Inside the Numbers: What's Working and What Isn't for the Virginia Tech Offense
The Virginia Tech offense has undeniably been one of the best in the country in 2020. With an explosive rushing attack spearheaded by Khalil Herbert, a physically dominant offensive line led by draft darling Christian Darrisaw, and solid quarterback play from Hendon Hooker, Tech has put up more points than any offensive unit that Hokie fans have seen in a long time.
I predicted in my last article that Tech was on track to produce a top 10 offense nationally based on historical trends, given the way they had manhandled their competition. So far, that prediction has rung nearly true, as they own the 13th most efficient offense in the FBS according to the latest SP+ rankings. However, there is always room for improvement, and while the Hokies have been remarkably efficient on paper, they still sometimes struggle to execute situationally.
In this piece, I’ll be doing another deep dive analyzing the Virginia Tech offense: what’s working, what isn’t, and why. I will also try to explain why we’ve seen inconsistent performances throughout the season (particularly against Wake and Miami) and relay that to some larger themes I’ve noticed.
Let’s start with the good.
The running game as a whole has been spectacular. Tech is averaging 6.7 yards per rush, the highest mark by a Hokies squad since at least 1987 (and probably ever). They have the fourth-best rushing success rate in the FBS. They have the sixth-best opportunity rate (percentage of carries that gain at least four yards). These figures are more impressive when you consider the sheer volume at which Tech is running the ball—over 60 percent of their plays are runs. Even with a hobbled Khalil Herbert, the Hokies managed to average 5.6 yards per rush against a stout Miami defensive front last Saturday, thanks in part to the efforts of Jalen Holston, who netted 36 yards on four carries with two touchdowns against the Canes. Of course, it helps when you have big holes to run through; all five of Tech’s starting offensive linemen are graded in the top 50 at their respective positions according to Pro Football Focus.
There are still some areas in which the running game could be better. According to FEI, the Hokies rank just 86th in power success rate, which measures the percentage of successful runs on third and fourth downs with less than two yards to go. I suspect this could be due to other teams stacking the box and overplaying the run, given that the Hokies’ haven’t been super efficient in the passing game. (They also aren’t as effective running the ball in the red zone, where the field is shortened, so that would make sense). Tech was 17th in this statistic last year with mostly the same personnel, so it could just be a slight blip on the radar. Either way, it needs to improve.
The Hokies have been very good at moving the ball downfield. Almost 64 percent of their drives have reached the opposition’s forty-yard line, which is the 12th-highest mark nationally. They are averaging 4.6 points on such drives, which ranks 39th. That mark certainly could be better, but given how frequently Tech is getting into their opponents’ territory, I can’t complain too much. The Wake Forest game was the only instance where the Hokies couldn’t finish at all, and we saw how that turned out. Consistency is the key.
Virginia Tech is also scoring about 80 percent of the time in these inside-40 situations, which is in no small part due to the stellar leg of Brian Johnson—the senior kicker has not missed a field goal from under 40 yards in his last 32 tries, and has converted 13 of his 14 attempts from under 50 this season. For a guy who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn until November of last year, that’s a pretty remarkable turnaround.
But now we have to talk about the not-so-good. There isn’t much, but it’s enough to worry about, so I felt compelled to discuss it at length.
Converting Third Downs
Third-down conversion rate is a stat that gets thrown around a lot in football discussions, but it’s better to look at it as a byproduct of efficiency on earlier downs rather than as an isolated skill. Generally speaking, the shorter the third-down distance is, the easier it is to convert. In reality, however, the best way for an offense to convert third downs is simply by avoiding them: if you gain sufficient yardage on first and second down, you won’t find yourself in those precarious third-and-short/medium situations.
Just as an example, the 2018 Oklahoma Sooners, led by Kyler Murray, had arguably one of the greatest offensive units in modern college football history. They ranked 5th in the FBS in third-down conversion rate, but far more impressive was their number of attempts: only 15 percent of their plays were run on third down, the lowest mark in the last 11 years. When you gain big chunk plays in the early downs, there aren’t going to be many third downs that need converting.
How do the Hokies stack up in this category? Not great. They’re 84th in third-down conversions (36 percent), with an average third-down distance of 7.2 yards, ranking 75th. (They are also below average when it comes to avoiding such downs) Clearly, Tech putting themselves in third-and-long situations is not helping them. However, that’s not the sole issue: on third downs of three yards or less, the Hokies are a modest 42nd nationally, converting 67 percent of the time. But outside of three yards, things get rough.
Virginia Tech is woeful at converting third-and-medium situations, and third-and-longs are hardly better. The league-average conversion rate for third downs between four and six yards is 44 percent; Tech is converting those downs just 22 percent of the time (4-of-18), ahead of only four teams: Nebraska, Indiana, Mississippi State, and Wyoming, the latter two who do not even rank in the top 100 in offensive efficiency, according to the latest FEI ratings. For all the praise of star players like Hooker, Herbert, and James Mitchell, it is rather depressing to note that if a defense gets the Hokies into a third-down longer than three yards, they’ll turn them into Wyoming.
So the question is why? The first thing that stands out is that there are too many third-and-extremely-long situations: almost half of the time, Tech is facing a third down of at least 10 yards, where there is a very low probability of converting. Teams generally run the ball to get better field position on those third-and-forever downs, so I’m focused more on the passing game here. Virginia Tech is averaging 3.5 yards per dropback (including sacks) on all third downs longer than three yards. That’s not good, but here’s the real kicker: when the Hokies throw on 3rd down and less than 10, they are completing a staggering 33 percent of their passes (7-of-21). The national average is 58 percent. That just isn’t good enough. Many fans have been quick to criticize the scheme and situational playcalling of offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen; these numbers do not do him any favors.
Another problem is that Hooker doesn’t have a ton of time to throw in the pocket, which leads me to…
Virginia Tech’s offensive line, for all their successes in 2020, has not done a good job of protecting Hendon Hooker. The junior quarterback was sacked six times against Miami, bringing the team’s sack rate allowed to 8.8 percent, which ranks 98th out of 122 qualified teams. Granted, Miami has a stifling defensive line, but the numbers weren’t great coming into the game, either: Tech signal-callers have been sacked at least twice in five games this season, which isn’t good for a team that passes the ball less frequently than all but four FBS teams.
Unfortunately, this has been a consistent trend since Fuente and offensive line coach Vance Vice came to Blacksburg in 2016. The Hokies simply haven’t protected their quarterbacks well at all.
Pass blocking and run blocking are mostly two separate skills, as there’s virtually zero correlation between sack rates and rushing efficiency. Given how well Tech has run the ball, their pass protection struggles probably have less to do with talent and more to do with coaching and scheme. I looked at each sack from Saturday’s game, and these were my observations:
- Slow-developing routes combined with lack of receiver separation
- Hendon Hooker’s struggles with pocket awareness and misdiagnosing reads
- Right tackle Luke Tenuta getting consistently beat by Miami DE Jaelan Phillips
I do believe that these sacks cost Tech the game, given that the Hokies scored a total of three points on the six drives in which Hooker was sacked, but put up 21 on the seven in which he was not. We know that Virginia Tech struggles mightily to execute in obvious passing situations: they are seventh in the country in success rate on standard downs, but only 83rd on passing downs. Adjusted to league average, that’s the sixth-largest dropoff in the FBS. Because of that, sacks hurt Tech way more than the average team.
We saw this against Wake Forest several weeks ago: the Demon Deacons did an excellent job of stopping the run, which forced the Hokies into long second and third downs which they could not execute. Hooker was intercepted three times, and despite having eight drives that got inside Wake’s 40-yard line, Tech came away with just 16 points, by far their lowest scoring output of the year. Part of that may have been bad luck (such as the interception off the fingertips of wide receiver Kaleb Smith), but it stands to reason that when you don’t have any go-to receivers who can high-point the football (like a Damon Hazelton or Eric Kumah on an outside fade), your redzone numbers are going to suffer.
The unfortunate news for Hokie fans is that the competition doesn’t get any easier from here on out. Virginia Tech’s final three regular-season opponents—Pitt, Clemson, and Virginia—all rank top 12 nationally in sack rate, with Pitt getting to the quarterback at the second-highest rate in Division I. These defensive fronts are going to present big matchup problems, so Tech will have to scheme and execute much better than they did against Miami. You might see more short quick throws (slants, bubble screens, shallow crosses, etc.) just to get the ball out Hooker’s hands before the pass rush comes bearing down on him. They’ll have to rely on the run a lot more, which will be difficult in its own right given the way Pitt and Clemson in particular have shut down their opponents’ running game.
Woody Hayes, the legendary Ohio State football coach, was quoted as saying that when you throw a pass, three things can happen—a completion, an incompletion, or an interception—and two of them are bad. This does not make much sense as an offensive philosophy (unless you coached in the 1950s), but there is an element of truth to it in that an inefficient passing game can really put a team behind the sticks.
As a team, Virginia Tech is completing less than 60 percent of their passes, which puts them in the bottom half of the FBS. The per-attempt stats are better due to explosive plays (Tech is averaging almost 14 yards per completion), but their success rate on pass plays is 42 percent, which ranks 59th. I mentioned earlier how the Hokies find themselves in third-and-long more than most teams—this is despite the fact that their success rate on first and second down is 52 percent which is tied for eighth nationally. What gives? The main issue is that when Tech isn’t successful passing the ball, they are essentially getting nothing out of it: too many incompletions, and too many sacks. It's easy to see, then, why they struggle so much on third down.
Forty-yard bombs from Hendon Hooker to Tre Turner are great, but when you sandwich them between three or four incompletions, it makes it much more difficult to sustain drives. If the Hokies want to become a truly elite offense and avoid those letdown games like Wake and Miami, they need to be more efficient through the air.
If you are spending most of your time on social media complaining about the Virginia Tech offense, you probably need to stop. This group is really, really good, and Tech fans should be thankful for that. The offense just needs to make marginal improvements in the situational parts of the game—short-yardage, obvious passing situations, and in the red zone. Getting Khalil Herbert and James Mitchell back healthy and in the mix is a huge first step. In the meantime, the offensive line needs to do a better job of protecting Hooker, who in turn must improve his decision making in the pocket, while Fuente and Cornelsen have to do more to put the players in the right positions to succeed. Tech’s offense will put up points regardless, but they can’t become one-dimensional; we saw the end-result of that against Wake Forest. There will come times (as there already have) where the Hokies are put into uncomfortable situations and have to execute. As the season is nearing a close, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.