2008 Monday Thoughts: Nebraska (Free This Week!)

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Coming
out of last week’s game at UNC, there were hints that the Hokies were coming
together and making progress. I had a suspicion that things were turning around
for Tech, but I didn’t think the Hokies were quite ready to win one on the road
in Lincoln — close, but not quite.

The Virginia Tech team that drove home from Chapel Hill on Saturday,
September 20th probably wasn’t ready to win in Lincoln, but the Hokies who ran
onto the Memorial Stadium turf the night of Saturday, September 27th were more
than ready. Virginia Tech was tougher, faster, and more poised than Nebraska,
and the offense took a quantum leap from its early season struggles and played
as an asset, instead of a liability.

Virginia Tech was clearly a better team than Nebraska. Time will tell how
good the Huskers are; unless the Nebraska defense starts playing better, the
QB-heavy Big 12 competition will eat them up. But whatever history writes about
the 2008 Nebraska Cornhuskers, Virginia Tech’s win in Lincoln is just what the
Hokies needed. This could be a landmark win, and a springboard to better things.
Again, time will tell.

Turning points in a season can only truly be identified when a season is
done, but this win certainly looks like a turning point. Virginia Tech continues
to come together as a team and get better and better every week, and the Hokies
are poised to make a run at another ACC championship.

Offense Takes a Big Step Forward

377 total yards. 171 yards passing and 206 yards rushing. For perspective, if
a team had averaged those totals in 2007, that team would have ended up ranked
73rd in total offense, 108th in passing offense, and 18th in rushing offense.

None of those figures represent barn-burning offensive output, but for the
Hokies, they represent a big step forward. Here’s how Tech’s Saturday numbers
stand up to their season numbers going into this game.


VT
Offensive Stats
Pre-Nebraska and vs. Nebraska

Category

Pre-Nebraska
Average

Stat vs.
Nebraska

Improvement
Points 21.5 35 +13.5
Rush Yards 172.8 206 +33.2
Pass Yards 99.0 171 +72
Total Yards 271.8 377 +105.2
First Downs 14.8 21 +6.2
Offensive Plays 61 70 +9
Ave. per play 4.5 5.4 +0.9

There are all kinds of other stats we could crunch, and I’ll throw some more
interesting stats at you later. But beyond the stats, this game had a much
different look and feel to it for the Hokie offense. Simply put, the Hokie
offense looked more competent and cohesive than it had all season, like it had a
plan that was geared for the opponent and which consistently put the players in
position to succeed.

There
are two exception-to-the-rule observations that I feel back up that statement.
Number one, the Hokies actually averaged less per rush against Nebraska (3.7 ypc)
than they did in the first four games (4.0 ypc). Funny, it didn’t feel that way.
Tech ripped off six runs of 10+ yards, from garden-variety off-tackle runs to QB
scrambles. Had you asked me to guess VT’s rushing average without looking at the
stats, I would have guessed close to five yards a carry, not 3.7.

Secondly, one play the Hokies blew, costing them a touchdown, was one of the
best play calls I’ve seen all season from the Hokies. After Nebraska scored to
close it to 9-7, the Hokies drove downfield and faced a third and goal from the
Husker 2. VT lined up with a full house backfield and two tight ends, the
classic power running formation.

Remember this passage from the Georgia Tech Monday Thoughts?

The offense got off to a bad start in this one, with what I thought was a
call that Samuel Morse (inventor of the telegraph) would have been proud of.
The Hokies started off in the shotgun, with a single tight end and a one-back
set, and threw two passes: a flanker screen to Macho Harris that lost a yard,
and a short pass to Chris Drager that set up a third and three.

The Hokies brought in the fullback and lined up in a power-I formation,
with the tight end to the right. Looks like an off-tackle run to the right,
doesn’t it? Georgia Tech agreed, and the Jackets run blitzed and blew the play
up for a five-yard loss. Losing five yards on a straight-ahead rushing play
from the power-I is rare, but the Hokies did it.

Fast forward to a similar formation and similar situation against Nebraska.
The fullback went in motion to the left, telegraphing a run off-tackle left …
but instead, at the snap, tight end Greg Boone ran a corner route to the right
in the end zone. He was wide open … and Tyrod Taylor badly overthrew him.
Again, that’s one of the best play calls of the year, but it went unrewarded.
Such are the things that turn coaches’ hair gray.

The
Hokies used a similar trick successfully on Darren Evans’s one-yard TD run early
in the game. The Hokies lined up in a power formation, motioned fullback Devin
Perez to the left, and ran it right. Evans waltzed into the end zone.

The Hokies ran the ball well, they used the center of the field in the
passing game (mostly with the tight ends), and they even threw a pass to the
fullback (Taylor overthrew Kenny Jefferson). Tech blocked well, though not
flawlessly. Nebraska only had two sacks for a total of four yards in losses, and
in both those plays, Tyrod Taylor had adequate time in the pocket to find open
receivers. I would call both of Nebraska’s sacks coverage sacks.

Was it a virtuoso performance by the Hokie offense? Not exactly. VT only
gained 377 yards on a Nebraska team that was giving up 347.3 per game coming in.
But it was, as noted, a big step in the right direction. Virginia Tech looked
prepared, unlike their pitiful first half performances against Furman and UNC,
outings in which the Hokie offense looked confused and completely inept.

Speaking of that first half against UNC, that appears to be a crucial turning
point for the offense, which has played much better in three halves of football
since then. Here’s a fun stat:

  • In the first three and a half games this year (ECU, Furman, GT, and half
    time against UNC), VT averaged 128.4 yards of offense per half.
  • In the last game and a half, VT has averaged 188.3 yards of offense per
    half, an improvement of 59.9 yards per half, or 119.8 yards per game.

Here’s the thing: No one is asking the Virginia Tech offense to rack up 500
yards and 45 points a game (though we’ll take it). They simply need to be a
solid offense, capable of controlling the football, running it well, and moving
the chains.

In particular, the offense needs to be able to do things like this:

  • After Nebraska scored their first touchdown to make it 9-7, the Hokies
    came out and immediately false started, putting themselves into a 1st-and-15
    situation. Tech picked up the first down anyway, and embarked on a
    10-play, 54-yard drive that ended with a field goal and recaptured momentum.
  • After Nebraska scored two straight touchdowns, the second on an 88-yard
    punt return, to close it to 28-23, Memorial Stadium and the Sea of Red were
    rocking. The Hokies promptly put together a monster 11-play, 80-yard
    touchdown drive in which Nebraska came unglued under the pressure. Yes, the
    Huskers helped with personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, but
    VT finished the drive off.

In short, this game had all the classic earmarks of a Hokie big game loss in
the making. VT committed some defensive breakdowns, leading to easy scores, and
Beamerball coughed up a key special teams touchdown. In many situations like
this in the past, the offense has not bailed out the defense and special teams,
but against Nebraska Saturday night, they did. The offense was part of the
solution, not a huge, glaring part of the problem.

One more fun stat before we move on to comments about the defense. Against
the Huskers, VT had five offensive possessions of nine plays or more, and the
Hokies ran 70 plays to Nebraska’s 51. Here are those two stats for all five
games this year, and you can clearly see the improvement.


VT’s 2008
Long Possessions (9+ plays)
and Offensive Play Differentials

Opponent

9+ play
possessions

VT-opponent
play differential
ECU 2 58-66 (-8)
Furman 2 61-57 (+4)
GT 3 61-59 (+2)
UNC 1 64-58 (+6)
Nebraska 5 70-51 (+19)

Again, trends moving in the right direction.

Of course, one of the reasons VT’s play differential was +19 was the numerous
big plays hit by the Nebraska offense (cough-cough, harrumph). When the Huskers
did score, it was quickly.

Defense Improving, but Still Giving Up Big Plays

Virginia Tech’s defense had a feast-or-famine kind of night. The Hokies held
Nebraska to 333 total yards, a statistic that makes me neither cheer nor cringe.

Within the defensive stats are a number of encouraging signs: a third-down
conversion rate of 2-of-11 (18%), 55 net yards rushing, including 2.2 yards per
carry; and only two Husker possessions that lasted longer than six plays.

But two of those possessions went for touchdowns. Nebraska struck for three
plays, 68 yards and a touchdown, and four plays, 80 yards, and a touchdown. Bud
Foster hates that kind of stuff.

Throw in Nebraska’s 88-yard punt return, and it was a weird night for the
Hokies, one in which they gave up 21 points in a span of 8 plays and about three
minutes, 20 seconds of game time. It’s rare to feel like you’re in control of a
game that ends up 35-30, but that’s how it went.

Nebraska had a mind-boggling, Foster-detonating seven plays of 20+ yards, two
of them over 30 yards. In those seven plays, Nebraska accumulated 200 of their
333 yards. They totaled 133 yards on their other 44 plays (3.0 yards per play).

Lots to build on here, but again, the bugaboo for the Hokies is the big plays
they’re giving up. Raleigh Hokie can and probably will comment on this in his
game analysis, but as long as this tendency exists, the Hokies will struggle to
put games out of reach. This game should have been out of reach, but it
wasn’t.

VT’s
cornerbacks continue to be solid (Stephan Virgil is starting to look like a
future professional, and Macho Harris’s interception was a thing of beauty), and
the defensive line is rapidly improving. Jason Worilds, who entered the season
with a nagging leg injury and then separated a shoulder against Furman, has
defied my expectations for him and is becoming a force on the outside. Orion
Martin is bringing consistent play-making ability as well, and John Graves has
started to assert himself in the middle in the last couple of games.

Beyond those three guys, Nekos Brown and Cordarrow Thompson are steady, but
the Hokies are really leaning on those five linemen that I just listed. DE
Steven Friday continues to get playing time, but has just one tackle in the last
four games, reducing the Hokies to three effective defensive ends; DT Demetrius
Taylor has three tackles in the last four games; and DT Justin Young hasn’t
played the last two games and hasn’t recorded a tackle since the opener against
ECU.

That’s a thin defensive line, in terms of production, so the health of the
starting DL is critical. So far, so good. And the good news is that the Hokies
are getting good production from their best players.

This defense isn’t up to snuff with Bud Foster’s most recent units, of
course. This is no surprise. They’re currently ranked 46th in the nation in
total defense at 328.6 yards per game, but what really stands out (in a bad way)
is their per-play average: VT gives up 5.65 yards per play, 84th in the nation.

With the exception of some improved play from John Graves and Jason Worilds,
the Hokie defense appears to have hit a bit of a plateau, in my opinion, though
I’ll admit I’m not the savviest observer of these things.

This leaves me wondering what the loss of Davon Morgan to a knee injury means
for the defense. Morgan was starting to play better, but he blew out his ACL in
a non-contact injury and is lost for the season.

Morgan’s replacement is Dorian Porch, a 5-11, 210-pound redshirt junior who
sat atop the rover depth chart at the end of spring practice, but was beaten out
by Davon Morgan in fall practice. Porch is a Super Iron Hokie with a 41-inch
vertical leap, so he’s a good, strong athlete. Chris Coleman, a much better
observer of these things than I, says that Porch is one of the better tacklers
on the team, but he doesn’t have optimal sideline-to-sideline range.

Nonetheless, Porch is a solid replacement for Morgan at rover, so the dropoff
shouldn’t be too much, if any. Watch for Porch’s pursuit speed to the perimeter
to see if it’s a liability or not.

Porch is backed up by walk-on Matt Reidy (6-1, 213), a fearsome hitter with a
good nose for the football.

The Hokie defense should improve statistically as the season goes on, because
they have yet to face Western Kentucky, plus some of the ACC’s worst offenses,
like Boston College (330 yards per game, 89th in the nation), Miami (316 ypg,
#99), and Virginia (251 ypg, #118). VT has just finished a stretch of
competition against good QBs (ECU’s Pinkney, UNC’s Yates, and Nebraska’s Ganz),
and one hopes the big plays will be less common as the season goes on.

Bullet Points

This thing is starting to go a little long, so let’s put those HTML

  • tags to use.

    • VT’s
      blocked punt for a safety and first-quarter TD were Tech’s first points of
      the first quarter all year. The Hokies have been outscored 10-9 in the first
      quarter this season.
    • What could have been in the passing game: I already talked about TT
      missing Boone in the end zone, but Tyrod also missed a golden opportunity
      for an easy 36-yard TD early in the game, when he led a wide-open Dyrell
      Roberts to the sideline instead of into the middle of the field. If TT hits
      those two passes, his stats on the day are 11-of-15, 209 yards, 2 TDs.
    • Last year, VT gave up 54 sacks (third worst in the nation) in 14 games.
      That’s 3.86 sacks per game. So far this season, Tech has only given up 11
      sacks in five games (2.2 per game), which projects to 31 sacks in a 14-game
      season. Despite the vast improvement, Tech is currently 95th in the country
      in sacks allowed.
    • VT is tied for third in the nation in fewest
      penalty yards per game
      and is tied for 7th in turnover
      margin
      . You would think that is a rare double, but three other teams
      are in the top ten in both categories as well: Boston College (1st and 2nd),
      Rice (5th and 3rd) and Vanderbilt (8th and 1st). Discipline runs in packs, I
      guess.
    • Before the game, Tech’s tight ends had 11 catches for 92 yards (8.4 ypc).
      In this game, Andre Smith (2 catches, 54 yards) and Greg Boone (2 catches,
      33 yards) combined for four catches for 87 yards, almost 22 yards per catch.
    • Tech’s tight ends and wide receivers have combined for zero receiving TDs.
      The Hokies have only one TD pass, from Sean Glennon to Kenny Lewis. Look for
      that to change soon.
    • Kenny Lewis gained 50 yards on his first eight carries, including
      back-to-back 12-yarders. On his next nine carries, he netted 0 yards.
    • From the time VT was down 17-3 at UNC to the time they went up 28-10 at
      Nebraska, the Hokies outscored their opponents 45-10 in about five quarters
      of play.
    • The personal foul committed by Ndamukong Suh on Tyrod Taylor looked like a
      legit call. It was a little iffy, perhaps, but protecting vulnerable players
      is a point of emphasis this year, and you’re going to get flagged if you hit
      a guy out of bounds or on the ground.
    • Speaking of penalties, how about one that wasn’t called? On Nate Swift’s
      punt return, Tech’s Orion Martin was run out of bounds by a Nebraska player
      who had him by the facemask, jacked it up, and rode him out of the field of
      play.
    • Tech only had three pass plays of 20+ yards in the first four games this
      season. The Hokies added three more in this game.
    • How about Dustin Keys continuing the line of accurate Hokie kickers? Keys
      was 4-of-4 in this game and is now 9-of-10 on the year. He is tied for 13th
      in the nation with 1.8 FGs per game. Since the start of the 2004 season, the
      Hokies are an awesome 79-of-95 (83.2%) with three different kickers: Brandon
      Pace, Jud Dunlevy, and Keys.
    • Lastly,
      I am told that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing hospitality
      of the Nebraska fans. I didn’t go to the game, but those who did are
      emailing me and telling me that Nebraska’s welcoming fans are the best,
      “bar none.” Texas A&M fans impressed Hokie fans in 2002 with
      their hospitality, but somehow, Nebraska fans exceed even Aggie fans when it
      comes to creating an outstanding game atmosphere for visitors. I was urged
      to tell Hokie fans to raise the bar with similar hospitality when Nebraska
      comes to Blacksburg in 2009, so consider it done.

    Hokies Headed in the Right Direction

    From 2001-2003, the Hokies established a reputation as a team that started
    strong and finished poorly. In those three seasons, Tech went 20-2 in the months
    of August through October, and 6-11 from November 1st through bowl games.

    The last four seasons (2004-2007) balanced that out. The Hokies registered an
    aggregate mark of 27-6 through the end of October, and 16-5 after November 1st.
    Of those five late-season losses, three of them came in bowl games, and one came
    in the 2005 ACC Championship game. Only one of the late-season losses was a
    regular-season game (Miami, 2005).

    The Hokies’ rep has transitioned from that of a late season-swooner to a
    bowl-game gagger. But another rep has been established, I think: slow starter.
    After crushing early season opponents, including some good ones, from 2001-2003,
    VT has started losing a few more early-season games than they used to. The
    bottom isn’t falling out, but the Hokies have started to look a little shaky in
    the early games.

    Only the 2005 team avoided early-season losses, starting out 8-0. The 2004,
    2006, and 2007 teams had all lost two games by the end of October, something no
    Hokie team from 1998-2003 (six seasons) did.

    I’m getting off track, so here’s the point: The 2008 Hokies got off to a
    rocky start, but they’re really starting to bring it into focus as October
    approaches. And they did it without losing two games. They almost did it
    while going undefeated.

    That’s assuming that this Nebraska game wasn’t an aberration. If you flash
    back to last year’s Duke game, the Hokies were struggling offensively in the
    early part of the season, but they caught fire and blew the Blue Devils out,
    43-14. “Sure,” the thinking went, “but it was just Duke.”

    Still, the Duke game felt different. The offense looked better and
    fired on all cylinders. In much the same fashion, this Nebraska game felt
    different offensively. The play calling, the use of the tight end, the running
    game … these guys look like they turned a corner Saturday night.

    Their
    timing couldn’t be better. The team gets what should amount to a scrimmage
    against Western Kentucky, then they take a couple weeks off before heading to
    Boston College to face an Eagle team that is struggling offensively, to put it
    mildly.

    You can mash stats all you want, and you can question how stout the
    competition is, but the most important result of this game, I think, is that the
    coaches and players think it is a big win. They think it’s huge. They
    went into a hostile environment, with a gigantic crowd, and they took the lead
    quickly and decisively. They responded to almost every single bit of adversity
    with a big drive and/or another score. The final margin was close, but it was an
    otherwise comfortable win on the road, against a big-name opponent. A statement
    game.

    That’s the kind of game that can galvanize a team. I’m always talking about
    how the Hokies are positioned, and with a 2-0 ACC record, a big road win, and an
    offense that’s coming together, this football team is positioned well for the
    remainder of the 2008 season.

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