The last marquee match up of opening weekend kicks off Monday night in Blacksburg when Ohio State tries to avenge last season’s loss to Virginia Tech. After last season’s surprising upset both teams’ seasons moved in opposite directions. The Buckeyes ran the table, won the Big Ten and then the national championship. Virginia Tech lost to East Carolina and finished the regular season 6-6.
The oddsmakers don’t think a repeat is likely. Ohio State is favored by somewhere around 14 points, depending on which sports book you are looking at. Even considering the Ohio State suspensions, including all-everything defensive end Joey Bosa, the odds are long for the Hokies.
Last season’s upset came on the back of the Virginia Tech defense. The defense held the Buckeyes to 21 points and had the pick 6 at the end of the game to ice the win. If Virginia Tech is going to stay in the game again, they will need a similar defensive effort.
Double Eagle Defense
Last year the Hokies moved into a double eagle front frequently, and it was effective in stopping the Ohio State interior running game. The double eagle is a defensive formation where the nose guard plays over the center and each defensive tackle plays over each guard. It is sometimes called a TNT defense because when it is diagramed, ‘TNT’ is spelled out because of the close proximity of the tackle, nose and tackle.
The idea behind the Double Eagle is to stop the interior running game. The presence of three concentrated defensive lineman leaps, and because of their formation, there are often one on one match ups. Last season the defense was successful from the formation, but more than just the formation they were very talented on the defensive front. The same defensive linemen are back, and the same front probably will be as well.
Spreading the Field
The offense that Urban Meyer and Ohio State run is called the spread for two reasons. The main reason is that the base formation of the offense is a shotgun with receivers spread to both sides of the field. A secondary reason is that spreading the defense out and using the entire field is the bedrock philopsophy of the offense.
The Double Eagle bunches defensive linemen inside, but it also leaves linebackers available to help outside. With the middle of the offense closed off by the defensive linemen lined up there, the linebackers are free to flow quickly and aggressively to the outside to defend the run. Last season Virginia Tech’s linebackers (and secondary) were very aggressive in attacking the run on the edges.
Defending the Pass
The double eagle defense isn’t very common because it has some weaknesses. One place where it is weak is against the pass. In obvious passing downs, Virginia Tech rarely ran the double eagle, and it seems unlikely they’ll change that much this year. Typically they moved the defensive lineman from opposite the guards to outside the tackles.
The Hokies played a lot of man coverage last year and depended on their secondary to be able to cover, especially their corners, who were often left on islands. They were very effective in coverage and aided by some drops by Ohio State’s receivers. Tech will almost certainly rely on them again. If Ohio State can burn the corners, they can break the defense, but the corner backs are good, so it can hardly be assumed they be constantly beaten.
Most of the time during last season’s game, Virginia Tech had three down linemen rushing the passer, one safety deep and three or four defenders in man coverage. What did they do with the other linebackers who weren’t in coverage? They blitzed them. Those blitzes were devastating and produced 7 sacks on the night. They brought pressure from inside and out and ruined Barrett’s night.
Don’t expect the blitzes, if they come as frequently this season, to be as effective. Both JT Barrett and Cardale Jones are more experienced than Barrett was last season and will likely be able to handle the blitz better. urban Meyer will have hot routes and audibles installed as well.
Steve Addazio, Urban Meyer’s offensive line coach at Florida, has spoken publicly about how to handle the Double Eagle defense. His prescription is to option one of the tackles. Instead of worrying about blocking all three, interior lineman, double team the nose, block the tackle on the backside and option the play side player.
Last year Ohio State did this at least once, but they didn’t do it very often. On the diagram from above, Barrett made the wrong read, and the play went for no gain. The Buckeyes did run some speed option at the outside linebacker, and had success, including Ezekiel Elliott’s game tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. The option, in multiple variations, is an area where OSU can exploit the Virginia Tech attack.
Can Virginia Tech do it again with the double eagle defense? They have returning talent at the right positions. Their corners and safeties are experienced, and the entire defensive line is back. They should be able to run the defense as well or better than they did last year.
On the other side Ohio State appears to be a better team than they were at the beginning of last season. They improved throughout the season, and were inarguably great in the playoff. They have two capable quarterbacks who aren’t likely to take 7 sacks. The Buckeyes also have seen the offense and will definitely have plays in place to attack it.
Expect to see a version of the midline option run against the Double Eagle, and some screens and slants will probably be part of the passing game. Virginia Tech played well last year and made some of their own breaks. They will need some more this year, if they plan to win, but it should be fun to watch.