significant playing time in place of Mihota and also created pressure. The pressure and strong coverage combined to stymie Jones. He completed just 10 of 24 passes for 84 yards, no touchdowns, and 1 interception.
There were only two coverage busts all game; the scramble drill completion to Johnathan Lloyd for 41 yards, and interestingly, the Terrell Edmunds interception.
On the pick play, running back Shaun Wilson (No. 29) heads to field-side flat after a pitch fake. Andrew Motuapuaka follows in coverage. Terrell Edmunds bites up to the flat, which left Mook Reynolds without help vertically. Reynolds gets caught a bit flat-footed as WR T.J. Rahming (No. 3) stutters from the slot and breaks deep.
Reynolds and Edmunds should be dead to rights. Reynolds does a great job to catch up to Rahming (aided by a slight jersey tug), and Edmunds demonstrates spectacular speed and range to get back into the play. Honestly, I am not sure how Edmunds was able to recover like that. You won't find many NFL safeties who can be that out of position against a vertical route and still work back to the middle centerfield like that to pick off a throw.
Duke Adjusts with the Quarterback Run Game
Significant running lanes were created for Jones as a result of both Tech defensive ends frequently rushing wide on passing downs coupled with Walker's favored outside rip move. As the game progressed, Duke made an adjustment to take advantage of this pass rushing approach.
On this 3rd-and-8, Duke responds to the speed rush with a 16-yard quarterback draw. The adjustment is the path of the tailback. Instead of Wilson isolating in the hole where Jones would run as most QB draws do, Wilson takes a step forward and then angles to the right, away from the hole where Jones plans to run.
Rover Reggie Floyd and Tremaine Edmunds got caught leaning in the direction of Wilson's block. Edmunds gets sealed inside, and Floyd is well out of position. Schematically, Floyd should be reading the leverage that Edmunds uses to take on the block. Floyd likely should be attacking the boundary flat and filling the space between Edmunds and Hill off the edge. This was the second time Floyd got sucked inside on the exact same play design on the drive, and Foster was noticeably livid on the sidelines.
However, unlike some of the Foster defensive units at the end of the Beamer era, the Tech front-seven was able to shed blocks and make plays in space which for the most part curtailed Jones running free. Outside of the two quarterback draws that popped open, Tremaine Edmunds was absolutely terrific in shedding blocks and making tackles from hash mark to hash mark.
For example, on this draw, Edmunds is engaged with Duke's best offensive lineman, center Austin Davis (No. 50).
Edmunds gets good extension on Davis and keeps his inside shoulder free. When Jones makes his cut to the left, Edmunds sheds the block and makes a beautiful one-on-one tackle. The way Foster's defense is supposed to work is to scheme the ball carrier to an unblocked defender who is then responsible to make a tackle. It is an outstanding play when a defender tasked to funnel the ball carrier actually sheds and puts the runner into the turf. This is terrific football by Edmunds.
Ricky Walker had several of those wow moments as well. One of my biggest frustrations in 2015 was consistently watching defensive linemen like Dadi Nicolas and Luther Maddy successfully slant and penetrate into their gaps, yet not be able to resist down blocks and get washed away from the play. When you go back to those 2015 film reviews, I was constantly stating that, beyond the fit, at some point those defenders have to resist the block, cross the blockers face, and make a tackle.
In a downpour, Duke tried to rekindle those bad memories by calling on the exact same play that caused so much of my consternation in 2015; a quarterback power. Walker had none of it.
Before the snap, Walker shifts over into a four-technique on the right side of the defensive line. LT Gabe Brandner (No. 76) tries to pin Walker to the inside as Walker shoots the gap, and RG Zach Harmon (No. 63) pulls across to kick out Trevon Hill. Hill gets a great first step and disrupts the play. Instead of being washed inside, Walker fights back to his right to stay square on Jones. Jones has nowhere to go but to curl up inside Walker's arms. I enjoyed most of this game quietly and comfortably from my own couch. When Walker stuck Brandner's down block on this play, I got up and screamed like a kid in the North End Zone. That is tremendous work from Walker and Hill.
The winner of Virginia Tech-Miami will find themselves in prime position to represent the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship Game. I normally see ghosts behind every tree when it comes to scouting potential matchups for the Hokies. However, I am quietly confident about how the Hokies measure up to the Hurricanes. Miami has three terrific wide receivers in Braxton Berrios, Ahmmon Richards, and burner Jeff Thomas. Tight end Christopher Herndon (30 receptions, 331 yards, and 3 TDs this season) is the best receiving tight end that the Hokies have faced. He can cause problems as a vertical threat. He will be a big challenge, especially for Reggie Floyd. The Hurricanes average 14.39 yards per completion. Limiting big plays will be critical.
Despite those challenges, in 2016 many of these same Hokies (with a decimated defensive line) were able to completely disrupt the Hurricanes' offensive scheme with the same personnel and a better quarterback in Brad Kaaya. Malik Rosier is a good athlete who can escape the rush. However, he isn't particularly efficient (56.7 completion percentage). Rosier is also dealing with a shoulder injury/soreness. If the Hokies can limit big plays and force Rosier to stay in the pocket, I don't think Miami can sustain drives.
Defensively, the Hurricanes have some serious athleticism. Defensive tackle Kendrick Norton can eat up blocks and still be disruptive. Sophomore linebackers Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinckney are huge and can run to the football on par or better than Dorian O'Daniel and Joe Giles-Harris.
Unlike Clemson, Miami defenders have a tendency to run themselves out of plays, so they are also vulnerable to misdirection. I expect to see more screens, misdirection, and odd looking RPOs against Miami than seen against any other opponent. It will be a huge challenge for the young offense to find themselves and make plays against a big, athletic defense.
This will be a game where protecting the football is paramount. Punting, especially when it flips field position, will truly be winning. If the Hokies defense can prevent big plays, anticipate this to game to be a tough, low scoring affair. I expect the defense to give the offense some three-and-out situations with a short field. If the offense can cash in a little more efficiently than against Duke, I expect Hokie Nation to be very happy come Sunday morning.