This is going to be a “wildcat” one. Okay, okay, please forgive the pun, but it’s probably the best descriptor for what sort of weird and dangerous haymaker the Virginia Tech Hokies have a possibility of running into on Tuesday at noon.
The Kentucky Wildcats, a perennial mediocre SEC football program, wins just enough games to make bowl games, but not enough to occupy the top of the SEC heap. We won’t talk about basketball, since they do that very well most seasons. Let’s just concentrate on the football field for one more day. Let’s just leave the basketball reference with the final thought that Kentucky football is going to be a different kind of challenge.
What’s different about Kentucky’s football program? Easy, since October 12, the Wildcats have been running just that; “the Wildcat” offense. Through a combination of things, wide receiver Lynn Bowden has become Kentucky’s primary quarterback. Bowden was a wide receiver for his entire stay at UK, before the move. That means that Kentucky is running a 90% run Read/Option offense with almost no passing. It does occur, and will have to be dealt with, but at less than 117 yards per game - a stat padded by pre-Columbus Day passing- it’s not a feature. Their former quarterback Sawyer Smith seems to hold most of the big passing stats even with his shortened season tenure. Bryan will cover the details, we are just visiting the high angle look in this one.
Well, that high angle tells us most of what we need to know. Bud Foster’s last game is going to be all about beating his worst Bug Bear, a large fast, sweep running wildcat quarterback operating behind a read/option spread. Add to that daunting issue, and look at the Kentucky passing defense with 8 picks by 7 different defensive backs and both sides of the ball are going to have serious challenges.
So, it’s all about five things to victory, let’s do this in 5 to 1 order, again.
No More Running Prevent Offense
The fifth thing to get accomplished is for the Hokie Offense to move the ball and score points, and I am not talking about tanking two plays into the middle and throw on third down. I am also not talking about the pattern that developed in the season where a nice gain on a critical down was promptly followed up by a momentum snuffing dive play up the middle for much of nothing. This team has been so brutally inconsistent on offense this season that fixing the issue for the bowl is going to be a nearly impossible beg, but we’ll keep begging, because it’s what is needed to fix the offense. Better game planning, better more consistent situational tactics, and more focused rhythmic play execution. This offense is much better when it just goes... no over complication, no stopping and gaping at the sideline... The team has performed much better when it attacks the defense’s weakness, and just purposefully goes about scoring touchdowns.
Pass the Ball for Positive Yards
There is nothing more frustrating than seeing complex passing plays executed reasonably well, where the reception point is at or behind the line of scrimmage. Especially with a long pass. The Hokies have five high quality receivers on the field on any given play, and rarely are more than two of them used. Patterns, more often than not, turn out to be two dimensional and present no real coverage difficulties. There are five receivers on the field, deploy them in three layers, in positive yardage. Give the quarterback (presumably Hendon Hooker) quality high percentage target opportunities within a 4 second (preferably closer to 3) execution clock. Turn the Run/Pass Option into the Pass/Run Option.
Run Off the Edges and Counters, Not Up the Middle
First before this, point there needs to be something said for the most annoying tendency that this offense shows. It gets up to the line of scrimmage. Someone signals a change. Everyone stops studying the wig-wags and signing, and then after all of that either the running back or quarterback runs right up the middle. It’s so regular that it has to be in someone’s quick signal defensive book. The Hokies have been reasonably successful running off the edges and countering. They have been consistent running up the middle, I’ll grant you that. Consistently poor, that is. Let’s quit doing what doesn’t work at all. Wasting plays means limited options, and limited options means that the defense has less to deal with. That’s pretty standard football analysis that shouldn’t surprise a soul. If the Hokies are going to run the ball it needs to be off the edges on direct plays that have few delays.
Run an Inverted Heavy Nickel Defense
Okay Bud, the Wildcats don’t throw much. You have two (unless Farley is still having issues) first rate Cornerbacks. You have three excellent Linebackers, and two heavy hitting strong safeties. Invert your defensive backfield. Use your corners like safeties. That does mean that Jermaine Waller and Caleb Farley are going to work their butts off, but you need Chamarri Conner and Reggie Floyd to have Tisdale’s speed and size or run coverage on Bowden (someone needs to be parked in the A-Gap under the zone at all times.) To do this you need both Ashby and Hollifield to play a double Mike formation (remember the old Oklahoma Defense? PLEASE!!!!) Never allow an uncovered section of the box off the B/C-Gaps. Nine times out of ten a running QB will head for that hole either around the edge directly or through the weak spot in the A-Gap Coverage. That’ what Alan Tisdale needs to cover. It took a full quarter of disaster before the defense figured out how to slow down Bryce Perkins. The down side was that Perkins can throw. Bowden shows no such realistic capability. Stop him, and you’ve stopped Kentucky.
Play Playoff Football - This is It and There Ain’t No More
This is the last game of a weird roller coaster of an up and down season. You have a patched together defensive staff, and an offense that is known more for three and outs than for the 30 points that it did put up against UVA. At some point, the Hokie Offensive coaching staff needs to learn to trust its players, and stand on the accelerator. The gadget play chapter of the playbook doesn’t need to be a feature, but it sure didn’t get a work out over 2019. Stop playing low percentage football, both on runs and passes. The Hokies need to use their tight end and slot routes. To keep their schedule at 8 yards a play, not the pathetic 3 to 4 that they’ve been lucky to get on the ground. The same goes for defense. Change things up. Trust the players and get quality stops. No prevent anything on either side of the ball. The 2019 season will be over by 6pm on the 31st. Leave it all on the field.