Despite a beat up quarterback, a limited running game, and an exhausted defense, with less than four minutes to play against Notre Dame, Virginia Tech found itself ahead by eight points. Yet, that wasn't enough for the Hokies to close the book on a second home win over a ranked opponent this season.
Two consecutive Fighting Irish scoring drives turned the spotlight on all the missed opportunities throughout the game. What if...
- ...the Hokies don't rush to the line of scrimmage after Tre Turner appears to score in the second quarter and replay rules a touchdown?
- ...Braxton Burmeister gives Turner a chance to touch the ball on an errant fade pass on the ensuing 3rd-and-goal?
- ...Justin Fuente puts aside his "pride and pissed-offedness" and kicks the extra point after a brutal false start penalty forced a long two-point conversion attempt?
- ...the officiating crew swallows its whistle when Brock Hoffman and Kaden Moore meander about three yards downfield and Tayvion Robinson scores?
- ...those same officials flag right tackle Josh Lugg for tackling Tyjuan Garbutt on Notre Dame's ridiculous two-point conversion to tie the game?
- ...Burmeister hits Tre Turner on a beautiful hitch-and-go?
Unfortunately, what ifs are the soup that mediocre football programs have to slurp on. The fact is, Virginia Tech had a vulnerable Notre Dame on the ropes, but couldn't execute well enough to win the game. Notre Dame was the more physical team in the trenches on both sides of the ball, while Tech's quarterback play wasn't good enough to exploit their speed advantage.
The Hokies don't look like a program turning a corner. The roster mismanagement issues of the past few years played a role too. Notre Dame's third string running backs and tight ends contributed with their stars dinged up. Meanwhile, the Hokies didn't have a viable quarterback option when Burmeister injured his shoulder, received next to nothing in the passing game from their tight ends and receivers not named Turner, and out of ten scholarship running backs only Raheem Blackshear generated any production. The Hokies' liabilities in coverage at the linebacker and safety spots are becoming more apparent as teams who feast on linebackers in coverage (Pitt and Syracuse) loom on the schedule. This felt like a fulcrum moment for Justin Fuente's regime, and the little hiker that is Virginia Tech football fell off the precipice on Saturday.
Bad Corny and Good Corny
When the Irish were poised to gain control prior to Jermaine Waller's interception, I thought the story of the game was Notre Dame simplifying their scheme to adjust to their personnel while maligned coordinator Brad Cornelsen failed to stick with adjustments that worked for Tech. The biggest miss was Cornelsen continued to call a heavy dose of wide zone. Notre Dame made a clear commitment, especially early, to run blitzing. Tech's o-line was passive at the point of attack, and that allowed Notre Dame to prevent runners from breaking contain. Meanwhile, time after time the Hokies failed to scoop the backside B-gap, taking away any kind of cutback lane, a nasty holdover habit from the Richmond game.
Tech doesn't have the personnel to run the outside zone read effectively, especially against disciplined attacking defensive fronts. Outside of Lecitus Smith, their offensive line isn't fast enough to scoop a gap wide and stay engaged on their blocks. Plus, Blackshear and Jalen Holston seem more comfortable with inside zone and power blocked runs.
On this outside zone read, Notre Dame defended with only six defenders in the box.
At the snap, defensive end Jayson Ademilola (No. 57) slants hard outside of left tackle Luke Tenuta (No. 69). Nose tackle Kurt Hinish (No. 41) slants into the boundary A-gap. Boundary linebacker Isaiah Foskey (No. 7) blitzes into the B-gap between Hinish and Ademilola. Every single playside defender was a yard into the backfield at contact, driving their counterparts backwards.
Backside, inside linebacker Drew White (No. 40) blitzes through the B-gap. Right tackle Silas Dzansi (No. 60) can't cut White off and drive him inside. Had he picked up the blitzer, a cutback bubble would've formed between White and d-end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (No. 95), who has to stay wide to contend with Burmeister's option fake and Nick Gallo whamming across.
The most frustrating part of the game offensively besides the near misses was that Cornelsen made adjustments that worked, but then didn't stick with them. On Tech's second drive, Parker Clements (No. 70) came into the game at right tackle, and Cornelsen incorporated power blocking.
Instead of the zoning left, Tenuta (No. 69) and tight end Drake DeIuliis (No. 89) block down, while the left guard, Smith, pulls to kick out the outside linebacker, Ademilola (No. 9).
The "G" (guard) lead call with rule blocking playside provided the less mobile blockers better angles to cut off run blitzes, pinning the Irish pursuit inside. Later in the drive, Cornelsen again called on a power scheme for this Burmeister fake toss option keeper.
Moore (No. 68) and Clements (No. 70) deliver nice downblocks to pin the blitzing boundary inside linebacker JD Bertrand (No. 27) and the d-end, Ademilola (No. 57), inside. Remember, Burmeister has rarely kept the ball on red zone read plays, particularly where the quarterback was the functional dive on the option. Foskey (No. 7), the boundary outside linebacker, attacks upfield to the pitch man, while the field inside linebacker, White (No. 40), flies all the way across the formation to chase the pitch, running right by Burmeister in the process. It is amazing what happens when a quarterback makes the correct read on a properly blocked option.
Despite all this success with power blocking and going against tendencies, Cornelsen opened the next drive (following another Notre Dame three-and-out) with an — you guessed it — outside zone with Silas Dzansi at right tackle.
Dzansi (No. 60) must scoop the B-gap. Instead of a hard bucket step and a low cut block on Hinish's (No. 41) right hip pad, Dzansi's contact point was his head to the back of Hinish's left shoulder. Dzansi pushes said d-tackle right into the ball carrier. That wasn't an easy block; far from it. However, if Dzansi can't execute the scoop versus a 1-technique DT, the offensive line has to adjust. Moore should've blocked back on Hinish with Dzansi, a former guard, pulling around, or the quarterback has to check out of the run.
I've also criticized Tech's passing game structure, particularly the lack of sight adjustments by wide receivers to settle in under off-man or deep shell coverage from a vertical route.
ND drops into a deep zone, with cornerback TaRiq Bracy (No. 28), reversing into a deep third on the field side. Outside linebacker Isaiah Pryor (No. 10) roams into the flat on the field-side. At the snap, Turner runs a standard deep vertical, right into Bracy's shell. However, either Turner was empowered to read the coverage and break his route off into the hole under the coverage or Cornelsen made the perfect call against that bracket coverage. A miss later in the game made me think Turner made the read.
Either way, Burmeister anticipates Turner's out and releases the ball a hair before Turner commits to the out route. Because of the lack of Burmeister's arm strength, he has to commit to the throw early or Pryor can undercut the route. He didn't even come close to releasing similar out cuts on time against WVU and MTSU. These plays were positive steps in the right direction for the passing game.
Unfortunately, Burmeister was too limited to consistently execute the positive adjustments in the passing game. Three misses from Burmeister proved to be harbingers of doom. On this critical 3rd-and-goal, Cornelsen called exactly what I wanted against West Virginia: a fade to Turner one-on-one with space to the field-side. Burmeister completely airmailed the pass, giving Turner no chance to make the play.
Later, Cornelsen dialed up a feigned jet sweep that seemed to provide Turner and Burmeister a chance to read the deep shell corner again.
This time CB Cam Hart (No. 5) plays very soft outside leverage, expecting inside help from superstar safety Kyle Hamilton (No. 14). Seeing outside leverage combined with Hamilton biting up on the sweep fake, Burmeister expected Turner to break open on the post route.
I think Turner reads Hart. Even though he plays outside leverage, Hart gives Turner a huge cushion. Turner (correctly in my opinion) hitched up to the deep out. Either way, Burmeister and Turner weren't on the same page (because frankly this isn't something we have seen much of from this offensive scheme), and the Hokies missed out on a big gain.
Finally, instead of playing conservatively to keep Notre Dame from getting the ball with a chance to win in regulation, Tech was aggressive.
On this 2nd-and-10, to the field-side Hart (No. 5) gives Turner a 10-yard cushion, and he sits hard on the quick hitch (similar to MTSU). Turner feigns the hitch, and then explodes past Hart up the field. Turner was wide open and Burmeister missed the throw.
The red zone issues were still a problem, and the insistence on so many horizontal running plays when the offensive line clearly isn't suited to that style with this season's personnel were issues. Ultimately though, when Cornelsen schemed up chances for the Hokies to make plays, the quarterback play wasn't good enough. Burmeister took a beating, but the same limitations I pointed out in preseason combined with the physical wear and tear to his body will have this offense playing with one arm tied behind its back all season.
Notre Dame opting for Tyler Buchner behind center and the simplification of its running game had huge short- and long-term ramifications. They essentially became a one trick pony, running a variation inside zone read options for most of the freshman quarterback's stint. Their key to success was the patience to accept grinding three- and four-yard gains on first down, which was in part facilitated by Tech's hesitancy to account for Buchner in the run game.
Left guard Andrew Kristofic (No. 73), and center Jarrett Patterson (No. 55), combo Mario Kendricks (No. 22), while right guard Cain Madden (No. 62) and right tackle Josh Lugg (No. 75), combo Norell Pollard (No. 3). Both defensive tackles stand up to the double team reasonably well. However, linebackers Dax Hollifield (No. 4) and Alan Tisdale (No. 34) sit back instead of attacking hard down hill, even though Buchner doesn't threaten a run fake. Free safety Keonta Jenkins (No. 33) fits into the bubble and makes a solid tackle, but Chris Tyree's (No. 25) body lean plus that initial push results in a 6-yard gain.
Notre Dame ran a variation of this run scheme over and over again. It never produced a big gain, but the constant grind up front seemed to wear down the defensive line, and the linebackers and safeties played in more of a read-and-react mode. When Buchner did keep, he exploited that hesitancy. Watch this split zone.
Amaré Barno was the option man and took the dive. Mitchell Evans (No. 88) whams and actually runs into running back Kyren Williams (No. 23). Given Barno crashed, I would think there was a cross-key to the option side. That is to say, since Barno crashed on dive, the boundary linebacker, Tisdale, would force against the quarterback keeper. Instead, Tisdale initially seems to fit into the B-gap, instead of flying up to the edge and forcing or spilling the wham block. Nasir Peoples (No. 31) comes up as the free hitter, but because Tisdale was so late to ultimately force Buchner back to the inside that Peoples has to account for Buchner running wide or cutting back. Peoples gets too wide (slightly), and Buchner cuts back for a solid gain.
Defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton adjusted in the second half by bringing Peoples into the box, and the strategy was effective.
On the above 2nd-and-7 keeper, Barno (No. 11) crashes the edge, and Buchner doesn't seem to recognize Peoples (No. 31) in position to account for the quarterback.
Even though Hamilton's defense contained Buchner in the second half, it was evident the Hokies' front-seven had tired legs from having to play disciplined, tackling every play, option football. When Jack Coan re-entered the game and brought a more sophisticated passing approach, Tech's front couldn't generate any kind of effective pass rush. Their quickness and scheme advantage was negated.
Change in Pressure Calls Hurt the Hokies
Coming into the game, Notre Dame had yielded a sack on about 10.5% of plays. Virginia Tech's fast defensive line and gap attacking approach made for a significant matchup advantage, which played out favorably early. The Hokies found success by flushing Coan with pressure through the interior.
On the opening drive, an X-stunt with Barno crossing under Pollard flushed Coan, and Tyjuan Garbutt curled back to make the tackle.
On the next snap, Barno flashed some of the scintillating athleticism that hasn't shown up on tape often since the North Carolina game.
Freshman tackle Joe Alt (No. 76) over-sets (gives too much ground at the snap and widens out) to protect against Barno speed rushing around the outside. This looks like a lack of good film prep, as Barno has rarely used an outside rush speed move this season.
Instead, Barno attacks Alt's exposed inside shoulder with a snapping spin move. Similar to the previous play, Pollard (No. 3) delays and then loops wide to become the contain defender. When Coan tried to climb the pocket, Pollard was unblocked and in position to clean up if Coan eluded Barno.
When Coan returned to the game, Tech's front-four was gassed and Hamilton completely abandoned all the criss-crossing stunts. As I wrote ahead of the game, Coan immediately targeted his running backs and slot receivers working against the linebackers.
Tisdale covers third-team running back Logan Diggs (No. 22) man-to-man. Diggs runs the old Thurman Thomas circle route, hoping to catch the linebacker leaning outside and then cutting back to the inside for an easy catch. Tisdale angles a little wide, expecting inside leverage help from Dean Ferguson (No. 47), freshly in the game after Hollifield was ejected for targeting. Ferguson sinks too deep into the middle to help Tisdale (two former high school safeties should be more reliable in coverage than this). Back in the pocket, the Hokies rush four straight ahead. Jordan Williams gets a little bit of a push on the right guard, Madden (No. 62), but Barno gets tackled and there wasn't enough pressure to make the throw difficult for Coan.
Two plays later, the Hokies were in the same coverage.
Slot receiver Avery Davis (No. 3) runs a tight slant inside of Ferguson to the field-side. This time, Tisdale was in a much better position to help Ferguson, but he was a step late from undercutting the slant. Tisdale's legs almost collapsed when he realized he had a chance to make the interception. Again, the Hokies rush four straight ahead. Williams was solo blocked by Madden and didn't get a push with those tired legs. The quick throw doesn't let the defensive ends get close.
I don't know if blitzing was the answer either. Hamilton tried to send Chamarri Conner on a blitz, and it didn't matter because Dorian Strong (No. 44, who had a rough night) couldn't prevent Braden Lenzy (No. 0) from getting a ton of separation. Garbutt went through almost untouched, but there was too much cushion from Strong to prevent the quick throw.
Honestly, I thought Conner should have moved to mike linebacker with Chatman at corner and Waller moving to nickel as soon as Hollifield was ejected. I could even make the argument that Conner should have been in on first down instead of Hollifield, as the LB struggles in coverage and ND was going to go after the linebackers with its backs and slot guys. That didn't happen and the Hokies couldn't find a way to get that final desperate stop.
Pitt is going to attack the Hokies in the exact same way Notre Dame did when Coan was in the game. They will run a ton of quick passes and crossing routes, working their slot receivers against the Virginia Tech linebackers. If the Hokies have three good man to man cover guys in the game, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett will throw to the fourth receiver against a safety or the fifth receiver against a linebacker all day long. Pitt poses a matchup nightmare for Hamilton's defense.