When Virginia Tech lost arguably its best offensive player in running back Ryan Williams, there was fear that it would submarine the Hokies' offense and season. When Williams was carried off the field with an injured hamstring, Tech was 0-2 and trailing East Carolina, 17-14.
Since then, the Hokies have out-scored their opponents, 192-82 and have averaged over seven yards per play. So what has accounted for Tech's improvement on offense despite the loss of their star back? Let's look at some of the conventional wisdom.
1. Bryan Stinespring was forced to open up the Hokies' playbook.
Without Williams in the backfield, was Stinespring forced to open up the playbook to find new ways to move the ball? In the first two games against Boise State and James Madison and in the first half against East Carolina, the Hokies fan the ball 68.2 percent of the time (Note: Kneel downs and other "team rushes" have been taken out of these percentages).
Since halftime of the ECU game, Tech has run the ball 61.7 percent of the time, and that includes throwing only six times in the second half against ECU and running the clock out in the second halves against Central Michigan and Wake Forest. Tech is throwing the ball more, possibly because Stinespring doesn't feel the need to feed the ball to Williams as much.
We've seen the Hokies run more zone-read option recently and their pass plays have included more intermediate routes. The team has become more balanced with Williams out.
2. The Hokies' offensive line has improved.
The Tech O-line was abysmal early in the season, but has gotten progressively better as the season has gone on. The offensive line has started to get a push on opposing front sevens and has been able to maintain a pocket for Tyrod Taylor.
Through the first half of the ECU game, Virginia Tech running backs averaged a mere 3.8 yards per attempt. Since then, they've averaged 6.4 yards per attempt, including 9.3 yards per carry against NC State and 7.2 yards per carry CMU.
This will benefit Williams when he comes back. The line is much better now than the last time he was on the field and the holes will finally be there for him. He should be able to return to the same back we saw last season and not the bottled up runner we saw the first two and a half games.
3. The Hokies are facing poorer defenses.
I'm not sure this is the case. After ECU, the Hokies faced BC and NC State, which have the 30th and 48th-best defenses in the country. Central Michigan is also in the top half of the country at No. 50.
Wake and ECU have two of the worst defenses in the country, but I think overall the defenses we've faced average out against the No. 1 D in the country (by YPG) in Boise State, an FCS team in JMU and ECU's No. 115 defense.
What I think is more the case is teams are no longer focused on stopping Williams. Teams no longer stack the box to stop him, which opened things up for David Wilson and Darren Evans and their output has subsequently opened up the passing game.
So what's the real cause?
Probably a little bit of everything above. There's no one reason for Tech's improvement on offense. It's been a team effort, from the running backs, the receivers, the offensive line, Tyrod under center and even Stinespring. Everyone has stepped their game up with Williams on the bench. The result is a great one for the Hokies, who are averaging 7.1 yards per play since halftime of the ECU game compared to 5.7 ypp prior.
What will be interesting to see is how Williams' return will affect the continuity the Hokies have built the last four and a half games. Will the playbook be truncated again to focus on pounding the ball with Williams? Will splitting carries between three backs again cause dissension in the ranks like we saw with Wilson before the ECU game?
Or will Williams return seamless to the offense and make it the dynamo we thought it would be before the season started? We won't know until he returns, but we have the luxury of allowing Williams to ease back into the offense because of well things are clicking right now.