Good defense is generally a given for Virginia Tech. But even when one quarter of the Buckeye quarterback's completed passes are to the wrong team, winning a game in Ohio State's Horseshoe is still a major task.
Virginia Tech made a statement by taking down the No. 8 Buckeyes. It demonstrated the winning formula Hokie fans have been missing for a long time. Frank Beamer hasn't had an effective offense since 2010, when Tyrod Taylor manned the QB position before bequeathing the role to Logan Thomas. Now the Logan Thomas era has ended, and the Hokies' offensive struggles might have finally resolved.
New quarterback Michael Brewer and the Tech offense weren't brilliant against Ohio State, averaging only 4.2 yards per play. But they converted nine of 17 third downs and made the most of favorable field position when the defense set them up for success. They also accomplished these feats on the road against a talented defense with a top-tier defensive line.
So how did Beamer's Hokies suddenly reach this level of offensive football competence?
Where the new pieces came from
The man in charge of the Tech offense is Scot Loeffler. He was banished to Blacksburg after a horrendous, one-year stint in Auburn, where he tried to run a pro-style offense with players recruited for Gus Malzahn's spread.
Before these events, Loeffler was the next big pro-style thing. The man has a graduate degree from the University of Michigan in history and political science. He boasts Tom Brady, Chad Henne, Tim Tebow, and Brian Griese as his pupils. With his smarts, football acumen, and teaching skills, he was supposed to be a can't-miss.
Then Loeffler inherited Thomas and held back a fantastic Hokie defense in an 8-5 season. Thomas threw 13 interceptions in 2013, and the Virginia Tech offense was woeful in most situations. But heading into 2014, Loeffler's offensive roster changed.
First, the Hokies got back tight end Ryan Malleck, who'd missed the 2013 season due to a shoulder injury. The 6'5, 242-pound target is a big part of the Virginia Tech attack, with 104 receiving yards over the course of two games. Next, they saw 6'6, 244-pound athlete Bucky Hodges come off a redshirt season and provide the potential for Loeffler to run some two-TE formations, of the variety that Brady made famous in the NFL.
And finally, Virginia Tech found itself a quarterback.
Michael Brewer was expected to be the starter for Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech in 2013, but a back injury put him on the bench. Baker Mayfield and ultimately Davis Webb seized the job. Then, having graduated with a bachelor's degree, Brewer intended to transfer to TCU or Texas, where he could potentially start immediately. But he was denied by Kingsbury and Big 12 transfer rules.
So, Loeffler's tutelage and the Hokie depth chart ended up being the most appealing option. Virginia Tech found a valuable piece.
Brewer's background includes replacing Garrett Gilbert at Lake Travis High School (which replaced him with Mayfield) before learning under Kingsbury, resulting in years of experience in hurry-up spread passing offenses, reading the field, and throwing the ball around. While some analysts will complain about lack of under-center footwork from such players, the experience gained from distributing in these spread systems is helpful for transitioning into a pro-style game.
The future of pro-style offense
With these weapons in place, Loeffler has the opportunity to unleash the full weight of the modern pro-style offense on the ACC. It has a few notable characteristics that make it effective.
To begin with, while the Hokies use some pro-style personnel groupings, they are a hurry-up offense. They take advantage of having versatile players like Hodges, Malleck, and fullback Sam Rogers to line up in a variety of different formations without having to huddle or substitute between snaps.
Here are just a few of the looks that the Hokies show with this personnel:
In this formation, the Hokies have both tight ends flexed out to the boundary with the fullback, Rogers, replacing their tailbacks and offset Brewer. They can run jet sweeps by sending a receiver like Deon Newsome behind the fullback and tight ends, or they can have a solid, six-man protection scheme while sending four receivers into patterns.
Here's an empty set with a tight end split wide. Malleck has become deadly running routes over the middle, and Hodges shows great potential as well.
Here is modern college football's favorite formation, a pistol or shotgun alignment with an H-back who can be a lead blocker or run a passing pattern.
The fullback can pass block and run routes, with five catches and a touchdown against Ohio State. The tight ends are true dual-threat players who can block, run routes, and catch the ball. Hodges, who has two touchdowns in 10 touches, even lines up as quarterback in a wildcat package, which they can run at tempo by flexing Brewer out at receiver. Virginia Tech can threaten defenses in so many ways with one group of players.
Next are Loeffler's tactics. Although the offensive line is made up of upperclassmen, they aren't particularly great at run blockin, so the run game isn't capable of carrying the offense against a defense as athletic as Ohio State's.
However, they can execute ball-control tactics with their passing game, thanks to having pro-style personnel flexed out in spread alignments. First there's the obvious advantage of having big bodies on the perimeter for running screens or rub plays:
The defense can be made particularly vulnerable to these plays, due to the advantage of having big targets in the middle of the field or outside the hash marks, all for the QB to use to attack in the intermediate game:
There are dozens of ways that an offense can utilize tight ends. Loeffler is embracing them all with Hodges and Malleck. He has split Hodges wide for Brewer to throw a deep fade route, ran both TEs on "smash" routes or down the seam, moved them around to offer mobile leverage to operate the sweep-heavy run game, and given them major roles in the ball-control quick passing game.
Chris Ash's new Buckeye defense is a base quarters defense relying on team speed to rally to the ball. Here's how that quarters coverage lined up against some of Virginia Tech's spread alignments:
Against empty sets or four-receiver formations with a running back in the backfield, Ash's crew was willing to leave only five defenders in the box and rely on sideline-to-sideline speed at linebacker and downhill fills by the safety to clean up against the run.
That was enough to hold Virginia Tech to only three yards per carry, so the Hokies were left to attack the linebackers' leverage in coverage with some quick-hitting spacing routes over the middle.
In this concept, the inside receivers attack the linebackers by threatening them with a potential mesh over the middle before breaking back outside and forcing them to turn and run. Good eye control and accuracy from the quarterback on these plays, combined with quick-cutting inside receivers, makes this an easy way to pick up yards after the catch.
The Buckeye linebackers handled these plays well, but the combination of Brewer's savvy and the quickness of players like receiver Willie Byrn and the tight ends make this a defense-challenging third down option for the Hokies.
While he was once a rising star in the coaching world, the last two years have been a wilderness for Loeffler. But now he has entered into the promised land of coaching opportunities. He has a gritty, polished quarterback who can handle both an NFL ball-control passing game as well as quick tempo. Scott has found a strong cast of skill players that includes nightmare matchups like his friend Brady once had in New England. And of course, Loeffler has the support of Bud Foster's always-strong Hokie defense.
He now has the components to use pro-style tactics as they're used in New England, Denver, or Green Bay: hurry-up spread offense with pro-style personnel. Don't be surprised if this combination does some damage in the ACC and puts Loeffler back on the map as an up-and-coming coaching star.