There haven’t been many programs hit harder by COVID-19 this year than Virginia Tech, who has played multiple games this season with key players or coaches quarantined. Despite that, the Hokies fired out of the gates to start this season, going 4-2 largely on the strength of one of the best ground games in the country.
Things have been grimmer lately, with VT having dropped three straight contests as the offense sputters. At this point, Justin Fuente has been disappointing in Blacksburg for longer than he’s been successful in Memphis. Fan frustrations are starting to mount.
It seems like Fuente’s own frustration may be mounting as well. The head coach uncharacteristically snapped at a question regarding him taking over play-calling duties from OC Brad Cornelsen after losing to Pittsburgh with “No, that’s the most ludicrous crap I’ve ever heard, next question”. Cornelson has called plays for Fuente since 2015.
When describing his offenses performance Fuente said,
It’s been the hardest year to have a team improve. When I say that, I mean, you have no foundation – and this is for everybody, we’re no different than anybody else, but a non-traditional off-season, no spring ball, fall camp was less than ideal, to say the least.
So things aren’t exactly cheery for the maroon and orange. Some hope is provided by the team getting healthier, with multiple starters getting back on the field over an open week. But the trend lines are concerning. This is a one-dimensional offense that’s losing its fastball.
For the first six games of the season Virginia Tech averaged 45+ rushing attempts per game. The last three games, all losses, have seen the Hokies run the ball a more pedestrian 36+ times per game. Teams have run the ball slightly less against Clemson, somewhere in the range of ~34 carries a game.
I don’t think that Cornelson is running the ball less by choice. The Hokies just have not been running the ball as well since the start of the season. Pitt’s front was able to erase Tech’s running game in their most recent matchup, holding VT to 156 yards on 37 carries with no rushing touchdowns. Clemson’s run defense, at least on paper, is right behind Pitt’s in the ACC.
When the Hokies offense is moving, a running game that mixes efficiency and explosiveness is complemented by an aggressive downfield passing game. Khalil Herbert, a grad transfer from Kansas, is a legitimate star running back. Herbert averages north of eight yards per carry. He has the speed and vision to take every run to the house.
Herbert has also gotten about ten touches (runs and receptions) per game in each of the Hokies last two games. Pitt and Miami have both been able to take the ball out of his hands.
Herbert’s not the entirety of the Hokies running game though. The Hokies have multiple versatile receivers who can do damage through the air or on a jet sweep in Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson. TE/WR hybrid James Mitchell was an elite short yardage/goal line runner in 2019. Backup RB Raheem Blackshear is a dangerous change of pace who can catch passes from the slot or the backfield.
The Hokies have multiple tight ends who block well, and makes good use of them as mobile maulers in the running game.
Once teams respect the threat of the sweep, the runners in the backfield are more than capable of hurting defenses on counters.
That includes the QB, Hendon Hooker, who actually leads the team in rushing attempts and touchdowns. Hooker, a strong between-the-tackles runner at 6’4”, 220 lbs., is this offense’s preferred short yardage back. He can do damage on direct snap runs or in the option.
The offensive line, which returns 100+ career starts split among nearly a dozen players, is a strength of the team. They’re massive, the largest starting offensive line in the ACC. The combination of experience and size shows up in the running game, where they can just maul weaker fronts.
I know that we say this every week, but the health of Tyler Davis and James Skalski will go a long way towards determining the Tigers success shutting down the run game.
The Hokies offense is designed so that the passing game functions as an outgrowth of the running game. Play-action passes, run pass options, and moving the pocket on sprint out passes help simplify reads for Hooker as well as allowing the offensive line an advantage against pass rushers who have to account for the run.
Defenses, which already have to follow a dizzying array of motions and hand-off fakes and pulling linemen, simply lose track of receivers downfield.
Hooker, in turn, has the arm strength to beat defenses over the top, and Cornelson calls plays aggressively to let him try. The four leading receivers, Turner, Robinson, Mitchell, and Herbert, average 16.3, 14.7, 17.9, and 19.8 yards per reception respectively. A max protect double post concept off play-action is a staple.
Once defenses back off for fear of being burnt, Cornelson and Co. attack with comeback and hitch routes against off coverage outside.
While this approach absolutely produces big plays, the drawback is it is boom or bust. Either the extra blockers work to keep the pass rush off, or they don’t, and the need to send receivers downfield doesn’t leave a lot of options for check downs.
Slower developing play-action passes, especially if you’re pulling linemen to imitate the run, risk leaving your QB exposed. This leads to Hooker getting sacked a lot - sixteen times on under one hundred and fifty attempts.
Virginia Tech has been one of the worst teams on the country on third down. That a run-based offense struggles in third-and-long isn’t that surprising, but recent struggles in short yardage are eyebrow raising.
The Panthers held the Hokies 1/6 on third/fourth and short in their most recent contest. Virginia Tech didn’t score in the second half, with nine straight drives ending without a point.
Pitt did this by slowing Herbert and Hooker on the ground. This had the dual effect of taking a lot of the punch out play-action shots that make VA Tech so dangerous downfield and forcing the Hokies to convert third down after third down.
None of it worked. Pitt’s well coached defense was ready for some of Cornelson and Fuente’s more creative counters. Passes on third and long either fell harmlessly or were completed well too short to move the chains.
Attempts to catch defenses off guard with the run were similarly fruitless.
Outside of a handful of passes where Hooker was able to evade pressure and push the ball downfield, the offense looked out of rhythm all game. Hooker can make a jaw dropping play once or twice a day.
But he has almost as many rushing attempts as passing. You can’t base an offense around a QB who has completed 20+ passes exactly once this year, barely, in a loss to Liberty.
Statistically speaking, this offense looks more like a service academy offense than the spread-option. Hooker and Herbert running the ball is the heart of this offense. Once defenses focus in on taking those two away, the coaching staff looks to involve Turner, Mitchell, and Robinson any way they can.
If the Tigers can keep the twin turbines of this running game from getting started, Clemson has the talent to stall this offense out and give the Hokies a fourth straight loss. And if they can’t, this will be a long night.