It wasn't surprising Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster incorporated some new defensive wrinkles into his Duke game plan. Tech had an uneven effort the previous week against Boston College when the Hokies let up even more untimely big plays. The Duke offense hadn't put up spectacular numbers, but ranks 35th in Football Outsiders' S&P+ Drive Efficiency, "a drive-based aspect based on the field position a team creates and its average success at scoring the points expected based on that field position." Foster didn't disappoint. We saw 30, 46 and Bear fronts, as well as corners Chuck Clark, Kendall Fuller, and Donovan Riley play all three corner spots.
Early in the game Duke was gashing the Hokie front with long runs on basic inside zone reads and speed option plays, and the Blue Devil receivers were able to get open on a variety of screens and quick slants. As the game progressed, slowly we saw the Hokie defensive front start to control the line of scrimmage, and the pass rush and blitzing started to force negative plays. By mixing up coverages and pressures, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone (who had protected the ball magnificently all season) turned the ball over twice. Also, as I noted in my preview, Foster and the Hokies defense were able to exploit Boone's lack of arm strength by getting pressure in his face. Boone, who often was unable to set his feet and push off into throws, couldn't get the football to open receivers beyond ten yards down the field. After the first half, the Hokie defense were able to get off the field time and time again after getting one negative play that Duke was not able to overcome.
Did Foster make an adjustment with personnel, scheme, or his blitz designs? Actually, he changed very little. The biggest change came up front. The Hokies started the game slanting hard in the direction of Duke's zone blocks. Then after the first two drives, Foster's defensive line started playing downhill, meaning that the defensive line attacked the gaps in front of them, instead of slanting. It looked much more like how the Hokies defended Georgia Tech and Ohio State, than how they have traditionally defended read options. Let's watch the adjustment manifest itself as the game progresses.
Throughout the game Foster often used the alignment of Kendall Fuller and Detrick Bonner coming off the edge to contain the Duke read option series. Here is a play from Duke's touchdown drive.
The Hokies align with a 30 front, with Nigel Williams at nose, Corey Marshall as a three-technique to the boundary, and Deon Clarke as a stand up seven-technique. To the field, Andrew Motuapuaka and Kyshoen Jarrett are stacked over right guard-right tackle gap. Dadi Nicolas is aligned as a stand up seven-technique, with Kendall Fuller and Detrick Bonner blitzing wide of Dadi. When the ball is snapped, the left side of the Hokie defense slants hard to the our left, with Fuller and Bonner blitzing off the right edge. Inside, that leaves two Hokie defenders unblocked (Nicolas and Jarrett) to take the dive, with Fuller and Bonner taking on one blocker and the quarterback. This should be a tackle for a loss for Tech provided Boone doesn't throw a quick screen to the slot receiver on the field side, where Donovan Riley is alone against two receivers. What happened?
Without knowing the specific design of the defensive call, I can only speculate, but there are one of two possible answers. The first is that Dadi Nicolas should have crashed hard to the inside, taking the dive. He has two defenders to play contain to his outside, and the rest of the defensive line stunts. Instead, Dadi plays a contain posture while reading the block of the H-Back on Fuller. With Motuapuaka and Jarrett both leaning to the outside and Nigel Williams slanting hard to the left, this leaves a huge open hole.
The other possibility is that the design required Dadi to stay outside and draw the attention of the right tackle and H-Back, while Fuller and/or Bonner are free off the edge. This would require either Motuapuaka and Jarrett to fit in the center-right guard and right guard-right tackle gaps to take away the dive. Instead of shooting to the inside gap, Motuapuaka engages the right tackle. He should out-quick him to the inside. Jarrett stays to the outside and is out of position to provide support. Dadi is unblocked with nobody to tackle.
Either way, someone botched their assignment badly. Coupled with Williams getting driven well beyond his assigned gap, there is a huge hole inside for the Duke running back to stroll through on his way to a long run.
Even when blown assignments were not an issue, Duke took advantage of the Hokies slanting front to set up advantageous blocking angles. On this play, the Hokies slant, this time hard to the wide side of the field. Duke runs a quarterback power with a lineman kicking out Deon Clarke (playing a standup position on the edge to the top of the screen.
The tailback leads on Motuapuaka. If you look closely as Duke quarterback Anthony Boone crosses the line of scrimmage, there are four Hokie defenders on the Duke side of the line of scrimmage. Duke ran away from the slant, drove Ken Ekanem (the down lineman to the boundary) way inside as he slanted, and then outnumbered the Hokies at the point of attack. Clarke got pancaked by the pulling lineman, and the running back got just enough of Motuapuaka that he couldn't fill the huge gap that opened up for Boone. Just like against Boston College, the slanting front that has made the Hokies so successful caused them to be outnumbered at the point of attack by the Duke scheme. For the slanting front to be effective, those Hokie defensive lineman have to be able to get to their gap and then sit down in it. Far too often early against the Blue Devils, the excellent Duke offensive line pushed Nicolas, Ekanem, Corey Marshall, and most often Nigel Williams well past their assigned area, leaving gigantic holes up front.
On the next drive, Foster changed it up. Instead of flowing east-west, the Hokie defensive line started challenging blocks and shooting through gaps straight ahead. Success was subtle at first. After a poor offensive possession, Duke got the ball back at midfield. Trailing 10-0 and coming off a poor offensive series, the table was set for Duke to run away with the football game. Let's see how the Hokies react. Duke runs another inside zone read with a lead blocker against a Bear look.
Instead of slanting hard to his right, Nigel Williams takes on the double team of the guard and the tackle. He doesn't win the battle (actually he gets pushed back around two yards) but that space you saw wide open on the first play is now at least occupied. Dadi Nicolas has a force call at end and contains the quarterback keeper. Kyshoen Jarrett (who was my defensive MVP of the game) beats the down block of the Duke H-Back and makes a nice tackle. Some reading this may laugh, but this seemingly innocuous play was the most important play of the game. Facing second-and-long, Boone threw an incompletion on second down, and a Hokie blitz forced a quick throw on third down when Donovan Riley stopped the Duke receiver short of the first down marker. Duke is forced to punt, and the Blue Devil momentum is halted.
Jarrett was making tackle after tackle right around the line of scrimmage all game long, but as well as he played, he would not have had the time and space if the defensive line wasn't playing north-south and occupying blockers. Here again, we see the secondary shifting wildly pre-snap. Duke runs an inside zone read play packaged with a screen to the outside. Jarrett is running at the line of scrimmage before the snap.
Again, you can see the Hokie defensive tackles getting double teamed. They are not whipping the Duke defensive line, but they are staying in their gap enough to tie up the blockers, leaving Jarrett unblocked to make the tackle. The less the Hokies keyed their slants off the Duke offensive line's first steps, the more success the Hokies had in defending the run. After Duke's two field goals, those defensive linemen upped their level of play. Instead of just challenging double teams, the Virginia Tech front starting winning those battles, and the Duke offense could not adjust.
As I noted earlier, the Hokies aligned Detrick Bonner and Kendall Fuller almost like stand up outside linebackers right on the line of scrimmage to the field side numerous times during the football game. Early on, it appeared to be an adjustment by Foster to contain the read option, but as the game progressed, Foster used the alignment to bring zone blitz pressure. Sometimes both Fuller and Bonner came. Other times Bonner and Fuller would drop back, but Clarke and Di Nardo would come from the other side. It wasn't perfect.
Here is the exact same zone blitz the Hokies ran at the end of the game as described by former ECU head coach Steve Logan, but Detrick Bonner hesitates just slightly in his rush. Boone never sees him, and has time to get the throw off to the Duke receiver, who runs an in route in between Di Nardo and Chuck Clark. You can see the linebackers rotating into the same zones (Di Nardo to the flat at the top of the screen, Motuapuaka into the short curl zone. Those blitzes are successful because the defense is counting on the pressure and the element of surprise to force an inaccurate throw. Di Nardo is in an impossible position, forced to cover Issac Blakeney, a very good receiver.
The safety edge rush concept was actually much more successful against the run than it was against the pass. This play is an example of how the corner crash should have been executed by Dadi Nicolas on the first play of the film review.
Ricky Walker gets a cameo and jams up the interior. Bonner flies off the edge in perfect position to take Boone on a quarterback keeper. Nicolas crashes inside unblocked and hits the running back right in the hole.
Here is a similar blitz concept against an inside zone with the H-Back kicking out Nicolas.
This time, Dadi gets pancaked, but Jarrett is unblocked. Unlike past games where he struggled with his tackling, Jarrett wipes out the back right in the hole. This is exactly what Foster is looking for from his rover as an alley player/free hitter in his defensive scheme.
Now, let's get back to that blitz against the pass. Logan did an excellent job of highlights the specifics of the blitz, but let's examine the game situation. Duke only needed a field goal to win the game, and had just completed two consecutive passes to get close to Ross Martin's range. You would think that perhaps the Hokies would play a safer coverage and try to force a interception. Instead, against a four wide receiver set, Foster has eight players in the box and his corners well off the line.
Boone recognizes the blitz before the snap and motions his running back over to Fuller and Bonner's side. The back takes the inside rusher, but Duke's offensive line uses normal cup protection instead of rotating the protection to the blitz. This leaves Bonner unblocked.
But, Boone knows the hit is coming. The two key plays here are 1) Di Nardo and Clarke quickly getting into the boundary flat coupled with a miscommunication where no Duke receiver gives Boone a quick hot read on that side, and 2) Ken Ekanem, who beats the Duke left tackle swim move to the inside. Ah, you may say that Nicolas and Bonner actually hit Boone before Ekanem got there, but Ekanem was in Boone's direct line of sight to prevent Boone from throwing any kind of quick fade against Di Nardo, Clarke, and Clark. The grounding penalty took the ball out of field goal range, and Bonner was able to get to Boone two more times to end the ball game. It was not only great design, but great execution by the zone defenders of getting to their spots and Bonner by coming aggressively and not giving Boone time to make the quick throw.
The Hokies must now travel to Winston-Salem to face a Wake Forest offense that has struggled mightily to run the football this season. However, the Deacons will go after the Hokie cornerbacks. Tech's corners were beaten deep several times on Saturday, but Boone was unable to capitalize with accurate throws. After a week where the Hokie defense seemed to regain some of the confidence we saw against Ohio State, it is imperative that they retain that focus and continue to improve their execution to get bowl eligible against the Deacons.