by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 9/30/02
Another week, another game, and the offense continues to be the ultra-hot topic of discussion. With the running game struggling early in this game, the Hokies quit cramming the ball up the middle and started throwing it. The offense heated up, enabling them to pull away, and another interesting week on the TSL message board -- and in game analysis -- was assured.
Defensively, it was just another day at the office for Virginia Tech, with one new wrinkle worthy of discussion, which we'll get to later. The Hokies shut Western Michigan out for the second year in a row, having now beaten them in 2001 and 2002 by a combined score of 61-0.
This analysis will concentrate almost exclusively on the offense, particularly on the first-down playcalling, and what plays were successful. Note that at the time this analysis was written, the play-by-play had not been posted on the Tech web site, so I was going from my own notes.
Also note that the following is going to get a little numbers-heavy, but if you really want to get a sense of what is going on, sometimes you have to crunch the numbers. If that stuff bogs you down, there's a lot of executive-summary type info included.
A Slow Start
With two and a half minutes to go in the second quarter (27.5 minutes into the game), the Hokies had a mere 84 yards of offense and just three points. In the next 21 minutes, they rolled up 228 yards and three (offensive) touchdowns.
That frustrating first 27+ minutes were characterized by a Hokie running game that was stuffed at the line of scrimmage and a passing game that wasn't being utilized. Time and time again, the Hokies ran the ball straight into the middle of the Western Michigan defense, into the teeth of eight or nine defenders at the line and safety blitzes up the middle and from the corners.
If it seemed as if the Hokies were running up the gut on first down every time, they were. If it seemed as if they suddenly loosened up late in the second quarter and started throwing the ball on first down, they did. If it seemed as if they had more success once they started mixing up their first-down playcalling, well, the scoreboard and yardage totals tell the tale.
In that first 27+ minutes, Tech had 20 rushes for 57 yards and completed 4 of 6 passes for 27 yards. Of the 20 rushes, one was a sack, and two were scrambles when Randall was flushed from the pocket, so the Hokies called 17 rushing plays and 9 passing plays. (As a sidebar, the sack and two scrambles netted 24 rushing yards, so the other 17 rushes went for just 37 yards).
In the next 21 minutes, the Hokies ran 15 times for 61 yards, and completed of 8 of 13 passes for 167 yards. The 15 rushes included one Bryan Randall scramble on a pass play, which means that during the 21-minute span, they called 14 pass plays and 14 rushing plays.
Summary of overall play-calling
First Down Analysis
Here's the breakdown of first down play-calls and results. First, let's look at the plays up to the point where there were two and a half minutes to go in the second quarter, and the Hokies were leading 3-0.
Now let's look at what happened in the next 21 minutes.
Summary of first-down play-calling
If you shift your dividing line just a little, moving it up two plays, you get:
Mixing it Up Wins the Day
In this case, the number-crunching and stat-smithing tells you that once the Hokies started mixing in the pass on first down, the offense took off like a rocket.
But if you watched the game, you don't need numbers to tell you that -- you already know it. Once the Hokies quit slamming the ball into a line stacked with 8-10 guys and safeties and linebackers selling out to stop the run, they started moving the ball.
There is obviously a certain arrogance to the way the VT coaching staff regards their running game. They feel they should be able to run on certain teams, no matter what. They displayed this most notably in the 2000 Central Florida game, when the Hokies had to play their #3 quarterback (Grant Noel at the time) and ran the ball a whopping 20 straight times, from the time Noel came in until the final whistle sounded.
And so it was here. The Virginia Tech coaching staff felt that they should be able to run on WMU, who was ranked 81st in the country in rush defense, no matter how many guys WMU was putting "in the box." Well, it turns out that even when a little ole MAC team knows you're going to do nothing but run, they can stop you.
"We knew what they were going to do, and they didn't try to hide it at all," WMU defensive end Jason Babin told the Roanoke Times, "so we just lined up. It was man versus man, and we got the best of them for those plays."
In the first half, the Hokies struggled running the ball. They had seven rushing plays out of 20 go for no gain or negative yardage, an unusually high number for this team. One of those was a sack of Randall, but even if you take that out, six of 19 running plays were a total bust, and the others weren't world-beaters. Tech got scrambles of 8 and 19 yards from Randall, but their longest "pure" running play in the first half was just 7 yards.
Fans criticized Tech's insistence on running the ball into the teeth of the defense, but Coach Beamer and his tailbacks pointed a finger at the execution of the O-line, as well.
"We've had people get after us [by crowding the line] before and the cracks were bigger," Beamer told the Roanoke Times, and he said after the game that he was going to review film and see where the breakdowns were.
Meanwhile, in separate quotes to the Roanoke Times, Suggs said, "I think the O-line was struggling a bit," and Jones said, "We missed a couple of blocks in the first half."
So Where Were the Breakdowns?
I analyzed the tape, and I can tell you what Coach Beamer is going to see when he looks at it: he's going to see that the WMU players had his guys outnumbered, and that the Hokie blockers were missing blocks, sometimes both at the same time.
The Hokies' first six possessions yielded just three points, and during that stretch, they missed blocks and were simply outnumbered. Here are some of the plays I noticed:
Drive #1, 2nd and 12: Option right. #97 (Chris Browning) beats RT Jon Dunn and tackles Randall for no gain.
Drive #2, 2nd and 10: Suggs off-tackle. Browning beats Dunn and tackles Suggs for a four-yard loss.
Drive #3, 1st and 10: Toss sweep right to Jones. #92 (Hausia Faleofa) beats Dunn and tackles Jones for a two-yard loss.
Drive #3, 2nd and 12 (next play): Jones up the middle. Cedric Humes misses a blitzer, who takes Jones down. Three-yard gain on the play.
Drive #3, 3rd and 9 (next play): Randall drops back to pass, and WMU blitzes. On one side of the line, three defenders are matched up on three blockers, but the running back and the tackle take the same man, leaving one rusher untouched. He flushes Randall from the pocket for an 8-yard gain, killing the drive.
Drive #4, 3rd and 6: WMU linebacker #46 (Bryan Lape) blitzes on the right side. Dunn misses him, and Luke Owens is also beaten by his man. The two of them sack Randall for a three-yard loss.
Drive #5, 1st and 10: Jones up the middle. There are nine defenders at the line, too many to block, and one of them takes Jones down for no gain.
Drive #6, 1st and 10: Suggs up the middle. He is taken down by an unblocked blitzing safety for a three-yard loss.
Drive #6, 2nd and 13 (next play): Randall drops back and is flushed up the middle when Tech tackles Dunn and Davis both miss their blocks. Randall rushes for a 19-yard gain.
Drive #6, 2nd and 7: Handoff to Jones. Dunn is beaten by Browning, and Davis also struggles to make his block. The two defenders pin Jones in the backfield for a three-yard loss.
Drive #6, 3rd and 10 (next play): All-out blitz by WMU. They outnumber VT five to four on the left side of the VT line, and Randall dumps the ball on the left side to Easlick, who is tackled for no gain.
In the second half, on other plays: (1) Anthony Davis missed a block, and Suggs was thrown for a one-yard loss; (2) Richard Johnson and Shawn Witten both didn't hold blocks on a toss sweep to Jones, and he was limited to a three-yard gain when the field otherwise would have been wide open.
And in another obscure example of the type of day Jon Dunn had, his man made the tackle on the Hokies' longest running play of the day, a 17-yard option run by Suggs. The Hokies ran the option left, and way over on the right-hand side of the line, right tackle Dunn came off the line and hit WMU whip safety Christian Hodges (#1). Hodges brushed Dunn off, ran clear across the field, ran Suggs down from behind, and tackled him.
Conclusion of the Offensive Analysis
In the last two weeks, the bad news is that Virginia Tech's vaunted rushing attack has been held to just 257 yards on 87 carries (2.95 yards per carry).
The good news is that Bryan Randall, in that same time period, has gone 23-of-30 for 313 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INT's.
The Hokies still haven't shown a "vertical" passing game, which means they haven't completed The Bomb. That's not a big deal, in my opinion, because they can still sting the opposition. Randall and Wilford hooked up for 52 yards against Texas A&M, and against Western Michigan, they had gains of 24, 13, 15, 12, 28, 14, 16, 24, 35, and 13 yards. And after Grant Noel came in, he completed an 18-yarder to Josh Spence.
When you've got a defense like the Hokies have, and your offense has 11 completions over ten yards, including three over 20 yards, it will very often do the trick. It will probably take a little more against the very top teams in the country, but we're talking about just a chosen few football teams.
At this point, the pieces are all there. The running game has been good at times, and the passing game is firing up (including some outstanding catches by the receivers, who are to be commended). The key now is for the Hokie coaches to finally have the confidence to start mixing it up from start to finish.
There have been excuses for concentrating on the run: ASU and Marshall couldn't defend it; Randall was getting his first significant playing time against LSU; the Hokies didn't want to make a mistake at Texas A&M; and Western Michigan was the #81 rush defense in the country.
But at this point, the evidence, to me, is clear. The run needs the pass to succeed, and vice versa. That's elemental football. But in the last two weeks, Bryan Randall and his receivers have shown that they're ready to step up and do the job. At one point, including the Texas A&M game, Randall had hit 21 of his last 25 passes.
It will be very interesting to see what the Hokie coaches and players do against Boston College, because BC is not a lightweight against the run, and Bryan Randall now has three full starts under his belt and has proven he can play well on the road.
The Hokies are running out of reasons to just slam the ball into the line over and over and over, so all eyes will be on the play selection when VT and BC go at it next Thursday night.
There's not a whole lot to say about the defense, particularly not after that exhaustive analysis of the offense. The D once again did their jobs, and the latest NCAA rankings have them #1 in rushing defense (42.2 yards per game), #1 in scoring defense (7.8 ppg) and #11 in total defense (268.2 yards per game).
On the downside, the Hokies are #74 in passing defense (226.0 ypg, thanks to Marshall and WMU).
The most interesting thing the Hokies did in this game was experiment with a three-man rush and drop eight players into coverage, presumably more of a zone-oriented coverage. That kind of defense really isn't Tech's style -- an all-out attack is more of what the Hokies are used to, so I thought it would be interesting to breakdown how they did when they rushed three guys and covered with eight.
I saw six instances of this defense, in which the Hokies remove one of their four down linemen and replace him with a defensive back, in the first three quarters. Tech ran this defensive scheme five times on WMU third downs and once on second down. There were two instances where it was run on 3rd and 7 and 3rd and 4, but other than that, it was at least 3rd and 10 every time (the second-down instance was 2nd and 15).
On the six plays, WMU did not convert a single first down, and in fact, completed just one pass. The completion was eight yards on a third and ten, so it wasn't a first down, and WMU had to punt.
On the other five plays, WMU threw three incompletions and scrambled twice for short gains. The scrambles came about because the coverage was so good that the WMU QB's had no one to throw to and bailed out of the pocket.
Despite the Hokies rushing just three guys against five or six offensive linemen, Jim Davis had a near sack on one play, and in another instance, Cols Colas tattooed QB Jon Drach, knocking him out of the game. On that same play, Western Michigan committed a holding penalty, despite superior numbers.
Results-wise, the three-man rush was a success, but it's up to the Hokie coaches to review film and see if they liked the Tech players' execution and see if they feel comfortable running it more in the future. This is one to keep an eye on.
Other Notes and Observations
More evidence of the slow start: VT had four penalties on the day, the first three of which came in the first six minutes of the game. After that, Tech settled down and had just one more penalty.
The Vinnie and Vinnie show: Punter Vinnie Burns and punt coverage man Vinnie Fuller have a real routine going -- punt the ball and down it inside the five yard line. They did it once against Texas A&M and once against WMU, and very nearly did it a third time against Texas A&M.
Blackout Saturday, indeed: I lost consciousness early in the game when Western Michigan completed a pass against DeAngelo Hall -- the shock of seeing it was too much to handle. I consulted my history books to see when the last time that happened was, and Virginia Tech Sports Information Director Dave Smith informed me that VT's football records don't go back that far.
A clinic in blitz-blocking: Early in the second quarter, Western Michigan completed a 42-yard bomb against a fierce Hokie rush. Tech rushed seven players, and WMU picked up every single one of them, enabling Jon Drach to heave the long ball downfield. He made a perfect throw, and WMU receiver Chris Chestnut caught the pass over Tech's Billy Hardee.
Wonder what he said? On 2nd and inches for Western Michigan, with 4:13 to go in the second quarter, DeAngelo Hall dropped an easy interception, at least the second one he has dropped this year (LSU was the other one I can recall). As he sat on the turf, safety Willie Pile gave him an earful, no doubt saying something like, "DeAngelo, my good man, if you're desirous of capturing that wonderful Thorpe Award, I would recommend that you corral the pigskin when given such a golden opportunity. Good luck next time, young fellow." Either that, or he screamed, "Catch the $#&% ball!!!"
A surreal moment: The VT reaction after Alex Markogiannakis returned a fumble was positively … sleepy. Cols Colas jumped around a bit, but other than that, the entire VT team, including Marko himself, just sorta yawned their way through it. It was weird to see the subdued "celebration," to say the least. I thought I was watching a Packers game from the 1960's.
One note about Marko's fumble return: if you watch the tape, he clearly picked the ball up on the 33-yard line and returned it for a score. But the official scorer called it a 25-yard fumble return for a TD. Had he been credited with the full 33 yards, he would have scored enough to win the TSL Extra Defensive Player of the Week (see above) outright, instead of tying with Cols Colas.
Randall's got a gun: With 6:54 to go third quarter, on first down no less, Bryan Randall threw a play-action bomb to Richard Johnson. Johnson twisted around to get to the ball, fell down, and almost made a heck of a catch. Worth noting is that Randall threw it 54 yards in the air.
Left hand, meet right hand: The ESPN play-by-play announcer kept calling VT linebacker Vegas Robinson "Vegas Ferguson." At one point late in the third quarter, the play-by-play guy called him Ferguson, the color announcer called him Robinson during the replay, and the play-by-play guy called him Ferguson again right after that.
The speed difference: on his 28-yard shovel-pass TD, Lee Suggs showed his superior speed by turning the corner and outrunning at least four WMU players who seemed to all have the angle on him. TV can be deceiving, but Suggs looked fast.
Next Up: Boston College
Once again, the Thursday night spotlight shines on the Hokies, as they play their third straight road game, this one against Boston College on October 10th. The Hokies have won six in a row over the Eagles, and you've got to wonder if this year is Boston College's year to finally knock off the Hokies.
We'll return next week with a BC preview.