Apologies on the delay here loyal readers. The plan is to have this out on Mondays but FedEx Field was so poorly managed that I was actually just now able to get out of the parking lot. Anyways, we forge ahead. Here’s a few things I think we learned about our team on Sunday.
We got ourselves a quarterback
It took him about a quarter and a half to get going (not unexpected), but Will Grier is going to be fantastic. This was his first game in almost two years and he dropped 371 yards and 3 touchdowns (as well as 52 yards on the ground) on a much-heralded Hokies defense. Those numbers are plenty impressive on their own, but even more impressive was how he did it. Grier made throws falling every which direction, and stood in there and took shots to deliver the ball when necessary. In my opinion that pocket presence was most obvious difference between he and Skyler: Will is able to keep his cool in the midst of all that chaos while Howard never looked entirely comfortable with pressure. He just looks so natural back there and instinctively knows when and where to move without taking his eyes off of his receivers downfield. The one thing he needs to work on is his deep ball accuracy (missed a couple of open guys downfield), but I'm confident that will come with time. Speaking of deep balls..
Sills and Jennings are fantastic, but..
We really missed Marcus Simms. It's hard to argue with the productivity (9/94/2 for Sills and 13/189/1 for Jennings) and Will clearly trusts those guys to get open and catch everything he throws at them, but it was painfully obvious that we were missing a true deep threat like Simms to soften Tech's defense up a bit.
I discussed it briefly in my Reggie Roberson piece last week, but it's impossible to overstate how important it is for us to have somebody who can fill that role. It was clear based on Virginia Tech's alignment that they didn’t really respect the speed of anybody we had out there. The good news here is that Simms’ legal troubles seem to be dissipating and he's expected to be out there against ECU this week, so we could get our first glimpses of WVU's final offensive form as early as this Saturday.
The offensive line will be just fine
One of the big question marks coming into the season was how the offensive line would look sans Orlosky for the first time in three years. We now have our answer: they're going to be just fine.
And maybe even considerably better than that. Matt Jones handled himself extremely well against a couple of giant humans, Yodney Cajuste looked fully healthy, and the rest of the gang (especially Kyle Bosch) performed as well as we could've hoped. We just stacked up 221 yards rushing and 6.3 yards per carry on the best defense we'll see until at least November, while limiting them to just 2 sacks and 5 TFL (well below their 2016 average). There's certainly room for improvement, but overall it was a very encouraging first game for our 2017 hogmalies.
The defense will be better than expected, but there are still too many mental mistakes
The other big question mark coming into 2017 was how the defense would look after having to manage high turnover for the second straight year. We have an answer for that, as well: not too bad. The defensive line battled an experienced Hokie front all night long, and the whole unit played with great toughness despite facing consistently crappy field position. Overall I thought we were actually very close to playing a great defensive game on Sunday, but unfortunately Tech was able to pounce on the few busted assignments we gave them. The two biggest came on Cam Phillips' 32-yard touchdown reception late in the 3rd quarter and Jackson's 46-yard keeper in the 4th.
Here's that first play:
From another angle:
We were in a standard Cover 3 look here, meaning the corners on both sides are responsible for the deep outside third of the field with the bandit and spur buzzing from the curl zone to the flats. Dravon recognizes the screen and reacts well, but unfortunately Battle had his eyes in the backfield and bit on Jackson's pump fake, allowing Phillips to run uncontested up the sideline for an easy pitch and catch TD. You can see on the replay how frustrated Dravon is, and understandably so, as in theory we had a defense called that should've taken this throw away.
The second was just as bad:
This is tough because it again looks like we had a decent defense called for the play Tech ran. Adam Shuler crashed inside leaving Brendan Ferns and Xavier Preston free to attack the gap he vacated, which ended up being exactly where Jackson ran it. The problem is that both of them (along with Toyous Avery and Dravon Askew-Henry) decided to chase the jet sweep and ignore the keeper, running themselves out of the play and leaving a massive crease for Jackson to run through. Credit to Fuente and OC Brad Cornelsen for repeatedly hitting us with that jet motion to set this up, but this is just poor discipline and play recognition from our guys. Aggression is nice, but option football is assignment football first; you can't have half of your team chasing one guy and expect anything other than what happened to happen.
Gibby will obviously use these both of these plays as teaching points for our young defense, but these are the kinds of mental mistakes that we have to eliminate if we're going to reach our team's considerable ceiling this year.
Special Screams are still an issue
It has to be said: despite Tech’s two missed field goals, the third phase played a massive role in the result of this game. Their punt team embarrassed the hell out of ours and had the Hokies on the right side of the field position battle all night long. It didn’t help that we finished the game with -3 punt return yards, allowed a big momentum-killing kick return, and failed to convert a 4th down chance in field goal range early in the game. For those of you who are wondering how we can roll up almost 600 yards of offense and only come away with 24 points, this is how, and it's the same stuff we dealt with for most of last year. If we don’t get it fixed it’ll bite us in the ass again in 2017.
Overall, I think we represented ourselves well. The offense looks like it has the potential to be one of the best in the country, and the defense should be above average, especially once we get David Long back. I don't know if we can win the conference, but after Sunday I think we can say confidently that we showed enough to keep Oklahoma and Oklahoma State looking over their respective shoulders. On to East Carolina.