Defensive Strategy Derails the Hokies against the Wolfpack

Some baffling schematic choices exacerbated Virginia Tech's defensive struggles in a deflating 35-28 loss to NC State. Examining those scheme shortcomings along with another evolution in the passing game behind quarterback Kyron Drones.

Keonta Jenkins (#7) and Nasir Peoples (#5) work to contain NC State quarterback Brennan Armstrong (#5). [Mark Umansky]

While the scoreboard only showed a seven-point loss, the reality was the Virginia Tech defense was completely dominated by a physical and determined NC State squad. The same deficiencies that have been beaten to death in this column continued: erratic gap fits by the linebackers, the inability to capitalize on one-on-one blocks, poor tackling and positioning by the safeties. But there was a new issue too, for the first time this season the defensive gameplan put chances of victory in question. The Wolfpack were able to use formation and motion to put dynamic all-purpose receiver KC Concepcion one-on-one against outgunned safeties and linebackers while defensive coordinator Chris Marve stubbornly ran match zones instead of manning up Dorian Strong or Mansoor Delane against NC State's best weapon. Moreover, with the Hokies keeping two safeties deep most of the game, the Wolfpack, already physically dominating battles up front, incorporated their tailbacks to add an extra blocker and outman the Hokies numerically at the point of attack. The recipe resulted in first half offensive dominance by NC State, with their counterpart barely getting on the field, and an insurmountable deficit.

Outnumbered Against Designed Quarterback Run

While the true story of this game was once again a combination of getting overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage, fit busts, and poor safety play, I have a strong feeling Tech's defense was equally hamstrung by Marve's strategy to often utilize two deep safeties. This was seemingly an odd choice. For better or worse, the Hokies played man with a single high safety, rotating the boundary safety and the STAR linebacker into the box as alley defenders for the better part of the last month. NC State exploited the two deep safety alignment with only six defenders in the box with a heavy dose of designed runs by quarterback Brennan Armstrong. Using the tailback as a lead blocker provided the Wolfpack an extra blocker against the schemed alley defender. A dizzying array of motions and formation also created matchup issues.

On the designed quarterback draw below, NC State aligned three receivers to the field. The Hokies were in a two deep safety look and matching underneath. The formation forced MIKE linebacker Jayden McDonald (No. 38) to flex out against the inside slot receiver Porter Rooks (No. 4). In the match zone, McDonald was responsible for Rooks on any inside breaking or vertical route. The effect of the formation resulted in McDonald retreating at the snap, effectively leaving the only second-level defenders in the box — WILL linebacker Keli Lawson (No. 21) and the boundary corner, Delane (No. 4) — on the boundary side of the football. The alley defender to the field, Jaylen Jones (No. 15), also has to backpedal to help McDonald on any vertical route by Rooks.

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