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Virginia Tech Hokies vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: The Final Review

It’s Wednesday and that means a final review of the prior weekend’s match-up, before moving on to the preview of the next game. Wins are tonic. Loses stink. There were some things we just need to hash out before moving on.

Hopefully the look this weekend.
John Schneider - SB Nation

No one likes losing. It really stinks, but there is a certain measure of acceptance when your team gets drubbed, as in the Duke game. The Notre Dame loss tends to sit and fester like an aggravating pain spot on the skin that eventually turns into a nasty zonker.

No matter what you do, you can’t get over the fact that the loss was completely avoidable, and the result of the win would have been a serious boost to the program. So, what happened in the Notre Dame game that just really grabbed at my football soul and created the irritation? Four things really just make me fume; the Hokie Play calling on offense, the prevent defense failure on the last drive, the lack of boldness on offense, and the putrid, biased officiating that eventually handed the game to the Irish.

Play Calling

This is also an issue with game planning, preparation, both strategic and tactical. We talked about the conceptualization of Strategic and Tactical planning, this summer. Winning football games is about scoring more points than your opponent. In general, especially in college football, scoring a mere 20 points is not an ideal condition for winning a solid number of games. Though occasionally an over/under below 40, or even 30, is possible. Those are exceptions. In general to consistently win football games in the NCAA a team needs to put up 28-35 points. That’s at least one touchdown a quarter.

The point, here, is that to do that the offense must stay on the field, consistently make lines to gain (1st downs), and cross the goal line at least once a quarter. All other situations are unacceptable sub-optimal outcomes. Emotion is a huge part of playing football. Positive momentum can actually level the talent playing field. Every time a team’s offense is stoned and has to punt, there is a critical emotional hit. It’s even worse if you do it to yourself by providing an inadequate game plan, and then providing an equally inadequate level of play selection. Saturday, Virginia Tech’s offense presented no particularly difficult challenge for Notre Dame’s defense. The reality that he Hokie O scored exactly one touchdown in the contest is proof enough of that assertion.

Folks, that’s pathetic. The offense had two weeks to prepare for a well-known and operationally unsurprising defense. That was two weeks to decide on personnel, approach, and build a game plan of plays to rehearse that was varied enough to provide alternatives should the initial game plan run into difficulty. Instead, what we saw was Quincy Patterson hung out to dry with a tiny Read/Option (Wild Turkey-like) offensive play selection with almost no high percentage passing game available to force Notre Dame to unload the box. The point is that when the Twitter world is calling the play, before it’s executed, there is a serious tactical problem going on. What we saw on Saturday is that Quincy Patterson is not ready to be a dual threat QB. He’s a single threat QB, and that’s the run. Part of that problem is the pass plays available to him and the circumstances of those plays.

  • Do not throw on 1st down if the pattern is a low percentage throw too deep in the zone. A) it burns a down B) with a weak run game and no intermediate passing game it means that effectively 1st and 2nd downs are wasted. The result is consistently #thirdandpanicsburg. The outcome is nearly always a punt, or a stalled drive for a chance at -4 points.
  • If your Quarterback is having difficulty hitting passes on deeper routes, and getting stuffed on various delays through the A-gap, then stop running those plays for a while. Go to the playbook and pull out the intermediate range quick passes to single coverage (Tight Ends) one over receivers or running backs out of the backfield... (or Tight Ends, again) give your QB an opportunity to make some solid completions for useful yardage, meaning +5 yards, on 1st and 2nd downs.
  • Don’t overthink the problem, and don’t underthink it, either. Runs up the middle of any type were getting hammered... the vertical Read/Option (through the A-Gap/1-0-2 holes) was routinely stuffed. Repeating the exercise of calling that play was tactically numb (and dumb). The most effective current Read/Option plays are going to the back side of the exchange where the QB keeps the ball and runs past the crashing DE or in the direction of the bailing Safety/Cornerback. That means the C-Gap...edge... the old 6 and 5 holes. The trick there is that the play must develop more quickly from about 1 yard deeper at the snap, and the QB has to be FAST on the read and completely committed to the sprint to the outside. There can be no hesitations or hitches to cut... he had to tuck the ball and go hard... in that situation 1/4 of a second can mean the difference between getting caught and streaking for serious turf.
  • Finally the biggest flub just grinds my gears. There seemed to be absolutely no confidence in the Quarterback to run more sophisticated plays than the roughly 10 that I counted. Two weeks to prepare! The only variation that I saw was a lame attempt at a delayed jet sweep that is always a failure. Two weeks to prepare! If Hendon Hooker was not going to play, then it was absolutely essential to make that known, get QP out on the field and work full out to prepare a winning game plan around his skill set. This offensive coaching staff’s dogged demand to hammer players into their system, instead of adapting their system to their available players is just frustrating. That attitude is fine for Games 1 through 3, but when the constants that are supplied to the critical variables change, the equation spits out a different answer. No one in Jamerson seems to have gotten a real clear focus on that reality.

The reality of the game planning and play calling is that this staff is running a 5A Texas High School offense in a Power 5 conference. We won’t win many football games with that approach.

The Prevent Did It, Again

Okay, so the offense fails. Mr. Imagination and Boldness calls two leaden plays and then an ineffective third down conversion attempt... steps back and punts. The punt is masterful, and hops out on the opponent’s 15 yard line with no return; coffin corner as it was. You have more than two minutes on the clock and the opponent’s offense hasn’t proven that it can get the ball across the goal line, today, without help from the refs. They have to go 85 yards, so you put in a rush three drop eight defense, otherwise known as a “Prevent” in order to keep any potential deep passes from gashing you to take the lead. It’s worked most of the day, but did you notice that when it didn’t it took an interception and a fumble to stop the other guys?

Look, I get the ‘prevent’ thing. Total zone... keep the receivers in front of you, rush three guys... and cover so that the other team doesn’t get too far on any set of plays. Except that it rarely works out that way. With no pressure on the quarterback from rushing at least 4, there is no hurry for either a toss under the zone, or the quarterback getting outside of the tackles and running the ball for significant yardage. The other guys had three timeouts, and the clock still stops on 1st downs in college. I could see the effort in getting some clock burned off between the 15 and the Notre Dame 40. But as soon as the Irish reached mid-field, it was time to start putting some serious pressure from random locations on Ian Book. He had two huge Tight Ends downfield (because you were only rushing three, Kelly didn’t need to keep them in for protection). You also had defenders scattered all over the secondary therefore leaving all sorts of running room for moderated dual threat Ian Book to take advantage. The what-ifs will always be there, but we’ll toss a “should have” in at this point. Foster should have switched to his Bear front, 4-2-5 maximum blitz package once the Irish reached their 40. The defense nearly won the game for the Hokies; it’s too bad they are getting a big chunk of the blame for its loss. They might deserve a spoon full, but my heart isn’t in it for more than that. The Defense played, and Foster called, a great game.

Boldness was Totally Missing on Offense

I carped about the Offensive play calling and game planning, yes, but there was also just a frustrating lack of boldness to be seen anywhere on the Offensive side of the ball. The swashbuckling, ball hawking, risk taking defense just wasn’t matched by anything approaching bravado on the Offensive side of the ball. There were no plays under the zone to the tight ends or slot receiver. There was no real attempt at rolling the quarterback to get him some air to throw or run. It was almost methodical and plodding. There was that odd herky jerk go to the line... clap hands... everyone stare at someone wig wagging signals... and then execute the same old dull A-gap Cheeto up the middle. Even when there was an attempt to go to the B-gap or outside... it was slow in development and laggy. Passing plays were not fast enough to be effective, and the only real patterns were too far downfield to work reliably; which all felt drainingly slow. It’s almost like the offensive players knew that they were going to be running the same-ole, same-ole, and it was going to tank.

Currently the offense isn’t near where the defense is in execution pattern and enthusiasm, but still there just didn’t seem to be any sort of boldness in the plan. There was little or nothing to develop any sort of rhythm or purpose. Notre Dame’s defense is good, but not much better than ours. They shouldn’t have been that intimidating, and for the most part our offensive line was holding its own (which is amazing and encouraging), but the offensive scheme needs to give a bit more for the line to hang on to.

The Officiating

If this is controversial, well, so be it. The officiating wasn’t just bad; it was biased in favor of the Irish. There seemed to be something like the old unwritten rule of boxing that the challenger doesn’t win on points, he must knock the champ out. There were just too many “convenient” penalties, and uneven judgement calls that were made. There was the defensive holding on, Farley. He barely touched the receiver, who basically fell down on a QB run. Then there was the roughing the passer call that happened AFTER the Amari Chatman interception. The tackle was started during the throw, and the laws of physics cannot be suspended. There were numerous non-calls for open field tackles by the Irish Offensive line on defenders - I think more than I can count, especially on the last scoring play. There was that absolutely horrid ineligible receiver call where it took a micrometer to tell whether or not Hazelton was covered... and both outside receivers were actually a yard off the LOS. (Legal since there was only one other back in the backfield.) That negated a first down on like the 2 yard line.

What we see repeatedly in most sports is that officiating has taken more and more control over the game, and has a direct impact on the outcome. That’s unfortunate because most leagues ruthlessly fine anyone for voicing any opinions on the matter, even with direct evidence, and there is no mechanism to appeal anything much to anybody. The problem has to be cleaned up. There are obviously favored teams and favored situations that predispose... well we’ll leave it there. Suffice it to say that the game was called very poorly and the way it was called had a direct impact on the result. That’s my opinion and I am sticking to it.

This weekend is the Wake Forest game. We’ll be previewing on the usual schedule, and we’ll be on the field for the game. Let us hope that something glacial and stubborn has finally broken free to make some changes on offense. If both sides of the ball can play the way the defense did in South Bend, Wake Forest will have another ‘L’ hung on their record.