It was a bright, sunny autumn afternoon as a sold out homecoming crowd packed into Lane Stadium Saturday to watch Virginia Tech-North Carolina. However, for the powder blue clad visitors, a powerful storm was brewing. Bud Foster called down the thunder. The Hokies' defensive line ripped through the Tar Heels' front-five as destructively as a storm surge crashing over a barrier island sand dune. The throwback 6.0 sack, 13.0 tackle for a loss category-four performance from the Lunch Pail Defense completely washed away any chance for a Tar Heel victory. The rout was on once Tech's offense found its footing, and Larry Fedora's squad folded more easily than a paper graded by a secretary for a no-show class. The bus ride back to Chapel Hill must have been awfully soggy after 7-59 loss.
After only generating 12.0 sacks through six games, increasing penetration and disruptive plays was clearly a point of emphasis over the bye week by the defensive coaches. Through most of the season, the Hokies' defensive line rushed very square to their blocker is an attempt to contain quarterback scrambles. Against North Carolina, the defensive game plan focused much more on shooting gaps and penetrating.
"We felt like we could read some stances to play anticipating football," said Foster. "It didn't always mean they were going to throw. Our guys were working too hard on some pass rush fundamentals and techniques not for us to be able to get the pressure on the quarterback or finish plays that I felt like we needed to do and put the type of pressure we need to do on the quarterback. But we did that today. ...
"Charley (Wiles), myself, we challenged those guys. We need to up our game and put more pressure on the quarterback just from our front-four without having to do it by bring in a fifth or sixth guy."
The Hokies' defensive line answered the call. Ricky Walker and Tim Settle completely outclassed the interior of the North Carolina offensive line, especially when the Heels attempted to block them one-on-one. Trevon Hill was twitchy and disruptive in his best game of the season. Vinny Mihota often dropped to cover the boundary flat when Foster (often) blitzed Mook Reynolds from the whip spot. Even reserves Jarrod Hewitt and Houshun Gaines got pressure as they loaded up on valuable repetitions when the game got out of hand.
Cashing in on improved pass rush technique.
Outside of the terrific effort by the entire defensive line group, two immediate nuances jumped out on film. First, Foster repeatedly slanted his defensive line away from the alignment of whip linebacker Mook Reynolds. Reynolds would spill or force from his alignment, making it look like a run blitz. Linebackers Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds would scrape against the flow of the slant and fit into any bubbles that formed. This in effect would create a seven-man wall of defenders accounting for every gap on the line of scrimmage, leaving the secondary one-on-one in man or quarters coverage.
Here is a view of the defensive concept from the perspective of the UNC offense.
Trevon Hill gets up the field hard. He has contain ("force") responsibility to the boundary because Tremaine Edmunds and Motuapuaka are scraping to the right (field-side). Ricky Walker and Tim Settle slant to the left (to the boundary). As quarterback Chazz Surratt forms his mesh point with the running back, note how Hill, Walker, and Settle have their outside shoulder free and fit in the A-, B-, and C-gaps to the left side. There is nowhere for a running play to develop. Also, note that there are three defenders away from the slant (Vinny Mihota, Motuapuaka, and Reynolds) to account for the quarterback run.
Hill uses a speed rush and great bend to get under the shoulder of left tackle Bentley Spain (No. 75), who looked like one of the best young offensive linemen in the ACC back in 2015. Walker uses a rip move to dip under the down block of center Cam Dillard (No. 54). As a former offensive lineman, I do not envy Dillard's task to snap the ball and block back on an twitchy defensive tackle such as Walker. This is almost an impossible blocking angle. Both Walker and Hill meet to crush Surratt, who has no feel for the pressure caving in the back-side of the play.
The second thing that jumped out was how often I watched a seamless leverage-technique executed by a Virginia Tech defensive lineman to outclass the senior-laden UNC offensive line. Foster specifically mentioned how hard the team worked on pass rush fundamentals, and it finally paid off. I counted no less than eleven plays where a defender used a rip technique to generate a tackle for loss, sack, or quarterback pressure. Even on mundane plays, the Hokies were shooting gaps and getting through thanks to beautiful leverage technique.
On this 2nd-and-7, the Heels run an inside zone read. Settle and Walker slant to the boundary and Hill has force-contain responsibility. Walker beats left guard Khaliel Rodgers (No. 64) cleanly with a rip move. Tailback Jordon Brown (No. 2) has to cut back. Brown finds a small hole, yet also discovers rover Reggie Floyd awaiting him inside thanks to Hill and Walker forcing a cutback).
Let us take a closer look at Walker's technique. Everything starts with his get-off on the snap. Walker takes a lateral step and extends his arms to "punch" into the outside shoulder of Rodgers. Walker beats Rodgers to initiate contact, and then seamlessly dips his left shoulder and rips his left arm up and under Rodgers' left armpit. Once Walker is even with Rodgers hip, Rodgers is beaten. Settle also executes a rip move, while Hill executes a hand slap ("wipe") technique on the edge.
The game film was a virtual "how-to" guide on delivering a rip move to shoot through gaps and pressure quarterbacks. Every starting defensive lineman had highlights featuring the rip move.
Tim Settle ripped through Dillard's pass block to gang up on QB Brandon Harris after a rare free safety blitz by Terrell Edmunds.
Trevon Hill ripped under the left arm of Spain to force a sack and fumble as Foster called a four-man rush in a two minute situation.
Vinny Mihota worked an outside rip move through RT Charlie Heck (No. 67) to combine with Walker, who came unblocked off an X-stunt with Settle, to crush Surratt's ribs on a 9-yard sack.
Backup defensive end Houshun Gaines even got in on the rip move party. On this third-and-12, Gaines transitions from a wrist-break (punching down on the top of Heck's wrist) into an outside rip move.
Gaines does not stop moving north-south as he transitions, which is a critical key to success with a leverage move. When a defender keeps his feet moving during the transition, the blocker can't deliver a blow to stop the defender's momentum. Gaines' feet never stop. Heck is in decent position when Gaines delivers the wrist-break. However, Heck's arms are extended, making him vulnerable to the rip. If Gaines' feet stop, Heck can recover his base. Instead, Heck is still leaning a bit forward. Gaines uses the opening to rip under Heck's right arm and bend to the quarterback. Gaines pressure forces Harris into an inaccurate short throw well short of the first down marker. Gaines pressure helps get the defense off the field.
A Close Call
Ricky Walker's touchdown fumble recovery provided the first in a series of epic highlight moments for the Lunch Pail Defense. However, it could have been a disaster. Let us take a closer look. On the play, North Carolina is running a quarterback power RPO, similar to the quarterback power/jump pass that the Hokies have incorporated from time-to-time this season. The Hokies' three down d-linemen slant to the boundary. Mihota drops into a short zone to the boundary. Mook Reynolds blitzes from the field.
Hill dips under Spain with a rip technique and Spain responds by tackling Hill. Reynolds hits Surratt and doesn't wrap up. Tremaine Edmunds reads the play beautifully and fills Surratt's running lane. Surratt scrambles to throw and coughs the ball up, leaving Walker to pick up the ball and run stoically into the end zone as Chariots of Fire booms from the heavens.
Outside of Reynolds failing to wrap his arms, this appears to be a dream play. However, a second look shows that the Hokies narrowly averted being down 0-7. Off of the run action, Brown runs a circle route right behind the linebackers. If Surratt could have come under control after bouncing off Reynolds, Brown was wide open and right in his line of vision.
Based on the coverage, it is very difficult to tell if Floyd should have passed the corner route off to Adonis Alexander in a deep third, or if Motuapuaka should have retreated with Brown. Either way, it was a badly busted coverage. If this defense has a weak point, it's coverage on running backs by Tech's linebackers, especially on vertical routes. This play ended up being seven points for the Hokies. However, North Carolina successfully ran a similar circle route to running back Michael Carter for 20 yards on the opening play of the last Heels' drive of the third quarter. Foster and his staff need to clean that up.
I can assure you that David Cutcliffe and the Duke staff are looking at ways to get their running backs vertical to help kick-start their struggling passing game against Virginia Tech. Running back Shaun Wilson is Duke's second leading receiver.
Duke presents a different kind of challenge for the Hokies. The Blue Devils wide receivers have struggled mightily to get separation this season, and quarterback Daniel Jones' (158 of 290, 54.5%, 1,670 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs) level of play has dropped off significantly. However, Cutcliffe's offenses have always given Foster fits, especially with the read option game. Jones hurt the Hokies with his legs last season, and Wilson and Brittain Brown are both averaging well over 5 yards per carry. Duke's defense will give the young Hokies' offense more problems than North Carolina's battered unit. Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys make up one of the fastest and most physical pairs of linebackers in the ACC. Duke's defense blitzes from everywhere and creates all kinds of negative plays (66 tackles for a loss in six games!). The Hokies' offense has not operated efficiently enough yet to overcome a poor performance by the defense against the Blue Devils. Bud Foster and the Lunch Pail Defense will again be the key to victory.