It would be simple to say that the Hokie offense and defense played great and terrible at different times on Saturday against Georgia Tech in the 28-23 loss. The first half the Hokie offense sucked and the second half the Hokie defense sucked. Sure, it's more nuanced than that but if you want the headline, there it is. Now I think that takes away too much credit from the Georgia Tech team. The Yellow Jacket defense was WAY more amped up in the first quarter than the Hokies' offense. And the Yellow Jacket offense in the 2nd half was a clinic, plain and simple.
So I am going to give a ton of credit to Coach Johnson and that offense for helping Georgia Tech win the game. And I will also break down the chess match between Johnson and Bud Foster in this game a little later on. It was neat to see and Coach Johnson won the battle this time. I think Coach Foster learned a whole heck of a lot about what to do in future matchups so that should be great to watch for years to come, as painful and gut-wrenching as it is right now.
But I am going to do this backwards. Rather than first blathering about the X's and O's of the Johnson vs. Foster battle, I am going to start with where this game was won and lost because when you really boil every single thing down, it had very little to do with the 2nd half. 'How can that be?' you might wonder. Well, look at it like this - the Virginia Tech offense was every bit as potent and unstoppable in the 2nd half as the Georgia Tech offense was. Each team scored 3 TD's in that half and answered each other's scores time after time. The problem was that Georgia Tech had a 7-3 lead at halftime. Even I can do that math.
So the real key to this game was the opening quarter. To wit - the Hokies had 1st and 10 inside Georgia Tech's 50 yard line three times on their first three drives (two of which BEGAN in Yellow Jacket territory). They scored zero points. Let's look at each drive and see where it went wrong:
1) After a big play on a 40 yard toss to Dyrell Roberts to get the ball on the Jacket 36 yard line the Hokies failed miserably in an old and painful (and familiar) way. They got blitzed. On 3rd and 12, the Jackets brought 7 rushers and sent one LB to cover the running back, leaving 3 DB's to cover Hokie receivers. The Hokies max protected with 6 blockers and sent the RB out on a route in the flat. This should have left one GT defender free to rush in, but as luck would have it, one of the Jacket linebackers was late to come up the middle. So this left all three WR's on the right side of the field in man-to-man coverage. Jarrett Boykin ran a post and without any safety help, he was 1000% wide open for a TD. Tyrod Taylor absolutely in this situation has to be coached to take a 1-2-3 step drop and lay the ball out on the post in that man-to-man situation. Instead, he took a deep drop and then tried to step up against the rush at which point the late blitzer ran up the middle and sacked him. Out of all the plays by the offense, this is really the one that got me, especially when going back and watching the replay. There is no excuse for this. None. O'Cain, Stinespring and Taylor need to spend time in the film room and on the practice field and get this down absolutely cold. Really, in this offense, with the players finally executing better, it is the one of the few remaining weaknesses (no tight end involvement) and it's been there for all of Stiney's tenure. For God's sake, burn one of the worst pass defenses in the conference if they come on a blitz like that. If they're not going to roll Taylor out against the blitz, then dammit, it MUST be a quick drop and "boom" fire the ball and count on the receiver to beat his man.
2) The second drive started on the Yellow Jacket 42-yd line. This was an old-fashioned run up the middle the first two downs and then throw in a passing situation. We've read this story before. Unfortunately the pass was completed short of the 1st down marker and the Hokies punted. I hate third down passes thrown short of the 1st down, especially on the sideline when there's no chance to have the WR (in this case, Dyrell Roberts) run for it. That should have been the 2nd down call, especially since it was a roll-out with a run/pass option for Taylor. But again, TE Greg Boone is a weapon that is supposed to be used on these 3rd downs and he just isn't. There is no repoire between Taylor and Boone and that is a result of those plays not being run often enough in practice until both are very comfortable with it. Boone wasn't even out in a route on this play. Again, Coach Stinespring called a 2nd down play on 3rd down and it gained five yards when they needed eight. Ridiculous.
3) This was a great play by Yellow Jacket defensive lineman Jason Peters. He jumped up and tipped the pass at the line of scrimmage and then dove to make an interception. Now unfortunately backup guard Greg Nosal was blocking Peters and he just doesn't have enough game experience to know that when his man tips the ball, he is to grab and tackle the opponent. Remember that once the ball is tipped, there is no such thing as pass interference and it's ok if your guy gets his arm up to tip a ball once in a while, but letting him make the interception is not acceptable. Nosal looked around for the ball instead of hitting Peters and it cost VT. He'll know for next time.
The end result of this is that the score at the end of the 1st quarter was 0-0 and the entire course of the game was set off in a particular direction that allowed the Jacket running game to play a huge factor while keeping the GT crowd in the game. That's when the game was truly lost for Virginia Tech. There really are only two ways to beat Georgia Tech - have them beat themselves (which is happening less and less this season) OR get out on them early.
In fact, just look at Georgia Tech's only loss this year against Miami. I did. I watched that game again. When they played GT, the 'Canes scored the first three times they had the ball to go up 17-3. Once the Canes got that lead, their defense played further from the line helping to defend the pass, but more importantly, to shut down the big running play from the Jackets. By forcing GT to try and drive the ball in the 2nd half, and then successfully converting on 3rd downs when Miami had the ball, the 'Canes made sure the clock was GT's worst enemy. And it worked. The Yellow Jackets threw the ball 15 times in an attempted come back (twice as many passes as they tried against the Hokies) which is definitely not their strong suit. Miami won the time of possession battle 34 minutes to 26 minutes and won the game.
If Virginia Tech would have been able to do the same in the first quarter, I can't say for certain they would have won the game, but it seems damn likely. Even if the Hokies would have only gotten 10 points in that quarter, the score would have been 13-7 in favor of VT at halftime and if the 2nd half would have played out exactly the same, it would have been 34-28 Hokies. Of course, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts we'd all have a Merry Christmas. So let's move on and look at the epic battle between Coach Paul Johnson and Coach Bud Foster (can you imagine if these two guys were on the same staff? Holy Moses that would be an unstoppable team).
This battle kicked off with Coach Foster playing a different defense than he did against the Jackets last season. Maybe Foster was more worried about Georgia Tech trying to throw the ball deep downfield, but either way instead of the usual 8 man front to stop the run, Foster played a more traditional 4-3 defense in the front seven and played almost exclusively man-to-man defense on the receivers with the defensive backs. He blitzed the LB's several times and even sent a DB two times (playing zone behind them on those occasions) with good success in the 1st half. Dorian Porch and Chancellor had more freedom to read and react to the plays. One guy had backside coverage on reverse/mis-direction plays and the other guy ran and tackled whoever had the ball.
Also, in the first half, the defensive ends split duties between crashing down on Dwyer the diving FB, and coming off of the dive to hit the QB Nesbitt instead. In fact, if you watch at the 3:14 mark of the 1st quarter, Georgia Tech ran the exact same play they would score on to win the game at the end, and DE Jason Worilds rushed Nesbitt directly and hit him for a loss. There were very few misdirection plays, so Kam Chancellor got most of the work in run support and he played very well in the first half, making several tackles, including some solid hits on Nesbitt.
Thus the Yellow Jackets had one scoring drive in that first half and really, that only happened because they hit a huge pass play (their only completion of the game) on a great catch by Demaryius Thomas.
Now in the 2nd half, Coach Johnson made some phenomenal adjustments. I mean really, I was so sick watching this loss, but as a fan of well-executed football, that GT offense is very impressive. The first thing Coach Johnson did was begin attacking the perimeter early in the 2nd half, but this time, the A-back on the side the play was being run to dashed out to block down on Chancellor. Cody Grimm was having to read Nesbitt or the pitch and he guessed right about 50% of the time. The other 50% of the time on the outside pitch plays, the Jackets made big yards. By running to the outside with great success GT forced the defensive ends to start trying to play the QB as they had done in the first half. Like a boxer setting up the uppercut, Johnson kept attacking the perimeter and then began handing off to Dwyer on the inside. Eventually Dwyer, being a great back, broke some big runs and Coach Foster started letting his defensive ends have it on the sidelines hounding them to stay on Dwyer on the inside.
Chancellor was being very well blocked most of this half, much to my disappointment. He has to do a better job coming off of those blocks especially if he wants to have a good career at the next level. He also had two clean shots on Nesbitt in the 2nd half and missed making the tackle both times giving the Yellow Jackets big gainers on eventual scoring drives. Also in the 2nd half, Porch started cheating because the Jackets weren't running any misdirection. Until of course they did, and it went for 14 yards, because Porch didn't stay home. From that point on Porch absolutely HAD to stay at home (or he wouldn't dare come off the field to the sideline to face Coach Cavanaugh) to prevent that from happening again. So, of course, Coach Johnson didn't call a misdirection play the rest of the game. Very clever.
Despite all of this offensive dazzlement, there was one instance where, at the beginning of the 4th quarter, the Jackets were stopped about 2 inches short on a 3rd and 2, but inexplicably, the ref, for the first time in my entire life of watching football, rolled the football after the chains had been put in place and then ruled it a first down. Now I had to stop, drop and roll when I saw this, because my face caught on fire, but in reality, at this point of the game, what were the chances of the Hokies stopping GT on 4th and inches? I'm still mad about the call, and that ref should be disciplined, but it didn't decide the outcome in my view.
All of this punch and counterpunch, including that single mis-direction play were brought into brilliant playcalling at the end of the game when it really mattered. And the key here was the play of the defensive ends of Virginia Tech. At the end of the game, Coach Foster had instilled in the ends that they were not going to let Dwyer beat them and I don't think the fullback did. The genius of Coach Johnson is that he used this to set-up the game winner. Recall that in the 1st quarter, Jason Worilds didn't crash down on the FB, but instead played Nesbitt and smacked him for a loss. Well, with with 3:41 left in the game, facing 2nd and 9, Coach Johnson called an option to the wide side of the field. Nesbitt handed the ball off to Dwyer and sure enough DE Nekos Brown crashed down on Dwyer and stopped him for a 2 yard gain setting up 3rd and 7. More importantly, Cody Grimm ran out to double cover the pitch man and Dorian Porch stayed home to prevent the reverse that would never come.
Having seen his final verification that the Hokies were going to play their assignments that way and knowing that Porch was staying home to prevent the big mis-direction play, Coach Johnson called the exact same play on 3rd down and I bet he told Nesbitt to keep it. Sure enough, the Hokie defenders played it the same way - Grimm took the pitch man, Nekos Brown jumped down on Dwyer (I mistakenly said this was Jason Worilds in my 3 Key Plays and have since fixed that) and the A-back ran out to block Chancellor. Nesbitt kept the ball and outran Porch who was coming from the other side of the field for the clinching score. It was offensive football executed exactly as you would draw it up on a chalkboard. And I think the reason Coach Foster took responsibility at the end of the game for not getting the offense stopped is because he didn't alter the defensive alignment between that 2nd down and 3rd down play. By coming out and giving Nesbitt the same look, if Foster would have then changed HOW the Hokies defended the play, I think it might have caught GT off guard and stopped them (letting Nekos Brown take the QB for example). As it stands, Coach Johnson came out on top in that chess match and the Yellow Jackets earned a tough victory.
As for Virginia Tech, all the Hokies can do is tighten up the remaining issues on offense, realize that the defense won't be facing Georgia Tech for another year and get back to playing football. The goals laid out at the beginning of the season (for those within the program anyway) are still achievable. Win the ACC and go back and defend the Orange Bowl win. While that isn't completely within VT's destiny anymore, what they can do is put this game behind them and get ready to play their best football of the season against UNC.