A “perfect storm” refers to a particular collection of circumstances and events that effect one another to create something extraordinary. In Hendon Hooker‘s case, the perfect storm resulted in his worst performance in a Virginia Tech uniform.
The storm has been brewing for several weeks. Hooker’s passing stats this season aren’t great — he’s completing less than 58 percent of his passes and is averaging just 7.7 yards per attempt, both far below the standard he set in 2019. Hooker was one of the most efficient passers in the conference last season, but he’s been little more than a passerby in 2020.
The flaws in Virginia Tech’s passing attack brewed quite the deluge. Saturday’s loss against Wake Forest was by far the worst the Hooker has looked, as evidenced by his three interceptions and 51.5 percent completion rate. The Hokies scored just 16 points, in large part because of Hooker’s inefficiences. But you need multiple factors when making the perfect storm.
What conditions created the cyclone that wrecked the Hokies’ offense vs. Wake Forest? I’m glad you asked.
A lack of vision
Hooker’s 2019 play was highlighted by his ability to make safe throws and move the offense efficiently. He took few risks, rarely put the ball in danger and scored a lot of points in the process.
He is making mistakes in 2020 that he didn’t make in 2019. Hooker has displayed some really poor decision making that has broken Virginia Tech’s offense at times.
The play below is just an example. Here, Virginia Tech has a tight doubles look on the right side with one receiver split out wide to the left. On the right side, Kaleb Smith runs a go route while Tayvion Robinson runs underneath on a crossing route.
The Hokies are working against man coverage here with a spy underneath and Robinson comes open on the crosser over top of the spy. Instead of taking the first down on third-and-10, Hooker throws it deep on the field-side go route by James Mitchell. Not only is the coverage terrific, but the over-the-top safety has plenty of time to make his way over. Mitchell has no chance to make a play and the pass is nearly picked off.
The next play could have resulted in a big completion had Hooker anticipated the throw. Virginia Tech has Mitchell in the slot here, matched up against a Cover 3 zone blitz with zone defenders underneath. The Hokies are nearly in max protect, keeping the running back and tight end in to block.
In these situations, you need your receivers to win downfield. Mitchell wins here, running a hitch-and-go up the seam. Mitchell beats the one-on-one matchup created and finds a hole short of the safety playing the deep middle. But Hooker throws this ball late and downfield, and the safety steps right in front of it for the interception.
In both of these situations, Hooker had potential completions. These plays instead resulted in an interception and a near-interception.
Failing to win on the outside
In 2017, Virginia Tech’s inability to win matchups with their receivers resulted in a deflating loss to Miami in primetime. That issue plagued the Hokies for the rest of the season and it’s rearing its ugly head once again.
Virginia Tech faces a third-and-goal below from Wake’s 11-yard-line, meaning there’s plenty of real estate to work with. Tech has three receivers to the right side and gets man coverage.
The Hokies run a switch concept — the outer receiver runs a slant while the middle receiver runs a wheel to the corner of the endzone. Robinson is the right read here, but he’s blanketed by the defensive back. Hooker has a tight window to fit this ball in and he misses.
The infamous interception before halftime is worth examining. Virginia Tech is attacking third-and-10 from the 15-yard-line with a four-receiver look. The goal is to clear out the underneath crossing route by Smith with three other vertical routes.
Wake Forest runs three spies on this play, as if scrambling with six seconds left in the half is an option. Anyway, the Hokies get another man-to-man look here with a safety over the deep middle. Hooker makes the right read, but the coverage is decent and the ball is off target slightly. The ball goes off Smith’s hands for a brutal and untimely interception.
This next play is an absolute mess. On third-and-10, Virginia Tech is driving and needs points. The Hokies are in a three-by-one package here and Wake Forest is running man-to-man with a two-deep shell.
The Hokies are running three crossing routes underneath here and all three receivers end up in the same part of the field. It’s a nightmare for Hooker — by the time Nick Gallo breaks free Hooker is already in the process of being sacked.
Things can improve
Not all is lost. Virginia Tech can weather this and improve enough to not limit the offense.
They showed signs of this in the Wake Forest game. On this play, Hooker showed proper anticipation and made the correct read.
Virginia Tech shows a spread look here with four receivers and runs a slant from the left slot. Gallo runs a curl, pulling his defender away from the middle of the field. Hooker lays this ball right on the numbers, resulting in a first down to Tre Turner.
Easy completions are available. Hooker earned one here with a quick read reminiscent of Josh Jackson and Cam Phillips.
Virginia Tech runs a play-action zone read, pulling the linebackers close to the line of scrimmage. Hooker has a one-on-one matchup on the boundary and fires an accurate quick-out to Robinson for a fresh set of downs. We haven’t seen the quick-out utilized very often and whenever the Hokies see off coverage, it should be an option.
Hooker has always been better in play-action. It simplifies the game and creates more space to throw into. Hooker’s best throw of the day came on a play-action pass.
Virginia Tech uses a sweep-action to attack Wake Forest’s defense. Robinson runs the sweep, sucking in the linebackers and the field-side safety. Turner is running a deep crossing route and with the cornerback giving cushion, he’s toasted with no help. Hooker makes the read, places the ball right on Turner and earns another first down.
In each of these three plays, we saw what the Hokies’ passing game can be. Hooker excels in the play-action and at times, shows the ability to throw accurately and with anticipation.
Brad Cornelsen must find ways to get his quarterback in more comfortable passing situations. Exploit the edges of the defense with out-breaking throws. Use play action to stress the opposing team’s safeties and linebackers to create open space. Tech’s receivers are who they are at this point and it’s on the offensive coaching staff to scheme open their guys when they struggle generating separation.
Virginia Tech’s offense needs better production through the air. It starts with a consistent ground game, something the Hokies have displayed throughout this season. But that must be paired with a balanced and efficient passing game, something we did not see against Wake Forest.