Over the next 24 hours or so, we are going to hear a lot of different opinions from talking heads, pundits, sportswriters, and other experts about the upcoming matchup between the Hokies and the Crimson Tide. Many of you have already spent the last few weeks watching College Football Live, surfing the web, and reading the paper trying to gobble down as much information as you can about the game. 99.9% of the people whose opinions you will read are going to tell you this is a game the Hokies will lose. Heck, if you read the TSL message boards at all over the last few weeks, you will be able to find many examples of me telling the TSL subscriber base that this is a game the Hokies will lose. My guess was that when Will and Chris published their Preview columns this week, neither one of them will be picking the Hokies. (I was right about that.)
Guess what? I’m not going to do that. I am here to tell you the Hokies are going to win this game and what’s more, I’m going to tell you how I think they are going to win it. I’m not going to write an article about lucky bounces or the football gods either. Not because those things aren’t valid, mind you. Those intangibles are very real indicators of wins and losses. I’m not going to talk about them in this article because the fact of the matter is that the Hokies don’t need luck or intangibles or the “football gods” to intervene in order to beat Alabama. They need execution from the players and the ability to make adjustments and attack weaknesses from the coaches. Alabama has a whole roster of talented players and coaches. But guess what? So does Virginia Tech.
When the Hokies Have the Ball:
Logan Thomas needs to be a dual threat player
I don’t believe that we will see a lot of Logan Thomas as a running threat this year. However, I think Lefty will need to establish Thomas as a threat in the running game in this game, and I think Logan will be asked to tote the rock more against Alabama than any other opponent this year. I would actually like to see the Hokies come out in the shotgun and utilize Logan as the keeper option to the outside in the standard read option. Or, I could see formations similar to Georgia Tech that utilize Trey Edmunds as an inside option (B-back) and Logan Thomas with an option to keep on the edge or pitch to Chris Mangus in space (A-back). Either way, Logan needs to attack the edge of the Alabama defense as a ballcarrier and force the Tide to commit numbers to stop the run. The offensive line simply does not have the talent to hold their blocks in one-on-one situations. The Hokies need the extra blocker they will get with Logan as a ballcarrier. This is not to say that the Hokies won’t be using Edmunds between the tackles and as the primary threat with the outside zone stretch. I just think they will also need Logan as a threat to run the ball.
Designed runs are only part of it, though. Thomas’ athleticism is the biggest advantage the Hokies have on offense and they have to use it. Loeffler also must look to get Logan out of the pocket on waggles and bootlegs. Keep the Tide chasing the ball. Let Logan make the decision to move it ahead as a ballcarrier or fire it down the field but always give him the option to keep it. That will keep the Tide secondary and the linebackers honest and focused on the action in front of them. This will open up the passing game down the field with our speedy wide receivers.
Misdirection in the Running Game
If the running game is going to be effective against the Tide, the Hokies are going to have to use quite a bit of misdirection and keep Alabama’s attacking, blitzing, multiple look defense on its heels. The Tide linebackers, particularly Hubbard and Dickson have GOT be on their heels and watching the football. Those guys are too big and fast for the inexperienced Hokie tackles and tight ends/fullbacks to handle one-on-one with a vanilla running game. Hubbard and Dickson are both NFL players who excel at shedding blocks. To be successful, the running game must keep them guessing and allow blockers to use their momentum against them.
Loeffler will likely start out with some simple outside zone running plays to establish the Hokies bread and butter and get Trey Edmunds going. But I expect the offense to get very creative very early in this game in order to keep the Tide on their heels. Expect to see quite a lot of counter action and cutbacks from the tailback, whether it be Edmunds or Mangus. Also, in addition to Logan Thomas on designed read-option, don’t be surprised to see DJ Coles and Sam Rogers get some opportunities to carry the ball from the H-Back or Fullback position. The Hokies simply do not have the personnel along the offensive line and at the Tight End position to match up in the running game and blow Alabama off the ball. That is something I would expect the previous regime to try, but not this one.
Multiple, multiple, multiple….and then? Multiple again…
Scot Loeffler wants to be a pro-style, multiple offense. In order for the designed running game I am describing above to be effective, Loeffler needs to throw a wide variety of personnel packages and formations at the Tide and he needs to be able to run from all of them. I look to see plenty of 2-WR, 3-WR, and 4-WR sets along with plenty of jumbo sets with 2-TE and pro sets that will include the fullback. The best way for the Hokies offense to keep Logan Thomas upright and effective throwing the football in this game is to run the ball successfully from passing formations. Then, they need to pass the ball successfully from running formations, using play action. I also think we will see the screen pass used strategically on 3rd and long situations in order to punish the aggressive pass rush. That also needs to be a threat from multiple personnel packages.
Be Aggressive Downfield
The Hokies don’t win this game by dinking and dunking their way down the field in the passing game. The Tide secondary is way too disciplined for that. So are the linebackers. These guys know how to read their keys and they are likely to come out in zone looks and just try to keep everything in front of them. If they can shut down the running game (which will be their first priority), they will trust the speed of their pass rush to keep Logan from getting set to complete the timing routes and deep routes the Hokies will need to complete to move the chains. They will be more than willing to give up the occasional completion to the TE or one of the backs in the middle of the field or as an outlet, and trust their linebackers and secondary to close quickly, tackle well and limit YAC. The Hokies do not have the playmakers in space to break tackles. They need to use their speed to get down the field and then take advantage of one-on-one situations.
If the Hokies can establish the running game, they will take their shots down the field. And they need to keep taking them even if they aren’t successful early. DJ Coles is a big body who can win balls against the Bama secondary, and Demetri Knowles is the fastest guy on the field. Stanford runs great routes and has very good hands, and Meyer does everything well. The Hokies will need to throw down the field and trust that strategy, even if the receivers struggle early. They will get some one on one situations once the running game gets going.
When the Tide Has the Ball:
Regardless of the supposed “weakness” of the Alabama team being its offensive line, The Tide will come out and try to establish a physical, punishing running game right between the tackles. Alabama isn’t worried about their personnel not being able to match up physically with the Hokie front seven. If Alabama has a weakness, this is it: hubris. They don’t change their game plan against anyone. It’s one of the reasons they have been so successful. Everyone knows what Saban is going to do on offense. He’s going to run it between the tackles and some outside stretch plays and then when you commit safeties to stopping it, he is going to go over the top with playaction or just go deep in man coverage mismatches against his talented receivers. So, Bud and company won’t see anything tomorrow night that will surprise them. The question is, can they stop it? In Virginia Tech’s case, I believe they can and will stop it. At least, often enough to give the offense opportunities to score.
Discipline Against the Run and Sure Tackling
Look for the Hokies to play a very disciplined football game on defense. Foster’s one-gap scheme requires all players to fill their gaps, spill the ball carrier to the unblocked man and most importantly- no freelancing and no heroes! This is a very experienced defensive unit (for the most part) and I look for Kyle Fuller and Detrick Bonner to keep Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson in the correct positions and making the correct reads when they are in the game. I believe the Hokies do have the personnel on defense to match up with the Alabama offensive players against the run. Luther Maddy, James Gayle, Kyshoen Jarrett, and Kyle Fuller are all guys who will play on Sundays. Skip Hopkins, JR Collins, Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards are all guys who will get free agent looks and may even be drafted in the later rounds. Kendall Fuller was a 5* recruit and Brandon Facyson was one of the “Top 2 high school cornerbacks in the country” according to Torrian Gray. These are all very good and in some instances, great college players. And, they have talent…a lot of talent.
I think the Hokies can and will limit the Alabama running game. James Gayle and JR Collins are very good at shedding blocks, flattening out, and pursuing the running game. Both guys are strong enough and experienced enough to hold firm at the point of attack. If the Hokies can keep guys like Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards from catching too many blocks, I believe they will be gang tackling Yeldon in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage quite a bit in this game. I really like Luther Maddy and Skip Hopkins’ potential to get penetration in the middle and disrupt the timing of the running game. If the DTackles can play to their potential, the rest will come down to discipline. These guys need to stay in their gaps, play proper technique to shed blocks, pursue the football, and not miss tackles.
Bud Foster has the benefit in this game of experienced players in his front seven and at the safety positions. The two freshmen that he has are both heady players who are not just physically talented guys but also complete geeks in the film room and very instinctive on the field. I believe he needs to use that experience and physical talent to try and confuse the Alabama offensive line and bring pressure in ways that AJ McCarron may not be expecting. I look to see instances where Gayle and/or Collins are dropping back to cover the flat and Bud is sending all three linebackers or even a safety or cornerback, while dropping Edwards or Trimble/DiNardo into coverage in the middle of the field. If the Hokies are going to get to McCarron (and I believe they have to if they want to win), they are going to need to disguise their pressure packages, play some zone and bring fast players from all over the field. They have the personnel and team speed on the defense to do it.
100% on “Make the Plays” in the Secondary
Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson believe they can cover Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood in one-on-one situations and so do I. AJ McCarron is going to challenge the Hokie secondary and when the ball is in the air, I want the Hokies to think of it as “up for grabs”. Facyson is an extremely gifted athlete and he has already shown he has great hands. Kendall Fuller had the best film for any high school WR I watched last year. If the Tide wants to throw the ball towards Facyson and Kendall Fuller, I actually think those guys have the best chance out of any player in the secondary to come down an interception. Bonner, Jarrett, and Kyle Fuller need to be every bit as opportunistic as the young guys. If the Hokies can successfully limit the Alabama running game, they will have opportunities to force turnovers in the passing game. McCarron is very talented and he doesn’t turn it over very often so the secondary needs to “make the plays”, as Coach Gray would say, when they have the chance.
Hit ‘em Hard, Hit ‘em Early
The defense needs to set a tone for the Tide and they need to set it early. If Yeldon comes out early, gets a head of steam and lowers his shoulder on one of the Hokie defensive players and successfully drives him back, that will set a bad tone for things to come. I want to see the Hokies lower the boom early. The Tide won’t be expecting the Hokies to come out and punch them in the mouth. They are expecting to come out, have a nice warm-up game against a soft ACC opponent that barely made it to a bowl game last season. The defense needs to set the tone in this game. I’m looking for the Hokies to come out with a massive collective chip on their shoulder and for a guy like Jack Tyler, Kyle Fuller or Kyshoen Jarrett to really lay the wood early on.
And, if Alabama throws any WR screens this game, I expect to see someone absolutely de-cleat Cooper or Norwood in the same manner that Brandon Flowers and Macho Harris punished the Clemson receivers in 2007.
Most Hokies fans don’t really want to hear this because Special Teams hasn’t been very special in the last several years, but if the Hokies want to win this game, they will need to dominate the Special Teams aspect. Let’s go after some punts and really put some pressure on the Alabama kicking game. Demetri Knowles is a guy who can take it to the house every time he touches the ball, so let’s make sure we are fielding kickoffs, making quick decisions, and really accelerating early in the return game. Also, let Cody Journell get out there and try some long field goals when drives have stalled around the 30 yard line. I would much rather try to put points on the board (which will be at a premium in this game), than go for it on fourth down, get stopped and come away with no points for our efforts.
Why I’m Picking the Hokies:
I thought long and hard about this. I even wrote a Preview piece that I was going to send to Chris yesterday that looked a lot different than this one does. The problem with that? It looked the same as everyone else’s. And, it really wasn’t very fun to write. So, I thought to myself. Why am I spending all of this time and energy writing a piece that demonstrates how the Hokies will lose? It’s not fun at all. Then I thought: what do I have to lose? I’m not out here making a living as a college football reporter. I don’t have a reputation to protect. There is no real consequence to me being wrong. I write behind an anonymous alias. Nobody even knows who the heck I am. Why in the world would I ever pick against the Hokies? How much fun is it for me to spend several hours combing through game film, reading practice reports, scouting players and then compiling all of that information into a pre-game article that dissects all of the different ways the Hokies can lose the game? I’ll answer that for you. It’s not fun…at all.
This whole piece might be delusional, but it’s a better way for me to spend my time. And, guess what? It also might not be delusional. I can guarantee you this. Loeffler and Bud may have completely different game plans and keys to victory than the ones I have listed here, but at the end of the day, neither one of those guys is contemplating a loss right now. They are both very much in pursuit of a win tomorrow. And in my own way as a fan, so am I.
Virginia Tech 24 Alabama 20