As Jester Weah rumbled down the sideline, the lede of this column was already written in my head. "When the margins of error are this close, there's always some fluke play that snatches a victory away from a defense which played well enough to win." The Pitt offense features one of the ACC's best running backs (Darrin Hall) and offensive lines, and the banged up Lunch Pail Defense delivered an effort which justified a victory. For stretches, the Virginia Tech offense was as productive as it had been since early against Boston College. However, the Hokies simply could not piece together enough drives to score enough points to create a workable margin for error against a bad Panthers' defense. As it inevitably does, Pitt happened.
Reggie Floyd's terrific hustle to bring Weah down just short of the end zone only seemed to delay the inevitable. As Pitt lined up for first-and-goal, the Hokies rolled out a unit that featured backups at free safety (Khalil Ladler), whip (Deon Newsome), and defensive end (Houshun Gaines). The odds seemed long. Then, Gaines spilled inside to keep Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds clean for a first down tackle at the line of scrimmage. On second down, Gaines ate up a double team at the point of attack. Ladler came up with a heavy shoulder and turned Darrin Hall back into a pile of bodies for a stop. Instead of spiking the ball, Pitt attempted a quick fade to an uncovered Weah. Floyd signaled Greg Stroman to get outside, and Stroman was able to knock the ball away at the last moment. And, on an epic fourth down, Trevon Hill wiggled inside on a stunt to slow up Hall. Newsome collapsed the edge to prevent Hall from bouncing outside while Ladler, Floyd, and Motuapuaka wrangled Hall to the ground four yards short of the goal line. The previous three hours of frustration gave way to a senior-led celebration.
Tech's offensive line did an excellent job of run blocking. Jalen Holston and Deshawn McClease ran through and around the unblocked Pitt free hitter enough times that the receivers had extra space. The Hokies' wide receivers were consistently open. The play calling began to look more patterned and incorporated Josh Jackson effectively in the quarterback run game. Phillip Patterson emerged to provide the Hokies another receiving threat.
The Peak Upside for this Rushing Attack
For me, the most exciting offensive development on Saturday was the improvement in the running game. The offensive line turned in their most dominant performance of the season and Holston and McClease demonstrated the ability to win one-on-one matchups against the free hitters that the offensive line couldn't account for. Tech netted 157 yards on the ground.
The Hokies established the running game early. On this split zone, Dalton Keene comes across the formation to isolate and seal linebacker Elijah Zeise (No. 25). Wide receiver Eric Kumah cracks inside on safety Dennis Briggs (No. 20), which leaves corner Avonte Maddox (No. 14) as the unblocked free hitter.
Let's break down every element that is needed to create a chunk run without a defensive bust. Pitt stunts their defensive tackles outside through the B-gaps, with the intent of sending Zeise and linebacker Saleem Brightwell (No. 39) through the A-gaps. Wyatt Teller and Eric Gallo are responsible for combination blocking on defensive tackle Shane Roy (No. 93). Once Teller gets his head inside, Gallo identifies Brightwell and peels off beautifully to seal him to the inside. Keene gets his head on the outside of Zeise and turns him inside. Teller drives Roy off the ball and Holston slips into the bubble between Teller and Keene.
With the line of scrimmage secure, for Holston to break out he needs to get a good block at the second level. Eric Kumah slants inside to crack on Briggs. It does not look like Maddox is signalling the crack back to Briggs, and as result Kumah should have a kill shot. Kumah delivers enough of a blow to cut off Briggs initial pursuit angle. (Although, ideally Kumah should stay engaged with Briggs, then he would not be able to get back into the play.)
The final element is Holston winning against an unblocked defender. Holston spins Maddox out of his shoes. Unfortunately, Briggs makes the tackle, otherwise Holston would have been off to the races.
If you take away any one of those elements, a well-blocked play becomes a modest gain. For example, the Hokies catch Pitt blitzing their mike (Elias Reynolds, No. 44) and field linebacker (Oluwaseun Idowu, No. 23). Pfaff gets just enough of Idowu to seal him outside. Parker Osterloh seals Reynolds inside.
A huge hole opens up on the left side. However, Holston just keeps driving into the back of Wyatt Teller. This is a missed opportunity.
This third-and-five is another example. Josh Jackson keeps on a very well blocked quarterback power on a critical red zone third down. Former Hokies' target Chase Pine (No. 36) blitzes right into the hole. Wyatt Teller absolutely destroys Pine.
A bubble forms in between Teller and Keene's kick out blocks and Kyle Chung's down block. The bubble is to Jackson's right. The free hitter is Idowu, who is running from the left hash. Jackson has two choices. The inside lane is the most direct route, yet he doesn't see Idowu closing. The outside lane is wide open. Jackson chooses the inside, and then doesn't have the power to run through Idowu for the first down. The quarterback power call felt like Fuente would go for it on fourth down. After teasing a fourth down attempt, Brian Johnson made a field goal to give the Hokies a lead.
Without an explosive running back, the margins are going to be this slim. Fortunately, offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen incorporated quarterback runs back into the offense, and that added threat opened up some additional space. Jackson ran with authority on both split zone read options, the inverted veer, and even a speed option.
On this 2nd-and-10 speed option, the Hokies leave defensive end James Folston (No. 40) unblocked. The Hokies have Savoy and Cunningham out in front to block for the pitch man while Hezekiah Grimsley cracked inside. The key block is the reach block by Pfaff on defensive tackle Keyshon Camp (No. 10). Camp is aligned as a three-technique. Pfaff beats him off the snap, gives a little bit of ground, and works his head across Camp's chest. When he feels Camp getting away, Pfaff drops a beautiful legal cut block on Camp. Jackson sees the bubble and turns inside for a nice chunk gain.
The Inability to Sustain Drives
Despite the improvement of the ground attack and by the receivers to get open, two issues derailed the Hokies' ability to sustain drives. The lesser of the two issues was pass protection. Parker Osterloh had a couple of "yikes" moments, yet the bigger concern was Holston and McClease struggled to pick up blitzing linebackers. On this third-and-long, Pitt's best pass rusher, linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu (No. 23), blitzes between Braxton Pfaff and Kyle Chung. McClease gets overwhelmed by Idowu.
Holston struggled in similar situations, in large part due to a habit where he tends to throw a shoulder instead of attacking with his hands. Next week, Virginia has an excellent speed rusher in Chris Peace. The young Hokies running backs will have their hands full.
Jackson's inconsistency passing was clearly the biggest obstacle to scoring points on Saturday. At moments, he delivered brilliant throws, including a beautiful sideline throw from a moving pocket to Cam Phillips to get the Hokies out of the shadow of their own end zone. Unfortunately, Jackson could not throw his receiver open on several critical third down conversion attempts where he had an open receiver. At other moments, Cornelsen schemed receivers open for big plays and Jackson did not deliver an accurate ball.
Jackson's first bad bust ended up not hurting the Hokies. On Tech's opening drive, Jackson missed Savoy running wide open to the post on an RPO concept. Later, Cornelsen dialed up a post-wheel play pass off a quick pitch action. Pitt is in quarters coverage, which leaves Coleman Fox wide open in the left flat.
Jackson never looks at Fox because Phil Campbell (No. 24) overran the pitch fake, much like Terrell Edmunds did against Georgia Tech, and Phil Patterson exploded past him. Jackson simply overthrows Patterson.
Without game breakers on offense, those opportunities for huge plays are incredibly critical because the offense struggles to sustain drives. Jackson had multiple opportunities on third down to hit open receivers to keep drives alive, and he could not make an accurate throw. Jackson's lack of consistency from a moving pocket (which is a way of mitigating the pass protection struggles of the offensive line) was particularly frustrating.
On this fourth down situation close to the red zone, Cornelsen dials up a play action-waggle concept. Jackson fakes a handoff to McClease. McClease then leaks to the right flat as Jackson rolls right. Pitt's defenders sneak up, leaving Phillips crossing the middle of the field from the back-side of the play.
Briggs trails Phillips across on his back hip. There is not a defender that can step in to Phillips path from the right quarter. If Jackson can lead Phillips, this should be an easy completion for a huge first down and a possible touchdown. Instead, Jackson throws it to the only place where the defender can make a play on the ball — behind Phillips. Phillips has to stop and try to come back to the football, and Briggs is able to knock it away. The Hokies get stopped on a drive where the coaches dialed up a good play, the receiver is open, and the blocking is good. I keep reminding myself Jackson is a freshman, and this is the type of inconsistency that comes with a freshman. However, with the margins for error being so small at this point, the Hokies cannot afford missing these opportunities when they finally do sustain a drive.
A Preview of the Goal Line Stand
BilldozerVT did an amazing job of highlighting the epic four-play goal line stand that saved the game for Virginia Tech. During the stand, rarely mentioned depth players like Houshun Gaines, Khalil Ladler, and Deon Newsome made critical efforts to keep Pitt out of the end zone. The groundwork for stopping Darrin Hall and company was laid early in the game as the defense beautifully executed their gap fit strategy. Minus a handful of plays, the Hokies were gap sound despite using a ton of movement. The Hokies also benefitted from terrific defensive tackle play to keep Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds free from blockers.
Let's examine two plays. On this second-and-five, Pitt runs an outside zone to the field-side. Standout offensive tackle Brian O'Neil (No. 70) is beat off the football by Trevon Hill. Hill wants to spill the ball outside without getting reached, so he pushes O'Neil back into the path of the ball carrier. Deon Newsome is playing as an edge defender, and he uses a force technique against H-Back Chris Clark (No. 87). By keeping outside leverage and holding his ground against the block, Newsome will turn the ball carrier back inside to the free hitter, Mook Reynolds.
Normally, Reynolds would likely make this stop for a four- or five-yard gain. Left guard Alex Officer (No. 63) and center Jimmy Morrissey (No. 67) have the assignment of combination blocking Ricky Walker with one then climbing to block Andrew Motuapuaka. Walker does a fantastic job of ripping through Officer's attempt to reach him. Morrissey does not even make contact with Walker. When Morrissey realizes he cannot help Officer, he attempts to climb to Motuapuaka. Motuapuaka has already diagnosed that Hill and Walker have the inside gaps occupied, and he fills into the bubble between Walker and Newsome. Motuapuaka then beautifully wraps up Hall for a loss. This is exactly what Foster looks for from his linebackers when they do not have a force or spill assignment. He wants them to key the running backs and fit into the first bubble they identify play-side. This is the type of instinctive play that Motuapuaka struggled to make as an underclassman. He delivered a resounding performance in his final game at Lane Stadium.
In order to create that space, the defensive tackles have to keep those linebackers clean. Recent Hokie defenses have featured twitchy defensive tackles. However, those exciting players rarely could fit their gap in the face of a strong double team and hold their ground long enough to prevent the second lineman from releasing to the linebacker.
Ricky Walker and Tim Settle completely change the dynamic inside. On Saturday, I could not find a single defensive snap where at least one of the 4-8 pairing was not on the field. When the Hokies were in their base 40 front, Walker and Settle took every snap. Their dominance against Pitt's double teams gave Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds the opportunity to shine.
This critical third down stop set up a missed field goal by the Panthers. Once again, Hill spills the ball outside. Reynolds, Newsome, and Motuapuaka take on blocks with outside leverage, leaving a bubble in between Hill and Newsome.
Once again, Walker is critical. Officer and Morrissey try to combo on Walker, with Morrissey releasing to the back-side linebacker, Tremaine Edmunds. Officer and Morrissey do not get any movement on Walker. That split second delay allows Edmunds to scrape across and fill the bubble. For Pitt, a relatively well blocked play at the point of attack ends up in loss yardage. Walker will not get any kind of statistical recognition for this play. However, his strength and mobility at the point of attack allowed Edmunds to use his range and speed to fill a gap all the way across the formation. This is outstanding football by both players.
The final four plays echo these two examples.
All game long, Virginia Tech's front was so mobile and physical in their gap fits that their free hitters consistently stayed clean. And, unlike some past games, this was probably the best tackling game the Hokies had this season up until the 74-yard Weah catch-and-run.
Commonwealth Cup Looming
The Hokies are beat up and have a short week before they roll into Charlottesville to battle for the Commonwealth Cup against Bronco Mendenhall and his Toasty Hoos. Virginia presents some challenges offensively. In last season's route, Virginia did a lousy job of getting the ball into the hands of their top playmaker, Olamide Zaccheaus (No. 4). Zaccheaus is a terrific wide receiver who also is dangerous on jet sweeps, much like Quadree Henderson of Pitt. Zaccheaus is a superior route runner to Henderson (who the Hokies mitigated extremely well) and has a quarterback in Kurt Benkert who is much less gunshy about throwing into tight spaces. Opposite of Zaccheaus, WR Andre Levrone (No. 14) jumps out on film. He is a big-bodied vertical threat built like receivers that the Hokies have struggled with from time-to-time in recent years. Defensively, Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding have been very good players for a long time on some very bad teams. Of all the names on defense, OLB Chris Peace (No. 13) gives me some nightmares. He is an athletic speed rusher who gave Yosh Nijman fits last season until he left the game with a leg injury. If Nijman cannot play, the Hokies will have to help Osterloh in protection. Otherwise, the ball will come out much quicker than the ideal for Tech's system.
While Virginia has had moments where they have looked very dangerous, they've been as mercurial as almost any team in college football. Benkert is still prone to fits of inaccuracy and turnovers. Virginia's run game is essentially limited to inside zones with Jordan Ellis (No. 1) and Zaccheaus on jet sweeps. If the Hokies can make the Cavaliers one-dimensional, they can generate some pressure on Benkert. Newsome's ability to cover Zaccheaus in the slot will be a key matchup to watch.
Offensively, the Hokies set the tone against Virginia last season by coming out and dominating the line of scrimmage. Virginia loves to blitz and has good speed rushers. To give Jackson time and build his confidence, establishing the run and then finding easy play-action throws off the run-action are critical. If the Hokies get into the red zone, they have to be more efficient. Virginia has enough playmakers offensively that scoring 20 won't be enough for the Hokies to win.