Revisiting the Keys: North Carolina
by Raleigh Hokie, 11/9/04

Late in the third quarter, Tech guard Jason Murphy pulled around the right side, drove UNC safety Gerald Sensabaugh back five yards and then pancaked him into the Kenan Stadium turf. Mike Imoh followed Murphyís big block into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game, giving the Hokies a comfortable (or so it seemed) 13-point lead.

The game was playing out just like the Hokies had planned Ė they were dominating the line of scrimmage, they were running the ball with ease, they were controlling the clock and they were keeping UNCís offense on the sideline. Suddenly, everything changed when UNC got three big plays against, of all things, Techís special teams. Over the next five minutes, UNC would have its longest kickoff and punt returns of the season, then top those off with a blocked punt for a touchdown.

Once in control, the Hokies found themselves in another fourth quarter nail biter that came down to the last play of the game. Fortunately, thanks to a huge sack by Jim Davis, the Hokies were able to pull out another big road win and qualify for their 12th consecutive bowl game.

Tech Defense vs. UNC Offense

The UNC offense was expected to be good and they delivered early, hitting for big play touchdowns in both the run game and the pass game. But the Tech defense stayed tough, made a few key adjustments, and held the Tar Heels offense to three points for the rest of the game. There are a few areas to tighten up, but all in all, it was another strong effort by Bud Fosterís unit.

Key #1: Gap Control vs. the Run

Techís defense started the game with wide splits along the defensive line, press man outside, with two-deep safeties. The plan was to show a lot of 2-deep stuff and before the snap, rotate into an 8-man front with man coverages in the secondary.

UNC had little difficulty adjusting to the defensive sets, moving the ball effectively with the run game early. UNCís offensive line got a good push at the line of scrimmage and the combination of Darian Durantís mobility and Chad Scottís quickness created problems for Techís linebackers. James Anderson struggled on the initial drive, getting taken out by UNCís linemen and tight ends on successful run plays.

The long touchdown run by Scott came against a Tech blitz with man coverage outside. Techís defense was in relatively good position on the play, but both safeties missed tackles and with the corners in man coverage, it was clear sailing for Scott to the end zone.

For the remainder of the game, the Tech defense played fairly well against the run. Scott had a play pop for good yardage here and there, but UNC had difficulty sustaining consistent success with the run. Considering UNCís offensive line is the strength of their offense, I thought Techís defensive line battled them to a draw. Jason Brown, UNCís outstanding center who personally dismantled the interior of Miamiís defensive line last week, found the interior of Techís defense more difficult to handle.

Looking ahead a couple of weeks to Marques Hagans and UVa, mobile quarterbacks remain a concern for the Tech defense. Darian Durant was difficult to contain, whether he was running bootlegs or scrambling out of the pocket. As expected, Tech initially played containment on the boundary with a defensive end and Durant was able to break it on a couple of plays. UNC also tried to get Durant to the edge when they saw Vince Hall accounting for him to the boundary. Techís adjustment to more zone coverages not only took away some things UNC tried to do in the passing game, but it also proved to be a little more effective in checking Durantís run options.

Key #2: Pressure Durant; Force Him Left

The Hokies put good pressure on Durant throughout the game, but they had difficulty actually catching him and getting him on the ground (with the one big exception there at the end of the game). The Tech linebackers blitzed on several occasions, but Durant was able to escape sacks and other lost yardage plays.

Going into the game, I was most concerned about Durantís ability to get big plays when throwing on the run, especially to his right. That was certainly part of the UNC offensive game plan and Durant did hit some midrange pass plays while on the move. The Tech defense countered with a lot of zone looks, including zone pressures. UNC hit the big pass plays against man and man free coverages, but only had moderate success against Techís zone coverages. That forced UNC to sustain drives, something which they were unable to do in this game.

One note that has little to do with this key, but is worth mentioning here. Everyone knows that Techís defense is much improved compared to the last couple of years. But no single area has improved more than the execution of zone defenses. Techís successful defenses of the past were known for an attacking style, with endless pressure and aggressive man-to-man coverages. Zones were considered a secondary necessity and they were noticeably awkward and stiff in execution. That is no longer the case. Tech is now much more multiple, playing a full suite of zone defenses with success. A big part of that is the players staying disciplined and playing their assignments within the system. Zones fail miserably when players are not on the same page. The fact that Techís zone defenses are so effective this year is just one data point that validates that the players are in synch with each other and playing together as a team.

Key #3: Defend the Tendencies

UNC had early success running to the right, away from their primary tendency. After the initial touchdown drive, UNC had moderate success running the ball, but they were unable to sustain productive drives with their run game.

UNC likes to pull their guards and center, but Techís wide splits along the defensive line created matchup problems along the line of scrimmage. Penetration inside, particularly by Jonathan Lewis, took away some of the cutback opportunities. The Tech linebackers didnít have spectacular games, but they more than held their own against a formidable attack. Considering he was questionable going into the game, I thought Vince Hall played particularly well. He could have easily been on the other sideline on Saturday, coming within a whisker of committing to UNC two years ago. He was good at the point of attack and even better in pursuit.

On their last drive of the game, UNC really played to their tendencies. They went left on successive running plays, first with Durant on a bootleg and then Chad Scott off fullback misdirection. Durant followed by throwing outside to his right and then hitting Jawarski Pollock on a big play down the middle in a soft spot between zones.

With UNC in field goal range, Techís defense made two big plays back to back that made the difference in the end. On 2nd down, UNC got what they wanted Ė isolation of Chad Scott against Mike Daniels in man coverage. The swing pass had twice gone for good yardage earlier in the game, but on this play, Daniels read it right away, got an excellent jump and chased down Scott for a two yard loss. The Jim Davis sack followed on 3rd down, effectively pushing UNC out of field goal range.

Key #4: Disguise and Mix Coverages

This one boils down rather simply. Tech mixed defenses, but had much more success with zones than with man coverages in this game. Being an experienced senior QB, Durant didnít have too many problems reading the Tech defense, although his lone interception came against a blown coverage in the secondary. Jimmy Williams read Durant perfectly on that play and got the easy pick, even though he was out there as a single defender against two receivers.

UNC came into the game planning to attack the Hokies man coverage at every opportunity. They felt that they had some mismatches against the Tech secondary in man-to-man coverage. They looked to get receivers isolated with motion and a variety of formations. They had success getting the ball to Chad Scott on the edge, isolated against a linebacker or safety. They used motion to get Jawarski Pollock isolated underneath the corners and, when the opportunity was there, they went up top between the hashes against the Tech safeties in man coverage. Vinnie Fullerís injury opened up additional mismatch opportunities, which UNC exploited on their second touchdown. They correctly read blitz and Cover-0 (man-to-man with no help deep), emptied the backfield and got WR Wallace Wright isolated inside against Mike Daniels. Daniels is a good, physical player that rarely makes mistakes, but his speed can be exploited down the field. Wright ran by him and Durant made a perfect pass for the touchdown.

After that second TD, Bud Foster made the adjustment to get away from man coverages and play more zone. That took away the big play opportunities UNC was looking for in the passing game, but they kept looking and hoping. UNCís last big play in the passing game came in the fourth quarter when Mike Mason beat Roland Minor down the sideline. Tech was in ďman freeĒ (Cover-1) on that play, matched up in man-to-man against the UNC receivers, with a single safety back (Daniels) to provide deep help inside. The corners outside arenít expecting help and the Heels went to Mason one-on-one against Minor. Daniels came over, but wasnít a factor in the success of the play for UNC.

Key #5: Play Physical against the Receivers

Techís corners were very physical, but the UNC receivers get credit for being just as physical. That was a good battle throughout the afternoon, particularly in the run game. Although he missed a tackle early, Jimmy Williams was particularly tough in run support.

In the pass game, UNC mostly attacked the middle of the field against Techís linebackers and safeties. They hit some short stuff outside on the corners, but didnít take many shots down the field against either Eric Green or Jimmy Williams. Tech also played a lot of zone which minimized the physical play of the corners at the line of scrimmage.

Tech Offense vs. UNC Defense

Techís plan on offense was to let Bryan Randall manage the game. He had run/pass options on every play and would check into one or the other based on his read of the UNC defense. Randall admitted after the game that he had a lot of success reading what the defense was doing and then checking into the right play.

The run game was dominant, but the passing game took a small step back from the success against Georgia Tech. The offense is still looking for more consistency in that area. Bryan Randall made some very strong throws against pressure and tough coverage, but he also missed on a few of the shorter throws. The receivers made some tough plays, but also dropped some easy passes. Overall, the offense did some things well, but their 370 total yards was a season best for the UNC defense.

Key #1: Win the Line of Scrimmage

Check! The Tech offensive line was dominating, particularly Jason Murphy and Jon Dunn. Murphy showed that he can be a force pulling into the hole and Dunn was strong at the point of attack. The rest of the line played well, but those two stood out in my mind. The tight ends also came up big in the run game, improving significantly over their performance against Georgia Tech.

As expected, the Hokies used the fullback more in this game. John Kinzer was hurt and didnít play much, but Jesse Allen was up to the challenge. He played his biggest role of the season and he made the most of it. Tech had great success running Mike Imoh from the I-formation, both on fullback isolations, as well as fullback misdirection. From single back (2-TE) formations, Tech was successful on stretch runs, pulling center Will Montgomery into the hole.

Overall, the line got into a rhythm and dominated a porous UNC defensive front, particularly in the third quarter. Playing on the road, there were no false starts or illegal formation penalties (at least none that I remember). That is a sign of a unit that was mentally focused and in synch throughout the game.

Key #2: Rush for More Yards than UNC

Check! Chad Scott had a good game running the ball against the Tech defense, but Mike Imoh broke the Tech record for rushing yards in a game. Imoh ran tough, breaking tackles and getting a significant amount of those yards after first contact. Imohís emergence as a durable, reliable tailback that is effective between the tackles, as well as outside on the perimeter, is significant for the Tech offense. The combination of Imoh and Randall forces defenses to give more consideration to run containment, which opens up some opportunities for the receivers down the field.

The success of the Tech running game was one of the main reasons that the UNC offense was held to under 300 total yards. Techís offense controlled the clock and dominated time of possession by nearly 13 minutes. That was the game plan going in and the Tech offense executed that plan flawlessly for the first three quarters of the game.

Key #3: Run Randall Early

In looking at prior UNC game film, it was evident that Tech was going to have some opportunities with the option game. They went to it early, getting Randall on the edge. They followed with an option pitch to Imoh to the short side from an unbalanced formation. That play came straight out of film review, yielding a formation that resulted in four Tech blockers against three UNC defenders on the boundary. That play might have worked later in the game had Tech found itself in the right situation to try it again.

Tech was just as successful running the option to the wide side by getting the same advantage in numbers through formation. Defending the option is strictly about numbers and assignments and UNC did a poor job with both. Randall made good decisions on keeping versus pitching. UNC adjusted the alignment of their linebackers, which opened up some inside running lanes for Mike Imoh.

Key #4: Exploit the Safeties

Gerald Sensabaugh is a good football player with more speed than I realized. He created some mismatch problems for the Hokies and was particularly effective on the blitz. Protection problems reared its ugly head a few times in this game, with Mike Imoh and Jeff King missing their blocks on Sensabaughís two sacks.

Tech had some chances to get something big against the UNC safeties, but a drop here, a bad route there, or a misfired pass limited those opportunities. Josh Hyman had a tough day working the middle of the field against the UNC safeties. He was a good matchup for Tech against the UNC safeties and it was clear that he was big part of the game plan. Unfortunately for Hyman, he dropped some passes that could have been big plays for the offense.

Fullback and 2-TE formations forced UNC to bring one or both safeties closer to the line of scrimmage for run support. Tech took advantage by getting push against the defensive front and then releasing blockers into the safeties on the second level. The safeties got run over on more than a few plays. UNCís defensive line got up off the turf and held their ground much better in the 4th quarter. They looked exhausted after the long Tech drive that resulted in Mike Imohís second touchdown, but they got their second wind shortly thereafter. Of course, the eight minutes of TV timeouts that ran almost back to back at the end of the 3rd quarter / start of the 4th quarter greatly helped their cause.

Key #5: Attack the Corners

The story here was Eddie Royal. The passing game had its struggles throughout the game, but when they hit, it was usually Randall to Royal. They are developing a good rhythm with each other, with Royal becoming Randallís go-to guy. Royal still has some work to do with his run blocking, but his receiving skills continue to impress.

In the 2nd quarter, Randall made one the better passes of his career, hitting Royal on an out to the wide side of the field with pressure in his face. That pass traveled about 25-30 yards in the air. It was thrown on time, to a spot, with good zip. Later, on a 1st and 25 after a chop block penalty, Randall hit Royal again on an out pass that traveled about 30 yards in the air. Royal broke the route precisely and came back to the ball to shield off the corner.

Those two passes came in big situations where Tech felt they had a matchup advantage with Royal against the UNC corners. There was another sequence on Techís second drive of the game that reflected the plan to attack the coverage. On first down, Randall misread ďman freeĒ as a zone coverage and threw an incomplete pass to Josh Hyman that was well defended in the middle of the field. On the next play, Randall read ďman freeĒ correctly and lofted a pass to Eddie Royal streaking down the sideline one on one against the corner. Royal made another great play on the ball for big yardage. The single safety, aligned to help in the deep middle, couldnít get over in time to give help to the corner on the sideline.

Conclusions

This was a game where everyone on the team feels good about the victory, but they know that there were some not-so-good things that need attention in preparation for Maryland. The defense played another consistent game, but they can ill afford to lose Vinnie Fuller, the quarterback of the defense on the field. The offense dominated the trenches and set an individual record rushing the football, but the operation still needs more consistency, particularly in the passing game. Then there are the special teams, which need a big rebound from a poor performance against UNC.

The Hokies now get a short break while waiting to host the Terps a week from Thursday. Iíll take that break right along with them, coming back early next week with the keys to the game.

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