First rule of college football: beware those 5th year senior QB’s. When they
get hot, they can make it very tough on the best of defenses. And that was a
tough one. Play enough games and something that shocking and completely
unexpected is certain to happen along the way. For the Hokies and their fans, it
brought back memories of that last-second heartbreaker up at the Carrier Dome
nine years ago. Somehow, this one hurt more. It was one of those miracle
finishes that will keep the highlight reels busy for many weeks to come. After
dominating the #2 Boston College Eagles for 56 minutes, the Hokies saw it all
slip away on the soggy, rain-soaked turf of Lane Stadium, thanks to an amazing
home-stretch performance by BC’s 5th year senior QB Matt Ryan.
Can I just end it there and move on to Georgia Tech? I’m sure a lot of fans
would like to, but there is that lingering desire to know how BC was able to
pull off the miracle. As painful as it may be, we all want to know more.
Deep breath … let’s do it.
Obviously, most of this analysis will focus on the last four minutes
(actually, I’m going to start that part of the analysis a couple of minutes
earlier, but those last four minutes will get plenty of attention). What
happened? What changed? Is there anything that should have done differently? We
will get into all of that and a lot more, but let’s start with this:
Offense Teases But Cannot Deliver
In his "Monday Thoughts," Will described the Hokie offense as one
big "almost." With one simple word, Will captured the essence of the
problem. Unfortunately, this is not a game of horseshoes or hand grenades, so
"almost" doesn’t cut it.
The margin of error for this offense is so small that any single issue is
likely to derail the entire operation. This offense cannot withstand a single
injury to its starting offensive line, it cannot succeed with a banged-up
starting tailback, it cannot convert a key first down without perfect execution
on both ends of the pass, and it has little chance of overcoming a penalty of
any kind at any time.
But this is football. There will be injuries. There will be penalties. There
will be inexperience at some positions. There will be disrupted pass routes and
less-than-perfect passes. Good offenses deliver in spite of those things. Over
the course of the last two seasons, the Tech offense has been unable to overcome
those issues on a consistent basis.
Early on, it looked like it might be different on Thursday night. With the
rain coming down in sheets, the Hokie offense embarked on its longest scoring
drive of the year — an impressive 16 play, 91 yard classic that concluded with
a controversial TD pass from Sean Glennon to Eddie Royal. The running game was
clicking, the passing game was clicking, the offense was in a rhythm, and they
were playing with tempo and confidence.
Then Ryan Shuman goes down with an injury and the operation loses its
momentum. Bad snaps, missed blocks, protection breakdowns, and penalties offset
big runs by Branden Ore and big pass plays by Sean Glennon and Eddie Royal.
Except for the field goal in the 3rd quarter, the offense was unable to take
advantage of other promising drives, missing several opportunities to put the
One such opportunity came just before halftime. With 2:05 on the clock and
all the momentum firmly on Tech’s side, Branden Ore broke through the defense
for 34 yards down to the BC 41 yard line. The Tech offense had a terrific
opportunity to put more points on the board with its 2-minute offense. They had
two timeouts and there was 1:57 on the clock.
But then those issues came back to bite them once again. A solid first down
pass to Justin Harper was nullified by a head-scratching block in the back
penalty by Duane Brown (seniors are not supposed to make that type of mistake).
Then there was a protection breakdown and a sack. Suddenly, the Hokies are on
the other side of the 50 again, facing 2nd and 22 with less than a minute on the
clock. Another pass to Harper yielded very little yardage and Frank Beamer
decided to shut it down for the half.
What? The Hokies were at midfield and still had one timeout left. Why not try
a Hail Mary? Why not try a 15 yard route that would give Jud Dunlevy a shot at a
long field goal?
In my opinion, Frank Beamer was frustrated at that point. A very promising
drive had gone backwards in the blink of an eye. He had another new center (Beau
Warren) in the game and the protections needed some adjustments. A new, very
inexperienced center is a big deal for an offense that is constantly teetering
on the edge.
Was he too conservative? Was he making decisions based on fear? Perhaps, but
to me, it was the first clear sign that Frank Beamer does not have confidence in
his offensive operation. He knows better than anyone that this offense has
little room for error. Even after breaking off a big run just four plays
earlier, he was not confident that the offense, at that time, in
that situation, had a good chance of being successful.
To me, that decision before halftime spoke volumes.
Two More Chances to Seal the Deal
Fast forward to the beginning of the 4th quarter. With a 10-0 lead, everyone
in maroon and orange was feeling pretty good about things, but we all had the
same thought in our minds — get it in the end zone one more time and this one
With 10:48 left in the game, the offense started a very promising drive from
the Tech 22 yard line. The running game was reminiscent of years past with the
offensive line firing off the ball and Branden Ore hitting holes and breaking
tackles. Greg Boone made a big catch, and Ore broke off another couple of nice
runs. The offense was running the clock and resetting the chains.
At around the 7:30 mark, Ore made a nice cutback run on first down for a six
yard gain. Evidently, he was dinged up on the play, but he went to the sideline
late. Remember when I said that this operation has very little margin for error?
Kenny Lewis subbed for Ore, but it’s easy to see that the offense was out of
synch. The huddle broke late, Lewis had to get the protection call a second
time, and suddenly the play clock is running down. Glennon noticed it and
hurried his cadence to get the snap. Beau Warren’s inexperience resulted in a
bad snap and a loss of 10 yards. 2nd and 4 became 3rd and 14 — that’s a mile
and half for this offense. But instead of burning the clock, the Hokies took a
shot deep to Eddie Royal into the teeth of double coverage.
That’s a play call that I expect Bryan Stinespring would like to have back,
because that route had little chance of success against that coverage. In
hindsight, would he have run the ball there to milk more of the clock? I’m not
sure. It’s seems clear to me that the offense was determined to get more points
on the board to try put the game away. It’s one of the strange and puzzling
aspects about the current state of the Tech offense. Accused of being too
conservative, the recent evidence paints an entirely different picture. The
offense seems to be most aggressive when conservative play is most warranted.
Another case in point — the next drive. After a DJ Parker interception, the
Hokie offense was back in business at the BC 31 yard line. Lewis gained four
yards on a productive first down run. However, on second down, Lewis took the
play wide and lost two yards. He needed to run it tough up inside, but his
tendency to break everything outside cost the team yardage. With 4:29 to go, it
was 3rd and 8 at the BC 29. The Hokies called a timeout to discuss what to do.
Again, the staff made an aggressive decision. They chose not to burn the
clock, and instead decided to go with a pass play. In my opinion, I think the
coaches simply out-smarted themselves this time. They figured BC would set-up to
defend the run and they were right. BC aligned in an 8-man front with man-free
coverage down the field. Eddie Royal was isolated in single coverage outside
against CB DeJuan Tribble.
Rewind to the Duke game. Remember when the offense got Royal isolated outside
with a single safety in the middle of the field? The Hokies scored a TD on the
post-corner route from Glennon to Royal.
They went with the same play against BC. Except this time, Royal’s route was
disrupted and Glennon’s pass sailed out of bounds. Either Tribble chucked Royal
coming out of the break, or Royal slipped when making his double move.
Good play call or bad play call? Given the situation, I would say bad play
call. Although the offense got what they wanted in terms of BC’s defensive
alignment, that type of play requires precise execution to be successful,
especially for this offense. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that it would have
been better just to line it up, run the ball and burn some clock, but it gets
back to the mentality of this staff when facing those either/or decisions.
Again, they chose an aggressive path and it didn’t work out.
Two excellent opportunities to put the game away, but the offense was unable
to score on either drive.
A pooch kick by Dunlevy backed up BC to the eight yard line. With 4:16 to go
and holding a 10-0 lead, the Hokies still felt pretty good about things.
The next time the offense snapped the ball, there was 0:11 seconds on the
clock and BC had the lead 14-10.
Defensive Game Plan
This one was a real beauty. The plan was to take away everything that BC
wanted to do, get Matt Ryan on the move and force him to throw the ball down the
field. And it worked perfectly for 56 minutes.
BC’s offense was built on keeping Matt Ryan in the pocket, utilizing a screen
and short passing attack to counter aggressive, blitzing defenses. Expecting to
see Bud Foster’s gang bringing a variety of man and zone blitzes, the BC coaches
came into the game expecting to get excellent results from all of their favorite
Bud Foster and his staff had other ideas. Instead of bringing additional
pressure with blitzes, the plan was to get pressure exclusively from the
defensive line, using a series of twists and stunts that had never before been
used by a Bud Foster defense. Using similar concepts that other teams use with
their "Leo" hybrid position, the Hokies used a roving DE to either
stunt-rush one of several gaps, drop out into an underneath zone coverage, or
shadow a BC RB or TE releasing out of the backfield.
The idea was to confuse BC’s offensive line, shoot a gap with a stunting
defensive lineman, and use speed and quickness to get Ryan on the move. By using
a variety of 3-man and 4-man rushes, the BC protections were compromised and
Ryan was unable to get comfortable in the pocket.
Hoping to counter with their vaunted screen game, BC discovered that the
Hokie defense was a step ahead of that as well. Reading their keys perfectly,
the Tech defensive front sensed the screens coming and countered by knocking the
BC offensive linemen off their feet before they could release, and then sliding
one of the defensive linemen out on the intended receiver (usually RB Andre
Callender). BC’s screen game was never able to get untracked.
When Ryan wanted to go short to his WR’s on crossing routes, he discovered
the defense in a 3-5-3 alignment with that stand-up DE dropping out into a short
zone. When he wanted to go down the seam, he saw something else that was a
little different — Tech’s 3-deep zone matching up on the TE and slot receiver.
When he tried to pass out of run-tendency formations, he found an 8-man front
with Tech’s corners matched up in man coverage outside, and the Whip and Rover
matched up in man coverage on the two TE’s.
Befuddled and confused, the BC offense sputtered, with Matt Ryan having one
of his worst performances of the year. He was harassed, chased, and sacked by a
relentless Hokie defensive line. When on the move, his passes lacked zip and
accuracy — just what the Hokies wanted.
Nail in the Coffin?
I have to admit, I thought the game was over with DJ Parker’s interception.
That was such a classic bait job that I thought there was no way Matt Ryan was
going to come back from it.
For the entire game, Parker had been matching up on the BC slot receiver out
of the 3-deep zone look. On this play, BC ran the slot receiver into the flat
expecting Parker to either follow him there or drop back into a deep safety
position. Instead, Parker jumped the slant route by the wide receiver and was in
perfect position for the easy pick.
It was about as good as it gets. The Tech defense was firing on all
cylinders, while the BC offense was firing blanks.
And then…suddenly…the 5th year senior QB found his game again.
The Last Four Minutes
The crowd was in a frenzy. The energy on the field was off the charts. The
defense was shutting out the #2 team in the nation and their Heisman candidate
BC had zero momentum. Their defense had held after the Parker interception,
but they had been unable to establish anything all night on offense and they
were 92 yards way, down 10-0, with only 4:16 left on the clock.
Somehow, Matt Ryan was able to dig down and find something that nobody knew
he had (including his own coaching staff).
It started innocently enough with a 25 yard pass play from Ryan to WR Brandon
Robinson. Robinson made a very tough catch between Cam Martin and Macho Harris,
turning his body at the last second to find the ball and make the play. With the
ball now positioned on the opposite hash, BC ran a similar play to the other
side of the field, again hitting Robinson for 22 yards in front of Harris. On
both of those plays, Harris was in the standard 3-deep coverage that had been
effective throughout the game. But he wasn’t as aggressive in matching-up on the
receiver once the ball was in the air. That opened up the window. Ryan’s passes
were on target and Robinson made the play. Ryan went after Harris again on the
next play, but Macho was more aggressive and the pass went incomplete.
For the only time on the last two drives, Ryan was able to get a big gain on
the check down to his TE Ryan Purvis releasing out of the backfield. Brett
Warren dropped out into a deep LB zone instead of matching up on Purvis on the
release. On subsequent plays, Warren read the TE release and matched up
correctly to take that check down option away.
The Hokies were rushing four and getting decent pressure on Ryan, but Ryan
had suddenly found his stroke, his receivers were making tough catches and the
BC offense was able to take advantage of breakdowns in the Tech coverage. In
less than two minutes, the BC offense was in striking distance.
After scrambling for a first down and two incomplete passes, BC had a 3rd and
10 at the Tech 16 yard line. Looking at a 4-man rush and man coverage on the
outside, Ryan made a picture perfect pass on the corner route to WR Rich Gunnell.
Again, the target was Macho Harris. The coverage was good, but the pass and
catch were better. BC was on the scoreboard, but still trailed 10-7.
A lot has already been said about the on-side kick and the play by Josh
Morgan. In those situations, the front line players are coached to either make
an aggressive play on the ball, or let it go through to the next level,
depending on how hard the ball is kicked and at what angle (ie, was it bounced
high of the ground or was it skipped along the turf?). On that particular kick,
it would have been a better decision for Morgan to have let it go to the next
level. It was kicked fairly hard and without any height. Justin Harper and
Xavier Adibi were in position to make a play at the next level, and both had a
better angle on the ball (the ball was kicked directly at Morgan). Perhaps
Morgan was unable to get out of the way and had to make a play on the ball, but
it was a very tough play for him. The ball bounced off his shoulder pads and
that was that.
BC was back in business again.
The Last Drive
On the last drive, the Hokies mixed 3-man and 4-man pressures with a blitz,
trying to disrupt the rhythm of Matt Ryan and the BC offense. For the first time
in the game, BC started to use Callender to chip Chris Ellis before releasing
into the pass pattern. The zone blitz was unsuccessful, resulting in a 20 yard
gain for BC, again on a good pass from Ryan and a tough catch by Brandon
Robinson in front of Macho Harris.
With BC at the Tech 26, Ryan made another play that nobody thought he was
capable of making. The Hokies rushed four and got pressure on him quickly. Ryan
scrambled down, left, and then backwards 20 yards from the LOS before firing a
bullet on the run to WR Kevin Challenger on the right sideline for 11 yards and
a first down at the Tech 15 yard line. On the play, Brandon Flowers had
Challenger in tight man coverage, but the scramble drill opened up the sideline
on the comeback route.
Undaunted, the Tech DL got good pressure on Ryan again, but he was able to
buy time and throw the ball away. The VT DL was running all over the field, but
couldn’t get to Ryan on that last drive. A hold on 2nd down nullified a TD pass,
but Ryan did it again two plays later. On 3rd and 20, facing a defensive set
that he had seen several times during the game, Ryan scrambled to his left to
avoid pressure from Chris Ellis. The defensive alignment was again the 3-5-3,
with Orion Martin dropping out into an underneath zone coverage. That defense
had worked so well throughout the game, taking away everything BC wanted to do
with their short and midrange passing game.
However this time, Ryan made the better play. His scramble to the left hash
forced the defense to play run and pass. BC was three points down and a long run
by Ryan would have set up an easy FG attempt. When a QB scrambles to one side of
the field or the other, the defense is taught to roll its coverage to that half
of the field. Ryan’s movement did just that, with the backside of Tech’s defense
(Xavier Adibi and Brandon Flowers) matching up on receivers and rolling their
coverage towards Ryan’s scramble.
In the meantime, Andre Callender was making his move on the other side of the
field. Originally, he had stayed in to block (first time the entire game I
think) and he released very late — again, it was the scramble drill for him as
well as the rest of the eligible receivers. It reminded me of a play in the 2000
game between Tech and UVa when Michael Vick scrambled away from pressure to find
Lee Suggs with a TD pass. Suggs had stayed in to block, but had released down
the field late on the Vick scramble.
On this play, Callender released late, running to the end zone backside
behind Tech’s rolling coverage. Ryan somehow managed to find him and throw an
accurate pass with plenty of zip, across the field and across his body while on
the move. It was another play that nobody thought Ryan could make (and one he
didn’t come close to pulling off earlier in the game), but he found something in
those last four minutes and did several things that he had never shown before on
Was That A Prevent Defense?
No, semantics or otherwise, that was not a prevent defense. Maybe you buy
that and maybe you don’t. I know there are some that remain very skeptical about
what was going on at the end of the game.
So what is a prevent defense? And if that wasn’t a prevent, then surely the
defense must have changed something in order to for the game to take such a
What changed was BC’s offense and their ability to suddenly make some plays.
They went to the 2-minute offense, something that probably hasn’t been seen very
much on film. Instead of their offense looking to set up screens and drive the
field with the short passing game, they looked to throw the ball down the field
because they needed to bite off large chunks of yardage in a very short time.
Tech’s coaches were confident because their game plan was set-up to force BC
to do just that — throw the ball down the field with Ryan on the move. There
was no need to change anything — BC had to do exactly what the Tech defense
Unfortunately for the Hokies, getting Matt Ryan to throw while on the move
only worked for 56 minutes. For the last four minutes, Matt Ryan found the
ability to make several big plays while doing exactly what the Hokie defense
So, the net is that it was the same defense that the Hokies had played the
entire game. They mixed 3-man and 4-man rushes throughout the game. A lot of
people were critical about the 3-man rush on BC’s second TD pass, but that was
same defensive call that was used on the third play of the game, as well as that
key 4th and 15 play near the end of the first half.
Why not rush four to make sure there is more pressure on Ryan on that last
play? The Hokies had rushed four on every play on the previous drive, yet Ryan
and the BC offense was able to easily drive down the field for 92 yards and a TD
in two minutes.
Was it a soft zone? Not really. The coverages were mixed throughout the last
two drives. There was man coverage on the first TD pass, as well as on that
sideline pass to Challenger when Matt Ryan looked like a cross between Fran
Tarkenton and Dan Marino. There was a zone blitz and some 3-deep zones. In each
case, the DB drops were no deeper than they had been throughout the rest of the
game. As I mentioned above, some of those plays opened up because the defensive
back didn’t react as aggressively when the ball was in the air. But that was an
execution issue on one side of the coverage.
What did change was the depth of the LB drops. Again, that was normal because
the Hokies wanted Ryan to either (a) try to force the ball between the deeper LB’s
and the 3-deep at the third level or (b) check it down more often to the middle
of the field. Even with the deeper LB drops, Ryan was still able to zip several
passes behind the LB’s and in front of the DB’s.
In hindsight, would Bud Foster do anything differently? Now having seen Matt
Ryan make those kinds of plays while on the move, there is no doubt he would
change up a few things. One thing that comes to mind is to bring pressure that
gets him on the move, but contains him within the pocket. It’s obvious now that
he can make plays when he breaks containment and can move around at his own
discretion. Get his feet moving, but keep him bottled up within a contained area
of the field.
The other option? Actually play a prevent defense. That’s not normally found
in Bud Foster’s glossary on defense, but it is something he might consider
should the Hokies find themselves fortunate enough to see Matt Ryan and the
The primary objective of a prevent defense is to keep everything in front of
the defense and take away any chance at a big play. It is the concept of an
umbrella defense that funnels everything short and to the middle of the field.
Defend the sideline and the deeper passes to force the offense to take the
shorter option and burn the clock. It looks scary because there is a lot of open
space in front of a true prevent defense, and offenses tend to pile up yardage
as a result. But when it works, it chews up the clock, forces the offenses to
burn their timeouts and eliminates big play opportunities.
What the Hokies did the other night with their 3-man rush package was
confused for a prevent because the most visible element of the prevent defense
is the 3-man rush. However, the prevent alignment is generally a 3-4-4 or a
3-3-5, typically with five or six DB’s in the game.
It’s something for the Hokies to consider should they see BC again and a
similar late game situation arises. I’m not sure if Bud Foster has the personnel
for it this year with the youth and inexperience he has on the depth chart at
DB. But there is a lot of time between now and another crack at the Eagles. And
nobody breaks down film better than Bud Foster. And he now has plenty of film on
Matt Ryan and BC’s 2-minute offense.
It was a tough game to digest for sure. The Hokies rarely lose a game in that
fashion, especially how this program has been constructed over the years. In
looking at the bigger picture, this game further clarified the issues the Hokies
have on offense and the need to get better results out of that part of the
operation. The defense, as good as it is, cannot continue to carry that much of
Ok, that’s enough about BC. Let’s look ahead to the next one.
Next Up: Georgia Tech
This should be another low-scoring nail-biter, with both defenses expected to
dominate the game. Georgia Tech’s offense is dealing with some key injuries and
inconsistent play at the QB position while the Tech offense is…well…dealing
with pretty much the same issues.
Last year, the Hokies lost back-to-back games to Georgia Tech and BC, so it
seems clear that focus and motivation will not be an issue in Atlanta. The
Hokies primary goals are still out there for them to take, with the Coastal
Division crown and an ACC Championship game still completely in their control.
I hope to see you in Atlanta!
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