Think back on Virginia Tech’s win over North Carolina on Saturday. Two plays — one on either side of the ball — should come to mind quicker than the rest.
On offense, it was the big connection: Logan Thomas standing tall from the midst of his own end zone to find Willie Byrn for 83-yards. On defense it was Kyle Fuller stepping in front and intercepting Marquise Williams’ attempt to convert on fourth down.
On those plays, like most, it’s the players on the field that determine a play’s success, but it’s a product of the coaches behind the scenes that put them in a position to do so.
Last season the Hokies took nine snaps on first or second down from inside their own five-yard line. Eight of the nine were designed running plays; the lone exception was a third quarter against Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Backed against danger for the first time as the Hokies’ play caller, first-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler decided to take a more aggressive approach, putting Thomas’ back against the wall and the ball in the air. The gamble paid off to the tune of the seventh-longest play in school history.
“I was actually very surprised by the call, but I know how (Loeffler) is,” Thomas said. “He was ready to attack.”
Byrn too was caught off guard by Loeffler’s risky call.
“I was shocked that he called that. It ended up working well,” he said. “That was a great call. Great throw by Logan. That’s it. If he keeps making those masterful play calls then we’ll be pretty dangerous.”
With momentum even further in the Hokies’ corner, they struck pay dirt just three plays later, extending the lead to 13.
The responsibility then shifted, as it has all year once the Hokies have gained a lead, to their stout defense.
Early in the fourth quarter the Tar Heels were threatening what was at the time a 10-point Hokies lead. Facing a fourth-and-one from Tech’s 33-yard line, UNC substituted late in the play clock, opting to bring their big set on the field for the short-yardage attempt. Hokies head coach Frank Beamer, noticing the obvious mismatch, called the Hokies’ second time out.
It is at times like these throughout the season when Hokies’ defensive coordinator Bud Foster separates himself from his colleagues around the country.
“It was huge. It was actually kind of funny — I guess I keep patting Coach Foster on the back — but before the play he was like ‘Watch the pop pass,’” linebacker Jack Tyler said. “And we all knew it was coming because they ran that same formation against us last year and ran a power play. We figured they’d probably try a pop pass off of it. We were kind of prepared for it and Kyle made a great play.”
Tar Heels quarterback Marquise Williams faked that same power play from a year ago, but this time, pulled it away from his tailback in an attempt to connect with his tight end Eric Ebron. Fuller, aware of the situation, was in perfect position to make a play.
“Coach Foster, Coach (Charley) Wiles, they did a very good job of getting us prepared,” Fuller said. “We just have to be the guys out there making sure we’re keying our reads. They have run the ball in that situation so you know they’re liable to pass it. If you’re reading your key you’ll be good on your play. “
Had Loeffler’s gamble not paid off, had Thomas been taken down from the blindside pressure for a safety, fingers would have been pointed at the coach’s box before the quarterback’s rear hit the turf. But Loeffler, fully aware of his players’ abilities and the defense’s tendencies, was rewarded with a big gain.
Foster, who Tyler seems to call the best in the business at least twice a day, had in-depth knowledge not only of what the Tar Heels had tried in the past, but how they might try to alter it to catch the Hokies off-guard. Like always — or at least what seems like always — Foster was one step
Coordinators often receive the lion’s share of criticism when the wheels fall off the wagon — and sometimes rightfully so. Rarely though, when the wheels stay firmly attached and the wagon enjoys a smooth ride, do those pointing fingers turn into thumbs up.