Offense is where the action happens in modern football. It's where games are lost. Defense is still where games are won; but games are lost on offense. They are lost because of the failure to do three very distinct functions; two of which are patently obvious and one is more subtle. A team must score; it must control the pace of the game, and maintain its focus.
The team must score points to win. This is so obvious that it barely rates a second thought. Well, think a bit harder because to score you must move the sticks. It's the primary job of the Offense to get the ball into the end zone (Defense can and does score, 3rd Quarter Saturday night is a painful reminder). Chewing yards is the main method of accomplishing that goal. It means something when your offense takes the field and three plays later slumps off. To do it again and again is not only deflating it's demoralizing. Here's the oddity, if you are over-matched and playing a team that operates on a different level, and your offense goes nowhere that's one thing, 4th and downtown means you are just failing at virtually everything, and somehow that doesn't demoralize. What does foul the punch bowl is getting to 2nd and 2, and then 3rd and 1 which end up in 4th and 2 or 4th and 1; repeatedly. It means that you can move the ball, but your offense is not thinking beyond the yard markers. It's like throwing a punch aimed three inches from the target instead of three inches behind it. With a punch, all you are going to do is break your hand. With a series of plays all you are going to do is arrange to give the ball to the opposition's offense.
A team's first score is their second 1st down in a row. That means running or throwing the ball AT the line of scrimmage is a poorly aimed punch. There are conditions and circumstances with an over aggressive pursuing defense where the occasional screen pass will net some good yardage, but those opportunities are limited. They should be specialty plays for special situations, not a game plan staple. In the case of passes, you are throwing the ball 15-20 yards sideways across a formation of angry bears all for a measly couple of yards. If you do this repeatedly, especially on 3rd and anything, you are going to end up giving your punter more practice than he really needs, and that's the best scenario. Ask Henri Murphy how it feels to get a bubble screen that arrives at the same time as that angry bear (or Tiger in this case). The pass play needed to be 10 yards down field well beyond the first down marker. The Passive Aggressive offense is a loser, and must stop.
An offense absolutely must control the pace of the football game. That is not pace, like snapping off plays every 12 seconds. Pace is controlling the ball and maintaining positive momentum toward the opponent's goal line and then scoring. You cannot develop and maintain an offensive pace if you're attacking with the wrong weapons; scissors meet rock. When your quarterback is 210 pounds and strains to make the tape at 6'2" that makes him the perfect size for a quarterback, not a tailback or fullback. If you are going to run option read plays up the middle, you might be better off choosing your 6'4" 230 pound QB. Since you aren't going to be much of a threat in the passing game, your scheme is better off with the bigger guy. At least he has a better chance to get the 4 to 5 yards minimum per execution needed to keep the sticks moving.
We were running the wrong offense for Josh Jackson on Saturday night. Jackson should almost never run the ball... the Cheeto is pretty stale, and needs to be tossed to the dog. The long term offensive pacing of this team needs to rely on Jackson learning from Tyrod's old progressions where his legs were used to buy time to hit a receiver downfield, instead of feigning a read and running up the middle with it. If the current coaching staff wants to continue to run the Paxton Lynch/Jerod Evans model, then A.J. Bush is the better choice at quarterback. I'd prefer an offense with Jackson doing Tyrod things; and perhaps turning those bits of gold into Jackson things. The offense must learn to move the sticks, stay on the field, and control the pace of the game.
That brings this to something more subtle the maintenance of team focus. The defense can bring a certain amount of immediate focus to the game. Getting a critical stop can energize the offense and result in; well, if it is Saturday against Clemson, nothing much. That's because that emotional power is spilled onto the floor of a myopic inflexible game plan. During and after the Spring practice sessions and game I kept hearing that the coaches really liked A.J. Bush, and that he might be the starter for the season. I won't attribute them to anyone because it was mixed speculation and the like, but the observation was and is fair. Offensive focus is all about winning games using the players and skill sets that you have at hand, by adapting your plans to the personnel not the other way around. At the start of the season, a play calling and game plan pattern began to develop that concerned more than a few people. Tech's offense was not focused on moving the ball downfield and scoring points. It seemed to be concentrating on proving things. It looked like both players and coaches were probing for some sort of functional purpose or method. The focus for the offense became finding a rhythm, looking for reliable players, or some sort of soul searching. Those things develop when an Offensive coaching staff directs the team with a flexible game plan that maximizes talent and minimizes nothing. You can have a QB who has no interceptions by never throwing the ball. You can minimize fumbles by just taking a knee. All of your running plays work if you don't run and just throw the ball into the seats. Those are exaggerations, yes, but all to make a point. Football is a team sport of balance and aggressiveness. You cannot often win by "not losing". Sometimes, if you are facing an even more passive aggressive opponent that strategy will work, but it's rare as frog hair.
So, as the Hokies approach the midpoint, and head into the next game of the ACC schedule (BC, another Atlantic opponent) it might be useful for the coaching staff to take the BC game and a bye week to sort some things out. The offensive game plans and strategic thinking are not working. The Hokies are slow starting because they are running the wrong offense for the talent on the field and the opponents that they face. Josh Jackson is not Jerod Evans (or Paxton Lynch), I said this in the previews. IF the Hokies want a more classic mobile Quarterback - where mobility is escapability and last chance bravery; then, the coaches need to plan and execute for that sort of skill set. Josh Jackson operated in an offense similar to Fuente’s in High School. This isn't high school, anymore the defenses are bigger, faster, and more likely to bury him. Shade the game more toward running with your backs. Identify your top three running backs, and use them in rotation. Jackson can pass well, he threw more than most HS QBs and is good at it. Leverage that fact. Get Dalton Keane and Chris Cunningham downfield for the quick 8 yard digs and drags. Let Sean Savoy and Eric Kumah get deep. C.J. Carroll is often free, and ignored in slot routes, Jackson isn't reading them. Use Cam to distract if necessary. Get Jackson to stop boring a hole in #5's helmet. Put in route schemes that get Savoy, Carroll, and Phillips running rub routes against the tight coverage on Phillips.
The sooner Jackson learns to check "up" and distribute the ball to other receivers. That will make opposing defenses spread their coverage which will free up #5. The more Cam Phillips can get his hands on it to do Cam Phillips things. Barring that, if the decision is made to continue to run last year's offensive scheme then put in A.J. Bush, flip the offensive line (because Bush is left handed) and live with your decisions, but don't hang Jackson out to dry with game plans and plays that he shouldn't be executing. He's scissors, and he's up against a rock.
This Saturday the Hokies take the field against a very beatable Boston College team. Then there is that magic of a weekend to breathe, focus on winning and making changes before Carolina rolls into town for homecoming, and then Duke visits. Those are four very winnable games – though Duke is looking like it’s beginning to get up off of the mat. That’s good because getting the offensive kinks out will be critical. November is a killer. There is Coral Gables for Miami, followed by a trip to Bobby Dodd and that frustrating Paul Johnson Georgia Tech Triple option. Senior Night will be no gimme since it’s Pitt visiting for the final home game of the year. Of course we have Wahoo based indigestion in Scott Stadium for Thanksgiving weekend.
If things go right, and we nab the Coastal, again, then we have to get ready for Dabo’s crew because unless the wheels completely fall off the Tiger cart, they already have the Atlantic sewn up. That’s sort of sad, but someone or two other teams in the conference have to figure out how to put a lid on Clemson. We won’t win, in December, either, unless we fix the offense, and remember that Dabo is unlikely to repeat what he did last Saturday.
This will not be a National Championship season for us. It can be another Costal, and with a re-orientation of a few things on both sides of the ball, Tech still stands the best chance of knocking off the Tigers in December. Of course the ACC wouldn’t be pleased because that would probably eliminate them from the final set of contests. Or just to add insult to injury gets the Tigers into the mix as a one loss team, anyway.
Lots to do and half a season left to do it in.