Pitt Review: Virginia Tech Outcoaches Panthers

Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech put on a coaching clinic on Saturday against Pitt. (Ivan Morozov)

Many good things came together for Virginia Tech on Saturday. Most important was that the Hokies were ready in all three phases of the game. The coaches had solid plans, and the players executed them with precision and discipline. Even the o-line managed to step up its performance; while I imagine Coach Vice’s context-free scores from Atlanta are comparable to the ones Tech’s blockers managed against Pitt, the competition they faced on Saturday was a tremendous step up. Bryan Hudson gets a big round of applause for holding down the middle on pass plays, and Austin Cannon and Christian Darrisaw did well, too. And it seemed like Tech’s corners and safeties knew the routes better than anyone on the offense.

Next was Pitt. The offense wasn’t ready to play, and the defense gaffed on things it shouldn’t have. For the offense, some of that was the weather. While Tech’s running game isn’t ideal for bad weather—north/south running is a little safer—it was certainly better-suited than Pitt’s offense, a pass-heavy scheme with an iffy QB and drop-prone receivers. The Pitt skill players were ready to have the worst day of catching in the history of modern football. When I compared them to UNC, I think I insulted the Heels. And unlike the Heels, they rarely got open. Let’s start with how Coach Cornelsen and crew hatched up a plan to crack the Pitt defense.

Lateral Stress is the Best

Hokie fans are used to seeing the 4-2 defensive norm where the ends crash on the running back against spread-option plays. 4-3 Over defenses like Pitt’s are more likely to have those ends coming upfield for the QB. Off the top of my head, Miami might’ve been the last Over front like this that Tech played, having gone through a stretch of 4-2 teams after them.

Pitt has good DEs, with Patrick Jones II (#91) being a speedster presenting special problems. On one snap, Keene turned in to pin him on a sweep play, but Jones breezed by untouched. On mesh options, DEs with that kind of speed can break the option read by being fast enough to tackle either QB or RB, or even break up the mesh. The Hokies had some ideas about how to handle that, though, including one tweak introduced on the opening snap:

Ryan Willis has been Tech’s best guy for running toss-based options, but here Hooker’s picking up the baton, and in lousy weather no less. A defensive end might be able to close on either of two guys meshing, but he won’t be able to do that on a toss call. You can see how Jones II is held up here, and since Pitt’s DEs were often wired to the back, i.e., tracking the running back out of the backfield, they were doubly stressed by the toss action.

It worked against more than just ends, though:

Here, the play-side end (Alexandre, #5) is in what this MSU-flavor of the Over calls a “jam” technique. Alexandre is aligned tighter inside than usual, which presents the tight end with having to block a two-way go. The DE is responsible for the C-gap in this call, and he rushes it hard, but you see him hesitate when Hooker fakes the toss. That buys Hooker a second. It also draws attention to McClease on the wheel, while drawing attention away from Keene as he slips out for the swing. I thought for a bit the toss-action might’ve been fakes, but late in the game, Hooker gave the ball for a moderate gain, and watching plays again you can see how he’s reading the DE.

But it was more than just