Tennessee’s offensive line played poorly throughout its overtime win over Appalachian State. Its play holds the key to the Vols matchup with Virginia Tech on Saturday.
Tennessee’s “smashmouth-spread” offense is built on the run game. That rushing attack is heavily reliant on interior lineman and their movement; guards pulling and trapping to seal angle blocks and create creases, or generating combination blocks before climbing to block linebackers at the second level.
With the return of all three interior starters from a year ago – left guard Jashon Robertson, center Coleman Thomas, right guard Dylan Wiesman – the Vols appeared to be set at three of the most valuable positions on their roster.
Yet all three were flat-out awful in Week 1. Each of them at one point or another got bullied at the point of attack. And both guards looked lost whenever they were asked to pull or move in space.
Take this play early in the first quarter:
Wiesman, a senior guard, is pulling on the play. His job is to turn the corner and hit the first thing he sees, driving any defensive player towards to sideline and opening up a healthy crease. Wiesman appears lost in space, ducks his head, and flaps out an arm as his running back is forced to bounce the ball outside and is swamped by defenders.
Here is Wiesman again:
He fails to ID who he is supposed to block and ends up in No Man’s Land as he watches his running back get stuffed behind the line of scrimmage.
Some of those line issues can be attributed to the lack of a rushing threat from quarterback Josh Dobbs. Having a true running threat at quarterback gives the offense an extra man in the box and forces the defense to cover an extra gap. Traditionally a threat on designed running plays, Appalachian State limited Dobbs in Week 1 (9 carries, minus-4 yards).
What Appalachian State showed the SEC and the rest of college football is a blueprint on how to attack Tennessee: Deploy slanting defensive lineman and instruct linebackers to shoot gaps.
Appalachian State consistently asked its down lineman to crash down, moving their feet horizontally. This was in anticipation of Tennessee pulling one of its guards or to force a double-team. The Mountaineers then shot one of their linebackers through a voided gap in an attempt to force Tennessee’s running backs to bounce the ball outside where the defense would have a contain linebacker in wait.
And when they weren’t shooting linebackers through gaps they would slant their down linemen, split double-teams and allow the linebackers to drop and make plays.
Furthermore, the line was not just out-schemed; they were overwhelmed at the point of attack.
Below, Tennessee runs a basic stretch play and the entire interior of its line is pushed back off the ball.
Two lineman are beaten so badly that they are almost completely turned around as a pair of defensive lineman crash downfield.
That masterful performance should give Bud Foster and the Virginia Tech defense a good blueprint on how to disrupt Tennessee’s offense on Saturday.
Foster is one of the best defensive minds in the country. The Hokies replaced the legendary Frank Beamer with Justin Fuente this offseason, but Fuente did the smart thing and kept Foster in Blacksburg.
The most recent edition of his defense was designed specifically to stop Ohio State – a team who runs a similar power-spread offense to Tennessee. Regardless of whether he is utilizing a 3, 4, or 5-man front, Foster is looking to attack every gap along the offensive line and disrupt rushing concepts before they’ve had time to develop.
Most coaches now use a hybrid two-gap systems in order to defend against spread-option attacks. A mobile quarterback gives the offense an extra gap. Defenses will combat that by two-gapping three down linemen (five gaps) and having its linebackers roam around and find the ball carrier.
Foster runs some similar concepts. However, his defense is most effective in its “Bear” front: 5 down lineman and 2 linebackers, each responsible for one gap along the offensive line, who attack their individual gap. It’s designed to slow down run-first teams and force them to throw the ball down the field.
The package provides an extra defender against designed quarterback runs. And it removes combination blocks and angle-blocking concepts. Both are foundational elements of the Tennessee offense.
There is no denying that heading into the “Battle at Bristol,” Tennessee has more talent than Virginia Tech on both sides of the ball. But the game will be decided, aptly, by the war in the trenches.
Virginia Tech’s front is built to take advantage of Tennessee’s line. For the Vols to come out on top they need a major improvement from their interior linemen.