GT Film Review: Bud's New Twist and Logan's Redemption

The narrative will vary from writer to writer this week, but the Hokies physically dominated the favored Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in front of a packed house at historic Bobby Dodd stadium. Virginia Tech's defense manhandled Georgia Tech's o-line and completely screwed up the distinct rhythm of Johnson's flexbone option offense. Logan Thomas had his best game of the season throwing accurate short to medium passes and moving the sticks with a punishing running game in between the tackles. The score may have been close, but the reality was that Georgia Tech was never really competitive in this football game. Bud Foster's scheme, coupled with his most talented defensive team in years dominated, and Logan Thomas shut up some naysayers with confident execution in the passing game.

Something Old and Something New from Bud Foster

As previously discussed, Foster has taught a variety of different alignments and techniques to stop Paul Johnson's offense over the years. The common themes in his approach have been 1) to defend the Yellow Jacket passing game with some form of cover 2 defense and 2) focus on taking away the dive and the pitch in the triple option and force the quarterback to be the leading ball carrier.

Foster's philosophy for the 2013 matchup followed his successful formula. Vad Lee lead the team with 18 carries and despite several nice gains, he took a beating. If the Hokie defense was in a base look, the defensive end would crash inside. The unblocked defender (usually the outside linebacker to the play side) took the pitch man, and the quarterback was forced to keep the ball. Usually, the quarterback gains anywhere from 3 to 6 yards, but the keeper rarely produces a big play because the middle linebacker and both safeties are there to bracket the quarterback on all sides. Let's watch as the defense defends a counter option with this basic approach.

Georgia Tech Film Preview

While many loath Paul Johnson's chop blocking, veer oriented, flexbone offense, I circle the date of the Georgia Tech game on my calendar every as the opponent I most fear. Johnson's troops may tread the line on the ethics of blocking, but their offensive line plays a pure form football, one that I was taught: the low man, not big man wins. Explode off the ball at the snap. Create seems in the defense and exploit them with quick hitting, hard running plays that emphasize will more than talent. It is beautiful football, and it's damn frustrating to see it well executed against our Hokies.

Even though Paul Johnson's system is terrific, perhaps no coach has had more success in stopping the flexbone offense than Bud Foster. Johnson has only defeated the Hokies one time in five tries since taking over the Yellow Jackets program, and despite posting impressive yardage totals, the Hokies have been able to limit big plays and force turnovers.

Foster has tweaked his approach against Georgia Tech over the years, but several things have been consistent.

It Wasn't Pretty, but the Hokies Made Plays

Well, it certainly wasn't pretty. As I feared, the Thundering Herd put a scare into the Hokies on Saturday. I don't think anyone was particularly satisfied with the performance, but the outcome leaves the Hokies at 3-1 as they begin ACC play against Georgia Tech on Thursday night.

Before I watched the film, I seriously considered not doing a review this week. The game featured almost every good and bad thing that you could possibly see in a football game, and the performance was so erratic, with so many highs and lows, that it was difficult to really evaluate everyone. BeamerBall produced two blocked kicks and a punter scramble for a first down. But special teams also missed several field goals, had a short punt that Marshall turned into points, and again was absolutely atrocious blocking on the kickoff return teams. An elite defense got gashed time and again, while also producing 8 tackles for a loss, four sacks, and forcing three critical turnovers. Kendall Fuller perhaps saves the game with a critical interception, but got eaten up on inside slant routes. Kyle Fuller blocked a punt and took away the short side of the field early, but was beaten twice on double moves, one overthrow, but one put Marshall close to field goal range to win the game. (Fortunately for Kyle, Rakeem Cato tried the same play to the wide side of the field, and while he fooled Brandon Facyson, he didn't fool Kyshoen Jarrett.) The offensive line tipped the spear to the tune of over 200 yards rushing, but then struggled on some key short yardage plays, only to turn around and clear the path for the game winning touchdown. Logan Thomas went from electric, to terrible, to lucky, to a powerhouse in just under 4 hours. Just typing that gives me a frightful headache. But, the Hokies got the W, and 48 hours later, with my blood pressure going back below stroke levels, I decided to drill down and sample a little of the good, bad, and the ugly.

A Step Backwards but an Opportunity for Growth

One of the bright spots this young season has been the excellent performance by the offensive line. I was thrilled with their execution and noticeably improved fundamentals. My one reservation was the matchups. Alabama has an elite, very athletic front, but their system requires their defensive line to engage blockers, allowing their linebackers to make plays. Western Carolina was completely out manned. Both teams used a relatively static concept up front designed to occupy blockers.

East Carolina presented a very different challenge. Could the Hokies offensive line be effective against a quick defensive front that is focused more on attacking the gaps and stunting than maintaining gap fits? The Pirates used a 3-man defensive front that they flexed over to the strong side of the offensive line. To the weak side, the "jack" linebacker aligned as a stand-up defensive end. The inside linebackers aligned well off the line of scrimmage. The added distance gave the linebackers a distinct quickness advantage over the offensive linemen trying to get to the second level. To the strong side, the Pirates completed the 3-4 look with an outside linebacker who usually aligned well off the line of scrimmage, almost in a nickel alignment.

Defensive Film Review: Trust in Youth

The Hokie defense faced a new challenge this week, combating an East Carolina offense that featured quarterback Shane Carden, almost an 80% passer with 7 touchdowns and no interceptions in two wins against Old Dominion and Florida Atlantic. To combat this foe, Bud Foster used a mix of defensive pressure with a variety of coverage looks, but almost always featuring a press alignment on slot receivers and corners aligned 7-10 yards off the ball.

Perhaps most stunning was Foster's trust of his true freshman defensive backs in one-on-one coverage situations. In 2011's matchup against East Carolina, with an experienced secondary (Hosley, Kyle Fuller, Cris Hill, Antone Exum, and Eddie Whitley), Foster played almost exclusively with two deep safeties and the mike and backer dropping into underneath zones. On Saturday, against a potent offense, Foster placed Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson on islands with limited or no safety help deep, or linebacker help against crossing routes. The results, thanks to the tremendous football acumen of the secondary coupled with a defensive front-seven that engulfed Pirate quarterback Shane Carden, proved to be too much for the Air Raid to defeat.

Back to Basics: Solid Execution in the Running Game

In Chris Brown's The Essential Smart Football a chapter is devoted to the guru of the zone blocking scheme, former Broncos and Falcons offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. Beyond the fundamentals of running the inside zone and the zone stretch, Gibbs stressed that the offensive line and the running backs were symbiotic. If the running back did not read the correct cutback, it'd look like the offensive line missed a block. If the offensive line missed an assignment, the running back gets stuffed. Accordingly, in Denver, Gibbs coached the team on the play, not just the offensive lineman. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing. Cohesion and timing are required for the zone scheme to be successful.

Bud Foster Gives Me Nightmares

One of the fascinating things about watching college football in real time is the number of misconceptions that turn into conclusions. With the benefit of hindsight from the film review every Sunday, I gain a certain degree of insight about how the Hokie offense and defense performed that I otherwise would not have.

Most fascinating, perhaps, is analyzing Bud Foster's defensive concepts each week. While the basic tenants remain the same, he seems to constantly adjust alignments and concepts to fit the ability of his personnel, especially in the secondary. I expected his game plan to be very vanilla against Western Carolina, which would serve as an opportunity to evaluate personnel and give young players an opportunity to face spread concepts in a live game setting. Foster delivered a vanilla game plan from the standpoint of blitzes, however, his plan to stop the spread incorporated using nickel personnel in 7- and 8-man fronts via the base 4-4 and the 46 alignments. From these alignments, two facts presented themselves. First, Bud Foster has an incredible amount of trust in Kyle Fuller. Fuller played on the boundary in single coverage without any deep safety help on his half of the field for long stretches during the game. Second, and perhaps most importantly, every offensive coordinator has film of four of the top five Hokie defensive backs (Kyle, Kendall, Jarrett, and Bonner) lined up as a nickel slot defender, a cover corner, a deep safety, and as a blitzing outside linebacker.

Bud Foster's Umbrella Closes on the Tide

Bud Foster's defense held Alabama's offense, an explosive unit (38.71 PPG LY, 12th) with potential post-season award winners at tailback, left tackle, and wide receiver, to 206 total yards of offense, two touchdowns, and didn't allow a 100-yard rusher. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Hokies spent most of the game in the Alabama backfield, finishing with 12.0 tackles for a loss and 4.0 sacks. Tech's defense gave the Hokies every opportunity to win the football game. How did they completely shut down such a talented group?

Throughout the spring and summer, I highlighted the transition from Bud Foster using a base 4-2-5 concept with a Whip linebacker playing to the wide side of the field to a base 4-4 defense with the rover and whip playing on the line of scrimmage, creating an eight man front. Foster complimented the 4-4 with the use of a 46 front (an inside linebacker lined up on the outside edge to the strength of the passing formation with the rover lined up as an inside linebacker and the whip to the weak side), and a nickel concept where the rover drops as a traditional strong safety and a third corner covering the slot.

Pound the Rock, Progress in the Running Game

As I wrote throughout the summer, Alabama presented an opportunity for Virginia Tech to demonstrate a commitment to improved offensive line play and an effective running game. How the Hokies would fare rushing against a traditionally stout Alabama defense was a great mystery all year. The first team offense struggled to run the football during the spring game, and they didn't run it during open public scrimmages in fall camp. However, the mandate from Coach Frank Beamer this offseason was clear: the Hokies must run the football.

Fast forward to 9:30PM on Saturday night. Trey Edmunds became the first Hokie running back to break the 100-yard mark (132) in his debut since Shyrone Stith (119), and despite laments by the Crimson Tide about their performance, Alabama is much better than the 1996 Akron Zips. Tech's o-line demonstrated solid assignment football throughout the game. The unit had significantly improved fundamental footwork, contact/aiming points, and they remained engaged on blocks. The rushing yardage beyond the Edmunds touchdown run wasn't Earth shattering, but Virginia Tech consistently found themselves in much more manageable 3rd-and-4 type situations versus the 3rd-and-11s that plagued the team last year.

Second Public Scrimmage: O-Line, Secondary, and D-Line

Today in Blacksburg, a crisp, fall-like afternoon greeted HokieNation for Virginia Tech's final public scrimmage before their game against Alabama. Questions about the Hokies' depth in the wake of an unfortunate string of injuries, effectiveness of a new offensive system, and play making ability of inexperienced skill position players loom over camp. Meanwhile, Bud Foster's defense is poised for a return to dominance built around a devastating front-seven, while a group of young, but supremely talented, cornerbacks start to establish themselves in the secondary.