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Fuente Film Room: Breaking Down the Big Plays Against Liberty

Analyzing how the Hokies extinguished the Flames in the film room.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Virginia Tech Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The Hokies walked away from Lane Stadium as victors over the Liberty Flames last Saturday. However, there are plenty of teaching points to come from the tape. Unsurprisingly, Virginia Tech did not run a complex offense against Liberty, choosing not to put certain tendencies on tape for the Volunteers to study for Saturday night’s clash. The offense looked extremely similar to the one Fuente ran at Memphis – yes, that includes the dozen or so jet sweeps, powers, receiver screens, and zone reads.

One of the reasons the offense was limited in its playcalling was due to the ineffectiveness of the offensive line. Before Wyatt Teller entered the game, the interior offensive line was getting very little push, which forced Fuente to call a high amount of sweeps and jet sweeps, which is troubling considering they will have a much tougher Vols defensive line to handle this week. Even when the offense was able to attack the perimeter, the lead blocking was mediocre from the fullbacks, tight ends, and receivers. The good news is that the running game was more effective later in the game, partly because Shai McKenzie had the vision and power that was better suited to the style of the game. Expect more touches from him on Saturday.

The one question everyone had about the game was how would Evans play in his first game as a Hokie? When watching the game live from the end zone, I did not think Evans played all that well, as he made a lot of easy throws but not missed on some of his deeper attempts. On the rewatch, I was more impressed with his play. He made a few “wow” throws which required touch. He certainly made his share of mistakes, most of which were a result of being late on reads or simply not reacting to pressure well. He also showed off his impressive wheels for his size on his 37-yard scamper. Head coach Justin Fuente felt similarly.

“He made some nice plays out there,” said Fuente during his Monday presser. “There was a third and long where they dropped to eight, and he tucked it for about 10 yards with a chance to kick a field goal. I thought that was a hefty play. He made some good throws in tight coverage…We missed a few things in there. Obviously, we have to take care of the football. That’s the first thing. That was not pleasing.”

The most encouraging part of the Hokies’ performance was on the defensive side of the ball. Granted, Liberty’s seven false starts and other pre-snap penalties made life easier but the Flames could get absolutely no offensive rhythm going. Virginia Tech really only allowed six points, as the other Liberty score was a long fumble return that was a result of sloppy ball handling by Cam Phillips. They forced the Flames into four turnovers and were constantly in the face of the Liberty QBs. Vinny Mihota had an excellent game on the defensive line. The redshirt sophomore consistently collapsed the pocket and was the reason for the first of Stroman’s interceptions. The secondary as a whole found the ball well in the air and smothered receivers down the field.

The Big Plays:

Evans got to a fast start in his first game because of Fuente’s playcalling. His first throws were successful WR screens, which helped get Evans into a rhythm quickly. The first score of the Hokies’ season was a good combination of a well drawn up play and the right read by Jerod Evans.

The Hokies run a flood concept here to put the ball into the end zone. Flood is a three level stretch concept designed to attack zone defenses. It’s a half-field read for the quarterback, as he has a flat route, deep out, and go route down the sidelines. On this play, Cam Phillips runs the out route and gets wide open while Hodges clears out and Peoples runs the underneath flat. The idea here is to have one more receiver than the zone can handle, or to “flood” the field on one side of the formation. In case none of the primary receivers are open, Evans also has Ford running a crosser in the middle of the field.

Evans does an excellent job of selling the fake. Liberty’s #20 gets caught between running towards the line of scrimmage in case it is a run play, or staying with Phillips on his route. He ultimately jumps down on Peoples in the flat. This leaves a gaping hole in the zone close to the sideline for Phillips to run into. Evans shows off his mobility, and delivers a dime while on the move to give the Hokies the lead. Bucky Hodges also deserves props for his block on the corner in the end zone to allow Phillips to walk in untouched.

Fuente called this play again in the third quarter. It was not executed as smoothly, but it was an even more impressive throw by Evans and catch from Phillips.

Evans rolls out to his left this time – for a right-handed quarterback, this means it is tougher to get as much behind the ball as he has to throw it slightly across his body. The JUCO transfer also has pressure bearing down on him quickly, but still manages to get the ball out on time. Phillips makes a nice hands catch, snatching the ball out of the air before the DB hits him. This was one of the throws I did not fully appreciate while watching the game live but impressed me during the rewatch.

After Phillips’ touchdown, the Hokies went on a dry spell on offense. After a failed third down run, Fuente decided to go for it on a 4th and 1 while trailing 13-10 and was rewarded nicely for the decision due to Jerod Evans’ legs. The 6-4, 235 QB showed his physical talent in addition to his arm talent and carried the rock for 37 yards to set the Hokies up with a goal-to-go situation.

Fuente uses jet sweep action, but this is a QB power call all the way with Wyatt Teller as the pulling lineman. Hodges distracts the defense with his presence in his backfield and Evans keeps the ball. The offensive line, aside from Teller, down blocks to the right to seal off the inside C gap. Liberty actually gets a nice push from the left side of the formation, but you can see the nice hole created on the right.

Steven Peoples and Teller both go after the Liberty linebacker in the hole. Liberty’s push on the left side of the line actually ends up hurting them on this play. They get too far upfield and lose contain on the edge. This is where Evans’ ball carrier vision and skills shine. Not many QBs would find that crease in the defense, not to mention accelerate for a huge pickup on the ground.

After this play, it felt like the offense took a breath and finally settled down. It was a momentum shifting play which swung the pendulum back into the Hokies’ favor.

Although the Evans run was an explosive play that put the Hokies in scoring territory, Virginia Tech still had not put together a sustained, extended drive. That changed when Fuente decided to feed Isaiah Ford the rock and dared Liberty to stop him. Predictably, the Flames had no answer. One of the reasons Ford is so tough to stop when the ball is in the air is his body control. He catches the ball at his highest point and stays balanced and concentrates to hold onto the ball until the play is over. On Ford’s lone touchdown, we can see his superb body control come into play.

Evans throws a simple fade route to put the Hokies on top for good. Ford puts on a clinic for this score – his route is flawless as he plants his inside foot then stems to the outside. The ball is thrown slightly behind and outside of Ford. Because of this, the junior receiver actually has to flip his hips while keeping an eye on the ball as he changes direction, which is one of the most difficult catches to make. On top of all that, he still has the presence of mind to know where the sideline is and clearly gets one foot down in bounds for the score. Not the greatest throw, but certainly a phenomenal catch.

That is the kind of play that will increase a player’s draft stock.

For his third touchdown, Evans made another “wow” throw. The Hokies had been using Bucky Hodges all afternoon as a decoy to open up the field for other players which was why he only ended up with three catches. However, Hodges would not leave Lane without showcasing his tremendous size, speed, and quickness. At 6-7, the now WR has the length to be an unstoppable weapon in the Red Zone and he shows us why on this fade pattern.

Hodges is lined up as the X receiver, with both slot receivers on his inside. He sells the inside stem nicely, then is able to create separation with his strength mid-route. Liberty brings six, but Evans unloads the ball so early that they have no chance of getting to him. This throw is impressive for two reasons – the touch and the timing. When Evans begins his throwing motion, Hodges is only at the 15 yard line, a full 20 yards from the catch point. This is the definition of dropping it in the bucket and throwing your receiver open.

The Evans to Hodges connection would strike the Flames one more time Saturday afternoon. This time it was more than a simple fade that gets Bucky open. Fuente called maybe six or so WR screens at this point in the game, so Liberty was prone to play closer to the line of scrimmage in order to defend those shorter throws. In my first breakdown of Fuente’s offense, I discussed how the new head coach used fake receiver screens to keep the defense honest. Liberty gets burned on one of these fake screens and Evans makes another outstanding touch throw.

We can see Hodges’ positional versatility and how he can be deployed in a variety of ways in this offense. Here he lines up as the Y receiver in the slot and acts like he is going to block on the perimeter on a screen to Isaiah Ford (who is hiding behind the RZ graphic). The Nickelback buys it and fails to close down on Bucky as he continues upfield on a wheel route. Hodges’ excellent stop-start ability for a player his size are displayed here.

Again, Evans does a masterful job of putting some air under the football and letting Hodges run underneath it. The QB also helps sell the WR screen with a pump fake. That kind of play is encouraging to see from a new starter, and it shows how much more confidence Evans played with as the game wore on. He needs to carry that confidence into Saturday’s game against the Volunteers if the Hokies have a chance to upset #17 Tennessee.

Bud Foster also gets his due credit for the win. Without his stifling defense, the Hokies may have been in a bigger rut when the offense was ineffective. The constant theme was pressure. The Hokies have depth on the defensive line and they attacked Liberty in waves. I already singled out Vinny Mihota above – when the Hokies rushed just four (which was not that often), the redshirt sophomore was seemingly always in the quarterback’s face.

Mihota will get credited in the film room for the Hokies’ first takeaway of 2016. The Hokies drop into a Cover 2 shell in zone, which means they only rush four. However, Mihota outclasses the RT with his speed and burst. He gets to the QB in just under 2 seconds, which is impressive considering the QB takes a five step drop.

Liberty runs curls across the board, and since the defense is in zone, the receivers look for a hole to sit down in. Because of Mihota’s pressure, the quarterback cannot step into his throw and get the necessary velocity on the ball. Stroman sits in his intermediate hook zone on the sideline, and the ball comes right to him for the easy interception.

The secondary in general executed their assignments perfectly. Even when Foster sent six or seven after the quarterback, there was almost no separation from the DBs and receivers. Terrell Edmunds’ interception is a perfect example of the secondary’s execution of the gameplan.

Virginia Tech plays “man-free” coverage to defend this 3rd and 5 by Liberty. This has been a staple of Foster’s defense for seemingly forever. The Hokies will play man coverage across the board, with Terrell Edmunds manning the deep middle in a free-safety type role. Liberty targets the slot receiver running deep down the middle. However, that is exactly where Edmunds is lurking.

The corners do a good job of jamming their receivers at the line which allows the pressure to get to the QB. Foster draws up an exotic blitz on this play. Mihota and Tim Settle slant inside, taking initial step towards the middle, which allows Tremaine Edmunds to have the outside lane to get to the QB with only the halfback in the way. Motuapuaka is the final blitzer on this play – he is supposed to attack the C gap. That is, in the vacated area between Tremaine Edmunds and the slanting Mihota.

The defense also plays to their help, which is the deep safety Edmunds. Although Chuck Clark allows his man to get by him on the go route, he forces the Liberty receiver to the inside, which is where the safety is. With the pressure bearing down on him, the Liberty quarterback unloads the ball without seeing Edmunds in the middle of the field. This is exactly how you draw it up on the chalkboard in the film room.

Of course, sometimes great things happen that are not drawn up on the chalkboard. This was the case with Stroman’s second interception.

The Hokies’ defense once again decides to rush four. However, the defensive line gets creative with their pass rush. Ekanem and Woody Baron run a T-E stunt. Baron takes his first step to the outside and Ekanem loops around to attack the inside. This creates pressure which, along with the tight coverage from the secondary, forces the quarterback out of the pocket. Stroman does an excellent job of reading the QBs eyes and gets a hand up to bat it away before cradling it as he falls to the ground for the acrobatic interception. Who said DBs can’t catch?

Many people looked at the stat sheet after last Saturday’s game and were disappointed with Virginia Tech’s sack total. Despite the fact that the Hokies sacked the Liberty QB(s) just once, they were constantly disrupting the rhythm and timing of the patterns which led to interceptions. When a team is playing good defense, often times they will garner sacks, but not too many interceptions and vice versa. It all depends on how long quarterbacks hold onto the football.

Against Tennessee, it will be important to generate those negative plays such as sacks and TFLs. But if the Hokies are in Dobbs’ face as much as they were against Liberty’s, then the pass defense should be fine. Foster should place more of an emphasis on Tennessee’s run game, because Hurd is the kind of back that wears down defenses. With the Hokies’ lack of depth at linebacker, that could become the deciding factor at Bristol Motor Speedway.