As the Virginia Tech offense sputtered and roared, often both on the same drive, it became apparent Tech's defense would need to deliver a classic performance to secure the Commonwealth Cup. And Bud Foster's unit delivered a masterstroke. Not only did they keep the Cavaliers off the scoreboard, but they turned Virginia's offense (which previously shredded Miami for three quarters) into a timid, listless bunch that looked defeated down the stretch. Combined with the Hokies' ability to run the football at key moments, Tech asserted a level of physical dominance that did not translate to the final 10-0 scoreboard, yet was palatable to watch. The Hokies' young offense and mash unit defense afforded Virginia its best shot to end the streak in the near future. Despite all those factors, another UVA senior class walked out of Scott Stadium a stinging 0-4 against Virginia Tech.
Prepared to Dominate the Box
Minus DE Vinny Mihota, whip Mook Reynolds, FS Terrell Edmunds, and DE Trevon Hill (early on), the Hokies looked vulnerable to a Virginia offense with excellent slot receivers. The Cavaliers were confident.The television crew repeated ad nauseam, this was the year the Commonwealth Cup would stay in Charlottesville.
Any confidence shattered early when it became clear Tech's defensive line, spearheaded by Ricky Walker and Tim Settle, could not be single blocked by the Hoos' inept offensive line. The 4-8's dominance up-front prevented Virginia from getting blockers to the second-level, which stifled the run game. The Hokies' pass rush forced offensive coordinator Robert Anae to keep receivers in as blockers, which took away opportunities to target the Hokies' inexperienced safeties.
Foster is often credited for his aggressive approach and how his scheme dictates to the offense where the ball goes. However, it is rare that Foster gets credit for the film analysis and preparation of his players during game week. While it is impossible to prove definitively without being in the film room, it certainly appeared Virginia had strong tendencies based on formation and motion which Tech exploited. The recognition by the defense was outstanding. When Virginia passed, on most plays, the Hokies' defenders completely ignored run keys and immediately sank into coverage. When Virginia showed a run-tendency formation, safeties Reggie Floyd, Khalil Ladler, and Deon Newsome were remarkably fast in reading their keys and filling the alleys, especially for inexperienced players. The entire defense played incredibly fast and confident all night.
Although, no player exuded confidence like Tremaine Edmunds. I have been critical of his play, particularly his open field tackling and coverage, over the season. I did not think his film warranted Butkus Award consideration. However against Virginia, Edmunds quickly diagnosed plays and took away time and space exactly like a Butkus-worthy linebacker should. His teammates did their job spectacularly at times to facilitate the room Edmunds needed to make those plays.
Right off the bat, the Wahoos turned to a gadget play to try to catch the Hokies off balance. Quarterback Kurt Benkert fakes a jet sweep to Joe Reed (No. 2), and then shovel passes to Olamide Zaccheaus (No. 4) back to the field-side. Zaccheaus has left tackle Jack English (No. 67) pulling and leading him around the right side. Anae is counting on the Hokies to be caught out of position.
Instead, the Hokies play beautiful assignment football. Settle and Walker are keying the first step of the offensive line. When Virginia zone steps to their right, Settle and Walker move laterally to mirror their movement. On the back-side, DE Emmanuel Belmar (in his first start) has a force call. Accordingly, he takes a contain posture to force Reed to cut inside if he has the ball. There, Reggie Floyd (who is filling the alley to the inside) is awaiting unblocked. Brandon Facyson will pick up any receiver that releases (in this case he picks up Reed) once he ensures that a run is not coming his way.
To the play-side, Houshun Gaines initially gets pinned inside by tight end Richard Burney (No. 16). Gaines does a terrific job of giving ground and fighting outside to try and keep contain. This is critical, as Newsome and Ladler both are sealed inside by receiver Andre Levrone (No. 14).
Gaines' hustle draws the attention of Burney, and right tackle Chris Glaser (No. 69). Settle gets outstanding penetration that ties up right guard Jake Fieler (No. 77) and center Dillon Reinkensmeyer (No. 79). Fieler should peel off the combination block to cut off the alley created in between Gaines and Settle. Instead, Settle pushes him back (and in the pile up, picks off left guard John Montelus, No. 74 too).
The bubble between Settle and Gaines gives Edmunds a lane. Edmunds quickly diagnoses the shovel pass and explodes through the hole. Zaccheaus is an explosive athlete, yet at full speed, Edmunds completely takes away his angle. This kind of pursuit will make NFL scouts salivate.
Foster had the book on UVA right from the get go. Even on first down (usually the most unpredictable down), the Hokies had their safeties aggressively charging into the box when Virginia ran, but often on passing plays those same safeties completely discounted the possibility of the run. Here are two first down plays where Virginia's formation triggered significantly different reactions by the Hokies' defense.
First, Virginia runs an isolation play from the diamond formation.
Reinkensmeyer drives Settle outside, while Montelus tries to do the same to Walker. Again, Edmunds quickly recognizes the play and fills the gap before H-Back Alec Shifflett (No. 49) can isolate on him. Walker quickly sheds Montelus' block to support along with Andrew Motuapuaka. Note how quickly Ladler and Floyd fly into the box without hesitation. They quickly diagnosed run all the way.
Second, Virginia is aligned in a trips formation to the field-side. At the snap, the Hokies' linebackers and safeties all drop into coverage. Ladler and Newsome play short zones, and Stroman and Floyd (rotating over the top from the boundary) are deep. Note how both linebackers immediately drop into coverage with zero attention to a potential run.
Up front, Settle and Walker execute a twist stunt. Settle crashes through the A-gap and picks off three Virginia blockers. Walker cuts off Settle's pick and runs right into Benkert's escape lane. Gaines collapses back to the inside to finish off Benkert.
This outstanding recognition happened time and time again. When the Hokies weren't winning with recognition and scheme, Walker, Settle, and Edmunds repeatedly made the kind of plays that will make the NFL take notice. Here, Walker single-handedly shuts down a quarterback draw by shedding a turn out attempt by Montelus.
Walker and Settle were dominant, yet nobody had more "WOW" moments than Edmunds. Historically, few Hokies' linebackers have made an impact in the NFL. Most NFL defense require linebackers to fit, beat blocks, and make tackles in space. In contrast, Foster's scheme tasks its linebackers to either fit gaps or serve as a free hitter. The latter expects sticking to the scheme while the former requires athletes who can freelance more. Edmunds has the tools at the next level to fit the gap and run down the ball carrier.
Late in the third quarter Virginia gained momentum with plenty of time to capitalize. An errant Eric Gallo snap led to a Tech punt. Shortly after, Virginia gained 28 yards via a Zaccheaus slant-and-run. The Hokies forced a 3rd-and-7 and rolled a dime look.
With a numerical advantage in the box, Anae called an inside zone read. Edmunds shed a block and stuck Jordan Ellis (No. 1) right in the hole to negate any thought of the Cavaliers attempting a fourth down conversion.
For the first time in some time, Foster has a defensive unit that is talented at all three levels. They're seasoned and confident and the results have shown on the field. If somehow the Hokies get the Edmunds brothers, Settle, Walker, and Adonis Alexander to return next season, this defensive group would seemingly be the preeminent unit in the ACC for 2018.
Rocket Motion Hits and Misses
While the defense was dominant, the offense flashed occasional promise disrupted by inexperience and poor execution. Offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen focused heavily on establishing the running game to counter Bronco Mendenhall's well-disguised blitz and coverage schemes. Virginia's defensive scheme features defensive linemen tying up blockers to free the outstanding pairing of FS Quin Blanding (No.3) and ILB Micah Kiser (No. 53) to roam unblocked. Cornelsen responded with an abundance of rocket motion and misdirection in an effort to keep Blanding and Kiser on their heels.
For those not familiar with the term "rocket motion", it is similar to a jet motion where a receiver motions across the formation to create a mesh point immediately following the snap. With a jet motion, the receiver runs in a straight line and creates a mesh point in front of the quarterback. With a rocket motion, the receiver runs in a straight line, and then bends deeper to create a mesh point behind the quarterback right before the ball is snapped. The Hokies coupled the rocket motion with a variety of inside zone and power looks. Quarterback Josh Jackson and the rocket receiver would fake an option off the dive. The goal of the motion was to influence the Virginia safeties and linebackers out of position.
On this 2nd-and-10, Hezekiah Grimsley rocket motions from right to left. The Hokies run a power. Chris Cunningham caves in outside linebacker Chris Peace (No. 13) and Wyatt Teller pulls around to seal Kiser to the inside.
When you watch again, note how Blanding chases Grimsley from the opposite side of the field. That leaves run support in a pickle absent Kiser, who Teller handled. Steven Peoples bounces into space before SS Juan Thornhill (No. 21) makes a beautiful open field tackle. This also emphasizes how Peoples, as well as the other tailbacks, while running hard, are not game breakers who can generate huge plays when the scheme creates openings. Peoples won some one-on-one battles to turn two-yard runs into five-yard gains. However, he isn't the gamebreaker to pop one the distance.
While the rocket motion created the space Cornelsen sought some of the time, at other times Virginia completely disregarded it, especially on third-and-short situations.
On this 3rd-and-1, the Hokies attempt an inside zone off rocket motion. Kyle Chung shifted over to the left side in an unbalanced look. Blanding completely ignores the motion to leave FS Brenton Nelson (No. 28) alone to deal with Jackson and Cam Phillips on a potential option.
Had the Hokies run a true option, Jackson would read OLB Malcolm Cook (No. 17) crashing inside and keep the ball around the edge. Instead, it is seemingly a give all the way. Chung, who struggled badly for most of the game, hesitates and fails to get his head inside to scoop DE Mandy Alonso (No. 91). Alonso nails Peoples in the backfield, and Virginia has numbers in the box to provide support.
Although in other cases, even when the Hokies failed to influence the safeties to move, the offensive line and Peoples got enough drive to keep drives alive.
The Hokies dominated time of possession 37:16-22:44 yet could not capitalize. A lack of explosive plays meant the Hokies had to string long drives together and eventually some kind of execution breakdown would prevent them from putting points on the scoreboard.
Cornelsen attempted to use the same rocket motion to create openings in the vertical passing game. Virginia did a terrific job of rotating their back-side safety to the deep post early to take away those deep throws. When Jackson finally got an open look, it was on a wheel route in the fourth quarter to Dalton Keene.
Boundary safety Chris Moore (No. 39) immediately recognizes a pass. Moore sinks on the post route to James Clark. In the second quarter, the Hokies ran a similar deep post that Jackson threw to Eric Kumah in double coverage. (Kumah was kneecapped by Thornhill on an obvious pass interference that didn't get flagged.) Virginia was ready for the post.
Instead, Keene (who throughout the game often chipped on defensive ends instead of going out for passes) engaged Peace for a count and then released on the wheel route. The design works. The deep third along the boundary is vacated and Keene is behind Peace. Unfortunately, Chung gets beat by Andrew Brown (No. 9) which seemingly unnerved Jackson. As has become more common lately, Jackson threw behind Keene and way out of bounds instead of letting Keene run under the football. Jackson also didn't lead Cam Phillips on a wide open post route in the third quarter. Those two major opportunities should have lead to more Hokies' points. Jackson's interception (which easily could have been returned for a touchdown) and his inaccuracy at key moments problematic. The offensive line has improved. (Although, I didn't feel that this effort was nearly as solid as the Pitt game.) Grimsley stepped up as a new weapon, and Phil Patterson was frequently getting separation yet wasn't targeted. Jackson has to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers with more regularity and give them a chance to make a play.
Misdirection Generates Some Big Plays
While the offensive line wasn't dominant, they engaged their blocks well enough that Cornelsen's misdirection plays had an opportunity to pop. The primary benefactor was Deshawn McClease, who had green grass numerous times.
Cornelsen's naked bootleg call for Jackson on 4th-and-1 in the 3rd quarter was brave enough. However, I thought his design of what amounted to a naked bootleg for McClease to be really gutsy.
Teller and Braxton Pfaff pull left, to lead out in front on a quarterback sweep for Jackson. Chung blocks inside to help sell the quarterback sweep, but he's looking to seal a linebacker inside (an attempt that's ultimately unsuccessful). Brown is left unblocked, but held in place as Jackson and McClease mesh. The sweep action works so well that linebacker Jordan Mack (No. 37) pursues Jackson well after the give. Brown and Kiser initially freeze just enough that McClease is able to beat them in a footrace to the edge. Clark delivers a strong block against Blanding and McClease gets a first down.
McClease was able to find similar seams off zones with jet sweep fakes. On this inside zone, the two UVA safeties almost collide as Nelson (No. 28) chases the motion man (Grimsley) to the left while Moore (No. 39) pursues McClease to the right.
McClease's speed to the edge makes an impact. Moore and Blanding over-pursue to the field-side (right). After beautiful cut blocks by Pfaff and Teller, McClease patiently cuts back into the bubble on the back-side of the zone for a big first down, 11-yard run.
Cornelsen also set up the Hokies' most critical deep completion — the 25-yard completion to Grimsley that preceded Tech's only touchdown of the night. The Hokies regularly cracked their receivers inside on wide running plays in an attempt to make those safeties and linebackers hesitate on wide runs. With that established, the Hokies faked a sweep to Travon McMillian. Nelson, the field safety for Virginia on the play, bit hard on the fake even though Keene stayed on the back-side — presumably to help Parker Osterloh with a pass rush — instead of flexing out to yield trips to the field-side or align play-side to lead block.
Grimsley made a spectacular catch. However, even on this pass, Jackson is incredibly late delivering the football. Grimsley breaks to the corner as Jackson plants his back foot. Jackson hesitates to deliver the ball. This allows Nelson to get back into the play and Grimsley almost runs out of room on the sideline. Again, Jackson (who is rumored to be playing with several injuries) has to work through this progression quicker and deliver the ball to a better spot. Fortunately, the Hokies were able to cash in later on the touchdown to Cunningham. Still, these opportunities to catch a defense with their pants down don't happen often. With such a young offense, this team can't miss and expect to win without almost perfection from the defense. Fortunately for Hokie Nation, Virginia Tech received perfection from the Lunch Pail Defense and Bud Foster on Saturday. Fourteen in a row feels so good.