No Following White Rabbits
We have looked at strategy, and now we turn to tactics. Well, maybe not necessarily. Tactics is all about season planning, game planning, and in game adjustments. Analyzing tactics by doping out games ends up being a trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. Maybe it’s even a more bizarre excursion through the looking glass. If putting y’all to sleep before finishing this is the ultimate goal, then droning on about plays, patterns, zones, and the like will get snores and gurgles instead of some interest and comments. Hence the sort of sideways look into the topic of football tactics.
Remember the question from the introductory article?
What’s your “bread and butter” play, the go to opener, the one that forms the basis for your offense?
That question related to this particular article. Unfortunately only 53 people ventured to answer it, and no one added any other ideas in the comments section. There was enough loyal GC’ers to get an interesting discussion going, though.
So here’s how this all broke down:
- 17% Halfback ISO (22/23 Dive) (9 votes)
- 32% Read/Option off the ‘A’ Gap - Linebacker read (17 votes)
- 8% Halfback/Fullback Counter through the ‘B’ Gap. (4 votes)
- 43% Three second drop 8 yard Tight End/Slot dig-out/dig-in hot read. (23 votes)
Let’s talk about this, because how an offensive coordinator looks at a routine function, is often what they immediate tendencies will be as the game progresses, and what they expect from their offense in general. If you hadn’t noticed, these are four basic plays that exist in the Fuente/Cornelsen Offense. The first three are the most common, and the last something that is a potential flavor variation of an RPO executed differently.
There is a certain amount of risk involved in running any offense. There is certainly a major risk either starting off a series, or attempting to make significant positive yardage on a play. The play that you trust is the one that your offense knows by rote and muscle memory. It is the check-off play, the series starter, and the game starter. The old traditional Halfback ISO (Various hole and back numbers for Dive plays) is like putting the minimum bet in the pot in a poker game, after the cards are dealt. As in poker, the point of the game is not necessarily the cards; it’s the opponents and the situation. So there is a certain advantage to “Limping In”. If you go all in on the first hand, everyone’s going to fold, and the pot is mostly ante money. Wee… no big win there. Consequently, a good poker player will “limp in” now and again to keep the table honest.
In the case of a modern football tactical setup, the “bread and butter” go to play that drives the ball up the middle for 2-4 yards is essentially an audibled bailout. That’s the frustrating part of fandom and why hair is often lost. It’s maddening to see all the machinations from the sideline, then the wig wagging, and gesticulating from the key players, followed by a near delay of game penalty that ends up being a halfback dive play into a pile of bodies; for absolutely no significant forward progress, mind you. You can hear the cries of anguish from the stands. The collective”UGGGHHH!!!! WHY!????”, “What a waste!”, and “Dumb Play!” cat calls cascade on to the field. Sometimes there is no other choice, but most times, most fans wish that someone would just revert to “Sandlot” and try something else besides tanking a play, losing a down, and potentially stalling a drive. The poll result of 17% says that. 83% would like to see just about anything else.
The Hokies had no real way to execute the ISO/Dive over most of the last decade. In fact we haven’t been able to reliably run the play since 2012 with the early departure of David Wilson. We have had a few games where it worked, but only a few. The drive blocking wasn’t there, and the big star running back wasn’t in place to follow the H-Back/Fullback into the hole.
Boring and Predictable, but Showing Promise
The Read/Option off the ‘A’ Gap - Linebacker read, is the basic Read/Option play from the modern offense. It requires a big strong, fast quarterback and a patient quick running back. Like any option it doesn’t require great drive blocking from the offensive line. It’s actually blocked pretty much like any short passing play, and the RPO offense is built off of the Read/Option. In general, this is going to be play executed the most by the Hokie Offense. It’s Justin Fuente’s “Cheeto” and selling it, executing it, and making schedule yardage from it (4-6 yards), is absolutely critical to his offense. If the Hokie O can’t “Sell the Cheeto”, it founders.
The Read/Option is pretty boring, however. It’s also drearily predictable, and now with fewer defenses surprised, or confused about how to stop it; the less effective it is as a true bread and butter play. The fundamental problem with any tactical game plan is still how do you deal with getting your primary baseline play stuffed by the opponents’ defenses; or the single opponent’s defense for that game?
As with any play, the personnel executing it will make up for some of the issues. The 2016 Hokies, with Jerod Evans behind the center, and a modest offensive line could “sell the Cheeto” like crazy. Evans was fast. He was a large human being, and he certainly was a threat to throw. There was a serious crimp in the quality of the running back. The 2017 season saw a precipitous drop off in the effectiveness of running the Cheeto. Regardless of how you felt about Josh Jackson, Jr, it was pretty obvious after the West Virginia opener at FedEx Field that he wasn’t particularly fast. The truth was slowly understood, and given his lack height and downfield arm strength, the play calling became more of a scattered short passing/screen game, with an occasional sub 20 yard seam pass, and of course those frustratingly ineffective fades. As we have said in the strategy articles, the 2017 season was the defense’s success and the offense’s mediocrity was rooted in the inability to execute its bread and butter play effectively.
It Broke for Good Yards, Though
The lowest vote getter (which surprised this writer) was probably a more effective play than the straight Cheeto for 2018. The Halfback Counter off of a zone blocking scheme – or the run option from the RPO package, actually works well. It is one of those sorts of misdirection plays that help to get past an overly aggressive defense. It takes a shifty back with good balance, and a head on a swivel. It is a slow developing play that can be executed from the shotgun, the pistol, or the ‘I’ formations. It’s also a play that uses zone blocking similar to the Cheeto’s and it also tends to be favored because the Read/Option can be salted into the mix. It’s not a Cheeto, but the read gives it a bit more for the defense to consider and cover during execution.
The good things about the counter make it very explosive, and probably a better schedule play if it can be turned, but its downside is the exact same one that the Read/Option has. If there isn’t a passing threat, and the linebackers can crash on both the running back and the quarterback, then the play breaks down. It might get yards but that can be limited to less than 3. If a team needs 4, then 3 won’t do.
The Tech angle to this one is pretty simple. The Counter seems to have been made the primary bread and butter play of 2018, instead of the Cheeto. Remember the counter doesn’t need a fast, powerful running QB. It’s the H-Back and Half-Back who do the heavy lifting. The QB just gets the ball handed off properly. Once JJ went down, Cornelsen was presented with a quarterback more to the 2016 physical qualifications, but his entire game to game playbook wasn’t built to take advantage. Ryan Willis could throw well. He could hit downfield and wasn’t shy about trying to” fit the ball in”. (He trusted his receivers to go up and get it – something JJ would not do.) Besides the passing improvements, Willis possessed some wheels that JJ didn’t have. This was mentioned earlier, but Cornelsen would have been better advised to have burned his 2018 JJ oriented offense, and put in his 2016 Jerod Evans Offense, once it was obvious that Willis played more like Evans. Of course this is being said in an “easier said than done” sort of vein. The upshot of the counter was that it continued to produce some good yardage, and we will probably see the Hokie running backs working it. The added wrinkle will be that all three quarterbacks in the depth chart are capable of selling that Cheeto, so we might see an interesting combination of a Read/Option Zone run, combined with a Read/Option Counter give Cornelsen some options that he didn’t take advantage of last year.
Surprise! You Might Just Like the Pass
The final suggested bread and butter play was a total surprise to me. The “three second drop 8 yard Tight End/Slot dig-out/dig-in hot read” play is the pass portion of the RPO, along with a fundamental pass play for first downs for more than a few football teams. Remember back in the early days of the waiting for Fuente’s first game we talked about his offense? The Run-Pass Options were a special feature, though not a total part of the package. Well, there is a tricky variation of the RPO… the traditional pass part of the play stays at or behind the line of scrimmage to prevent “ineligible receiver downfield penalties”. The Pass-Run Option might just be an evolving variant. We see this with Belichick’s offense all the time (though instead of Darth Legwarmers running, he hands off on a delay). The play starts off from either the shotgun/pistol/or Tee. The quarterback identifies the primary zones for the hot read, at the line of scrimmage, the hot read is signaled as the only audible (and sometimes the signal comes from the hot receiver, not the QB). The pass must come out in three seconds from the time of the snap.
That allows for about 8 to 12 yards of run time for the target receiver. Knowing who is “hot” and their route is critical. In this case the best 8 yard routes are often a switch off between the Slot Receiver and the Tight End/H-Back. In any event, one of those players will run a dig route – in or out (signaled by the receiver before the snap) the other will run an out or in route opposite to the dig. The Slot will also often get a bit of an assist with a “rub route being executed by a wide out on the slot side; (if the slot is running the out). It’s critically important to understand that this play’s audibles are all about how the play is executed, not for whether or not it is and substituting another play in its place. It’s also why, after 4 seconds and a foiled hot read that you see Tom Brady go from the GOAT to a ‘goat’.
There is a bail on the play; however. If the 3 second route breaks down, the QB can pull it in and run, back off and try a deeper pass on the other routes, or hand off/dump off to the blocking running back. Ultimately if a team chooses to use this play combination the discipline level, and read knowledge needs to be very high.
It’s also is a brutally difficult play to stop. Because it’s designed to gain a minimum of 8 yards on a very high percentage pass situation, there are often very few third down and long situations. Often there are few third down situations, at all. It’s a play that requires the defense to cover the field because it can option to deeper and shallower throws. With a good running back or running quarterback, the line and linebackers have to do dual duty, cover the run and the pass.
Well, the Hokie angle in all of this is that Ryan Willis is perfectly capable of running this sort of offense. We have three first rate receivers and two excellent starting Tight Ends. As a matter of fact the #2 receivers can run this as well. The frustration comes from the reality that in 2018, there didn’t seem to be the strategic and tactical flexibility to allow the Hokie offense to “Stand on it”. The willingness to open up the offense and score points as often as possible just wasn’t there. From the sidelines it looked to be a sort of trust problem based on inexperience with the players and the variables introduced.
The Tactics of it all for the Finish
The 2018 season, for Virginia Tech, was a case of “If it could go wrong, it did”. Some of that was at the strategic level, but there was a tactical part to be played. It was obvious that the playbook assembled to match Josh Jackson’s skills worked pretty well until the broken leg ended the situation. Few people seem to remember that in the ODU game, whether it was JJ or Willis at the wheel, Tech’s offense scored more than enough points to win a football game. Tech’s defense just didn’t manage to hold up its end of the game bargain.
The tactical game planning and adjustment framework for the coaching staff began to fall apart at that game, and frankly it might be the most decisive unresolved problem of the entire season. The ability or willingness to radically adjust the game planning on the offensive side of the ball just didn’t seem to be in evidence.
Once it became evident that the defense was struggling mightily, and the offense under Willis was quite capable of moving the ball and scoring points, the strategic conceptualization of the 2017 dominant defense/average to below average offense needed to be burned during the hurricane bye week. The impulse to try to sit on the ball, burn clock by running, and executing the first two plays was ineffective. During four critical games, the Hokie O, came out firing, running counters, RPOs, Cheetos, and moving the ball to score something. (Too often it was 3, but that’s an old issue.) In the second half, it just sat down. It made the mistake of trying to switch to a grind out the clock offense, and rely on the defense to get stops.
Well, the 2018 Hokie Defense had lots of heart, but it also was inexperienced and over-matched. The tactical failure of 2018 will always be the unwillingness to cast aside the assumptions and adjustments of the 2018 off-season.