In the first quarter of the historic Battle at Bristol, the Tennessee Volunteers looked heavily overmatched. The Virginia Tech Hokies outgained the Vols 204-28 and jumped out to an early 14-0 lead.
With the future looking bleak, all it took was one play to get the momentum back on Tennessee’s side. After a fumbled snap by the Hokies was recovered by the Vols, quarterback Joshua Dobbs hit receiver Jauan Jennings on the very next play for a touchdown.
Now trailing 14-7, the Vols’ defense stepped up and forced a punt to the Tennessee 10 yard line. However, the Tennessee offense had yet to prove they could put together a scoring drive, and had 90 yards to go. This was the perfect time for the Hokies to get a stop, flip field position, and take back control of the game.
Instead, Dobbs and the Vols went on a 4 play, 90 yard scoring drive, tying the game at 14. The offense never looked back, and Tennessee ended up winning in a rout.
With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the drive that changed the game for the Vols.
The first play of the drive was a simple inside zone read out of a spread stack formation. “Spread” tells the offense that there are two receivers split wide to each side, while “stack” tells the receivers to line up with one behind the other.
On this play, Dobbs actually has four options. First, he can hand to Hurd on the inside zone. Second, he can keep himself if the backside defensive end crashes down on Hurd. Finally, on each side the Vols have a smoke screen. If the outside linebacker creeps into the box, Dobbs could throw the screen to either side.
On this snap, the defensive end stayed outside, while the Hokies covered both screen passes. As a result, Dobbs gave to Hurd.
Up front, Tennessee got more movement at the line of scrimmage than they had all game. Jack Jones, who had just entered the game at the right guard spot, worked with center Dylan Wiesman to execute a beautiful combo block on the defensive tackle. The two linemen moved the tackle four yards off the ball, and ended up shoving him right into the lap of a Hokie linebacker.
By getting a push up front and creating a new line of scrimmage, Jones and Wiesman allowed Hurd to get a head of steam moving downhill. This is exactly what Hurd, a 240 pound back, needs. Even though the line didn’t open up a hole, Hurd was able to power behind Jones for a 6 yard gain.
Two weeks ago, Vols Film Study took a look at the many ways Mike DeBord will use the counter play. Against Virginia Tech, DeBord unveiled a brand new version of the play, and that was what he called on the second snap of this drive.
You can read more about the counter play by reading the previous article, but the basic premise is this: Playside offensive linemen block down. Backside guard pulls to kick out the defensive end. H-Back/tight end pulls through the hole as the lead blocker.
On this play, DeBord went without a tight end and left four receivers on the field. Just like the previous play, the Vols had a run-pass option, with a smoke screen to each side.
But with no tight end, how can the Vols run counter? Simple. By using Jalen Hurd as the lead blocker and quarterback Joshua Dobbs as the ball carrier.
This creative play design serves to take advantage of some of the Vol players’ unique skillsets. Hurd, unlike most backs, has the size to be a lead blocker, while Dobbs, unlike many quarterbacks, is a threat on designed runs. The spread formation served to bring Virginia Tech defenders away from the ball and give Dobbs space to make a play.
Jones had another big block on this play, dominating the defensive tackle again, this time on a down block. Jones moved the tackle away from the play, opening up the running lane.
Left guard Jashon Robertson also made a big play. His job is to kick the defensive end outside, but here the end was stunting inside. Seeing that he no longer had the angle to make a kickout block, Robertson changed his path and simply wrapped around the end, sealing him inside.
Finally, Hurd was able to force the outside linebacker outside. The defender lost his footing and ended up on the ground.
The only downside of the play was a missed block by right tackle Brett Kendrick. The big right tackle was assigned to block the middle linebacker in space, and was no match for the linebacker’s quickness.
Fortunately, with an athlete like Dobbs in the backfield, the blocking doesn’t always have to be perfect. The line just has to give the runner a chance to make a play. And make a play Dobbs did. He gave the linebacker a quick stiff arm and easily broke free. Dobbs sprinted around the right edge and made it 40 yards downfield before he was finally shoved out of bounds.
On the third play of the series, DeBord went back to Hurd on the inside zone. Just like before, the line was unable to open up a hole. However, they were once again able to get a lot of movement up front. This time, left tackle Drew Richmond and Robertson had the big combo block, driving a defender five yards back. Hurd simply ran behind them for a 6 yard gain.
This is exactly what Butch Jones and DeBord want. Get movement at the point of attack and pound the ball with their bell cow running back. A 6 yard gain may not look like much, but do this over and over again and eventually the defense will be worn out and the 6 yard runs will turn into 20 yard runs.
On the fourth play of the series, Virginia Tech lined up with no safeties deep, anticipating another power run. After running the ball successfully three times in a row, DeBord decided to fake a run and take a shot downfield.
The Vols lined up with Jennings split wide right, with Josh Smith in the slot to the right. Josh Malone was aligned wide left. Smith came in “orbit” motion pre-snap, running behind Dobbs as if he was going to be the pitch man on a triple option.
At the snap, Dobbs faked a handoff to Alvin Kamara. Malone and Jennings both ran go routes.
One safety sprinted towards Smith, fearing a bubble screen, while the other safety, along with all three linebackers, stepped down towards Kamara. Dobbs immediately knew that he had one-on-one matchups with both of his receivers outside.
With the play design being to be thrown deep, the Vols used max protection. Both Kamara and tight end Jason Croom stayed in to block.
Dobbs soon launched a ball deep down the left side towards Malone, and the 6’3” receiver went over the smaller corner for a touchdown catch.
Malone has been a big playmaker for the Vols this year. After lacking a deep threat in 2015, Tennessee was looking for one of their receivers to step up in 2016. Malone has answered the call so far, and making catches like this one gives DeBord even more reason to take shots downfield going forward.
Overall, this drive was huge for the Vols. The ensuing extra point tied the score up at 14, and from this point on, Tennessee dominated the game. The Vols went on a 45-3 run, and ended up winning the game 45-24 after Virginia Tech scored a touchdown once the backups had entered the game.
This drive also illustrated a key factor in the Vols’ success. When the line plays well, the offense plays well. Hurd and Dobbs are both dangerous as runners, while Malone was proven his worth as a threat downfield.
In the first quarter of the game, the offensive line was unable to hold blocks long enough to give the talented skill players a chance. On this series, the line stepped up, and Tennessee easily scored. Jack Jones made a big impact coming off the bench, and Wiesman made a seamless transition to center. Is that a lineup the Vols will use going forward? I don’t know. But one way or the other, the success of this offense will be determined by the success of the offensive line.
Editor’s Note: Seth Price writes Vols Film Study weekly for FOX Sports Knoxville. You can see more of his work at Football Concepts. He is also the author of Fast and Furious: Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteer’s Offense, which is available on Amazon.com.