The bowl season has changed so much since the Hokies made their first visit to the Sugar Bowl. Back in '95, getting to a bowl was such an accomplishment for many programs that those teams are remembered in legendary terms. A bowl was so significant that "getting to a bowl" was a key storyline component for the final scene in The Program.
Fast forward twenty-plus years and the landscape has changed. The college football playoff and proliferation of bowl games has transformed bowl season into a series of oddball meaningless exhibitions. For coaches, however, bowl season represents additional weeks of practice and an opportunity to develop players that will be needed to contribute the following season.
The Camping World Bowl was no exception. The Hokies faced an explosive Oklahoma State team without record-setting wide receiver Cam Phillips and leading rusher Travon McMillian. Defensively, uniquely talented players like Tim Settle and Tremaine Edmunds were possibly playing their last games for Virginia Tech. The extra weeks of practice and the game itself represented platforms for the young players who are desperately needed to be contributors in 2018 to step up.
The returns were mixed. Josh Jackson struggled with accuracy. His young receivers were not always sharp with their route running and struggled with some drops. Eric Kumah, Phillip Patterson, and Hezekiah Grimsley made some plays in the second half that showed promise. When Parker Osterloh could not provide reliable pass protection for Jackson's blind side, D'Andre Plantin was given an extended audition at left tackle. Plantin struggled a bit in pass protection late in the game. However, his run blocking showed that he would likely find a starting role somewhere on the Hokies' offensive line, even if it is not at left tackle.
It was the Hokies' running game, particularly a breakout performance by Deshawn McClease (18 carries, carrier high 124 yards, and 6.9 YPC) and terrific blocking by the Hokies' tight end group, which kept Virginia Tech's hopes for victory alive. The dominant run game effort provides the Hokies' coaching staff a building block to build their offense around in 2018.
The Running Game Keeps the Hokies Afloat
Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen wanted to slow down the tempo and run the football against Oklahoma State's defensive front. The Hokies' rush attack dominated the Cowboys. Cornelsen deployed two tight end sets and regularly used Chris Cunningham to block Oklahoma State's defensive ends one-on-one. Cunningham stepped up and surprisingly dominated in those situations.
One play in particular was extremely effective against the Cowboys and highlighted how critical Cunningham was to the game plan. Last month, I wrote about the Hokies running a variety of inside zone and powers off the rocket motion against Virginia. The Cowboys' defensive ends had a tendency to crash to the inside. Cornelsen took advantage of that predisposition by incorporating the rocket motion and aligning two tight ends to the motion side.
Before the snap Sean Savoy rocket motions back the boundary (right). The offensive line zone blocks to the left. The zone block influences defensive end Jordan Brailford (No. 94) and both linebackers to fill away from the motion. There is a decisive cutback schemed into the run that McClease is cognizant of. Cunningham is one-on-one with Brailford and drives him inside. It's an outstanding block. Braxton Pfaff and Kyle Chung combo on defensive tackle Trey Carter (No. 99). Pfaff then peels off to inside linebacker Chad Whitener (No. 45).
The influence of the zone step to the left and Cunningham's terrific block seals the entire Oklahoma State front to the left. Jackson and Savoy's option action freezes the boundary corner and safety. This leaves Dalton Keene and Deshawn McClease two-on-one against safety Tre Flowers (No. 31). Keene squares up on Flowers and turns him inside. McClease rumbles for 9 yards.
"Well, mostly it was inside zone," said Fuente after the game with regards to what about the run game worked well. "I thought Deshawn did a really good job of cutting it back when it needed to be cut back. He bounced it out the front a couple of times when they all collapsed in there."
The Hokies ran variations of inside zone repeatedly in the first half. Almost each one gashed the Pokes' defensive front. Oklahoma State continued to overplay the rocket motion and the Hokies tailbacks would explode through the bubble. Each time, there was Cunningham at the point of attack, dominating Brailford, while Keene was effectively getting square on defenders at the second level.
In the second half, the Cowboys ceased crashing their defensive ends as much. The Hokies abandoned the rocket motion, and with Oklahoma State's defensive ends aligning more to the outside, flipped the blocking assignment of their two tight ends.
With Cunningham uncovered, he climbs to LB Justin Phillips (No. 19). Keene has to get his head inside of Brailford's right shoulder and turn Brailford to the outside. This is a very difficult block for most tight ends. Keene uses his quickness to get great body position and holds Brailford off to create a bubble for McClease. McClease does a terrific job of setting up Keene's block and then driving behind Cunningham into the bubble.
Skill position blocking has been problematic during Fuente's tenure. However, the offensive line and skill position players cannot block every on every defender. The difference between the Hokies' rushing attack and the running games of elite teams has been the inability of the running backs to win one-on-one battles. All three Hokies running backs (McClease, Steven Peoples, and Jalen Holston) ran by or through unblocked defenders when their blocking could not account for all the Cowboys.
For example, this is one of the rare occasions where the Hokies ran an inside zone from the two tight end formation sans rocket motion. As a changeup, Sean Savoy is supposed to crack back on outside linebacker Calvin Bundage (No. 1).
Savoy fails to cut off Bundage. McClease makes himself small and slashes through Bundage into the second level. These are the types of runs we have not seen enough of during Fuente's tenure. McClease's improvement, and the utilization of more tailback runs gives the Hokies a foundation and identity to build around, and an attractive enticement for blue-chip recruits such as 2019 running back Devyn Ford.
Mercurial Defensive Performance with Too Many Breakdowns in the Secondary
While the Hokies' offensive output was inconsistent, the Virginia Tech defense was downright mercurial. The Lunch Pail Defense delivered electric three and outs, stout red zone stands, and defensive breakdowns that produced quick scores. Oklahoma State's tempo and dynamic playmakers caused confusion in the secondary and exhaustion at the line of scrimmage.
Without Terrell Edmunds, Divine Deablo, and a healthy Mook Reynolds, Tech's safeties struggled mightily. Often you could see the defensive backs gesturing in a confused manner. When Oklahoma State put together a long drive, frequently it began with a busted assignment by a member of Tech's secondary followed by confusion sparked by successive tempo.
After Tech scored to cut the Cowboys' lead to 20-14, the Hokies forced an incompletion on the first play of the ensuing Oklahoma State drive. On 2nd-and-10, the Virginia Tech defense had an opportunity to flip the momentum of the game. Oklahoma State rushed to the line of scrimmage in a balanced formation with two receivers to each side.
When the formation is balanced, Virginia Tech usually sets the passing strength to the wide-side of the field. However, with the ball in the middle of the field, it's seems the strength is set to James Washington (No. 28), and Deon Newsome is misaligned. Brandon Facyson and Khalil Ladler are left with an abundance of space to cover.
Facyson and Ladler are screaming for help, as Facyson is alone with the Biletnikoff winner. Reggie Floyd finally gets Newsome's attention, and Newsome runs across late to try and help Facyson bracket Washington. He is too late. Washington curls up in front of Facyson's soft coverage for an easy completion and first down.
The first down allows Oklahoma State to spring into fast-paced action. The Cowboys rush to the line of scrimmage to run an outside zone. Newsome makes up for his blunder by slashing into the backfield to tackle Justice Hill (No. 5) for a loss.
However, the Cowboys rush back to the line after the run, Mason Rudolph catches the Hokies scrambling. Ladler shifts over to play deep inside leverage against the boundary trips alignment. While the Hokies have enough bodies, there is miscommunication between Floyd and Greg Stroman. Note their hand gestures prior to the snap. Floyd is looking back at Stroman when the ball is snapped.
Stroman plays quarters coverage, and checks up on the quick hitch by the widest wide receiver. If quarters was the correct call, it failed to account that the Cowboys had Washington, the best deep ball threat in the country, one-on-one with Floyd. I am not sure if Floyd thought he had deep help from Stroman or if Washington just blew by him. However, that second of confusion clearly caught him flat footed, and Washington made the Hokies pay.
Moving forward, safety is a very crowded position on the depth chart. Divine Deablo returns from a fracture foot after an impressive early-season debut. Blue chip 2017 signee Devon Hunter is expected to make more of an impact after a season of practice reps. The Camping World Bowl was a critical opportunity for Floyd and Ladler to make a good impression. Both young safeties were excellent in run support. Throughout 2017, Floyd displayed range in zone coverage, but struggled in man-to-man and quarters coverage. Ladler had his first chance to show his mettle in zone coverage against a spread and he struggled mightily.
Ladler seemed to get lost in coverage or take false steps, and it would cause him to cover "no-man's land". For example, on this opening drive, Ladler finds himself matched up in inside leverage coverage on Dillon Stoner (No. 17). Stoner curls up underneath Ladler's coverage. As soon as he checks up, Ladler should push to the ball. Instead, he almost freezes and looks back at the quarterback. That hesitation gives Rudolph and Stoner plenty of separation to complete the pass.
Ladler had some execution breakdowns as well. This near miss stood out. To the field-side, the slot WR runs a slant, and Washington, wide to the field, runs a post. To influence Ladler and Newsome, Hill runs out of the backfield to the right flat.
Trevon Hill's ability to generate edge pressure bailed out Tech's secondary. Both Newsome and Ladler go to the inside slant. Facyson has no inside leverage help on Washington, and Hill is all alone in the right flat. If Rudolph had time to make a more accurate throw or check down, the Cowboys would have completed an easy first down. Ladler and Floyd are tough role players with limitations, much like an Alonzo Tweedy. While Floyd in particular was strong against the run, Oklahoma State was able to exploit matchups with the pair in the passing game.
What concerned me though was some of the breakdowns by Adonis Alexander. Alexander was lauded as a potential early draftee. He was not targeted often by Oklahoma State. However, he made a colossal blunder late in the first half that put the Hokies behind the eight ball.
The Cowboys setup Alexander with a quick screen from a stacked wide formation.
Alexander was in soft coverage. He reacts quickly to come up and minimize the gain. The Cowboys line up quickly in the same formation.
I am not sure if Alexander expects safety help. However, WR Marcell Ateman (No. 3) does not fake any kind of screen. Stoner breaks inside to occupy Anthony Shegog. Ateman runs vertically. Alexander inexplicably (unless he was supposed to have deep third help) approaches the line of scrimmage as if he is defending the screen. This sure looks like Alexander got caught cheating, and Ateman made the Hokies pay. Hill punched it in from a yard out on the next play, and all the good the Hokies had achieved in the first half was gone in a matter of seconds.
It's clear after the game, the 2017 season as a whole, and departure of Tim Settle that Bud Foster needs to develop quality depth in the front-four. Against the Pokes, the Hokies were able to generate some pressure with four, but the rush was not consistent enough to fluster Rudolph into turnovers. For long stretches the Hokies' pass rush was non-existent this season. I believe that's mostly due to the lack of depth up front. For much of the season, Foster was forced to keep DTs Ricky Walker and Tim Settle on the field at all times while rotating three defensive ends. Against Oklahoma State, backup defensive tackles Jarrod Hewitt and Xavier Burke got one defensive series, and the Cowboys scored easily. At defensive end, Hill and Houshun Gaines got almost every repetition.
In addition, Foster has to find a formula to generate pressure when he utilizes extra defensive backs. Against the Cowboys, Foster rolled dime personnel regularly to combat Oklahoma State's four-wide,one running back alignment. Shegog entered the game for either a defensive tackle or a defensive end. This provided some rest for the weary front-four.
Unfortunately, the dime look rarely stopped the Cowboys. Alexander's breakdown was evidence of communication and execution problems. The Cowboys were able to convert several third-and-long passes in gaps in the zone. Perhaps more problematic was the lack of pressure and ability to stop the run up front.
Foster was predictable in switching to the dime package. More often than not, when Oklahoma State went with four wide receivers, the extra defensive back rotated in. Down and distance didn't seem to matter. With only four defenders in the box, Foster essentially conceded big yardage when Oklahoma State ran the ball.
For example, after a false start Oklahoma State faced a 1st-and-15. Despite the Cowboys being right on the edge of the red zone, Foster rotates in his dime personnel/30 package. This leaves only four defenders in the box, and Andrew Motuapuaka forced to cover multiple gaps. Shadowing Hill across multiple gaps is not a match up that Motuapuaka is going to win.
Hill rumbles for nine easy yards, which essentially negates the negative impact of the penalty.
There are two possible ways Foster could address this issue. He could continue to use the 30-front for the dime package and move some of those extra defensive backs into the box. I think this would give Foster more options and angles for zone blitzes which could generate pressure and confuse spread quarterbacks. Should Foster want to continue to layer umbrella coverage like he did against the Cowboys, he could also employ a 40-front (especially with the young edge rushers that will be in the program over the next couple of years) and remove his worst coverage linebacker for an extra defensive back.
With 2017 in the books, the future is murkier to predict for the Hokies' defense. With cornerback and defensive tackle depth already questionable, the spring will feature a significant number of battles for playing time. Developing depth to overcome the loss of top-end talent to graduation and the NFL Draft will be critical.