During the summer of 2016, hope for the resurgence of the Virginia Tech football program rested on Justin Fuente's ability to assemble an offense to complement Bud Foster's track record of strong defenses. As I studied Fuente's offensive schemes before his inaugural season, two things stood out. First was how the offensive play calling was symbiotic. Fuente and Brad Cornelsen would establish a series of potential options that would force the defense to defend the entire field on identical keys. This symbiotic nature kept defenses off guard and often mitigated the significant talent differential that Memphis regularly faced. The second unique element was how every offensive player seemed to be selling out on every play, regardless of if they were the actual ball carrier.
This combination kept defenses on their heels and forced tentative mistakes that Memphis turned into big plays. Those big plays, coupled with great special teams, produced win after win in games which I didn't feel like Memphis dominated. Yet, I was surprised by the number of points they had scored.
In this type of system, all facets need to click in order to win. The threat of the quarterback run opens things up for the tailback. Establishing the jet sweep with the tailback as a lead blocker sucks up defensive backs so the tailback can leak out on a wheel route. The slant route forces defenses to play inside leverage, which opens up the fade and vice versa.
When the offense can't force the defense to defend the entire field, it becomes predictable and easy to defend. Right now, the lack of a quarterback run threat from Josh Jackson allows defenses to crash an extra unblocked defender against Tech's tailbacks, and those tailbacks don't have the speed, size, strength, or wiggle to consistently win those one-on-one battles. On the outside, the Hokies have demonstrated the ability to have success with slant routes. However, defenses are flooding the area in between the hash marks regularly enough that the slants are not always open. Meanwhile, Miami DC Manny Diaz and Georgia Tech DC Ted Roof DARED Josh Jackson and the Hokies' receivers to beat them vertically, and the Hokies were unable to make them pay. Because the running game isn't good enough to sustain drives, Cornelsen attempted to jump the gun and use complex play-action passing (that is slow to develop) to generate big plays. As result, tackles Kyle Chung and Parker Osterloh were put on islands against talented speed rushers which hammered Jackson. After taking a pounding, Jackson began to look at the pass rush and miss open receivers. As one element of the offense fails, another domino falls, and Tech's offense grinds to a halt.
A Case Study: The Quarterback Run and Inside Zone
In 2016, Jerod Evans generated a large number of big plays on quarterback keepers off of inside zone read and split zone read action.
As I wrote last year, the inside zone runs, which didn't generate huge amounts of yardage on the give, were critical in conditioning the defensive edge player to crash on the dive against the tailback so Evans could rumble around the edge.
This season, defenses are crashing the dive with regularity because defensive coordinators do not believe Jackson can hurt them on the keeper. When backup QB A.J. Bush entered the game, the Yellow Jackets took a very different approach. Let's examine how Georgia Tech was defending Jackson on a read option versus how Georgia Tech defended Bush.
On this third-and-four with Jackson in the game, the Hokies are running an inside zone read. Defensive end Antonio Simmons (No. 93) crashes hard on the dive by Jalen Holston.
At the moment that Simmons commits to the dive, two of Georgia Tech's defenders (widest to the field-side) are in man to man coverage with their back to Jackson. The third defender, SS Corey Griffin (No. 14), should be accounted for by Sean Savoy.
The way Georgia Tech has aligned, their closest free hitter to Jackson is free safety A.J. Gray (No. 5). Gray almost mirrored Jackson's position on the field. Although, Jackson has the advantage of knowing where the ball is going and Gray does not. With Simmons crashing, and Gray in centerfield, a competent read option quarterback should be able to get to the edge for 4 yards and the first down.
Georgia Tech does not believe Jackson can beat them, and the execution of the play dooms the chances of finding out they are right. Jackson attempts to make the correct read and can't extricate the ball from Holston's mesh point. The combination block of Wyatt Teller and Eric Gallo doesn't get any movement against defensive tackle Brentavious Glanton (No. 97). This leaves linebacker Victor Alexander (No. 9) unblocked in the hole. Even if Holston holds onto the ball, Georgia Tech has two unblocked defenders — Alexander and Simmons — in reasonable proximity to make a play at or near the line of scrimmage. Proper blocking execution would account for Alexander. A viable run threat by the quarterback would occupy Simmons to give Holston a chance. If Simmons still crashed, the quarterback would keep and get the first down going around the edge.
Now, let's look how Georgia Tech defends the same concept when Bush is in the game.
Defensive end Anree Saint-Amour (No. 94) doesn't crash hard on the dive. Instead, he widens and turns on the quarterback (Bush). Travon McMillian is allowed to run downhill into the bubble created by Gallo's down block against slanting DT Antwan Owens (No. 89). Bush ties up the extra defender.
Sadly, that 4-yard McMillian gain is also indicative of the struggles of the offensive line in recent weeks. Teller and Osterloh combo on the Glanton, who as a 1-technique slants into the B-gap. Teller does a good job of turning Glanton's pads. However, Osterloh does not get his head and left shoulder inside of Glanton to seal him away from the running lane. Glanton is able to trip up McMillian.
There has been a ton of criticism of Vance Vice. Besides the poor execution of the combination blocks, this play is indicative of what I believe is a fair critique. When Teller releases the double team, he climbs to Alexander aligned as the middle linebacker. When Teller reaches Alexander, Teller's feet stop, his butt drops, and he looks like he is setting up to pass block. Alexander keeps out of arm's reach and McMillian runs right into him. An aggressive block from Teller blows the hole open if McMillian can keep his balance.
This is not an issue of Teller regressing. The Hokies' linemen consistently use this posture to square up and block passively when run blocking in space instead of being on their toes and running through the defender. Memphis did the same thing. Outside of draw plays, I have yet to hear a reason why the coaching staff feels this is a more effective way to create a running lane. There was tons of howling about Georgia Tech and their repeated chop blocks during the game (and several times they should have been flagged). However, watch the film closely, their offensive line did not regularly utilize cut blocks. They block on their toes, get good position, and use outstanding leg drive. Were the Hokies to block like that on running plays, even without top notch tailbacks, the difference in production would be staggering. Georgia Tech doesn't have elite recruits on their offensive line. Note how, on this quarterback keeper off the trap fake/counter option, that aggressive blocking with proper angles completely caves in the left side of the Hokies' defense.
Symbiotic Play Calling Generates Big Plays for the Yellow Jackets
While the Hokies' offense struggled, Paul Johnson proved to be more effective than Fuente and Cornelsen at designing and executing a synergistic offensive game plan. The Yellow Jackets almost completely abandoned the triple option for long stretches of the game. Instead, Johnson relied on mixing together vicious traps, a speed sweep, and the quarterback keeper off counter option action . The common thread was speed motion by one of the A-backs (wingback for our new readers; the B-back is the fullback in common lexicon). Georgia Tech showed similar looks time after time. Once the Hokies' secondary got conditioned to those looks, they forgot their keys, anticipated the motion, and got caught out of position.
Let's begin with the trap play.
Right A-back Clinton Lynch (No. 22) motions left. At the snap, left guard Parker Braun (No. 75) pulls from the left side back to the right side. Right guard Will Bryan (No. 70) blocks down on Andrew Motuapuaka to leave Tim Settle unblocked. Settle moves upfield and Braun blindsides him. Center Kenny Cooper (No. 55) seals Ricky Walker. A bubble is created inside.
After the handoff, quarterback Taquon Marshall reverses out to show counter option and the A-backs follow suit. That fake backfield action occupies Trevon Hill and Anthony Shegog. B-back KirVonte Benson (No. 30) slips through the bubble. With Motuapuaka sealed inside and Shegog fixated on the quarterback, Benson has tons of room and gains 21 yards.
The combination of Walker and Settle blew up enough of the traps and counter option runs to put Georgia Tech into some bad down and distance situations, and early in the game the Yellow Jackets struggled to overcome them. Most of those stops were byproducts of Foster loading the B-gaps and blitzing with Shegog and Tremaine Edmunds. When Georgia Tech started running the speed sweep, it significantly limited the Hokies' ability to blitz their outside linebackers to stop the trap. The trap plays started to pop free once the speed sweep was established. The speed sweep also set up Georgia Tech's first long touchdown pass.
The speed sweep is a quick pitch off of the speed motion. Georgia Tech had most of their success running the speed sweep to the field from the flexbone formation. Take this speed sweep on 1st-and-10. Lead A-back Qua Searcy (No. 1) kicks out corner (Greg Stroman). Wide receiver Ricky Jeune (No. 2) cracks down on the whip linebacker (Shegog). Right tackle Will Bryan (No. 70) pulls and leads up on the safety (Terrell Edmunds), and the back-side covered linemen scoop and cut the pursuit defenders.
Functionally, this play serves the same purpose as the Hokies' jet sweep. The jet sweep is a consistent solid ground-gainer that doesn't generate big plays. However, as the defense starts to anticipate the sweep when they see the jet motion, it opens up the inside zone and quarterback dive off inverted veer. For Johnson's Yellow Jackets, the speed sweep creates even more space for the fullback trap and belly dives because when the defense starts to see the speed motion, they forget their keys and run wide to the sweep. The trap then acts much like a quick hitting counter play. If the speed sweep is working, often you will see a trap burst for big yardage because all you need is two decent blocks on the tackles and the linebacker has vacated the space.
Once both the trap and the sweep are established, a defense anticipating those plays is now much more prone to get caught out of position on play-action. The Hokies' defense started to guess, and the Yellow Jacket's offense made them pay.
Let's examine both of Georgia Tech's long touchdown completions. Georgia Tech again aligns in the flexbone. A-back J.J. Green (No. 28), speed motions from right to left. Marshall takes the snap and reverses out to show pitch to Green.
Free safety Terrell Edmunds anticipates the quick pitch and widens out to support on the speed sweep. Marshall pulls the fake pitch in, takes a half roll, and sets to throw. Edmunds should be keying wide receiver Brad Stewart (No. 83). If Stewart cracks on Anthony Shegog, Edmunds should come up and fill the alley between Shegog and Greg Stroman's force technique. If Stewart free releases, Edmunds should sink into a deep half.
There is no crack block from Stewart and Edmunds still inexplicably widens out. Stewart breaks to the post, and Marshall leads him perfectly. This is as easy a touchdown as Georgia Tech will score all year. If Edmunds reads his keys instead of anticipating the play, he would be square with Stewart and in much better position to react on the post. (However, even if he reads his keys correctly, Edmunds still doesn't have inside leverage help on the post.)
The defensive call itself is baffling. It is third-and-18, yet Tech is still in Cover 2. Georgia Tech's best passing plays use vertical/wheel route combinations to the same side. It's perplexing why the Hokies would have only one deep safety to each half of the field on a third-and-long situation to combat that tendency.
The Hokies regained a 22-21 lead after Stroman took a terrible throw from Marshall 24 yards to the house. The lead didn't last long. After a trap play went for three yards, Georgia Tech faked the quarterback keeper off counter option. And this time Johnson added a little twist that further confused the defense.
The Yellow Jackets lineup in an unbalanced line to the left, with their leading wide receiver Ricky Jeune aligned as the tackle/last man on the LOS to the right. Reynolds (at Rover) may not have recognized the unbalanced look. However, Jeune's alignment should've been a big red flag that foul play was afoot.
This time, the Hokies appear to be in quarters coverage. The boundary corner (Stroman) would key on any receiver releasing to the outside. If the outside receiver shows block, Stroman comes up in support. The rover (Reynolds) has to key the inside receiver. If he shows block, Reynolds has to come up and support. If he doesn't show block, Reynolds has to pick him up in coverage.
Georgia Tech runs vertical routes to the field side, and both Terrell Edmunds and Facyson turn and run when receivers free release into their zone. Reynolds (who was playing a new position) doesn't read his keys. If Jeune steps inside and chips Tremaine Edmunds or Vinny Mihota, Reynolds needs to fill the alley. Jeune doesn't even hesitate to fake a block. He is running vertically and Reynolds is watching the motion, not his keys. Marshall sets his feet and lofts an easy completion to Jeune. Once again, Georgia Tech capitalized on the same strategy which made Fuente's offense at Memphis so good. Johnson schemed the defense to ignore their keys and run themselves out of position to generate a chunk gain (80-yard touchdown).
Full Circle: The Final Play
Virginia Tech's final offensive play was a perfect metaphor for the entire game. As a fan, the deep post to Cam Phillips was a ludicrous low percentage chance to take with the offense only one-yard away from a first down, with a minute left, and two timeouts. For a student of the game, the play call was a microcosm of everything that went right for Georgia Tech, and everything that went wrong for Fuente and his staff not only Saturday, but most of the season.
Cornelsen showed the same jet sweep action that's featured on the inverted veer, Tech's bread and butter short yardage play. The jet sweep to Savoy was the most consistent running play for the Hokies all season. It was again effective against Georgia Tech, Savoy accumulated 32 yards and a touchdown on three jet sweep carries. Yet, for some reason Cornelsen didn't dial it up often.
The lack of repetition hurt the Hokies on the final play. Prior to a timeout, Georgia Tech showed press man-to-man with no centerfield safety. When the Hokies returned from the timeout, Georgia Tech showed the same look. CB Lance Austin (No. 17) motioned across with Savoy to indicate Georgia Tech was in man-to-man, and it was likely that nine or ten defenders would be in the box. Jackson and Cornelsen had the matchup they wanted — Cam Phillips one-on-one with redshirt freshman CB Ajani Kerr (No. 38) on a post route with no safety help.
Compare this to Georgia Tech's first big passing touchdown. Conceptually, the play design is the same for both teams — get sweep action to move the defense laterally and throw against the grain deep. Though the Yellow Jackets established the sweep as a credible threat, and the Yellow Jackets call the play against zone coverage where the deep safeties are looking into the backfield and have both pass and run responsibility. The Hokies' safety bit.
On the Hokies' pass attempt, Virginia Tech has not established that they can beat Georgia Tech vertically. Given the Hokies tendency to run inverted veer or jet sweep on key short yardage situations, they commit nine defenders in the box and dare the Hokies to go over the top. Kerr is in man-to-man all the way, even when Phillips shows a better block fake than we saw from Jeune and Stewart. With no safety help and the box loaded, Cornelsen takes his shot. Phillips can't shake loose. Jackson throws it in the only place where Kerr can deflect the ball. The Hokies lose a game that they probably were lucky to have a chance to win in the first place.
After seeing the film, the calls in a different situation were not terrible. Georgia Tech had the box loaded on fourth down. Eric Kumah had a one-on-one with the defensive back completely turned around on third down and Jackson threw it too far out of bounds. Phillips was one-on-one with a redshirt freshman. Those matchups, when you struggle to run consistently, look very attractive.
Yet, as an offensive coordinator, you know that your quarterback and receivers have not been able to deliver that catch all game long. It was a huge gamble, and it didn't pay off.
The Hokies now face their first two-game losing streak of the Fuente era. Prior to the season, I expected a three-loss campaign, and at 7-3 the Hokies face Pitt and Virginia. Pitt is woefully inconsistent and struggles to maintain a consistent passing attack. However, the Panthers are going to press just like Miami and Georgia Tech and force the Hokies to win vertically. Tailback Darrin Hall might be the best tailback the Hokies have faced since Justin Crawford, and quarterback Ben DiNucci ran for 83 yards against North Carolina. UVA is mercurial. They have some offensive and defensive talent, and I am sure will deliver their best effort to end their Commonwealth Cup domination.
Virginia Tech needs to find an identity on offense, and build off it. A vertical threat isn't going to emerge from out of thin air. If Jackson is the starter — and until Bush demonstrates he can execute the passing game, Jackson needs to remain the starter — the running game isn't going to be aided by the quarterback occupying a defender. Cornelsen and the offense have to find a way to get their aggression and rhythm back without those options creating space. Without sustaining some kind of success, this young group is going to learn some difficult lessons, and the coaching staff will burn up a lot of the positive vibes they banked during their honeymoon season in Blacksburg.