That sound you heard coming from Blacksburg Saturday was a collective sigh of relief as the Hokies notched a 37-0 shutout and finally exhibited some explosiveness in the running game. There were many positives to point out, including dynamic rushing by the much-maligned running back corps and a bounce-back performance by the secondary, especially veteran Antone Exum. At the same time, my film review will raise many of the concerns we have seen throughout this young season, which leaves doubt in my mind about how the Hokies address these problems when they reach the meat of the ACC schedule.
I will start with the offensive identity and Logan Thomas, and I won't sugar coat it. The entire week, we heard the offense was focused on getting the running game on track. The easiest way to get it going would be to turn the dogs loose on the offensive line by playing up to their size, strength and athleticism. Instead, we saw more of the same early in the game, slow developing runs focused on counter action and trickery rather than physical dominance.
In the first quarter, I reached a point where I flat-out thought the coaching staff did not know how to teach the Pistol formation, or call plays for the Pistol in the flow of the game. In the first quarter, the Pistol meant the play was invariably a counter, a sweep, or a counter read with a rocket sweep option. Everything looked slow, sloppy, and east-west. When you watch film of the innovators of the Pistol, the Nevada Wolfpack, the bread and butter play that makes those type of plays work is the quick hitting inside and outside veer dive. And, everything they run looks fast and sharp.
Interestingly, Logan Thomas is much more comfortable taking the snap, keeping his eyes down field, and moving towards the line of scrimmage, and all of the tailbacks are better running straight ahead rather than east-west. It seems almost too easy to say that the Pistol should be a perfect fit for the talent that the Hokies have available, but the talent was completely misused in three-and-a-quarter games. With the east-west approach, any success the offense had was the result of the players making great plays and winning individual matchups.
Then, despite another less than stellar performance by Logan Thomas and Marcus Davis, and an abysmal game from both guard positions, the Pistol started to click. The read option started attacking the line of scrimmage, and the pressure it put on the Bowling Green defense finally broke the dam in the second quarter. Even without dominant blocking, the Pistol worked when Logan Thomas made the right reads and the backs attacked downhill.
Logan Thomas is the key cog, and despite being more effective in the running game he was erratic. Early in the game, Logan's poor mechanics, errors reading the read option, and failure to recognize changes in coverage and blitzes during his pre-snap read (all of which I have discussed in previous weeks) really sandbagged the offense.
Here we have Logan running the read play on the first drive.
On the play, Gregory is set up to look like a veer dive, but actually will counter back between Nick Becton and Matt Arkema. I am not sure who Logan is reading, but if he is reading the defensive tackle that Arkema fails to block or the left defensive end, he makes the wrong choice. Both guys converge on Logan, and Gregory scampers through a large hole.
The closest thing we saw to effective scheme and cohesion from the Pistol took place on the Dyrell Roberts touchdown drive.
The Hokies ran four straight variations of the read play, with one keep, one dive, and two play actions. Each one, the back or the QB aggressively attacked the offensive line, forcing the defense to react. That opened other options, ultimately forcing Bowling Green to go man-to-man. Hokies call play-action. Roberts gets separation, and Logan hits him for the touchdown. It almost looked like the staff was starting to get a rhythm and the offensive skill guys were developing feel. I give credit to the coaching staff for learning from their mistakes while sticking with this approach even after the disaster in Pittsburgh.
Everything came together on this third quarter play.
The Hokies run the veer read option with Coleman as the dive man. The offensive line gets movement. Logan's fake freezes the pursuit, and Coleman attacks the line aggressively and explodes into the second level.
There was improvement, but at the same time the offense has work to do. Defenses are still shifting coverage and blitzes on Logan when he looks at his center, and the interior of the offensive line struggled mightily, especially against very basic stunts in pass pro.
The pre-snap read issue showed up on film again and again. Let's take a look at the first play of the second quarter.
Logan audibles to a smash play off-tackle left from the Pistol. After he makes his read, he looks at the center to take the snap. As soon as he looks at the center, the right outside linebacker darts to the line of scrimmage and crosses right at the snap. The outside linebacker beats Joey Phillips block (who I think is in danger of losing his job to Riley Biero) and tackles Gregory for no gain.
Later in the second quarter, Logan fails to read and audible the Hokies out of a bad play. Tech had just scored on a great four play series, all from the gun and Pistol, and had momentum. O'Cain calls a straight ahead zone run.
Prior to the snap, Bowling Green has eight men in the box, with two middle linebackers moving into a blitz as Logan looks at the center. Things are made worse by Andrew Miller being driven 5 yards in the backfield. The play could have worked, but an NFL caliber QB (who has the freedom to change the play) recognizes that the blockers are badly out-manned, and audibles (perhaps to a bubble screen to the twins side).
I think most disappointing was the performance of the interior of the o-line. Matt Arkema had a rough debut as a starter. Both Michael Via and Brent Benedict were excellent run blocking, but had cringe-worthy moments in pass protection. Andrew Miller struggled with his shotgun snaps and continues to spend more time in his own backfield than he spends driving nose tackles into the secondary.It looks like Caleb Farris is a legitimate threat to Miller's starting job.
Let's start with perhaps the biggest play of the game.
Early in the second quarter, the offense was stuck in neutral, and slipping backwards. Tech had a third-and-ten. The Hokies line up in their single wing shotgun look. Bowling Green runs a soft zone, and only uses a four man rush, but the defensive tackles X stunt.
On an X stunt, one defensive tackle crashes hard inside, hoping that the guard he lined up on crashes inside with him creating a lane for the opposite defensive tackle to stunt behind the first one and come unblocked through the vacated space. Here, Matt Arkema follows the head up defensive tackle inside, and the opposite tackle comes through his gap and rocks Logan Thomas, who had almost no time to throw.
Fortunately for the Hokies, Tony Gregory made a terrific effort play to burst upfield before the defense could react. The first down was critical, and the Hokies scored on four of their next five drives.
Ultimately, I don't think that Arkema can be successful right now as the starter at left guard. While both Benedict and Via have struggled some in pass protection, if the Hokies don't move Laurence Gibson to left guard you have to play Via at left and Benedict at right, and perhaps look to keep the running back in more to help on interior blitzes. Against Bowling Green, Logan Thomas faced way too much pressure, and it came almost exclusively from the inside. Both Nick Becton and Vinston Painter were outstanding. The guards are a weakness, and the coaching staff must be willing to get their best five linemen on the field with Wang out.
Given some work challenges, I had limited bandwidth this weekend, but will answer any questions about the defense in the comments. I will be at the Cincinnati game, likely eating over with the rest of The Key Play staff. I welcome your comments on the column, the team, and the future. The Bearcat's speed presents challenges, but if the Hokies continue to run downhill from the Pistol, I think that Cincinnati will struggled to deal with the Hokies hawgbodies up front.