Virginia Tech has struggled to run the ball effectively for most of the 2017 season. For weeks, the Hokies’ rushing attack failed to gain yardage on a consistent basis and failed to generate explosive plays.
However, over the last two games, Virginia Tech’s ground game has steadily improved to the point that offensively, a ground and pound gameplan gives the Hokies their best chance to win.
“We’re working on it, and it’s been a work in progress with Nijman being down,” said offensive line coach Vance Vice. “It’s something we’ll continue to work on. The thing I’m satisfied with is the attention to detail guys are putting into it. That’s always our No. 1 objective each week, is to find a way to run it. The backs have done a tremendous job, and were just trying to be hard, smart and tough there, which allows us to run the football.”
Indeed, the success without left tackle Yosuah Nijman is surprising. Nijman, a junior, as been one of the Hokies’ most consistent linemen since he assumed the left tackle role in 2016. After his injury vs. Duke on Oct. 28, the Virginia Tech offensive line collapsed. Virginia Tech allowed six sacks over the next two games, and failed to rush for more than 105 yards against Miami or Georgia Tech. Unsurprisingly, the Hokies lost both of those games.
Tech turned the corner vs. Pittsburgh, rushing for 157 yards and averaging 3.9 yards per carry. The running game’s rebirth continued vs. Virginia, as the Hokies finished with 202 rushing yards.
Yes, Deshawn McClease and the return of Steven Peoples are due credit for Tech’s resurgence on the ground. But the offensive line has been the catalyst.
“I think maybe the left side took a little dip when (Nijman) was out a little bit, but I think now, they’ve kind of gotten into a groove,” said quarterback Josh Jackson. “I know the Virginia week, we rotated D’Andre [Plantin] and Parker [Osterloh], so I think that was good to keep them fresh maybe, but I think they’ve definitely been doing a lot better. Especially Virginia week, when we ran the ball very well.”
“I think we kind of just took a look in the mirror at ourselves,” said right tackle Kyle Chung. “We knew we had to step up because the run game was lacking a little bit there. So the last two games, we got together as a group and said, ‘Look, we need to get this together and start making stuff happen.’ The result came. I’m pretty happy about it.”
Better play from the left tackle position has helped. In Nijman’s place, the Hokies have relied on redshirt senior Parker Osterloh and redshirt sophomore D’Andre Plantin. Nov. 24 vs. Virginia was Plantin’s first real action in an important setting, and he didn’t disappoint.
“Plantin, honestly, came in and did what I asked him to do,” Vice said. “He wasn’t a hundred percent clean on missed assignments and stuff like that, but he came in to try and give us a physical presence. He is athletic, and with me, if you prove that you can do it, you usually get to play more. I’ll figure out how to do this Rubik’s Cube the closer we get.”
The Rubik’s Cube will become more difficult to solve on Dec. 28, when Virginia Tech takes on Oklahoma State in the Camping World Bowl. The Cowboys’ defense ranks 27th in FBS in rushing defense, and 23rd in rushing S&P+. First-Team All-Big 12 defensive lineman DeQuinton Osborne leads Oklahoma State’s defensive front with 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
Not only does Oklahoma State’s defense make it tough, their offense could put even more of a strain on Virginia Tech. The Cowboys run at an incredible pace, averaging 80 plays per game this season. Oklahoma State has run more than 80 plays six different times this season, and ran 90 plays vs. West Virginia, one of the two common opponents that the Cowboys and Virginia Tech shared in 2017.
To keep that pace from wearing down Virginia Tech’s depleted defense, the offense needs to maintain possession for as long as possible. Fortunately for the Hokies, they’ve been better at that in recent weeks, and held the ball for over 37 minutes vs. Virginia.
If the Hokies’ rushing attack can not only move the ball consistently, but chew up clock and keep Oklahoma State’s offense on the sideline, then it’ll be their best performance of the season.
“Whenever we can control the ball like we did the last couple games, that’s going to be an advantage for our team,” Chung said. “So, that’s always the goal. Every single game. Their offensive is very explosive, but if we stay on the field and help the defense out, then that’s what we’re going to do.”