Inside the Numbers: The Struggle to Score
It’s no secret that Virginia Tech’s offense has struggled this year. The scoring averages (23.5 points per game, 99th) and yardage totals (331.5 yards per game, 112th) tell us this well enough. The advanced metrics like SP+ (41st in offense) and FEI (55th) are a little bit more generous to the Hokies, but this is largely because preseason projections still hold considerable weight in their formulae. As the season progresses, and Tech distances itself from its high-powered run game of 2020, those numbers seem doomed to fall, unless substantial improvements are made in the coming weeks.
At times, Virginia Tech has flat out struggled to move the ball downfield. On other occasions, they’ve moved the ball, but haven’t finished drives (see West Virginia). This is not an offense that can afford to waste redzone possessions—they don’t possess the explosiveness to score quickly when they need to. What’s the solution? The easy answer is to play better, but it’s helpful to know which areas are in need of improvement.
Today, I’ll detail the specific areas in which Tech’s offense is struggling the most and why, incorporating the advanced numbers as always.
I used to be of the opinion that offensive lines were almost exclusively responsible for the success of the running game. Having seen the impact that star backs like Khalil Herbert can have, and having looked deeper into the numbers, I no longer feel this way. Both lineman and backs have a symbiotic relationship in the ground game, but that relationship isn’t as one-sided as some may think. Thankfully, we have analytics to better isolate the impact of individual performers.
Last year, North Carolina ranked fourth nationally in yards per rush. Running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter had a lot to do with this. Actually, Williams and Carter had almost everything to do with this. When I looked at the PFF grades for UNC’s offensive line, I was shocked at how pedestrian they were. Among 675 linemen with at least 250 snaps, the Heels did not have a single one grade in the top 200 nationally. Two linemen (tackle Asim Richards and center Brian Anderson) were among the nation’s lowest-graded. Collectively, North Carolina graded out as the 81st-best run blocking unit in the FBS.
Like a well-done baked potato, I’ll always take PFF’s numbers with a grain of salt. But you get the big picture: explosive running backs make a huge difference, irrespective of the quality of the O-Line. Williams and Carter ranked first and fourth, respectively, in overall grade for running backs. Despite the struggles up front, they each had 41 explosive plays, most in the country.
The degree to which the UNC running game has taken a step back in many ways mirrors that of Virginia Tech. Herbert ran for 7.6 yards per attempt last year, but it wasn’t just to the O-Line’s credit. His elusiveness and vision were remarkable. I was always so impressed with Herbert’s ability to turn a negative-two yard rush into a one-yard gain, or a three-yard gain into a six-yard gain. Football is a game of inches, and these plays add up over the course of 60 minutes. Herbert picked up so much yardage simply because of his ability to anticipate where the holes were going to open up, to say nothing of his elusiveness after getting to the second level.
To that end, there are some ways to measure how well running backs can generate positive yardage on their own. PFF has a stat called “Elusive Rating” which takes into account forced missed tackles and yards after contact (YAC). To no surprise, Williams finished second in this metric last year, with Carter and Herbert clocking in at 13th and 14th, respectively.
YAC is a really good barometer for how well a back can self-create yards. Travis Etienne, Jonathan Taylor, and D’Andre Swift were all YAC-machines, and each has carved out a nice role in the NFL. Unfortunately, the Hokies have been struggling mightily in this department since Fuente’s arrival to Blacksburg, save for the 2020 campaign spearheaded by Herbert.
Initially I included runs by all players in my data, but I changed it to include only halfbacks and fullbacks to specifically isolate their performance. That made the differences even more glaring: Tech moved up 16 spots in 2020 after that change, and all the non-Herbert years got worse.
The offensive line has a responsibility to open up holes, but running backs have to find them and then make defenders miss at the second level. Tech’s inability to do this has proven to be a massive limiting factor in the success of the offense.
Offensive Line Woes
With all that said, football games have been and always will be won at the line of scrimmage. Virginia Tech’s offensive line has notably regressed since last year. Such regression was to be expected following the departure of Christian Darrisaw, but perhaps not by this much. They’ve gone from 16th in PFF pass blocking to 34th, and 22nd in run blocking to a staggering 62nd.
Brock Hoffman in particular has struggled mightily, especially in the running game. Right tackle Silas Dzansi, the Hokies’ top performer per PFF, was injured against West Virginia and his timetable for return is uncertain. The loss of Dzansi has caused headache-inducing shuffling along the offensive line. Against Richmond, Lecitus Smith was moved from left guard to left tackle, with Hoffman sliding to left guard, Luke Tenuta moving to right tackle, and Johnny Jordan penciled in at center. The impetus for this maneuvering was the struggles of Tyrell Smith, who committed multiple false start penalties against the Mountaineers in relief of Dzansi. Hoffman then came in for Smith, and promptly gave up two sacks. The Hokies’ lack of depth at the tackle position is rearing its ugly head sooner than anticipated.
Over the last two games, the offensive line has really struggled to generate a push off the ball. This was certainly true against WVU, which might be the best defense Tech will face all season. In today’s age of zone blocking, line success is not so much dependent on raw physical strength as it is on communication and understanding your assignments. I thought Kaden Moore struggled in the run game last Saturday; he seemed to be slow off the snap and looked lost in space. Virginia Tech pulls their guards frequently, and those guards have to be quick in getting to their block, otherwise the whole play will blow up.
A good example of this would be the failed throwback screen in the first quarter. Cornelsen will dial up this play every so often, and it usually gets big chunk yardage if executed properly.
Hoffman is pulling to block the defensive end on the right side, which would give Burmeister space to roll out to the right and throw back to Blackshear, who had a convoy of blockers. However, Hoffman is late getting there, forcing Burmeister to sidestep the oncoming DE, which provides the unblocked end on the left side enough time to deliver a brutal hit and get the sack. In fairness, this is a tough play for Hoffman because of how quickly the right DE bursted off the line of scrimmage. Hoffman probably could’ve been quicker off the snap and taken a better angle (tight end Nick Gallo also could have helped instead of cutting upfield), but I suspect the Hokies were anticipating the DE would sit reading the play-action. It’s unfortunate because this play might have been a touchdown, depending on how the downfield blocking materialized, especially since Richmond blitzed the corner covering Robinson. Alas, the stars did not align.
Fans frequently gripe about play calling, but oftentimes bad execution can make even the greatest play call look bad. In the clip below, we see Braxton Burmeister throw a tunnel screen to Tayvion Robinson.
It looks poorly designed because the safety who made the tackle was unblocked, but Tyrell Smith is responsible for making that block. He should have bumped the defensive end and quickly released to take out the safety, but instead got flat-footed and was slow to get to his man. Had he done so, Robinson likely gets the first down and perhaps much more. This was a third-and-4, midway through the third quarter at a time when Tech desperately needed a score to get back in the game. They failed to convert, and the drive stalled. It was fairly emblematic of the entire game: little mistakes make a big difference.
Astute observers have lamented the lack of intermediate, over-the-middle throws in Virginia Tech’s passing game. The stats would suggest their concerns are valid.
PFF categorizes throws based on direction and distance. To the dismay of many, Tech’s passing attack is frequently horizontal: the Hokies rank fourth nationally in the highest percentage of passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage (29 percent). The idea behind this is that by stretching defenses horizontally you can more easily get the ball in space to athletes who can make plays, and it also helps neutralize the disadvantage an offense faces if they are physically outmatched in the trenches.
Throwing sideline-to-sideline might seem like an overly conservative strategy, especially when the plays don’t work, but consider that the horizontal passing game has been a staple of Alabama’s passing attack for several years now. The Crimson Tide have ranked top five nationally in behind-the-LOS targets for three of the past six years, and it’s safe to say that Nick Saban knows a thing or two about offense. The difference, of course, is that Alabama has incredibly fast receivers who can get past (well-executed) blocks more quickly. The Hokies have some speed, but not a ton. (I would call Turner and Robinson shifty before I’d call them fast.)
Even so, Justin Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen could do a lot more to work over the middle. PFF divides passing distances into four categories:
- Behind the line of scrimmage
- Short (1-9 yards downfield)
- Intermediate (10-19 yards downfield)
- Deep (20+ yards downfield)
...in addition to the directional categories, which are either left, right, or center. Using this layout, I defined “over-the-middle” (OTM) throws as those which are either short or intermediate (1-19 yards) and in the center of the field (i.e. between the numbers). Add ‘em all up and you will see that Virginia Tech almost never utilizes this portion of the field in comparison to their peers.
From 2017 to 2019, around a third of Tech’s passing targets were OTM, but that figure has fallen precipitously since last year, now plummeting to a Fuente-era-low 21.7 percent through four games. The Hokies did make a concerted effort to throw OTM a bit more against Richmond, as we saw some slants and hitches to Kaleb Smith and Tayvion Robinson against zone coverage, but they were still few and far between.
It should be noted that there is no single formula for success when it comes to directional passing. A lot of it simply has to do with schematic preferences and personnel. If cornerbacks get beat deep, offenses will throw deep. If corners sit back and play soft zone, you will throw short and to the sidelines. As I mentioned earlier, Alabama’s passing attack is disproportionately horizontal; Oklahoma tends to be more medium and deep, as does North Carolina; Mike Leach’s air raid at Washington State was short and horizontal, with over half of all passes in the middle of the field. There are many ways to design throws, all of which can be effective given adequate talent, but cutting off a third of the field (and in particular, short throws, which the staff has consistently shied away from) is probably not the ideal strategy given the lack of high-end speed in the wide receiver room.
There isn’t a whole lot working right now with Tech’s offense, but I do think some of the issues are correctable. The players have made a lot of mental mistakes, and perhaps the coaches have not always put them in the right position to succeed. I believe a large part of the reason that college football is so unpredictable week-to-week is that success in football boils down to tiny details: every play call is dependent on timing, followed up by execution. After a tough game, you go back to the drawing board and identify what those issues are, and fix them in practice. Those plays add up throughout the course of a game, and the results then follow.
Virginia Tech needs to utilize the bye week to first get healthy, and then identify which starting unit on the offensive line will give them the best chance for success. They have to strategically rethink the passing game and find ways to get the ball to their playmakers downfield. There is talent on the field, it just needs to be refined.