Hand me a plate of crow. I thought that even with an effective offensive performance, the Hokies wouldn't have the depth and athleticism to stifle a bruising North Carolina offensive line. Instead, in front of a raucous crowd at Lane Stadium Justin Hamilton's defense checked all the boxes. Veterans like defensive tackles Norell Pollard and Mario Kendricks took a big step forward. New faces like Nasir Peoples provided a stabilizing influence. And Hamilton moved his personnel around to masterfully mitigate the Hokies' potential defensive liabilities. The much-ballyhooed Tar Heels were fortunate to stay within striking distance, as some missed opportunities prevented Virginia Tech from taking a three-score lead into halftime. While there were moments that felt like the Hokies were hanging on by their fingernails, the reality was that even with the blemishes, the game wasn't as close as the score. Hopefully, the failure to blow the game wide open has the benefit of the defense learning how to maintain their intensity, as defensive letdowns have plagued the Hokies the last few seasons.
There were plenty of storylines for the defensive performance. While lots of individual players deserve kudos (and will get them later in this column), Hamilton wheeled out some creative tactics to take North Carolina out of favorable matchups.
I discussed in my preview how North Carolina would line up receiver Josh Downs in the slot and attack Chamarri Conner on vertical routes. The Hokies played a lot of cover one, with man coverage outside and the boundary and free safety taking turns as the single high or the extra defender in the box. As I predicted, UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo tested Conner in man coverage early.
From the field-side slot Downs (No. 11) feigns a slant and then bends back into an outside release fade. The Hokies run a cover 1 look. Field safety Keonta Jenkins (No. 33) sinks into the box, while boundary safety Nasir Peoples (No. 31) drifts from the boundary hash to the middle of the field. This puts Conner in a tough spot. Dorian Strong (No. 44) has man-to-man out wide to the field, and gets pulled up on the hitch route. Peoples has a long distance to cover to help Conner deep. This makes the Hokies vulnerable deep between the field hash and sideline. Conner was on an island, and did a great job of getting turned and running with Downs, preventing a devastating early home run play.
After this attempt, it didn't seem like North Carolina took another shot with Downs on the fade. Part of that was the outstanding pass rush from Tech's defensive line. However, what little headway the Tar Heels made in the passing game came primarily on shorter passes against Conner. This prompted an adjustment.
Instead of sticking with Conner at the nickel, in clear passing situations, Hamilton moved Conner into Dax Hollifield's mike linebacker spot, played Strong and Armani Chatman at corner, and then matched Jermaine Waller on Downs in the slot. Waller is a markedly better man coverage defender than Conner, while Conner adds speed and the ability to get more depth into underneath zones than Hollifield.
This 3rd-and-13 was the first play I noticed the change.
Sam Howell, who is under a lot of fire after Friday night, makes the right decision. Ty Chandler's (No. 19) motion and swing route gets Peoples (No. 31) to bite forward, leaving Emery Simmons' (No. 0) in cut from the boundary as the open route. Chatman (No. 27) does a tremendous job of bursting out of his outside leverage backpedal to punch through Simmons' back shoulder to break up the pass. Simmons didn't do Howell any favors with a very sloppy route to tip Chatman.
The Hokies' defensive tackles created tremendous pressure through the A-gaps early, which prompted Hamilton to showcase another adjustment. Instead of sending Tech's best pass rusher, Amare Barno, off the edge, Hamilton deployed a three down linemen alignment. Defensive tackle Norell Pollard slid out to d-end, while Barno moved around at different spots. On this particular play, Mario Kendricks showed an explosiveness that was completely absent from his game last year.
Kendricks (No. 22) beats center Quiron Johnson (No. 69) cleanly with a wipe and rip move. Pollard, as a defensive tackle, uses his smarts to bring additional pressure. Pollard (No. 3) fakes an inside rush, then crosses over right tackle Jordan Tucker (No. 74) and finishes the edge rush with a rip move. The Hokies' defensive line were all in track stances, firing off trying to get Howell to break contain. Waiting for Howell was Barno, ready to catch Howell outside.
It was a brilliant strategy, as Barno's length and speed disrupted Howell's vision when he tried to see the field while running. On this 3rd-and-6, Howell breaks contain, only to find Barno in his face.
Kendricks once again got a great push up the middle to make Howell wiggle out of the pocket. Tech didn't blitz often, and it seemed to be a staple of Hamilton's game plan for pressure to come right in Howell's grill and force him to move laterally. While North Carolina found some openings on RPOs and screens, the Hokies won most of the battles in obvious passing situations because North Carolina didn't have a clear advantage to exploit thanks to Hamilton's defensive adjustments.
Nasir Peoples and Tyjuan Garbutt Make a Difference
Another key point from my preview was the importance of run support from the Virginia Tech safeties. In last season's loss, when the Hokies blew open a big hole for Khalil Herbert, North Carolina's safeties made tackles to mitigate the damage. Meanwhile, when North Carolina opened a huge hole, the football ended up in the endzone.
Enter Nasir Peoples. Peoples, a surprise starter at boundary safety, delivered such a sound performance that, when Hamilton moved his secondary pieces around situationally late in the game, he stayed on the field despite little experience. Despite not making any highlight reel plays, Pro Football Focus gave Peoples the third highest grade of all the Hokies defenders.
Nasir Peoples had played 14 total snaps in 2018 and did not play the last two seasons.Yesterday, he plays all but two snaps and has the third highest PFF grade of any defender against No. 10 UNC. That is battling through adversity and waiting for your moment - to a tee. #Hokies— Matej Sis (@MatejS247) September 4, 2021
Peoples' performance wasn't flashy, but at the moments when North Carolina won the battle up front, he was the mistake-eraser the Hokies didn't have in 2020. On this inside zone to the right, left tackle Josh Ezeudu (No. 75) buries defensive end Jaylen Griffin (No. 41). Tight end Garrett Walston (No. 84) seals Hollifield to the inside. This leaves a gigantic cutback lane for Chandler.
Last season, when holes like this formed, Tyler Matheny and J.R. Walker were often late filling into the gap, leading to countless huge runs for UNC's running backs. Here, Peoples assertively fills the hole and makes a solid tackle on Chandler. North Carolina got the first down, but Peoples prevented a big play, which resulted in the Hokies forcing a North Carolina punt later on in the drive.
Fast forward to the second half, Peoples again prevented another big play on a short yardage situation.
Ezeudu (No. 75) scoops Kendricks (No. 22), while left guard Ed Montilus (No. 63) pins boundary linebacker Alan Tisdale (No. 34) to the inside. Once again, Peoples makes a solid tackle as the third-line of defense. He spent the entire night around the football and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
While Peoples, who was poised to make noise at nickel in 2019 before injuries derailed his career, solidified Tech's secondary, Tyjuan Garbutt (No. 45) experienced his own renaissance up front. A highly rated recruit, Garbutt was starting to find legs as a starter in 2019. Following a lengthy absence due to a personal issue, he returned to the Hokies in 2020 and struggled.
Against North Carolina, a much stronger Garbutt delivered one hell of a comeback performance. His drive-killing fourth quarter sack kept the Hokies' lead at a touchdown.
Garbutt squeezes tight off the edge instead of running wide; the Hokies did the latter too often against RPOs last season. Meanwhile, the coverage was a perfect call for a slant RPO.
Strong (No. 44) shows press coverage against receiver Khafre Brown (No. 1). At the snap, Strong gives Brown a free release to the inside. There, the Hokies two safeties were stacked right in Howell's line of sight, with Peoples in the short middle and field safety Tae Daley deep. Garbutt, unblocked off the edge, collapses the RPO. Howell doesn't have enough time to check down to his secondary receivers. This was the perfect scheme against the initial read, and Garbutt's explosive rush off the edge dropped Howell before he could progress to the one-on- one options to the field-side.
Watch this RPO — a counter trey combined with a quick in to Antoine Green (No. 3).
Instead of collapsing the edge and then squaring up to jam up left guard Asim Richards' (No. 72) kick out block, Garbutt attacked the block and ripped underneath Richards. Garbutt, who gives up about 70 pounds to Richards, can't win a shoving match. Instead, he attacks the blocker, something that has been sorely lacking from Tech's defensive front-seven play for a long time. Garbutt, Peoples, Pollard, Kendricks, Barno, and the corners took a big step forward. Against Middle Tennessee State, I want to see the linebacker group, second defensive line, and some of those other safeties to take a similar step forward.
Featuring Raheem Blackshear
There's less postgame buzz over Tech's offensive performance, primarily because the Hokies struggled while trying to execute a much more conservative gameplan in the second half. I think Brad Cornelsen's play calling, particularly with a big lead, will be a storyline to watch this season and will likely spark lively discussion this week. Ultimately though, Virginia Tech's offense performed reasonably well and controlled the line of scrimmage.
The most positive revelation was Cornelsen's outstanding utilization of Raheem Blackshear. He schemed up a variety of ways to feature Blackshear's pass catching ability, and Blackshear looked much more explosive running the ball than he showed last year. Early in the game, Cornelsen used Blackshear on a zone read with a designed cutback to great effect. There was a little twist to help give Blackshear a bigger cutback lane.
The o-line zones to the left. Watch tight end Nick Gallo (No. 86) and right tackle Silas Dzansi (No. 60). Instead of scooping the backside gaps, they aim for the outside shoulder of Jeremiah Gemmel (No. 44) and four-technique Jahvaree Ritzie (No. 5), respectively.
Essentially, this was using a scheme to block playside on a power, selling the zone to get the defense to flow to the left and then pinning them inside. However, instead of the left guard or tackle pulling to kick out the wide defenders, wingback James Mitchell (No. 82) released to the right flat. Outside linebacker Tomon Fox (No. 12) can't squeeze the cutback because he has to account for Mitchell. The bubble between Fox and Gemmel widens out, creating a really nice hole for Blackshear, who looked much quicker, to cut into.
Cornelsen set this up perfectly, but didn't run this package as often as I would have liked in the second half. However, its effectiveness resonated when the Hokies needed a first down at the end of the game.
Mitchell's devastating conversion featured the exact same run action. This time though, outside linebacker Tyrone Hopper (No. 42) bit inside to squeeze the cutback which provided Mitchell a chance to showcase his run after the catch ability.
Cornelsen also did a good job finding ways to get Blackshear involved in the passing game. Just like the designed cutback zone paired with Mitchell's flat release, the Blackshear swing pass also set up other plays.
With man coverage across the secondary, Kaleb Smith (No. 80) and Mitchell run inside hitch routes to draw the defenders inside. Smith in particular does an excellent job of feigning the outside release and then pulling Tony Grimes (No. 20) inside with him. Grimes follows Smith and the pair form a legal pick on inside linebacker Eugene Asante (No. 7). Blackshear catches the ball in stride and shows off a flash of the excellence in the passing game he showcased at Rutgers.
The next time he saw the wheel route from the tailback, Asante didn't hesitate.
Asante vacates the middle. Gemmel (No. 44) has to run with Mitchell, leaving four defenders to account for five blockers and Braxton Burmeister. When Mitchell clears Gemmel, Burmeister picks the hole off of Brock Hoffman and converts the third down.
This play also shows an opportunity to add even more variety to the offense. The Hokies have Mitchell, their All ACC tight end with great speed for the position, running a crossing route away from a middle linebacker, Gemmel. While I am glad Burmeister converted, I would love to see him lead Mitchell and watch him run away from Gemmel. It didn't matter on this play because Mitchell didn't even have his head turned until Burmeister had taken off for the run, but at some point (Pitt and Miami come to mind) Burmeister will have to complete those types of throws when defensive coordinators send exotic blitzes on third down.
Room for Improvement
I was happy with the physicality of the offense. I was happy to see the wide receiver group and Mitchell mostly deliver when they were given an opportunity to make a play. I would have liked to have seen Burmeister take a couple of shots on verticals against press man on first down in the second half. I noted several times in the third quarter where Tayvion Robinson had one-on-one coverage against Kyler McMichael and Burmeister didn't take a shot. And Turner ran free once without Burmeister looking at him. Perhaps some of those first down runs would have produced better results had Cornelsen loosened up the defense.
While most will say Tech's offense was too conservative, I was more concerned about three other aspects of the offense. I thought Cornelsen got away from some of the zone reads that worked well early. Instead, he devoted a lot of calls to straight down hill runs from the ace and pistol formations, with very little success. For the first time I can recall in the Fuente era, the Hokies used a lead frontside guard pulling, "G" blocking scheme for multiple runs, and North Carolina routinely stuffed it.
Meanwhile, there was very little of the outside and inside zone read, only one of the throwbacks (a throwback to Blackshear) off the zone run action, and, for the first time I can recall in the Fuente era, there was not a single quarterback keeper on the inverted veer/jet sweep series. Also, it seemed like Burmeister was pretty hesitant to keep the ball on read options.
Inside, Lecitus Smith (No. 54), Hoffman, and Kaden Moore (No. 68) all get solid movement. Safety Giovanni Biggers (No. 27) was the option defender on the edge. Biggers bites hard inside on Jalen Holston's dive, leaving miles of room to the left side for Burmeister to roam. Burmeister is the fastest player on the team. I know Tech wants to protect him, but this is the kind of read where he needs to keep and go. I appreciate trying to minimize the number of hits on Burmeister, but with the jet sweep again proving to be effective and the zone read being the most consistent running play against UNC, Burmeister has to keep when the defense collapses to keep free hitters from overloading on the other runners.
As expected, the new right side of Tech's o-line struggled at times in drop back passing situations. This was a pretty straight forward pressure from North Carolina.
End Kaimon Rucker (No. 25) slants all the way into the A-gap between Hoffman and Moore, and outside linebacker Tomon Fox (No. 12) comes off the edge. Moore doesn't get his hands up to punch Rucker's right shoulder as Rucker tries to cross his face. Hoffman may have missed the call by calling the protection to the left, but if that is the call and you know you don't have your center's help, the guard has to post any outside defender coming to the A-gap. He will learn though. I am more concerned that the experienced pair, Dzansi and Holston, both blew the protection. Dzansi got sucked inside by Rucker's movement and wasn't in position to help Holston. Holston had Dzansi to the inside, so in a protection rolling left, he needs to attack Fox's outside shoulder and try to run him into Dzansi. Chipping Fox inside also would have also broken contain, giving Burmeister an escape route around the right side.
Also, Cornelsen's passing route structure flummoxed me. There was some creativity, like running off deep shell coverage to create space for Blackshear underneath, as happened on this third down conversion.
Yet, when the Hokies needed a red zone conversion, Cornelsen didn't scheme up Blackshear as a safety valve. The Tar Heels dropped eight defenders all the way to the goal line in anticipation of vertical routes.
Despite this being a predictable defensive posture (most teams use deep shell zone on 3rd-and-long against the Hokies), every single route crosses through the end zone with all eight defenders. The passing game structure still isn't forcing defenses to defend the whole field. Instead of having a route settle in just in front of the end zone (or Blackshear releasing out of the backfield) to draw up defenders, Burmeister was forced to make a very dangerous throw into traffic. Mitchell makes an absurd catch, but the throw back into traffic was a greater risk than Cornelsen needs to force his quarterback to take. I want to see more levels in the passing game.
The Hokies get an extra day to heal up before a Saturday matchup with Middle Tennessee State. I would like to see the offense improve on protections and find a way to reestablish that rhythm in the running game they demonstrated early.
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