While walking out of Lane stadium among the thousands of cheering Virginia
Tech fans, I was reminded of an expression made famous by “The A-Team” and
used around offices when things go especially well. “I love it when a plan
comes together” generally accompanies a bunch of smiles and a few high fives
for everyone involved. On Thursday night, the plan definitely came together for
the Hokies, in all phases of the game, as they rolled the favored and 10th
ranked Clemson Tigers 24-7. It was an impressive performance on so many levels,
from preparation, to game planning, to play calling, to execution, and it should
give the Hokies a lot of confidence as they get ready this week to head to the
Orange Bowl to face the Miami Hurricanes.
How did they do it? It started with the coaches, who crammed for this game by
pulling all-nighters watching film and preparing the game plans. And on Thursday
night their tireless efforts paid off, as it was clear early on that they had
out-worked and out-prepared their counterparts from Clemson. More on that in a
It finished with the players, who as a team put on their most impressive and
complete performance of the season. They executed those game plans at a very
high and consistent level. Simply put, they played very well in all aspects of
the game. More on that coming up as well.
Let’s break it down, starting with Bud Foster and the defense…
“Old School” Game Plan
Well, sort of. Those that were big fans of the 8-man fronts certainly enjoyed
watching the defense in this game. On the one hand, the plan was simple – get
an extra man up at the line of scrimmage to counter Clemson’s potent 1-2 punch
of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, and put the burden on QB Will Proctor to win
the game by passing the ball.
On the other hand, the plan also was masterful – crowd the line of
scrimmage, but do not bring pressure. Instead, read the keys at the snap – key
that first step by the offensive linemen and tight ends. If the read is run (for
example, offensive line slants left or right in unison), then secure every gap
and penetrate the line of scrimmage. Mix in a few run blitzes by the linebackers
and off the edge with a corner.
If the read is pass (for example, offensive linemen does not slant, but
instead drop steps into protection), then drop out the linebackers underneath
and allow the corners and free safety to challenge the Clemson wide receivers.
By not bringing pressure, the 8-man front could easily drop out into a four
under, 3-deep zone coverage with the Rover and Whip LB dropping out into the
And it worked perfectly. Coming in, Clemson knew they would be seeing a lot
of the 8-man fronts, but they thought they could still run the ball successfully
by matching up with their tight ends against the extra man in the box. It didn’t
work for three reasons:
1. Gap control. That has been mentioned several times now as a key factor
in shutting down the Clemson running game, but what does “gap control”
mean specifically in terms of Tech’s defensive scheme? Tech’s defense is a
1-gap system, which basically means that each defensive player upfront is
responsible for securing a single area or gap between two offensive blockers.
In that scheme, each defender is called on to get penetration, secure their
gap, and make tackles. This differs from other defensive schemes that use
their defensive linemen to tie up blockers (by drawing double teams) to allow
the linebackers to run free to the ball. This is one example of a 2-gap
In his “Keys to the Game” article, Phil Martin pointed out how
important it would be for the Hokies to play gap control defense out of the
8-man fronts. Give Phil and the Hokies an A+ on that one. Tech’s defense
executed the 1-gap concepts perfectly. The defensive front did an excellent
job staying disciplined in their gaps – they didn’t over pursue or extend
out of their gaps, preventing any seams from opening up for Davis and Spiller
2. Penetration. Another aspect of gap security is penetration at the line
of scrimmage. Offensive lines that get a “push” at the snap move the line
of scrimmage forward, which allows running backs to get up to speed before
first contact (ie, running “downhill”). Penetration by the defense
disrupts all of that, neutralizes the line of scrimmage, and gets contact on
the running backs before they can get going.
On Thursday night, time after time, Davis and Spiller would take a handoff
and have no room to maneuver because of the penetration by Tech’s defense.
One key factor was the impact of the home crowd and the electric atmosphere.
It was clear that Clemson’s offense was disrupted by the noise. In watching
game tape from their earlier games, one thing that stood out was how quickly
their offensive linemen got off the ball and into the defense at the snap.
However, on Thursday night, it was Tech’s defense that got off the ball
quicker at the snap. Because of the noise, the Clemson offensive linemen were
½ tick late at the snap. On the other side, Tech’s defense was fast off the
ball – as fast as they have been all season – and that difference was a
key factor in Tech’s ability to get consistent penetration throughout the
3. Tackling. James Davis came into the game as the ACC’s leading rusher
and a lot of those yards came after breaking tackles. On the other side, there
have been a few times this season where tackling was an issue for Tech’s
defense. However, it was not the case on Thursday night, and it turned out to
be another miscalculation on the part of Clemson’s coaches. No matter what
Tech did with their defensive fronts, Clemson’s game plan was to run the
ball. Period. They would counter the extra man by matching up with a TE, and
if that didn’t work, then they would expect the running backs to beat that
extra man, either straight up or by breaking through that first tackle. Didn’t
happen. With the exception of the TD run by Davis, the tackling was crisp from
start to finish.
How sure were Clemson’s coaches that they could run the ball? So sure that
they didn’t have any contingency plans in place in case it didn’t work. Even
though they saw 8-man fronts with the linebackers no further than 2-3 yards
behind the line of scrimmage, and even though they had single coverage outside
for much of the game, Clemson never once tried to take a shot deep down the
field in the passing game. They really had no semblance of a game plan to attack
the Hokies with Will Proctor and the passing game. No play action game to speak
of. No attempts to run their TE’s up the seams against the single deep safety.
Once the running game was shut down, they had nothing else to turn to.
Inside Linebackers Are Superb
So many defensive players played well in this game and I could have picked
any of them to highlight in this analysis. But I decided to focus on the
performances of Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi because as a tandem, considering the
quality of the opponent, this likely was the best game of their careers.
Ironically, both were nicked up coming into the game and there was some concern
that they may be limited in what they could do, but both played physical and
fast from the first snap, chasing down plays from sideline to sideline.
How good were they? Clemson tried a few different things, but they really had
no answer for them. Let’s look at one example of how Hall and Adibi disrupted
the Clemson offense:
Early on, Clemson had some success running the read option (Proctor in the
shotgun, deciding to hand the ball off or keep it based on his read of the
outside containment). It worked for some yards early because Tech was keeping
the outside containment keyed on Proctor. That allowed the interior of Clemson’s
offensive line to work one-on-one inside, and when they won those individual
battles, some room opened up for Davis or Spiller to get a few yards (not many,
but it was all relative in this game).
Tech adjusted by crashing down their outside containment to shut off any room
for Davis and Spiller, while letting Hall and Adibi chase down the QB with
pursuit. At that point, Proctor’s correct read was to keep the ball, but he
soon discovered that he wasn’t fast enough to elude Hall and Adibi closing in
from the backside. With that adjustment, Tech took away the read option for the
rest of the night.
We will touch on more of the great performance by the defense with some
bullet points later on, but for now let’s take a look at the terrific
performance by the Tech offense…..
Offensive Plan Equally Impressive
On the surface, the numbers indicated that Clemson’s defense was tough
against the run, but part of that was due to their offense building big leads
and forcing teams to play catch-up with the passing game. No offense had really
committed to the running game to challenge Clemson’s run defense for an entire
game this season.
Then along came the Hokies. Bryan Stinespring installed a plan that
prioritized the running game coupled with something that Clemson’s offense did
not have — a play action passing game that would keep the linebackers honest
and challenge the backend defense down the field. And it worked perfectly.
The running game had been, at best, inconsistent all season until the
breakout game by Branden Ore last week against Southern Miss. That gave the
offense confidence heading into the Clemson game and to build on that, the
coaches structured a plan that exploited a few weaknesses in the Clemson run
defense. After spending hours and hours watching game film, the coaches noticed
that Clemson’s linebackers were aggressive in flowing to the ball and they
would tend to over pursue the rushing lanes.
The Hokies countered by using inside zone and man blocking formations (did
you notice how many snaps the fullbacks got in this game?) with minimal slanting
by the offensive line. They wanted the linebackers to flow aggressively into
specific rushing lanes and allow Branden Ore to use his vision and quickness to
cutback specifically against their flow.
It was a subtle approach to opening cutback lanes – instead of slanting the
line to generate flow in one direction or the other, the Hokies went straight at
the Clemson defense, letting the linebackers’ natural tendencies create the
cutback lanes for Ore. It was an outstanding game plan and the result was 200+
rushing yards by Ore and the offensive line.
I mentioned above that the Tech game plan also included the play action pass
to keep the defense honest down the field (again, a concept completely left out
of Clemson’s offensive plan). Although it didn’t hit, the long pass to
Morgan in the end zone was an excellent play call and it kept the Clemson
safeties from being overly aggressive against Branden Ore and the running game.
That is until they had no other choice. Once Clemson had to commit a safety,
then other things began to open up….
Stinespring set up the defense by calling two play action passes for the TE’s
on deep corner routes. The first one didn’t hit, but the second one did for a
big 41 yard play that led to Tech’s final touchdown.
Let’s break those two plays down a fit further and look at what happened on
The first attempt came earlier in the 2nd quarter. The Hokies set up with a
two TE formation, single back, two WR’s split to the wide side of the field.
The TE on the boundary side, Sam Wheeler, was the end of the formation (ie, no
WR’s outside of him on the short side of the field). This formation drew the
boundary side corner (Crezdon Butler) inside on the line of scrimmage (aligned
as a linebacker). Both safeties were back, with the strong safety (Chris
Clemons) aligned in the deep middle of the formation. At the snap, Butler
blitzed off the corner. When Wheeler released down field, he was covered
under/over by LB Nick Watkins in man coverage underneath, with help from Clemons
over the top. The play was designed to go to Wheeler deep and Sean Glennon did
just that. But because of the good coverage down field by Clemson, the pass was
incomplete. The keys to that play were a) both safeties stayed back in 2-deep
coverage, b) there was man under coverage by a linebacker who wasn’t fooled by
the play action fake and c) the pressure came off the edge with the corner
Now fast forward to later in the 3rd quarter. Bryan Stinespring had shown the
play early, but since that time, the same formation had been used to spring
Branden Ore on a few nice running plays. Clemson started to adjust to Ore’s
success by getting the LB’s tighter and committing one of their safeties to
aggressive run support. As we mentioned above, Ore’s success left them with
few other choices. The situation was set-up nicely for another play action pass.
The Hokies went with the same formation with Wheeler on the end to the
boundary side. Clemson’s pre-snap alignment was the same as well, but
expecting the run, they changed up their defense at the snap. This time they
committed their LB’s to the run and brought the free safety down as well in
run support. In doing so, they went with man coverage and rotated the strong
safety (Clemons) over to provide deep help against the two Tech receivers on the
wide side of the field. That left Wheeler man to man against that boundary
corner, true freshman Crezdon Butler. Unfortunately for Clemson, Butler bit hard
on the play action, allowing Wheeler to run right past him. Since it was man
coverage and Clemons was rotating to the opposite side of the field, there was
no deep help on Wheeler. The deep corner route created further separation and
prevented Clemons from being able get there in time to prevent a big completion
for the Hokies.
That play keyed the drive that led to Tech’s game clinching touchdown. It
was also a play that topped off the execution of an excellent game plan, showing
how an effective running game can be used to set up a defense for big plays off
of play action.
Offensive Line Turns the Corner
Much has been said about Branden Ore’s big night, becoming the first Tech
running back to post back-to-back 200+ yard rushing performances. The bright
lights had been reserved for Clemson’s James Davis and C.J. Spiller, but it
was Ore that stole the show.
While Ore was fantastic, it was the performance of the offensive line that
caught my eye. Facing one of their stiffest tests of the season, and even though
they had lost Ryan Shuman early on, they went out and dominated the line of
scrimmage, pounding Clemson’s defensive front throughout the game. That was
quite a surprise for a lot of people.
The improvement that has been made upfront in the two weeks since the Boston
College game has been remarkable. The key, in my opinion, is that the light
appears to have come on for Sergio Render. He has struggled mightily at times
this season, but he has shown tremendous improvement the last two games. He
already had the size and strength to be a force, but now it appears that he is
getting the mental side of the game down as well.
Now, the combination of Render and Duane Brown gives the Hokies a matchup
advantage on the right side of the line. Did anyone notice how many running
plays were called to that side? And how many times Render and Brown were down
field getting blocks at the 2nd and 3rd level of the defense?
With Brown, Render and the rest of line leading the way for Branden Ore, the
Tech running game now has an identity, with the ability not only to carry the
load, but to open things up more on the outside for Sean Glennon and the
playmakers at wide receiver.
o Speaking of Duane Brown, he made two plays that exemplified effort
and showed off his athleticism. On Glennon’s fumble, Brown made a
touchdown-saving tackle against Clemson’s super DE Gaines Adams. He followed
that up in the 3rd quarter by getting down in punt coverage to make the tackle
on the speedy C.J. Spiller after a short return. This after playing every snap
at offensive tackle. Players pick up on that type of effort.
o Biggest sequence of the game, in my opinion, was the Hokies’
first touchdown drive. The offense immediately answered Clemson’s scoring
drive with their own long scoring drive aided by Frank Beamer’s decision to
go for it on 4th down in minus territory. That drive sent a message to the
Clemson coaches and players – forget what you saw on film from those earlier
games…this offense is capable of putting the ball in the end zone. It also
sent a message to the Tech defense – we’ve got your back.
o Branden Ore’s quickness and jump cuts are fun to watch, but
beyond that he is fast becoming the complete back. He is running tough,
breaking tackles, and always falling forward after contact. He gets stronger
as the game develops – a trait that is extremely important for a back that
is asked to carry the load. He also has improved each week in pass
protections, stepping up and having something for those blitzing linebackers.
It is fun to watch a great player become great before our eyes.
o One key for the Tech defense was stopping Clemson on 3rd downs.
Clemson converted four 3rd downs for the entire game – and two of those came
on their lone touchdown drive. They didn’t convert another 3rd down until
the final minute of third quarter when the score was already 24-7.
o Once again, I want to point out how well Brandon Flowers and
Noland Burchette are playing on defense. Flowers continues to demonstrate
textbook technique at boundary corner, both against the run and the pass.
Burchette is the leader of the front four, both by his play on the field and
by his actions in the locker room.
Next up, the Orange Bowl and the Miami Hurricanes. Nothing much more needs to
be said. The Hurricanes dominated the Hokies a year ago in Lane Stadium, so even
though Miami is having a “down” season, the Tech players know what they are
The Hokies have a lot going for them – momentum, confidence, and the
ability to get things done on both sides of the ball. As always, Miami’s speed
will be a challenge.
For those traveling to Miami, be safe and have fun! It should be another good
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