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Film Review: What Happened to the Defense?

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Everybody is focusing on the five turnovers committed by the offense in Bristol. But 45 points isn’t exactly a good showing either.

NCAA Football: Battle at Bristol-Tennessee vs Virginia Tech Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Tech was in complete control of the game at the end of the first quarter. They moved the ball at will both on the ground and through the air, stuffed Tennessee’s rushing attack, and made life very difficult for Joshua Dobbs in the pocket. The Hokies were rolling, the Volunteers were reeling.

Then everything changed. It sure seemed like the CJ Carroll/Jerod Evans miscommunication (along with the timing of the snap) turned the tables. After that hiccup, Tennessee scored 31 unanswered on the Hokies’ defense, and the offense never really got back into a rhythm. However, games are never won and lost based solely on one play. That one play could be monumental, but in the end it is just one play.

Everyone has been talking about all the turnovers Virginia Tech has committed over the first two weeks of the season, but 45 points is not an indicator of good defense. So let’s break down the breakdowns.

After the first fumble of a demonstration of how not to hold onto the football by the Hokies, Tennessee was gifted the ball on the +5-yard line. That is a difficult position for any defense to be put in, especially against an offense like the Vols possess. Joshua Dobbs ends up throwing a fade route to Jauan Jennings, a 6-3 receiver matched up one-on-one with CB Greg Stroman.

One of the first questions that came to my mind was why did Stroman match up against Jennings, given the size disparity? When Foster has a 6-2 CB in Adonis Alexander at his disposal, or even Brandon Facyson, it sure seems naïve to leave Stroman in one-on-one coverage. However, Stroman actually does his job nicely, but not flawlessly.

The junior CB allows the touchdown, but you really cannot ask for better coverage than this. He stays right on Jennings, and even gets his hand on the ball as Jennings goes to the ground. Stroman’s mistake comes at the catch point – instead of shooting his hand from underneath between Jennings’ hands, Stroman opts to reach around his hands to try and bat the ball down. This isn’t terrible technique, but if Stroman executes correctly, the Hokies still have a chance to get the stop and still be up 14-3, which really wouldn’t allow Tenessee to garner too much momentum on their next series.

Bud Foster surely told Stroman what he did wrong on that play at some point after he got scored on. But Dobbs targets Stroman again on a 50-50 ball and the same exact mistake is made.

At that size disadvantage, Stroman must have perfect technique in order to win this battle. Stroman’s hand goes around the receiver’s once again and Malone is easily able to haul in this touchdown.

The pass defense was solid most of the night. Besides these two mistakes, there were not any fatal errors made. Dobbs’ third touchdown pass was simply an outstanding play by the Vols, as the Hokies had him dead to rights in the backfield but the Tennessee QB was able to evade the pressure and find his checkdown Kamara who ran in for the touchdown.

The real problem was stopping Hurd and Dobbs on the ground. That was the proclaimed strength of the Vols offense, and the Hokies gave up chunk plays on the ground because of missed tackles and missed assignments. The first of these huge plays was a Joshua Dobbs QB draw, which was a play that burned the Hokies multiple times in Bristol.

Motuapuaka does a solid job of shedding the blocker on his right shoulder, then reads the play and gets to the A gap to meet Dobbs in the hole. Again, the defender does everything right until the moment of truth. Motuapuaka is too upright when he hits Dobbs, meaning he cannot get his body weight behind the hit. When you include the fact that he tries to tackle Dobbs high, there is a very slim chance Motuapuaka will be able to take him to the ground. The Tennessee QB discards him with a stiff arm, and the missed tackle leads to a gain of 40 yards.

Playing a team with ballcarriers with the talent level of Tennesee requires you to make one-on-one tackles to limit these huge plays. Sometimes it is a difficult task to do so. Hurd especially is a huge back that wears down a defense as the game progresses. Gang tackling is crucial against those types of runners, and the Hokies were very inconsistent getting bodies around the football to bring runners down. When Motuapuaka was left alone to tackle Hurd, there was yards after contact nearly every time. That isn’t to say he didn’t make any good plays. There was a two-play sequence where he shed blocks and successfully made defensive stops.

The theme of Saturday’s game as a whole was a lack of discipline. Whether it was roughing the passer, unsportsmanlike conducts, or holding, the Hokies stopped themselves from playing clean football and staying in rhythm. Virginia Tech also hurt themselves by not staying disciplined in their run fits and assignments.

Facing a talented backfield duo in Dobbs and Hurd, the one thing you have to watch out for are zone read plays. The Vols line up in a double stack formation on each side of the field, which is typically indicative of an RPO (run-pass option). Because the Hokies have two defenders on the outside on the right and left to cover both receiver stacks, that leaves them light in the box. This means Tennessee will run an inside zone read, with Dobbs reading DE Trevon Hill.

Hill crashes hard on Hurd which leaves a huge lane for Dobbs to run through down the middle of the field. Usually when the EDGE crashes that hard, the WILL/WHIP will scrape over the top and be responsible for the QB. However, there was no one assigned to Dobbs, or someone lost discipline and forgot to do what they were supposed to. The play gains 31 yards after some atrocious tackling by Virginia Tech. This was another frustrating play in a game full of undisciplined moments.

The good news is the Hokies fixed this problem a few plays later. Tremaine Edmunds stays at home in case Dobbs pulls the ball out of the mesh point again. The ball is handed off to the back this time and the Hokies are able to make a defensive stop, thanks to great penetration from Nigel Williams.

The one individual that really stood out on defense was Mook Reynolds. He had a few timely pass breakups and an INT that could have helped the Hokies get back into the game. Reynolds’ instincts impressed me. The Vols ran multiple flare screens to the RB motioning laterally out of the backfield, and Reynolds read every single one of them within a second. His tackling in the open field was very good, bringing down receivers and even Jalen Hurd once or twice during the course of the game.

Reynolds interception was a combination of a good pass rush and coverage. Bud Foster is known for bringing the house on third down, but he left seven or eight in coverage much more against Tennessee. Dobbs’ main flaw is that he does not react well to any type of pressure. Trevon Hill gets double teamed on his bull rush but still manages to push the pocket. Dobbs gets happy feet even though the pocket is relatively clean and stares down his receiver to the right. Reynolds’ instincts kick in, as he reads the QBs eyes and steps in front of the receiver for the INT.

We see the lack of discipline exhibited by Hill on the runback, as he needlessly blocks a Vols player in the back as Reynolds is heading out of bounds anyways. Instead of having terrific field position, the Hokies get backed up deep on their side of the field. They are unable to take advantage of a possible momentum shifting play at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

The Hokies looked mediocre after the first quarter, both on offense and defense. But we have to put it in context. This is only the second game of the Fuente era, and the first one against an actual FBS team. Right now, hot takes are overreactions. Yes, it would have been great to see a clean game, without any turnovers. The fumble numbers are concerning, that is for certain. But this team was not going to be great at the start of the season. Expect to see a better and more disciplined team as we hit October.

Other observations:

· Ken Ekanem showed why he is the leader of the defense. After tallying the first sack of the Hokies’ season against Liberty, he had at least another 1.5 sacks on Saturday, and a whole lot of other pressures. His instincts, speed, and quickness are impressive. Check out how he bends the edge and exhibits the “one arm is longer than two” technique against LT Nathan Niehuas.

· Fuente called a lot of QB draws, in case you didn’t notice. This was because Tennessee’s LBs consistently dropped deep into their zones, which meant there was plenty of room to run before Evans got to the second level. The playcall was more successful than not – Evans had the talent to make a few people miss and the strength to absorb hits to convert third downs. Look for this to be a play when the Hokies get near the goal line.

· Against Liberty, the Hokies tried to run the ball on the perimeter, getting the ball to receivers on jet sweeps. They tried a more traditional approach to moving the football on the ground last Saturday, choosing to go with more inside zone and dive calls. It worked – at least in the first half. The interior OL got good push and McMillian used his excellent vision to find creases and keep his legs churning for additional yards. Of course, that led to his one fumble…

· Cam Phillips and Travon McMillian both fumbled after fighting for additional yardage. Phillips made a nice hands catch on a WR screen, broke a few tackles, then was hit from behind by a DL. McMillian got a first down after making a defender miss, then lost the ball on the additional hit. I like the fight, intensity, and effort. But at some point, these guys just need to learn how to get down. Ball security is much more important than gaining two extra yards.