There's a new feeling in the air around Virginia Tech football. Yes, the Hokies beat Georgia Tech 37-26 on Thursday to take a commanding lead in the ACC Coastal Division, but that isn't new territory. After all, the Hokies have either been in position to win or won the Coastal Division every year since joining the ACC in 2004. And every year they've beaten the Yellow Jackets, they've won the Coastal Division. But that new feeling this year? It's OFFENSE.
To put it bluntly, this is a game the Hokies would have lost anytime between 2006 and 2009. During those years, the defense REPEATEDLY gave the offense the ball in great field position with a turnover, scored themselves (Beamerball anyone?) or the special teams would get a great punt or kick return. There is no secret that the Hokies always ranked far higher in scoring offense than they did in total offense and it was always because of the dominance of the defense and special teams. The Hokies won two ACC titles during that time which is the reason Bud Foster deserves a statue on the campus of Virginia Tech already.
Now I will grant that against Georgia Tech, the Hokies defense was inspirational. Coach Foster and his staff might have worked their greatest masterpiece on defense this season, cobbling together line-up after line-up due to injuries and trying to matchup with the different offenses he has faced. But against the Jackets, it wasn't the old dominant Hokie defense. They didn't cause a fumble or create an interception and they gave up their share of big plays (mostly due to some unbelievably bad play by Tariq Edwards which I will address later). I won't overlook that huge stop on 4th down at the beginning of the 4th quarter, but for the remaining time in the 4th quarter, why was the Hokie defense so effective? Because the Jackets were playing from behind and were forced to throw it, which they STINK at when you know they are going to throw it.
The fact of the matter is that the Hokie offense was forced to take over deep in their own end several times in this game due to poor punt or kickoff returns. In those situations, the offense either went on scoring drives or flipped the field. They held the ball for 34:13 in the game and scored 37 points. This, against the same defense that, on the same field in Atlanta two weeks ago, held the Clemson Tigers to 17 points. And then they had a BYE WEEK to prepare for the Hokie offense.
So this begs the question - how did the Hokie offense, which has had similar talent level comparing the past 4-5 years to this year's squad, suddenly become the unit that doesn't just avoid losing the game, capitalizing on what the VT defense gives them, but can in fact take the game on their shoulders and WIN IT? Well let's look at the Georgia Tech game film.
The first thing that leaps off the screen at you is how much better this offensive line is at pass blocking then they are at run blocking. They have allowed a total of 1 sack/game - good for 17th in the country. And against the multiple looks of a blitzing 3-4 defense from Georgia Tech, they remained cool, communicating on the road and picking up the blitz wherever it was coming from. They also were winning their one-on-one battles. Blake DeChristopher is having an All-ACC season and he is just shutting down any player coming off the edge on his side of the line.
Run blocking has been extremely inconsistent, not only game-to-game but even play-to-play. Fortunately, when you have a superhero at running back like David Wilson he can break a lot of tackles and get a ton of yards after first contact. I counted SEVEN TIMES that a Georgia Tech player came through the line either untouched or poorly blocked and had a clean shot on Wilson. He was stopped by that player only twice. The Hokies need to clean this up, but I think the problem is that both guards (Jaymes Brooks and Greg Nosal) are playing hurt with ankle or leg injuries. They both look slow on zone stretch plays or when they have to pull and I bet it hurts their drive on straight ahead/bulldozer plays as well. Center Andrew Miller is a fighter and certainly the most physical center we've had since Ryan Shuman, but he is getting beat off the snap too often for my liking. Plenty to clean up but certainly better play than the past few seasons has seen on the line.
The second key to the offensive performance against Georgia Tech was Logan Thomas. Listen, I only know one NFL scout and I only know him well enough to talk with him every few months, especially when it's mid season like this. But after the Georgia Tech game, he responded to an email I sent him and told me that there is starting to be a buzz around the NFL on Thomas after quite a few people watched him play on Thursday. I'd say if Thomas doesn't get hurt, he's a very likely high draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft after his junior season. The two throws to Danny Coale were carbon copies of the type of throw that successful NFL QB's make on Sundays (that TD strike to Coale at the end of the first half had a vapor trail and hit him on a dead run 37 yards downfield). And the touchdown throw to Boykin showed that even just during the course of this season he's developed a very nice touch, because he had to throw it over three Jacket defenders but not too high so that Boykin could make the grab and stay in bounds at the back of the end zone. And of course his running was an X-factor in the game, which by the end, had tired out Georiga Tech's defenders so much they couldn't even get low on him, and the result was big run after big run right up the middle.
But I really think the entire key to the offense this season and particularly in the GT game has been the impact that Coach O'Cain has had on the offense. From the very first blog post I wrote after the very first game against Appalachian State, I said that this offense had a different feel. It was organized. Thomas' reads made sense when watching them on replay. Offensive linemen aren't tripping over themselves or each other on the running plays. Just look at O'Cain's play calls. If you ever saw 2nd and 6 facing the Hokie offense over the past 4 years, it was a running play 90%, maybe 95% of the time. Against Georgia Tech, the Hokies were extremely unpredictable. The free-running Georgia Tech defenders I outlined above weren't because they knew which play was coming (at least sometimes), it was because a pulling guard or fullback (I'm looking at you Joey Phillips) flat-out missed their block.
While Coach O'Cain's scheme feels cohesive to me and pretty well-executed (minus a few series the offense sleepwalked through that I just have to ascribe to these being college kids) but there's an ingenious adaptability to it. An offense needs a clear identity to succeed. "We are power running game" or "We run the spread" or "We pass every down", etc. O'Cain has taken one of my all-time favorite kung-fu masters - Bruce Lee- and adopted his tactical approach. Here's Bruce explaining and demonstrating it as only he can.
When Georgia Tech tried to protect their cornerbacks with safety help in the passing game, O'Cain began the ground and pound game with Thomas and Wilson. When the safeties came up to help on the run, O'Cain dialed up some deep balls. And in seven cases, he called combo play calls, giving Thomas the control at the line of scrimmage to put them in a run or pass providing the ultimate flexibility. Even listening to Coach Beamer's language this year - "We feel like we can run it pretty well and throw it pretty well" - is a huge turn from season's past where he's always wanted to run the ball first and foremost.
Against Georgia Tech, Thomas threw it 13 times, as the Hokies worked the time of possession game. But those passes were big plays. Against several opponents, including Boston College with their dynamic LB's, Thomas has thrown it 30 or more times. The result has been the most 400 yard games since Virginia Tech's national title game run back in 1999. Is it mere coincidence that Bryan Stinespring wasn't running the offense back in 1999, too?? I think not, but you can make your own decision.
Now on to the defense. First of all, how about all the guys playing new positions on Thursday night??? Jack Tyler at MLB played his ass off, leading the team with 12 tackles, J.R. Collins moving inside to defensive tackle was a force all night and Kyle Fuller continues to make a push for defensive MVP this season as a true sophomore, filling in at whip for the game and making plays all over the field. The one player who's played well this season but gave up a TON of big plays to the Jackets was Tariq Edwards. There were literally FOUR DAMN TIMES that he had QB responsibility and didn't hit Tevin Washington on the option. He either tried to drag and play both Washington and the back, or he flat out went for a pitch fake and gave up the QB. I couldn't fathom why he wasn't hitting the QB to force an early pitch and let the Hokie speed get to the edge to shut down the pitch man. But even Edwards, who gets the goat of the week this week redeemed himself, as he was the guy who blasted Washington on the QB dive on 4th and 1 at the beginning of the 4th quarter which did give the Hokie the offense the ball deep in Georgia Tech territory.
The real key to the defense in this game was getting off the field on 3rd down. The Yellow Jackets led the nation on 3rd down conversion going into the game and the Hokies were tops in the ACC in stopping 3rd downs. Irresistible force meets immovable object? Not so much. The Jackets were held to a 38% conversion rate and dropped to 3rd in the country in 3rd down conversions. The Hokies D stayed on top of the ACC. Those drive-enders were a big factor in keeping the defense rested and tilting the time of possession into the Hokies favor. And that rest really paid dividends by the time the 4th quarter rolled around.
So here we are again - Hokies control their destiny in the Coastal Division. As the Georgia Tech game fades in the rearview mirror, that new feeling in the air is captured by a new stat - the offense is ranked 35th in the nation in yardage while the scoring offense is 47th (thanks as always cfbstats.com). And as the defense gets shuffled around again in preparation for yet another offensive scheme from UNC this Thursday, the offense plans on continuing to do exactly what they've been doing. Be water my friend.