For the second-straight week, Virginia Tech's rushing attack was a disaster that seemed to have no in-game solution. Those run game issues constantly had the Hokies behind the chains trying to play catch up which they never could leading to a time of possession disparity of 16 minutes that helped Purdue wear down the VT defense and beat the Hokies 24-17.
Originally, this was going to be part of my offensive takeaways, but this seems like a discussion to stand along rather than be included in that. So let's dive in.
There's a fatal flaw that this rushing attack has, Virginia Tech's offensive line is not good enough to be the type of offense that Tyler Bowen and Brent Pry want the Hokies to be.
Even with a 2:1 disparity between pass and run against Purdue, the Hokies still ran the ball too much between the tackles on their way to averaging a measly 2.3 yards per carry on 19 non-sack runs. That gets even worse when you look at the fact that 27 of the 43 non-sack rushing yards came on two carries, a 14-yard carry in the first half from Bhayshul Tuten and a 13-yard QB draw on Tech's final offensive possession by Kyron Drones.
Bhayshul Tuten barely had any space to run tonight on his way to having 4 rushing yards on 8 carries. Yes, he had 4 rushing yards on 8 carries with 14 of those coming on one and the other 7 totaling -10 rushing yards. This being the same guy who had a 30-yard touchdown on a swing pass, another 15-yard reception, and 2 kick returns for 64 yards making plenty of guys miss when he actually had space rather than multiple Boilermaker defenders on top of him.
We saw Tech try to work around their run game issues against ODU and do so effectively using screens and HB swing passes at least 5 times to four different plays in Tuten, Malachi Thomas, Jaylin Lane, and Da'Wain Lofton all involved. Those plays consistently got to 4-6 yards at least against ODU. Then in the first half of this game, Tech scored a 30-yard touchdown on a fourth down swing pass to Tuten.
With the run game struggling, you would think Tech would evolve and lean on some of those plays even with Lane banged up in the fourth quarter. Instead, the "perimeter run" that has been way more effective than actual runs went into witness protection. Some may bring up Grant Wells' inaccuracy as a big reason for hesitancy, but Wells was pretty consistent on hitting underneath throws throughout this game including the swing pass to Tuten.
It felt like Tech got stubborn at times trying to force the interior run game to work when the reality is that the Hokies don't have the offensive line right now to be the smashmouth football team that Pry and Bowen want to be offensively. That doesn't mean I don't think guys like Xavier Chaplin, Braelin Moore, and others have the potential to grow into that because I absolutely think that they can. However, they just aren't ready to be that right now at the level that Tech needs to execute that preferred offensive method.
There are two hard fixes that this offensive line needs: experience for the young guys including in practice and transfer portal additions to fill the gap. The harsh reality for everyone is the fact that these things won't be fixed overnight or this season.
I'd hope and expect to see some growth that leads to more flashes of potential as the season progresses for this offensive line, but the full development to consistent competency will most likely not turn fruitful till 2024. Meanwhile, there's no portal additions coming through to Blacksburg till after this season either to state the obvious.
So this leaves Brent Pry and Tyler Bowen with a question of pride and humility. Do you stick with forcing a smashmouth football identity that you may want long term down a team that doesn't have the pieces to do that right now, or do you adjust to maximize what this offense can be?
How do you maximize the offense in 2023? By embracing the "perimeter run" game via screens and HB swing passes that have worked consistently when used this season and then running QB draws off of it. By the way, we've seen some of Tech's best between-the-tackles running success come off of QB draws with QBs having more 10+ yard carries than RBs through 2 weeks. Use those QB draws and some HB delays to drive your between-the-tackles running plays off of those perimeter runs and you may just be able to patchwork a decent enough running game to control time of possession better, open up the pass game more, and have a fresher defense in the fourth quarter.
There's no reason why Tech can't adjust what they do in-game this season while still building around that smashmouth identity. We already see that with how they structure their practice to emphasize the type of competitive environment that you need to be that type of football team. That wouldn't change just because your offensive approach for this season changes. Being adaptable is part of being mentally tough because you recognize your weaknesses and adapt to maximize what you do.
Pry and Bowen have a choice of pride vs pragmatism at this point. Choose pride and you won't maximize your offense. Choose pragmatism and this team still could reasonably reach a bowl game in 2023 as seems like a reasonable goal for this season.
We'll find out their decision over the coming weeks with a pair of important road games at Rutgers and Marshall looming.