Inside the Numbers: Analyzing the Resurgence of the Virginia Tech Offense
It is no secret that Virginia Tech has built one of the most dynamic offenses in all of college football. Led by transfer running back and dark horse Heisman candidate Khalil Herbert, the Hokies have revitalized their rushing attack to the tune of nearly 300 yards on the ground and 42 points per game this season. Junior quarterback Hendon Hooker, now entrenched as the starter, has been aided by an offensive line that has graded out as one of the best in the country, complemented by star wideouts James Mitchell and Tayvion Robinson. This unit is shaping up to be the best that head coach Justin Fuente has had since he came to Blacksburg in 2016.
What’s been the key to the Hokies’ success, and how good can they be in the future? The numbers paint a very telling picture.
Revitalized Run Game
Over the last two years, Virginia Tech has been a run-first team. In 2019, the Hokies ran the ball on 61% of their plays, the 11th-highest mark in the FBS. This year, Tech is running the ball even more: 64% of the time, a rate higher than all but five teams, four of which feature the triple option offense. The difference in 2020 is the incredible efficiency at which Tech is running the football.
(Note: all of the stats presented include games only against FBS competition)
Just how impressive is that turnaround? From 2010 to 2019, only four FBS teams increased their yards per rush by at least two yards from one season to the next. The greatest improvement was by Illinois in 2018, who rushed for 2.34 yards more on average than in the previous season. This year, the Hokies have improved their per-play rushing attack by 2.65 yards, well above that benchmark. Of course, the sample size is small, and Virginia Tech will face several stout defensive fronts such as Pitt, Miami, and Clemson that should bring that figure down. But the marked turnaround from the “Vice Squad” is still something to behold.
Of course, averages can be misleading, as they are sometimes distorted by big plays. If you run the ball for 25 yards on one play, then two yards the next, and one yard the next, your average might look good, but you aren’t being efficient. To see how often the Hokies’ offensive line is doing their job, we can look at a stat called Opportunity Rate, courtesy of Football Outsiders. This is simply the percentage of runs that gain at least four yards, when four yards are available. Virginia Tech grades out well in this metric, too.
Part of the Hokies’ struggles on the offensive line last year could be attributed to youth. Doug Nester, Luke Tenuta, and Bryan Hudson all saw significant playing time as freshmen in 2019. Hudson even had to play center (which was not his natural position) after an early-season injury to junior Zachariah Hoyt. Three other primary starters—Christian Darrisaw, Silas Dzansi, and Lecitus Smith—were sophomores, albeit ones with high promise. In college sports, progression from one season to the next is usually incremental, as it takes young players several years to mature physically and get up to the speed of the college game. One way to bypass that incremental growth is through the addition of transfers, and the Virginia Tech coaching staff has certainly used the transfer portal to their advantage. Over the past two years, the Hokies added center Brock Hoffman from Coastal Carolina and running backs Khalil Herbert from Kansas and Raheem Blackshear from Rutgers. The development of talented players such as Darrisaw, Nester, and Tenuta, combined with the leadership of Hoffman and explosiveness of Herbert, have created a perfect recipe for the Hokies to cook up one of the best rushing attacks in America.
Speaking of Khalil Herbert: how good has he been? The answer is very. The senior from Fort Lauderdale, Florida leads the nation in rushing yards per game and is second nationally in yards per rush. The Hokies have not had a qualified running back finish in the top 100 in yards per rush since David Wilson did so in 2011. Wilson finished 46th that year; Herbert is currently second, and has done so only against Power 5 competition. He has not had any East Carolinas or Appalachian States to beef up his numbers, but is still lighting up the stat sheet.
Efficiency Through the Air
What about the passing game? Despite the consternation of some fans, Tech’s passing game has been quite efficient in 2020. As mentioned previously, the Hokies did not throw the ball much in 2019. They also did not complete very many of their passes, but when they did complete passes, they tended to go for big gains.
This year has turned out no differently. Led by their two-headed quarterback rotation of Hendon Hooker and Braxton Burmeister (with a little bit of Quincy Patterson II sprinkled in), Virginia Tech is completing only half of their passes as a team, but they are averaging a staggering 16.5 yards per completion, good for fourth in the FBS. Factor in the lack of turnovers (Tech has thrown an interception only once in three games, when Burmeister was picked off on a wobbly pass in the first half of the Duke game), and the Hokies grade out well in adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), which takes into account passing yards, touchdowns, and interceptions on a per-throw basis.
There’s a reason people associate Justin Fuente with being a quarterback whisperer: the man knows how to get the most out of his quarterbacks, as he’s consistently produced efficient passing attacks even with limited talent at times. Of course, context matters: a big reason why Tech has such gaudy per-attempt passing numbers is because they are generally very selective about when they throw the ball. If you watch the Hokies play, you can see the philosophy of Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen in action. Tech utilizes lots of deception in the passing game, including throwback screens, bubble screens, passes off play action, and even some trickery, such as Tayvion Robinson’s throw to Hooker on a reverse late in the fourth quarter against North Carolina. There isn’t much of a traditional drop back passing game where the quarterback sits back in the pocket and dissects defenses. The Hokies run the ball a lot, and when you aren’t great at running, your numbers are going to suffer. But for the first time in Fuente’s tenure at Tech, the running attack is superb, and combined with the stellar passing numbers, it's no surprise that the Hokies have scored 128 points in just three games.
How good can this offense be?
We know how good Virginia Tech’s offense has been. The question is: how good can it be? To answer this, I looked at historical comparisons over the last ten years to see where teams with offenses statistically as good or better than the Hokies to this point in the season ended up. I used Bill Connelly’s SP+ model as a reference point. The SP+ system, in Connelly’s words, is a “tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency.” It strips luck out of the equation and attempts to paint an accurate picture of how good a football team truly is. There are various models you could use, but SP+ is generally considered one of the better football ranking systems out there.
In their first three games of the season, Virginia Tech has scored at least 38 points, all against Power 5 teams. In the last ten years, only 18 other Power Five teams have done that. Last season, only LSU, Alabama, and Oklahoma—two of the four College Football Playoff teams—accomplished that feat. Sounds like pretty good company. How did those 18 teams end up performing? Below is a table of each of those teams, along with their end-of-season offensive SP+ ranking.
(Note: the 2016 TCU and 2013 Michigan teams also accomplished this feat, but they needed multiple overtimes to reach 38 points. For the purpose of this analysis, they are not included in this table. They finished ranked 38th and 53rd, respectively, in SP+ offense.)
In summary, 13 of the 18 teams listed finished ranked in the top five in offensive SP+. All but two finished in the top 11. For what it’s worth, the 2013 Oregon State team needed 13 turnovers by their oppositions’ offenses to help them score that much; in 2020, Tech has been gifted only three turnovers, one of the lowest figures in the country. Otherwise, the 2016 Ohio State team, ranked 32nd in offensive SP+, is the only true outlier in this group. I also looked at teams with similar points per game and yards per play numbers as the Hokies, and the average offensive SP+ ranking was generally around the 9-11 range. (For those curious, Tech currently ranks 28th in offensive SP+, though at this point in the season the preseason projections still carry a significant weight, so it’s highly probable the Hokies are being underrated.)
In short, there is absolutely nothing fluky about how well the Virginia Tech offense has performed so far. Not since the days of David Wilson and Ryan Williams have the Hokies had this much talent in the running back room. Combined with the talent and depth of the offensive line, the playmakers at wideout, and a talented signal-caller in Hooker, it is not a stretch to say that we might be looking at a top ten offense nationally by season’s end. The defense is still a work in progress, but this offense will put up points on just about everyone they play.