In an era of surging offense in college football, long-time Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer and his tried and true methods wouldn’t strike you as someone to get caught up in all the newfangled schemes.
But when he looks at this week’s opponent, Clemson, a team that won the ACC last year behind a fast-paced, spread offense that doesn’t abandon its running roots, he sees something he could get behind.
“I like what Clemson does,” Beamer said.
For the Hokies to have a chance to win at Clemson this week, they’ll need to score plenty of points. The Tigers are averaging 41.3 points per game and have scored 37 or more in five of their six games this year.
Virginia Tech, which despite its struggles has seen its scoring average rise from 27.9 points per game in 2011 to 30.7 points a game this year, has been trying to make its offense more dynamic, although quarterbacks coach and play-caller Mike O’Cain said the offseason tweaks to the scheme weren’t a direct response to what Clemson has done.
“It’s something that we’ve been talking about a couple years, changing the tempo and doing a lot of no-huddle stuff,” he said. “Doing a little bit more misdirection, faking things and handing the ball off. … The one thing that we did analyzing our offense, we felt like we needed more misdirection. We were too ‘this is where we’re going to go, line up and stop us’ kind of thing. We need a little bit more misdirection.”
That’s precisely what Clemson does so well. The Tigers can crank the pace when they need to and send players in different directions on the line to keep the defense on its heels. Beamer drew deep from his past to draw parallels, giving insight as to why he was amenable to the Hokies following suit with changes in their own scheme.
“Going back to high school playing against Narrows and Giles County, the Wing T offense and people crossing and counter motioning, I’ve always liked that,” he said. “And then I think what Clemson does … you’ve got that crossing motion going and now they’re throwing it down the field. A lot of the time they got three vertical guys on you … off of play-action. Then the next thing they’re doing is running an isolation at you. In other words, they’re running a power play. I like the offense and we’re working on doing some stuff like that right now. We’ve got to keep on getting better.”
Matching Clemson will be tough. The Tigers are thriving under second-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris and have weapons across the board, headlined by quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington, receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins and tight end Brandon Ford.
When he was searching for an offensive coordinator to lead the group after the 2010 season, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wanted one that could take full advantage of his personnel, spreading the field but still not abandoning the run. He’s been a big advocate for the rise of offense and the variety of schemes in college football, even butting heads recently with Alabama’s Nick Saban on the issue of up-tempo attacks.
“I mean, I’m sure when the forward pass came out, there were a lot of people then going, ‘Man, is this really what you want college football to be?’” Swinney said. “But what I think is great about college football is you have so much variety. It’s not the same every week. There are 120-something Division I teams.
“The NFL has got 32 teams. They recycle the coaches, they recycle the players, it’s basically the same thing. And that’s fine. That’s a different type of game. But in college football, you see everything. And people have to be creative, because sometimes you’re at a huge disadvantage from a talent standpoint. And it’s fun to see the creativity that you have in college football, in my opinion.”
Swinney thinks the surge in offense is part of a cycle and that defenses will counter eventually, but he noted that players have a much more advanced offensive skill set coming into college from high school, which is attributable to a few things.
“It’s not like when I was playing,” Swinney said. “I mean, everybody played football. We didn’t really have Internet, we didn’t have 50 million distractions. You didn’t have all that stuff. Now, these high school coaches, they’ve got to compete with lacrosse and golf and whatever. Fall baseball. It’s limitless the things that these high school coaches have to compete with to get players.
“And I think what’s happened is you’ve seen a transition and a change, guys who have tried to make it a little bit more fun. And they’ve had to keep people involved, so that they don’t just not play and play basketball, for example. Because basketball you can play year-round. Baseball you can play year-round. So the 7-on-7 and all that kind of stuff and being creative — I think they’ve been able to develop a lot of skill.”
As a result, scoring and offense is up in college football across the board. This year, 21 teams are scoring more than 40 points a game, with two — Oregon and Louisiana Tech — topping the 50-point barrier. As recently as 2009, only two teams averaged more than 40 points a game.
Sixteen teams are averaging more than 500 yards of offense at the midway point this year, two more than topped that number by the end of the season from 2009-11. (And yes, it’s entirely possible these numbers will come down a little bit now that teams are getting into conference play.)
“I guess that’s just the nature of the game now,” Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas said. “People are going more to a spread where they’re throwing it around and trying to speed it up. That’s the way it’s going to go It’s not going to stop now. It’s just going to keep going higher and higher as the years go on.”
Many do it by spreading the field, getting their athletes in space and forcing defenses to guard large swaths of the field instead of the just the line of scrimmage.
Clemson does that particularly well and can score in bunches (witness the third quarter of last year’s ACC title game), which creates issues for the Hokies.
Virginia Tech’s best chance to win will be to control the ball as long as it can, but the Hokies’ offense this year has been its best when scoring on big plays. Four of their touchdowns against Duke were 42 yards or longer. Two of their scoring drives lasted one play.
“I think the less time they have the ball, the better,” Beamer said. “I think that’s the game we’ve got to play. We’ve got to move the football and get points ourselves.”