I didn't think I would be this confused after the opening weekend of college football. I didn't necessarily expect Virginia Tech to be a division championship caliber team. The defense clearly had holes, and nothing on film assuaged me of my concerns about Ryan Willis. I thought the revelation about players "quitting" on the 2018 season painted a bullseye on Justin Fuente. If he got rid of the culture problems on the team, then there would be no more excuses if the current group failed to perform. At the same time, great effort can't always overcome a lack of top talent, and the Hokies still have major question marks at key positions.
Enter Boston College, the type of physical football team which can expose big talk for what it is. The Eagles were a horrendous season opening matchup given the weaknesses on film the Hokies showcased at the end of last season.
In some ways, Virginia Tech delivered a good performance. Rayshard Ashby and Divine Deablo played outstanding defensively. Even with an early injury to Tyjuan Garbutt, the defensive line held up for long stretches against a big yet inexperienced opposing offensive line. Mario Kendricks delivered a strong performance, and Norell Pollard held up better than I had expected. The safety position appears to be better organized (although Reggie Floyd had a bad bust on AJ Dillon's cutback touchdown run). The young skill position players made some plays.
However, the bad taste left in the fanbase's mouth remains. What is the hallmark of this team? For a program that doesn't have blueblood resources, to be a conference contender it must have a clear identity and be really good at it in order to overcome talent gaps. TCU and Wisconsin consistently compete at a high-level with an identity and culture they cultivate at every level, from recruiting to gameday.
Under Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech had an identity. Great special teams play. Physical fast defenses with edge speed, exotic design, and great corners. Power running to control the clock. Win or lose, you knew week in and week out what you were going to get.
What is the identity of this team? I don't know. The defense looks bigger and more physical. However, there is no pass rush and the corner play can't hold up without help for a full four quarters. Special teams are non-descript, with terrible return games. Without edge rushers, it is tough to force punts.
The offense is full of strong recruits at wide receiver, yet has not produced a quarterback which forces the defense to defend the whole field. The running game is passive and completely reliant on misdirection. ACC defensive coaches have figured this scheme out. Virginia Tech's offense isn't going to whip you up front. Concede numbers in the box, be disciplined, and you can out physical the Hokies' offense without sinking an extra man into the box.
Without an identity, how can you establish a culture? This program desperately needs to find itself. Despite some small victories, Saturday's loss in Chestnut Hill wasn't a positive step towards establishing the future.
Soft Early in the Running Game
Expected improvement in the running game facilitated by a young, enormous, and athletic offensive line was a main talking point of the offseason. All of those attributes mean nothing if the o-line does not aggressively push the line of scrimmage. The stout level of play from Lecitus Smith, Silas Dzansi, and Christian Darrisaw in the Military Bowl raised my hopefulness. T.J. Jackson and Zachariah Hoyt were concerns.
Boston College played a ton of Cover 3 and Cover 4 deep that often left only 6 or 7 defenders in the box, even on first down. The Eagles' defensive linemen focused on lateral movement and tying up blockers so their linebackers could flow to the football. Against some formations, the Eagles would change to an aggressive Cover 1 and more men in the box. It was almost uncanny how many times Boston College rolled the dice with the box loaded and the Hokies didn't check to a vertical route. Then, the Hokies would throw verticals against the softer coverage. Tech helped the Eagles by blocking passively, which allowed defenders to have space to read the play and pursue instead of getting their pursuit angles cut off.
This 1st-and-10 was one of those situations when BC knew to be aggressive. The Eagles countered the 12 personnel (two tight ends, one running back) and brought eight men in the box with Cover 1 (man-to-man with a deep safety). With a cramped box and safety Nolan Borgersen (No. 5) shifted slightly to the boundary, this seems like an ideal situation for a redshirt senior quarterback to check to a vertical throw against the one-on-one coverage to the field-side.
Willis doesn't audible, and tight end James Mitchell attempts turning out blitzing outside linebacker Max Richardson (No. 14). As predicted, Mitchell spent most of the game outside and struggled when asked to aggressively block the stout d-line. Here he should aggressively attack Richardson's inside shoulder and force him outside and up the field. Instead, Mitchell passively sets up like he is pass blocking. Richardson easily crosses Mitchell's face to make the play. If Mitchell just gets in the way by putting his head inside Richardson's right shoulder, running back Keshawn King would have a little bit of a bubble. Dzansi does a good job of handing off stunting defensive end Brandon Barlow (No. 44) to Jackson and then picking up free safety Mehdi El Attrach (No. 25).
On the back side, Smith doesn't disengage soon enough from his combo block on defensive tackle Kyiev Bennermon (No. 98). That leaves boundary inside linebacker Vinny DePalma (No. 42) completely clean to support on the tackle tackle. Willis' option fake does nothing, because the extra man in the box allows boundary OLB Joseph Sparacio (No. 34) to stay at home on the quarterback run fake. The call is the wrong decision against this front, and the execution was poor to boot.
Mitchell was far from the only culprit. Take this zone isolation for instance.
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