(2002) Virginia Tech Runs Over the Thundering Herd

Scheme analysis and film breakdown of how the Hokies racked up 395 rushing yards. Coverage issues in the secondary loom.

Kevin Jones leads the Hokies onto the field against Marshall. [Virginia Tech Athletics]

The Hokies had exceeded early expectations. Despite an inexperienced defense and a new starting quarterback — Bryan Randall — Virginia Tech entered Thursday night's matchup against No. 17 Marshall fresh off a dominant 26-8 win over Nick Saban-led SEC power No. 14 LSU. Byron Leftwich, the Herd's sensational quarterback, was touted as a Heisman candidate, and played foe to Virginia Tech in an ESPN hyped-up Thursday night showcase matchup. Despite little pass rush and coverage breakdowns on the field-side of the secondary, the Hokies bent but didn't break early. Then the combination of the Untouchables, Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs, followed a dominant offensive line to break the will of Marshall's defense.

Great Start, But Harbinger of Future Troubles

Virginia Tech got out to a 3-0 lead, ignited by a Ronyell Whitaker forced fumble and subsequent recovery by Vegas Robinson. The Hokies' opening drive was also a prelude to the struggles Tech would face later in the season, when Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia, and perhaps one of the most talented Miami teams of all-time decimated Bud Foster's defense.

For me, everything about this 3rd-and-13 was strange.

Whitaker (No. 2) and rover Michael Crawford (No. 21) align to the field-side. Whip linebacker Mike Daniels (No. 31) drops from the field-side LOS into a deep half alignment on the boundary-side hashmark similar to a free safety. Mike linebacker Mikal Baaqee (No. 45) aligns in between the hashes. Marshall responds with a levels concept. Split end Denero Marriott (No. 13) runs a deep in route and slot receiver Josh Davis (No. 82) runs a shorter in underneath it.

Conceptually, this coverage was really confusing when I initially watched the film. Foster previously used a coverage where the whip has deep safety responsibility, but this wasn't the case since I started reviewing the film with regularity (2011).

Crawford and Baaqee (No. 45) attempt to bracket Davis. Baquee provides inside leverage and Crawford provides outside leverage. Whitaker plays outside leverage on Marriott as if he expects Daniels to help inside. There were some problems though. Daniels was nowhere to be found. Leftwich pumpfakes to the boundary and gets Daniels to bite hard to the bottom of the screen. This creates a window for Leftwich to throw deep to Marriott. Also, because the coverage essentially double teams the two outside receivers, nobody picks up TE/H-Back Jason Rader (No. 90) or tailback Franklin Wallace (No. 24). The pair leak into the field-side flat, and Rader in particular has an easy first down.

Fortunately for the Hokies, marginal contact by Whitaker causes Marriott to fumble. Robinson (No. 6) initially drops down to the boundary hash and then tracks Leftwich's eyes to the football. Robinson's rotation to the throw and hustle allow the Hokies to recover.

After the Tech field goal, Whitaker again got beat, this time on a skinny post. Whitaker appeared to play outside leverage in this coverage.

However, the Hokies play a zone coverage in which Whitaker does not have inside support. Daniels (No. 31) rotates to the field flat, which leaves free safety Willie Pile (No. 35) to cover the shorter inside breaking route. Based on where Daniels and Pile settled on the play, Whitaker would appear to have deep third responsibility, and should not play leverage coverage with the expectation of inside help. These coverage issues persisted for the Hokies, as Leftwich completed 31 of 49 passes for 406 yards and 3 touchdowns.

With Whitaker struggling, Foster turned to a familiar name, backup corner Vincent Fuller. Fuller filled in for Whitaker while the latter served a 2-game suspension to open the season. With Marshall in the red zone and facing a 2nd-and-5, Leftwich targeted Fuller on a vertical route.

Fuller defends the route with press technique and inside leverage. When Marriott releases vertically, Fuller turns and runs with him, back to Leftwich. As Marriott raises his hands, Fuller turns to find and deflect the football. Vincent would eventually move inside to safety, but this was the type of play Kyle and Kendall Fuller would make routine. On the next snap, Leftwich again looked towards Fuller. He chucked the ball out of bounds when nothing materialized.

On 4th-and-5 trailing 0-20, Marshall coach Bob Pruett decided to go for a first down instead of kicking a field goal. Leftwich's pass over the middle was deflected, and any chance the Thundering Herd had of building momentum evaporated in the Thursday night strata of Lane Stadium.

The Hokies were helped by turnovers and negative plays. On this 2nd-and-2 stuff, Tech aligned in its 46 or tuff package — a true 8-man front — which the Hokies rode to 2014's upset win over Ohio State. Boundary DE Jim Davis aligned as a 3-technique on the outside shoulder of the right guard. Marshall aligned in an unbalanced look, the tight end, Rader, at right tackle.

Marshall runs a power play to the left. The right guard pulls back-to-front-side to lead up behind the fullback kickout. Leftwich should check out of the play. The center can't block back to the abandoned gap because he has to contend with nose tackle Jason Lallis (No. 91). Rader was probably assigned to scoop the backside B-gap, but even if he attempts the block, the combination of Davis' quickness and the angle make the block almost impossible. Rader ends up mirroring the rover, Crawford (No. 21). Davis waltzes through and kills the running back.

Courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics

Staples of the Running Game

Bryan Stinespring replaced Rickey Bustle as offensive coordinator in 2002 (HC Louisiana–Lafayette), and it didn't take long to notice a change in philosophy from the former OC. The split back shotgun look/motion into the I formation which Bustle used to give his quarterbacks a pre-snap read became a thing of the past. The run game also incorporated some zone blocking concepts to compliment the isolation lead draw and power scheme that flourished under Bustle.

The above 21-yard Lee Suggs gain reflects an outside zone concept. The entire offensive line zone steps to the right, and fullback Doug Easlick (No. 43) stretches wide, which indicates the Hokies are trying to run around the edge. Both Marshall linebackers key on Easlick and pursue wide.

Center Jake Grove (No. 64) drives defensive tackle Orlando Washington (No. 95) to the field-side. Back on the boundary, left tackle Anthony Davis (No. 57), left guard Jacob Gibson (No. 60), and tight end Jeff King (No. 90) all execute beautiful scoop blocks. Each blocker steps hard to the right off the snap, placing their left shoulder on the left shoulder or hip of the defender. Davis and King both engage defensive end Jamus Martin (No. 99). As King works his head inside Martin, Davis has the timing to peel off and cut off outside linebacker Charles Tynes (No. 45). This was a beautifully executed and aggressive combination scoop on the backside by the duo. I greatly prefer this technique of a backside school versus the hinge technique Vance Vice teaches.

The blocking scheme and defensive over-pursuit introduces a cutback opportunity for Suggs. As he takes the handoff, he looks back to the middle right at Grove. After his first stride, he sees the bubble open between Gibson and Grove. Suggs plants his left foot and cuts back right into a huge hole. I love how Suggs uses the umpire as a pick to bounce away from the safety.

The beauty of the zone scheme is, when blocked properly and paired with a tailback who understands how to read the cutback, it is a beautifully effective play even when the defense stacks the box. The key is having the offensive line understand how to adjust to different defensive looks and the tailback's ability to read his blocks.

On this inside zone, Marshall loaded eight men in the box to counter the Hokies' heavy look.

Gibson (No. 60) accounts for the backside 3-technique defensive tackle, Toriano Brown (No. 94). Brown tries to cross Gibson's face. Instead of struggling to scoop Brown, Gibson drives him right down the line of scrimmage. Kevin Jones stretches just like Suggs did. When Jones plants, he cuts off of Gibson instead of Grove. Grove scoops to the play-side linebacker and can't find him. Instead of looking back at the runner and quitting on the play, Grove moves back to seal off backside LB Duran Smith (No. 48). Jones makes a brilliant cut off of Gibson's block, and then cuts back off the seals blocks by Davis and King. This is the third time the Hokies ran this play on their second drive, and because the running backs read off the offensive line, the play looked different every time.

Stinespring hammered the zone calls with a great deal of success, and Jones ultimately popped this one for a 25-yard touchdown.

Washington (No. 95) aligns in a 3-technique on right guard Luke Owens (No. 74), and then shifts inside into an eagle technique. Owens and right tackle Jon Dunn (No. 79) scoop backside. Owens picks off the edge blitzer, Smith (No. 48), and runs him up the field. Dunn climbs to safety Terrence Tarpley (No. 21).

Grove makes the key block. Washington slants hard to the play's left/his right and tries to cross Grove's face. Grove stays square on Washington and drives through with his right hand while he uses his left hand to stay engaged. Behind Washington, playside linebacker Dionte' Wilson (No. 33) completely keys on Eastlick. As Eastlick runs to the edge, Wilson runs himself right out of the play.

Jones seals the deal. As I have often noted in my reviews, an effective running game requires a tailback who can routinely defeat an unblocked defender. Jones makes the cut off Grove and explodes into the secondary. Safety Chris Crocker (No. 19) tries to peel inside to cut Jones off. Jones has too much speed and beats Crocker to the angle.

Then there was the time Stinespring pulled a page from Paul Johnson's playbook.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. Jones was adept at knowing when to bounce the football. Part of that comes from trusting his fullback. On this 3rd-and-3, Virginia Tech called an inside zone into the boundary from a two tight end set.

Marshall loads the box, the boundary edge defender (obscured number) spills the play, and Easlick absolutely buries him. Satterwhite (No. 15) should run into the space outside the edge defender, but instead he looks into the backfield and gets mucked up on the inside. Up front, the Hokies get a decent push, but the right tackle, Dunn (No. 79), doesn't follow his backside scoop rules. He steps to the right to engage linebacker J.T. Rembert (No. 32), who snuck up to the line of scrimmage over King. He should step inside, where he would find Washington, who instead goes unblocked into the backfield. Once again, Jones reads Easlick's block, cuts away from Washington, and gets to the edge before Satterwhite can recover to fill the space outside Easlick's block.

Courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics

As the game progressed and the Hokies led comfortably, Stinespring moved away from the zone blocking attack and utilized staples of Bustle's offense. The speed option, led by an Easlick isolation block, was one such element.

Another old favorite was the fullback trap off a fake toss sweep. During the Suggs and Jones era, the toss sweep was one of Tech's most effective runs, especially in the red zone. The fullback served as a counter to the toss and often popped for big gains. Against Marshall, Stinespring seemingly abandoned the trap block because the Herd loaded up the interior gaps.

Randall reverses out like he is going to pitch to Suggs, then extends the ball. Easlick takes a step wide, and then counter-steps back to the right to form a mesh point with Randall. Up front, Grove (No. 64) and LG James Miller (No. 76) combo the 1-technique DT. Miller slides off the block and climbs to the next level. Easlick nimbly slips through the hole for a nice gain.

The Hokies put the nail in the coffin with a good old fashioned isolation play right over the A-gap.

Grove and Miller again combo the field-side nose tackle, and then Grove climbs to the backside linebacker, Rembert (No. 32). To the play side, the right guard, Owens (No. 74), steps laterally to reach the 3-technique DT, Washington (No. 95). Washington widens and Owens centers and drives him to the sidelines. This leaves a large bubble right over the right A-gap between Grove and Owens. Kevin Atkins (No. 5) fits into that gap, and Easlick meets him in the hole and turns his pads to the sideline. Suggs steps through the small space between Easlick and Grove and then runs through safety Willie Smith's (No. 28) arm tackle. Once again, the difference between a first down and a backbreaking run was the tailback winning a one-on-one matchup.

Courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics

The rest of the game, the Hokies ran roughshod, while Marshall put up 21 meaningless points. The running game continued to thrive as the season progressed. However, when the Big East schedule started, Virginia Tech ran into opponents who knew how to scheme against Foster's defense. The 2002 Hokies didn't have much of a pass rush outside of Davis, and were very small at defensive tackle. Robinson was the best of a very mediocre linebacker group, and the secondary coverage issues continued to plague the program before Foster made scheme changes in 2004. After a start in which the Hokies beat three ranked non-conference opponents, they sputtered to a 3-4 Big East record. Every loss was seemingly littered with outlier offensive performances. Larry Fitzgerald scored three touchdowns in a home loss to Pitt. The Carrier Dome was once again a house of horrors as Troy Nunes (yes, it felt strange typing it) orchestrated 604 yards for 604. Quincy Wilson ran for 11.4 yards per carry in a 3-point West Virginia win, and the Hokies ran into the duo of Willis McGahee (205 rushing) and Andre Johnson's (193 receiving) 400 yards from scrimmage in a wild shootout loss at Miami.

Comments

Great analysis!

Took my dad to this game since he's a Marshall grad. We picked them apart. And we all thought Pruett would show up with something, especially Leftwich. Man, we beat the ever loving crap out of him during that game, and he still got up to take the snap. Tough SOB.

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
@BuryHokie #ThanksFrank

He followed that up with stints with the Jags and Bucs. Tough is correct.

Click here to destroy wall.

Buddy's wedding was the same day as that Orange Dome abomination, his wife was pissed when she figured out why so many of us kept disappearing from the reception to head to the bar downstairs to watch the game...

I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction:
“I served in the United States Navy"

KCCO

This is definitely before my Hokie fandom and it's a refreshing surprise that Marshall used to be a good football program.

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Not long before that was Marshall with Randy Moss and Chad Pennington. They were not to be trifled with back then.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
@BuryHokie #ThanksFrank

I wasn't into college football back then as I am now.

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Marshall is still a good football program. In the last 7 years, they have went to 6 bowls (and are 5-1 in them), won a CUSA championship, and also played for 1 (maybe 2?) others.

That 2013 team should have went undefeated (including beating us) with Cato, Gator Hoskins, and Tommy Shuler. They went 13-1 the next year, with the only loss being to WKU who went for 2 and got it in OT.

I think that they will field a far better team (and fanbase) than ECU would.

2013 they stomped UMD in the Military Bowl. We had great seats for that one. One heck of a team that year.

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
@BuryHokie #ThanksFrank

Didn't know it at the time, but that win over Marshall might have been the 2013 team's best win.

Marshall University graduate.
Virginia Tech fanatic.
Formerly known as JWillHokieAlum.

That 2014 WKU game still makes me want to throw up.

Marshall University graduate.
Virginia Tech fanatic.
Formerly known as JWillHokieAlum.

It may be the recency bias but I have viewed Marshall as an okay program. I had no idea they won a national championship (looked it up and it was in 1992) and I most definitely wasn't into college football back then.

So for me, it is refreshing that they are a good program.

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Psst. And 1996.

Fun Fact. Marshall was 79-21 in 1-AA and 34-5 in 1-A during the 90's. Two national titles, two bowl wins.

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
@BuryHokie #ThanksFrank

So Marshall was Boise State before Boise State.

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Easlick is still one of my favorite fullbacks at VT.

With Marshall in the red zone and facing a 2nd-and-5, Leftwich targeted Fuller on a vertical route.

Warning: this post occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)..

Well, Leftwich now has company with Jimmy Garoppolo in making the same classic blunder.

I'm loving those old uniforms! Great writeup!

Suggs and Jones were good - really good - and really fun to watch.

They had a good harmony going in the backfield.

Mmmmm

This was the same year we beat down LSU and TX A&M to OPEN the season.

TKPhi Damn Proud
BSME 2009

I mentioned this in the thread where French asked what game he would like us for him to a write-up on and will mention it here too because I believe it was very cool. I was at a bar in Huntington not too long ago, and the bar owner has been a diehard Marshall fan since its days in 1-AA. We somehow got on the topic of this game. He told me he had never seen two greater athletes on the same team as Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones. He went to this game to hope Marshall would pull off its biggest 1-A win in team history and stayed for the performance of those two. They decimated a team that was the Boise State of those times. Marshall went 13-0 in 1999 and somehow always had an NFL quarterback and receiver. It's a shame they haven't been able to return to this level of success. Since this game, Marshall has only entered the top 25 once, in 2014.

Great write up, French. I still get frustrated anytime I watch early season highlights of the 2002 and 2003 teams. Lots of individual talent, but not enough depth or "team." That 2002 team was right there in every loss aside from Miami.

Marshall University graduate.
Virginia Tech fanatic.
Formerly known as JWillHokieAlum.

This game was peak "RUN THE DAMN BALL." I did find out this wasn't the VT record for rushing yards for a game. Against Pitt (and Curtis Martin) in 1993, VT netted 500 yards rushing in a 63-21 victory.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

That was the day after my initiation. We drank for every point VT scored. We were very drunk by 2 with a noon kickoff.

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
@BuryHokie #ThanksFrank

I miss those days when we had a very strong running attack, The opponents knew we were going to run and could not (consistently) stop it. The passing game is better and more varied; it is certainly more glamorous, but I think if you can run the ball, you can win more consistently.
What do you think is holding us back in the running game the most - the running backs, offensive linemen, or scheme / plays?

Ut Prosim Ad Dei Gloriam

At that time the best athletes played RB. Doesn't happen now because RB is a low value professional position. The recruiting base at the position is much smaller.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

I still feel sort of gross to see Stiney trying to run the Paul Johnson triple option with Randall. Yick yick yick.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

the secondary coverage issues continued to plague the program before Foster made scheme changes in 2004.

Is there an article or post that explains what changes were made that year? Is that something that could be explained in a comment ?

Essentially, we moved from a 4-4 look to a 4-3 / 4-2-5 look. 4-4 helped against the run but as noted our coverage schemes on the back end were being picked apart. After moving to the 4-3 we were dominant as a D from 2004 to ~2011, with an anomaly year in 2010 I think.

That was something touched on in the early renditions of my column, but I wasn't writing things up at length until 2011. Writing it now (and writing these historical pieces) has been made much more difficult with Youtube purging resources like Hokietapes.

While I may explore it in the future, the above comment covers it well. The rover and whip started to play off the line of scrimmage (go back to Torrian Gray- he is on the line of scrimmage most of his career), and Foster started using Cover 4 more often. Chris Brown's book Smart Football has an excellent chapter on the scheme change and the drivers behind it.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

This was the last game I attended before leaving for basic training and therefore holds a special place in my heart.

Thanks for the analysis and memories, French.

If you play it, they will win.

"How the ass pocket will be used, I do not know. Alls I know is, the ass pocket will be used." -The BoD

Is this a thing?!
Tell me this is a thing......
French analyzing vintage Hokie games?!

I concur with Dr. Shoog. Yes, French...please do another.

Leonard. Duh.

Love seeing the Jake Grove footage. He was a monster.

oh man, football content

I love it. Thank you.

Might be a little while, but more focused on the future of the defense is in the hopper.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

When I see old film, I question, was that really the quality of picture we got on the old TVs? It's amazing to think how bad it was before what we have today.

The lack of HD made picking out numbers very challenging.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

I grew up with the Marshall DT here, Orlando Washington. Awesome guy all around. IIRC he wanted to go to VT, but they wanted him to walk on. I thought he'd come out on fire in this game trying to get revenge, but he kept getting matched up against Jake Grove. So much for that.

I can't wait to see running backs win in the hole again

They got to hit the right hole, if you know what I mean.

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Their run defense was bad

"You don't stare into a rearview mirror"

Still definitely that of a 1-AA team.

Marshall University graduate.
Virginia Tech fanatic.
Formerly known as JWillHokieAlum.

This was my senior year and I had a property management class with both Suggs and and Easlick. They were both just absolutely good dudes and Suggs was in my group for the semester project and we aced it...they never missed a class that I can remember and Suggs was one hell of a smart guy and great teammate in the group project. Doug set next to me in the back row and I'll never forget how pissed he was after the West Virginia loss that we had no business losing. Despite the crappy end to the season those two guys played their asses off and deserved better! A lot of egos on that team cost us. I mean the temple game? Seriously...thank god they shanked an extra point in OT...anyway this great write up just took me back 18 years and just wanted to share my thoughts...go Hokies!!

HokieHighVPI03

I think that Temple game was 2003, not 2002. Both of those seasons kind of ran together though. 2001-2003 were all characterized by fast starts and epic collapses.

Marshall University graduate.
Virginia Tech fanatic.
Formerly known as JWillHokieAlum.

It's crazy to think how different the Beamer era could have gone if we didn't bounce back and win the ACC and go to the Sugar Bowl in 2004. 2001-2003 were certainly some very disappointing years. I think we won big right off the bat in the ACC because we were seasoned from more physical play and probably better competition in the old Big East.

That's true. Boston College, WVU, Miami, and Pitt were usually one hell of a game for us back in the Big East days. It also helped that the supposed elite of the ACC started to struggle, though.

Marshall University graduate.
Virginia Tech fanatic.
Formerly known as JWillHokieAlum.

FSU dominated the ACC from the time they joined until VT came into the league for the most part. VT's entrance into the league coincided with FSU and Miami's downfalls. Couldn't have been a more perfect storm for VT at the time. And as you said, Pitt, BC, WVU, and Cuse were all tough games for us that we didn't have to deal with anymore. Swap them out for healthy doses of Duke, UNC, GT, Wake, UMD, etc. Pitt and BC to this day still give us fits regularly.

Yeah thanks for the correction...those 3 seasons did run together man...a muddle of high expectations only to be just kicked in the gut....what could've been

HokieHighVPI03

The 2003 season is the most frustrating. That went beyond Foster's scheme. That "team" was anything but. I heard from someone that Beamer said they were constantly having to break up scuffles, mostly between guys on the defense.

Marshall University graduate.
Virginia Tech fanatic.
Formerly known as JWillHokieAlum.

Kevin Jones....(sigh).....just goes to show you what getting the #1 recruit in the country can do for you.

Take the shortest route to the ball and arrive in bad humor.

Brings back some memories. I remember watching this game and thinking 1. Holy smokes, Byron Leftwich is going to be good, and 2. if we can dominate teams like this in the run game with Randall, Suggs, Jones, and Easlick, we are going to win a lot of games. Sad that this iteration of the Foster defense was on the decline and would cost us a lot of games in 02 and 03.

Stiney over the next few seasons continued to evolve our offense to become more multiple and involved in the passing game, which in hindsight I think was a big mistake. We got away from this gritty identity which made us a tough out for anyone we lined up against. Sure it's not flashy football, especially by today's standards, but it won games. Nebraska rode a similar formula to much success in the 90s. The further we got away from this identity and transitioned into a less competitive league in the ACC, the program just went on autopilot from there IMO.

Was gonna sit down and watch this game but I remembered HokieTapes aren't a thing anymore :(

Finally got to this. Great write up! I was in college for this game, and at the game.

I loved seeing Jones run. He glides down the field. I loved watching Grove go to work. The big shoulder pads are great.

I wouldn't say outlier offensive performances. Fitz did the same thing to WVU as he did to us, they just and Q to win them the game. You named some huge names that had good games against us, Willis was a 1st round pick without a leg. Johnson was amazing reciever and Fitz is still in the NFL. Q had the best run ever completely owning Brandon Merriweather (who started for the Pats for many years)

That Quincy Wilson run gets me hype, and I do not care for WVU, to put it lightly.

Marshall University graduate.
Virginia Tech fanatic.
Formerly known as JWillHokieAlum.