Revisiting the Keys: Wake Forest
by Raleigh Hokie, 10/11/04

As expected, Tech and Wake Forest went at each other in a tough, physical battle that ultimately was decided by a handful of big plays in the final minutes of the game. The Hokies missed on several opportunities to build a big lead, but showed the character to make the plays when the game was on the line. Once again, the Tech defense came up big while a struggling offense found a way to get it done in crunch time.

It wasn't pretty, but it never is against Wake Forest. They are a very frustrating team to play, as the Hokies discovered on Saturday. The Wake offense attacked through tempo management, a good run/pass mix, and line play that got a little testy at times. Defensively, Wake's front was successful against the Tech guards in particular, and they were able to run enough zone and help coverages to minimize deep chances in the passing game. In the end, they didn't have an answer for Bryan Randall's legs and the Hokies got just enough out of Mike Imoh and the running game to stretch his 5'6" body across the goal line for the winning touchdown.

Let's revisit our keys to the game to see how the Hokies fared:

Tech Defense vs Wake Offense

Defensively, the game came down to Wake's last drive. Tech's goal line stand at the end of the game had many Hokie fans on the edge of their seats and much of the talk after the game was about Tech's defensive strategy on that last drive. Contrary to what many thought, Tech did not play "prevent" defense on that last drive. Rather, they played variations of 3-deep coverage, rushing four and dropping seven. The Hokies went with base personnel, subbing only Blake Warren for Vince Hall, and sliding Mikal Baaqee over to the middle. Frankly, I was a little surprised not to see some form of nickel or prevent personnel, which would have included Roland Minor and Brandon Manning. After watching the tape, Tech's approach made sense because Wake went with their base offensive package on that last drive -- one back, one TE, and three WR's. I'll give credit to Wake's offense for near-flawless execution of a two-minute drill that put them in good position to tie the game. I'll also give credit to Tech's defense for coming up big on the final three plays to secure the victory.

How did Tech's defense perform for the rest of the game? Let's review.....

Key #1 : Discipline at DE and LB

Tech's defensive front started the game strong, getting good pressure up the middle from the defensive tackles. The defensive ends and inside linebackers had prepared well and, early on, created problems for Wake's run game and misdirection attack. Once again, Darryl Tapp and Jonathan Lewis led a strong performance by the starting defensive line.

As the game developed, the linebackers began to over-pursue and Wake used that tendency to spring Chris Barclay for several plays in the second half. One key to Wake's success on offense was how they managed tempo. They used tempo to build momentum and catch the Hokies back on their heels a little bit. They used a quicker tempo after successful plays and a more deliberate tempo after unsuccessful plays. Adjusting tempo while continuing to execute is not an easy thing to do and Wake showed that it can be an effective weapon. Tempo is an area where Tech's offense continues to struggle, so it was interesting to see Wake's offense manage tempo as part of their game plan.

Key #2 : Adjusting to cut blocks

Early on, Tech's defense kept their poise and composure against Wake's blocking techniques in the trenches. The cut blocks and grabbing were evident throughout and it caused frustration along Tech's defensive line later in the game. I did not see any illegal chop blocks, but there were several cut blocks that came late and away from the play. This was one factor in Wake's running game having more success in the second half, but in the end, Tech's defense overcame this adversity and held Wake's offense to only three second half points.

Key #3 : Collapse on the run and short passing game

As expected, Tech challenged Wake's offense primarily from 8-man fronts. Wake countered by using play action to freeze Tech's weakside linebackers (Whip LB) to open up the short outside zones underneath the Tech corners. James Anderson got caught a couple of times early, including on Wake's first offensive play of the game. Tech's defense made a nice adjustment forcing Wake to work the middle of the field with the run game. They came back to attack the weakside on the last drive of the game, but with limited success. James Anderson broke up a pass out in the flat that he nearly intercepted for a touchdown the other way. On the last defensive play of the game, Tech's entire defense stayed disciplined against the look-off weakside and Mike Daniels made the big play against Wake's primary receiver, Jason Alexander.

Also as expected, Tech did not blitz much in this game. They got good pressure from the front four, which allowed them to play zone coverages underneath and take away Wake's screen game. Other than the one play on the last drive, Wake's screen game was well contained throughout the game. It was clear that it was a big part of Wake's game plan against Tech's 8-man front looks, but Tech's defense was able to take it away with good execution up front and quick recognition by the linebackers and corners in underneath coverage.

Key #4 : Expect the unexpected

Wake's offense didn't show anything new in this game, but they showed their versatility with a good run/pass mix. The Tech defense was well prepared for the variety of their attack. Jimmy Williams may have played his best game for the Hokies and he was particularly strong in run support against Wake's option and misdirection attempts. Wake's game plan included specific plays to test his discipline, but they found no success against Jimmy in this game. Running an end zone fade route against a 6'3" corner seemed like an odd play at the time, but it showed that the Wake coaches felt they could catch him napping. As he had for most of the game, Jimmy played it perfectly and he should have been credited with his second interception of the game.

Key #5 : Continue to play good defense "up the middle"

It's refreshing to see the middle of the defense continue to get it done. Jonathan Lewis worked himself into the best shape of his life over the summer and the results speak for themselves. Not only is he playing consistently at a high level, but he is playing long stretches without getting winded. With JIm Davis alongside, the starting defensive tackles are winning their battles, getting penetration, and disrupting the inside attack of every offense. Vince Hall got caught out of position a couple of times on Saturday, but is making plays in every game. Mikal Baaqee's move to Backer has been very successful and he is playing the best football of his career. With Xavier Adibi due to return soon, the Tech inside linebacker positions appear to be in very good shape heading into the second half of the season.

Tech Offense vs Wake Defense

The Tech offense drove down the field with power and precision on the first and last drives of the game. In between, some good opportunities were lost due to poor execution, questionable decisions, and turnovers. Once again, after struggling for much of the game, Bryan Randall showed his toughness and character as a senior QB by leading his offense down the field for the winning score. He made four big plays on that critical last drive, none bigger than his 13 yard scramble on 3rd and 8 from midfield.

After missing on some opportunities earlier in the passing game, he hit a big one to Jeff King when he really needed it and then used to legs to put the offense in position for Mike Imoh's TD run. Earlier in the game, in some long yardage situations, Wake rushed three and kept a spy assigned to Randall. Interestingly enough, on that last drive, Wake went away from that look on the critical 3rd and 8, leaving Randall unaccounted for down the field. He followed with two more big runs, one against a Wake blitz on 1st and 18 and the last on a perfectly executed QB draw.

Let's see how the offense did overall.....

Key #1 : Time for the OL to shine

The offensive game plan was simple -- get back to power and run the football. Tech had mixed results, with Mike Imoh having his second straight 100 yard game and Bryan Randall breaking off some big runs late in the game. However, while there was improvement, the run game was inconsistent overall. This was the game for the offensive line to establish themselves and while they are getting closer, they aren't there yet. Wake's defense had good success keeping their LB's clean by attacking the Tech guards and beating them to the punch. The offensive line isn't getting consistent production from either guard spot and that has to be a big concern for Bryan Stinespring at this point of the season. Depth is an on-going concern and the options are limited, so it will be interesting to see if Stinespring tries some different combinations against FAMU this week. With limitations in the passing game, the Hokies must find ways to get the running game going in full stride and it all starts with getting better production up front. Whether they do it with a different combination of players or by adjusting some of the blocking schemes, the play in the middle of the offensive line will be the key to any success this offense has for the rest of the season. As of right now, they still have a ways to go.

Key #2 : Patience and execution in the pass game

I suggested that Tech would not go at the corners deep very often and instead would look to attack the middle of Wake's defense between the linebackers and safeties, either to the TE or slot receiver. They remained patient and hit several big plays in the middle, particularly on those first and last drives of the game. However, there were opportunities to hit more passes, both in the middle and underneath outside. The execution of the passing game was inconsistent and it lacked rhythm. That's something we have seen many times before and it continues to be a concern.

The Hokies didn't have a lot of looks deep because Wake was having success containing the run game without committing their safeties. The one attempt deep was on a check when Randall noticed Wake's safety aligned too far inside to give help over the top on Eddie Royal. It was a well executed play, Eddie just couldn't come down with the tough catch. Going forward, as long as Tech's run blocking remains inconsistent, defenses will continue to take away the outside receivers and force the Hokies to drive the ball down the field.

Key #3 : Balance power with speed advantage

I thought the Tech offensive game plan was solid. There was an obvious attempt to establish the running game, although I'm sure the coaches didn't go in looking to get Mike Imoh 20 carries in the first half. I think it was critical to get the run game back on track and they were determined to get it done. The running game is improving week to week, and that's encouraging, but it's still not the strength that it needs to be to force defenses to adjust to it.

The offensive coaches have to be concerned that their group continues to struggle with rhythm, tempo, and execution. Bryan Randall's ability to make something happen with his feet is the contingency plan when things aren't going well, but that isn't going to work against faster defenses (as NC State proved a few weeks ago). The passing game has taken a step back over the last couple of weeks, primarily because of inconsistent play and poor execution. That is a trend that needs to be corrected before the Hokies face the balance of their ACC schedule.

Key #4 : New looks in the red zone

I thought the red zone execution was better against Wake, with the exception of two killer fumbles by the backup tailbacks. I didn't see anything new from the Hokies in their red zone attack, just better execution and fewer penalties. Wake's defense did bring red zone pressure and the Hokies were successful in running at it. Protections still need to get much better; otherwise, red zone options will continue to be limited.

Key #5 : Production against zone coverages

As expected, the tight end was a big part of the game plan, with Jeff King sitting down between zones for a TD and then catching a big pass down the seam on the last drive. Wake's defense was vulnerable in the middle and the Hokies did just enough to take advantage of it. Tech used play action with some success, but there were more opportunities that were missed. The middle had some open holes throughout the game, but the Hokies were unable to take advantage of many of them. The good news is that the offense is getting multiple receivers open against various coverages -- something that wasn't the case the last two years. Now, they have to complete the job and get the ball to those receivers. Bryan Randall has to work on his progressions, throw the ball where it needs to go and trust his receiver will be there to catch it. It sounds simple, but it is very difficult, particularly with so many freshmen receivers out there at the same time.


The Wake game was a pivotal game for the Hokies and the win was a big one, particularly for bowl prospects. It was ugly, but it was a win nonetheless. There is room for improvement in several areas, but this is a tight-knit team that is playing together and as long as a team is together, there is reason to be optimistic.

This Friday, rather than focus on the keys to the Florida A&M game, I plan to look at the keys to the season thus far and what to look for as the Hokies head into the second half of the season. The Tech defense will have to continue to lead the way while the offense works for incremental improvements in both the run and pass game. In the meantime, this team is learning how to win and that's the most important key of all.

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