Stopping Virginia Tech's offense means stopping RB David Wilson.
Brian has covered the most important part of scouting Virginia Tech—how they fared against Duke, of course—but I figured I'd check out the tape of their ACC title game loss at the hands of Clemson and see if I could come up with any further insight on the Hokies. To be honest, my notes look much the same as what Brian took away from the Duke game, but seeing Clemson dominate VT helped to solidify some of those impressions and create some new ones. So, for one last time in 2011, let's do this FFFF thing:
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread, mostly. VT operates out of the gun most of the time, always with at least three receivers. They'll go under center in either the ace or I-form on occasion, and they'll usually run when that happens.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? VT loves to pull their guards to try to get RB David Wilson to the edge, so despite the spread offense, we get a MANBALL here. They'll also do their share of zone blocking, and the inverted veer is their short-yardage weapon of choice, so you will see a little bit of everything out of their run game.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Starting quarterback Logan Thomas stands at 6'6", 254 pounds, and while he's not the fastest guy out there, he's very good at using his size to find a way upfield. He's the Hokies best short-yardage option, usually keeping on the inverted veer and plunging ahead for yardage, and he'll also see his fair share of QB draws and scrambles. Thomas doesn't display the 3G-force cuts of Denard, or anything close, but he's good at finding a seam and getting upfield in a hurry—he won't break a lot of big runs, but he can eat up 5-7 yard chunks with regularity if he finds the space. I'll give him a 6.
Dangerman: Though he had an awful game against Clemson, rushing for just 32 yards on 11 carries, David Wilson (#4) is the best player on the Hokie offense—on the year he has 266 carries for 1627 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns. Wilson has elite speed and surprising strength for a 5'10", 205-pound tailback, but his vision appears to be lacking—he's definitely got some Michael Shaw bouncebouncebounce in him. When he can get the edge, he's very dangerous. When he can't, as was the case against Clemson, he can be bottled up and contained. Still, he topped 100 yards in all but two games this season, so expect him to find some success in the Sugar Bowl.
Zook Factor: I did not notice Frank Beamer do anything Zookian. This should not come as a surprise.
OVERVIEW: Ideally (for them) Virginia Tech is going to find the edge with Wilson, get him eating up big chunks of yardage behind some pulling linemen—they love the POWER run—then unleash their play-action passing game with Thomas, a pretty accurate QB with a very strong arm. Most of VT's passes were either downfield strikes off of run fakes or quick hitters to the middle of the field out of the gun. I guess there's also a third category—panicked dumpoffs by Thomas when his O-line collapses, which occurred with regularity against the Tigers. The blitz will be key for Michigan, as not only is VT's line suspect, but Thomas often holds onto the ball too long and is very hesitant to throw downfield against a good rush.
The Wolverine defense will have to be sound underneath, as not only does Thomas love hitting quick slants, but he often dumps the ball off to Wilson when all else fails. While Wilson has suspect hands, he's very good in space, so making sure he's accounted for is a priority on any play, run or pass. Clemson was rather successful in this regard:
You may notice the total ownage of all things interior O-line on the above play. That was a theme. Let's skip right to the...
PLAY BREAKDOWN: I cut way too many videos from this game, so let's dive right in. As stated, offensive line looks to be a weak point for Virginia Tech, especially in the interior. Here's a miserably-failed attempt at running the inverted veer:
While that blocking wasn't terrible—that's mostly a great play by #40 on Clemson—the O-line can't get any sort of push, and that was a common thread throughout the ACC title game. This play also shows off another potential issue for VT, which BWS picked up on from watching them play Miami (YTM):
Ball security. This probably isn't a trend, but Thomas had a lot of trouble with ball security. He bobbled and fumbled one snap and failed to tuck the ball when he was pressured on another play and fumbled it. There was also another poor snap during the game that had to be recovered. I don't know if these are consistent problems, but they certainly were during this game.
I think we now have a trend. Thomas lost the above fumble after a review, and on several other runs he failed to tuck the ball away, nearly losing it a couple times when taking hits. Michigan's opportunistic defense should have more opportunities for turnovers when Thomas tucks and runs. As for VT's run game from under center, Clemson shut that down as well, again thanks to terrible blocking in the middle:
Mike Martin should be chomping at the bit to get after these guys, as they were bull-rushed into oblivion by the Tigers. Wilson doesn't help here, either, as he comes to a complete stop in the backfield instead of cutting to the backside—when a play breaks down and there's no chance to bounce it out playside, he looks pretty pedestrian. Despite lacking a run game entirely, however, the Hokies still managed to get a big play out of their play-action game:
Clemson had a lot of success by loading up the box and playing very aggressively against the run while playing one deep safety with man coverage, but this is the flip side—the defensive backs must be on top of their game, and they obviously slipped up here. Thomas does those Juice Williams-esque long play fakes and his deep throws are quite accurate. 'No duh' statement of the day: the safeties are going to have to play like they did the first 11 games of the year, because if they repeat their Ohio State performance, it could be a long night.
Thomas is at his best when he gets time in the pocket so he can wait on his first or second read to come open—if those aren't there, he's going to check down to the back—and hit those intermediate throws. His arm strength is not an issue:
That's a fantastic throw between two zones, albeit a slightly dangerous one. Thomas got picked off twice in the fourth quarter after the Hokies fell behind by 28—he'll force a couple passes into tight windows, and Michigan needs to be able to take advantage.
- VT has a solid group of receivers, but there's no one guy that stands out as particularly impressive. Senior Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin both have over 50 catches and 700 yards, though they accumulate their numbers in differing fashion: Coale is quick and shifty—he also returns punts (and actually punts, more on that later)—and does a lot of his damage after the catch, while Boykin is a bigger target with great hands who is a solid possession guy but not a huge big-play threat. One guy to watch is Marcus Davis, who averages over 17 yards per catch.
- Right tackle Blake DeChristopher (#62) is a redshirt senior who garnered first-team All-ACC honors this season, but I wasn't impressed by him. He got beaten easily around the edge for a sack and had his fair share of issues in the run game as well. The Hokie line in general is not especially large, going 306-297-290-307-311 from left to right, and while the guards are athletic enough to pull, they don't have the strength to get a good push against a solid defensive front. Thomas had multiple passes batted down despite being 6'6" with a high release point—that's a pretty bad sign.
- The Hokies have what appears to be a decent backup option at running back in Josh Oglesby, who's runs with a very differing style from Wilson—he hits the hole hard and goes North-South until he runs into something. His numbers don't jump off the page, as he averaged 3.7 ypc on 90 carries this season, but if he finds a seam he can barrel into the secondary in a hurry.
Base Set? BWS pointed out that VT ran not only a base 4-3 against Miami, but also a 4-4 run stopping look, a 3-3-5 package used mostly for blitzing, and an Okie formation quite similar to Michigan's, though with less linemen dropping into coverage. Due to injuries to their linebackers, the Hokies have had to adjust a bit, and against Clemson they mostly played a very aggressive 4-2-5 with DB Kyle Fuller essentially playing linebacker. They'll still switch up their look frequently, but they're a bit limited because of their lack of LBs. A far better breakdown of all this is the now-frequently-linked Dr. Saturday post on the Hokie D.
Man or zone coverage? VT came out playing mostly man coverage—in large part due to their aggressive blitz schemes—but they'll throw out some zone coverage (and zone blitzes) to switch things up and confuse the offense.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? A whole lotta Greg. Virginia Tech brings at least one linebacker on practically every play, and they bring Fuller off the edge often—despite being a nominal defensive back, he's amassed 14.5 TFLs this season.
Dangerman: Fuller (#17 in your program, probably unranked in your heart if you're reading this blog). He's a terror off the edge, blowing up run plays without much help when coming on the blitz, and he's strong in man coverage—he held his own on the few occasions when he went one-on-one with Sammy Watkins. Fuller is also good tackler in space. If you forget his name between now and Tuesday, you'll quickly remember him as the guy making all the plays.
OVERVIEW: Bud Foster's defense is extremely aggressive, and while much of that is by design, it's also a necessity—the Hokie D-line and linebackers are thoroughly unimpressive, but their secondary is able to make up for a lot of that thanks to Fuller's blitzing and very sound coverage. Here's what I thought was an ideal two-play sequence for VT—the first play they rush four and force a throwaway despite getting no pressure, and they follow that up with a curveball zone blitz that catches Clemson off-guard and nearly nets a sack:
You can see Fuller (#17) blitzes here and actually draws a block from the left guard, opening things up for the other rushers to get pressure—he demands a lot of attention. As Brian noted after watching the Duke game, VT is very good in coverage—junior corner Jayron Hosley in particular—and that really lets them bring the heat without too much fear of the big play.
PLAY BREAKDOWN: That doesn't mean the defensive backs are perfect, however. Clemson found some success running the football and dialed up a perfect play-action bomb to Watkins in the third quarter. Corner Cris Hill, who starts when Fuller is playing his hybrid spot, gets absolutely torched on a double move here and there's no help behind him:
Hill wasn't the only player victimized in the secondary. VT runs a complicated scheme that mixes zone and man principles, and while that's confusing for the offense, it can also be tough on their own guys, as well. Clemson's first TD was the result of Fuller settling into a robber zone instead of playing man, and judging by the result of the play, I think it's safe to say he was supposed to pick this guy up:
Tech's run defense found a lot of success early when they were able to bring a ton of heat and flow to the ball—their team speed is a definite plus, and it's hard to get the edge against them using conventional runs when they're blitzing hard. Clemson was able to soften up the defense with multiple quick-hitting end-arounds to Watkins, however, and then they went to work on VT's undersized D-line. Here's Clemson breaking out of the shadow of their own end zone with a simple inside zone that their running back takes off-tackle:
The Hokie defensive ends all weigh in the 240-250 pound range, and in this instance backup Zack McCray (#95) is sealed to the inside while the linebackers both play passively and allow themselves to get blocked with ease. VT blitzes the nearside corner, but he can't get to the play in time, and Ellington waltzes into the secondary. That success would continue late in the game—here's a two-play sequence where Ellington picks up a big chunk on an inside zone before finishing off the drive with a power run off-tackle for a 30-yard touchdown:
On the first play, the defensive tackles both are shoved right out of the hole, and the linebackers just aren't there to pick up the slack—the middle of that defense looked soft all game. The next play is beautifully executed by Clemson, and I can't help but think that Denard could find some success on the edge if Borges dials up an outside run away from the inevitable blitz, especially if it's preceded by a successful run up the gut.
- This could be the game where the tunnel screen actually works for a big play. With VT's suspect linebackers and their propensity to bring 6-7 men on the rush, Michigan should be able to hit a receiver quickly and give him space to maneuver upfield. Tech gave a lot of cushion on the edge against Clemson, and the Tigers took advantage with some quick-hitting screens to Watkins that usually netted 8-10 yards.
- VT's safeties are very, very aggressive in run support, and they're solid tacklers at the line. Denard is going to have to establish himself as a reliable and accurate passer early, or the Hokies will be able to load up the box and tee off on the run. Hitting those quick timing routes that are so fundamental to Borges's offense will be paramount if Michigan is going to succeed against this defense. With all the blitzing, Denard is not going to have all day in the pocket.
- While the DBs are great in run support, I disagreed with Brian's assertion that they were all-around sound at tackling in space. They missed a few tackles on Clemson's receivers when they caught the ball in space—another reason why I think establishing a short passing game will be the key to Michigan's success.
- I flat-out wasn't impressed with the defensive line. Their DEs have some decent TFL numbers, but most of their plays in the backfield came when VT brought extra men—when rushing four, the Hokies got little push against the run and nothing resembling a pass rush. The DTs often got blown right back out of the hole. This shouldn't come as a huge surprise: The Hokies have a true freshman starting at DT surrounded by three sophomore starters, and the depth along the line is young as well—there isn't a single senior on the two-deep for Tuesday's game.
- One last note: Thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, wide receiver Danny Coale also doubles as the punter. He's been surprisingly good, averaging 44 yards per punt on 12 attempts, and he had two 60-yard boots against Clemson that pinned them deep in their own territory. Coale also shanked a 28-yarder in his own end to help set up a Tiger score, so consistency may be an issue. With their top two kickers suspended for the game as well, things could get adventurous for the normally-great Tech special teams.