The Hokies had exceeded early expectations. Despite an inexperienced defense and a new starting quarterback — Bryan Randall — Virginia Tech entered Thursday night's matchup against No. 17 Marshall fresh off a dominant 26-8 win over Nick Saban-led SEC power No. 14 LSU. Byron Leftwich, the Herd's sensational quarterback, was touted as a Heisman candidate, and played foe to Virginia Tech in an ESPN hyped-up Thursday night showcase matchup. Despite little pass rush and coverage breakdowns on the field-side of the secondary, the Hokies bent but didn't break early. Then the combination of the Untouchables, Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs, followed a dominant offensive line to break the will of Marshall's defense.
Great Start, But Harbinger of Future Troubles
Virginia Tech got out to a 3-0 lead, ignited by a Ronyell Whitaker forced fumble and subsequent recovery by Vegas Robinson. The Hokies' opening drive was also a prelude to the struggles Tech would face later in the season, when Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia, and perhaps one of the most talented Miami teams of all-time decimated Bud Foster's defense.
For me, everything about this 3rd-and-13 was strange.
Whitaker (No. 2) and rover Michael Crawford (No. 21) align to the field-side. Whip linebacker Mike Daniels (No. 31) drops from the field-side LOS into a deep half alignment on the boundary-side hashmark similar to a free safety. Mike linebacker Mikal Baaqee (No. 45) aligns in between the hashes. Marshall responds with a levels concept. Split end Denero Marriott (No. 13) runs a deep in route and slot receiver Josh Davis (No. 82) runs a shorter in underneath it.
Conceptually, this coverage was really confusing when I initially watched the film. Foster previously used a coverage where the whip has deep safety responsibility, but this wasn't the case since I started reviewing the film with regularity (2011).
Crawford and Baaqee (No. 45) attempt to bracket Davis. Baquee provides inside leverage and Crawford provides outside leverage. Whitaker plays outside leverage on Marriott as if he expects Daniels to help inside. There were some problems though. Daniels was nowhere to be found. Leftwich pumpfakes to the boundary and gets Daniels to bite hard to the bottom of the screen. This creates a window for Leftwich to throw deep to Marriott. Also, because the coverage essentially double teams the two outside receivers, nobody picks up TE/H-Back Jason Rader (No. 90) or tailback Franklin Wallace (No. 24). The pair leak into the field-side flat, and Rader in particular has an easy first down.
Fortunately for the Hokies, marginal contact by Whitaker causes Marriott to fumble. Robinson (No. 6) initially drops down to the boundary hash and then tracks Leftwich's eyes to the football. Robinson's rotation to the throw and hustle allow the Hokies to recover.
After the Tech field goal, Whitaker again got beat, this time on a skinny post. Whitaker appeared to play outside leverage in this coverage.
However, the Hokies play a zone coverage in which Whitaker does not have inside support. Daniels (No. 31) rotates to the field flat, which leaves free safety Willie Pile (No. 35) to cover the shorter inside breaking route. Based on where Daniels and Pile settled on the play, Whitaker would appear to have deep third responsibility, and should not play leverage coverage with the expectation of inside help. These coverage issues persisted for the Hokies, as Leftwich completed 31 of 49 passes for 406 yards and 3 touchdowns.
With Whitaker struggling, Foster turned to a familiar name, backup corner Vincent Fuller. Fuller filled in for Whitaker while the latter served a 2-game suspension to open the season. With Marshall in the red zone and facing a 2nd-and-5, Leftwich targeted Fuller on a vertical route.
Fuller defends the route with press technique and inside leverage. When Marriott releases vertically, Fuller turns and runs with him, back to Leftwich. As Marriott raises his hands, Fuller turns to find and deflect the football. Vincent would eventually move inside to safety, but this was the type of play Kyle and Kendall Fuller would make routine. On the next snap, Leftwich again looked towards Fuller. He chucked the ball out of bounds when nothing materialized.
On 4th-and-5 trailing 0-20, Marshall coach Bob Pruett decided to go for a first down instead of kicking a field goal. Leftwich's pass over the middle was deflected, and any chance the Thundering Herd had of building momentum evaporated in the Thursday night strata of Lane Stadium.
The Hokies were helped by turnovers and negative plays. On this 2nd-and-2 stuff, Tech aligned in its 46 or tuff package — a true 8-man front — which the Hokies rode to 2014's upset win over Ohio State. Boundary DE Jim Davis aligned as a 3-technique on the outside shoulder of the right guard. Marshall aligned in an unbalanced look, the tight end, Rader, at right tackle.
Marshall runs a power play to the left. The right guard pulls back-to-front-side to lead up behind the fullback kickout. Leftwich should check out of the play. The center can't block back to the abandoned gap because he has to contend with nose tackle Jason Lallis (No. 91). Rader was probably assigned to scoop the backside B-gap, but even if he attempts the block, the combination of Davis' quickness and the angle make the block almost impossible. Rader ends up mirroring the rover, Crawford (No. 21). Davis waltzes through and kills the running back.
Courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics
Staples of the Running Game
Bryan Stinespring replaced Rickey Bustle as offensive coordinator in 2002 (HC Louisiana–Lafayette), and it didn't take long to notice a change in philosophy from the former OC. The split back shotgun look/motion into the I formation which Bustle used to give his quarterbacks a pre-snap read became a thing of the past. The run game also incorporated some zone blocking concepts to compliment the isolation lead draw and power scheme that flourished under Bustle.
The above 21-yard Lee Suggs gain reflects an outside zone concept. The entire offensive line zone steps to the right, and fullback Doug Easlick (No. 43) stretches wide, which indicates the Hokies are trying to run around the edge. Both Marshall linebackers key on Easlick and pursue wide.
Center Jake Grove (No. 64) drives defensive tackle Orlando Washington (No. 95) to the field-side. Back on the boundary, left tackle Anthony Davis (No. 57), left guard Jacob Gibson (No. 60), and tight end Jeff King (No. 90) all execute beautiful scoop blocks. Each blocker steps hard to the right off the snap, placing their left shoulder on the left shoulder or hip of the defender. Davis and King both engage defensive end Jamus Martin (No. 99). As King works his head inside Martin, Davis has the timing to peel off and cut off outside linebacker Charles Tynes (No. 45). This was a beautifully executed and aggressive combination scoop on the backside by the duo. I greatly prefer this technique of a backside school versus the hinge technique Vance Vice teaches.
The blocking scheme and defensive over-pursuit introduces a cutback opportunity for Suggs. As he takes the handoff, he looks back to the middle right at Grove. After his first stride, he sees the bubble open between Gibson and Grove. Suggs plants his left foot and cuts back right into a huge hole. I love how Suggs uses the umpire as a pick to bounce away from the safety.
The beauty of the zone scheme is, when blocked properly and paired with a tailback who understands how to read the cutback, it is a beautifully effective play even when the defense stacks the box. The key is having the offensive line understand how to adjust to different defensive looks and the tailback's ability to read his blocks.
On this inside zone, Marshall loaded eight men in the box to counter the Hokies' heavy look.
Gibson (No. 60) accounts for the backside 3-technique defensive tackle, Toriano Brown (No. 94). Brown tries to cross Gibson's face. Instead of struggling to scoop Brown, Gibson drives him right down the line of scrimmage. Kevin Jones stretches just like Suggs did. When Jones plants, he cuts off of Gibson instead of Grove. Grove scoops to the play-side linebacker and can't find him. Instead of looking back at the runner and quitting on the play, Grove moves back to seal off backside LB Duran Smith (No. 48). Jones makes a brilliant cut off of Gibson's block, and then cuts back off the seals blocks by Davis and King. This is the third time the Hokies ran this play on their second drive, and because the running backs read off the offensive line, the play looked different every time.
Stinespring hammered the zone calls with a great deal of success, and Jones ultimately popped this one for a 25-yard touchdown.
Washington (No. 95) aligns in a 3-technique on right guard Luke Owens (No. 74), and then shifts inside into an eagle technique. Owens and right tackle Jon Dunn (No. 79) scoop backside. Owens picks off the edge blitzer, Smith (No. 48), and runs him up the field. Dunn climbs to safety Terrence Tarpley (No. 21).
Grove makes the key block. Washington slants hard to the play's left/his right and tries to cross Grove's face. Grove stays square on Washington and drives through with his right hand while he uses his left hand to stay engaged. Behind Washington, playside linebacker Dionte' Wilson (No. 33) completely keys on Eastlick. As Eastlick runs to the edge, Wilson runs himself right out of the play.
Jones seals the deal. As I have often noted in my reviews, an effective running game requires a tailback who can routinely defeat an unblocked defender. Jones makes the cut off Grove and explodes into the secondary. Safety Chris Crocker (No. 19) tries to peel inside to cut Jones off. Jones has too much speed and beats Crocker to the angle.
Then there was the time Stinespring pulled a page from Paul Johnson's playbook.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. Jones was adept at knowing when to bounce the football. Part of that comes from trusting his fullback. On this 3rd-and-3, Virginia Tech called an inside zone into the boundary from a two tight end set.
Marshall loads the box, the boundary edge defender (obscured number) spills the play, and Easlick absolutely buries him. Satterwhite (No. 15) should run into the space outside the edge defender, but instead he looks into the backfield and gets mucked up on the inside. Up front, the Hokies get a decent push, but the right tackle, Dunn (No. 79), doesn't follow his backside scoop rules. He steps to the right to engage linebacker J.T. Rembert (No. 32), who snuck up to the line of scrimmage over King. He should step inside, where he would find Washington, who instead goes unblocked into the backfield. Once again, Jones reads Easlick's block, cuts away from Washington, and gets to the edge before Satterwhite can recover to fill the space outside Easlick's block.
Courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics
As the game progressed and the Hokies led comfortably, Stinespring moved away from the zone blocking attack and utilized staples of Bustle's offense. The speed option, led by an Easlick isolation block, was one such element.
Another old favorite was the fullback trap off a fake toss sweep. During the Suggs and Jones era, the toss sweep was one of Tech's most effective runs, especially in the red zone. The fullback served as a counter to the toss and often popped for big gains. Against Marshall, Stinespring seemingly abandoned the trap block because the Herd loaded up the interior gaps.
Randall reverses out like he is going to pitch to Suggs, then extends the ball. Easlick takes a step wide, and then counter-steps back to the right to form a mesh point with Randall. Up front, Grove (No. 64) and LG James Miller (No. 76) combo the 1-technique DT. Miller slides off the block and climbs to the next level. Easlick nimbly slips through the hole for a nice gain.
The Hokies put the nail in the coffin with a good old fashioned isolation play right over the A-gap.
Grove and Miller again combo the field-side nose tackle, and then Grove climbs to the backside linebacker, Rembert (No. 32). To the play side, the right guard, Owens (No. 74), steps laterally to reach the 3-technique DT, Washington (No. 95). Washington widens and Owens centers and drives him to the sidelines. This leaves a large bubble right over the right A-gap between Grove and Owens. Kevin Atkins (No. 5) fits into that gap, and Easlick meets him in the hole and turns his pads to the sideline. Suggs steps through the small space between Easlick and Grove and then runs through safety Willie Smith's (No. 28) arm tackle. Once again, the difference between a first down and a backbreaking run was the tailback winning a one-on-one matchup.
Courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics
The rest of the game, the Hokies ran roughshod, while Marshall put up 21 meaningless points. The running game continued to thrive as the season progressed. However, when the Big East schedule started, Virginia Tech ran into opponents who knew how to scheme against Foster's defense. The 2002 Hokies didn't have much of a pass rush outside of Davis, and were very small at defensive tackle. Robinson was the best of a very mediocre linebacker group, and the secondary coverage issues continued to plague the program before Foster made scheme changes in 2004. After a start in which the Hokies beat three ranked non-conference opponents, they sputtered to a 3-4 Big East record. Every loss was seemingly littered with outlier offensive performances. Larry Fitzgerald scored three touchdowns in a home loss to Pitt. The Carrier Dome was once again a house of horrors as Troy Nunes (yes, it felt strange typing it) orchestrated 604 yards for 604. Quincy Wilson ran for 11.4 yards per carry in a 3-point West Virginia win, and the Hokies ran into the duo of Willis McGahee (205 rushing) and Andre Johnson's (193 receiving) 400 yards from scrimmage in a wild shootout loss at Miami.