For the first half of play against the Tennessee Volunteers the Virginia Cavaliers’ offense struggled to establish any meaningful rhythm. The Wahoo running backs were being stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage on nearly every attempt, while Tony Muskett could hardly drop back without getting hit.
That was the reality of playing a team and a defense as physically gifted and talented as Tennessee. Virginia scored only three first half points, gained a mere 64 yards, and rushed for -9 yards (with two sacks from the Vols factored into that number).
But in the second half there was more life for the Wahoo offense. Something clicked. It wasn’t enough to mount a heroic comeback, but there was a noticeable shift in success rate for the offense, particularly on the ground.
After being out-gained 302-64 in the first half, UVA gained 137 yards relative to Tennessee’s 197 in the second. Part of that was a result of the Vols putting backups in and coasting with a big lead. Yet Virginia’s 104 yards on the ground in the final thirty minutes stood out as a point of optimism for the team and the offense. UVA gained 4.3 yards per carry in the second and scored 10 points including Perris Jones’ electric 17-yard score.
What changed? How did the offense and the rushing attack go from a net negative in the first half to carrying the ‘Hoos down the field on an eight play, 75-yard drive in the third quarter?
All it really took was a change in formation. After all but one of Virginia’s first half handoffs came out of shotgun, the ‘Hoos dominated on the ground by using the pistol formation (with the back set behind the quarterback in the shotgun) in the second half.
Overall, UVA handed the ball off 26 times for 112 yards (4.3 yards per carry) on Saturday. But, on the 14 carries that came out of pistol, the ‘Hoos gained a whopping 81 yards (5.8 ypc) relative to just 41 yards on the 12 non-pistol handoffs (3.4 ypc).
For the Cavaliers’ top backs, the runs out of pistol were a benefit. Perris Jones ran for 33 of his 39 yards on five carries (6.6 ypc) out of pistol relative to two handoffs that went for six yards (3.0 ypc) out of the gun. Kobe Pace had an even more drastic split between carries out of pistol and the gun going 4-for-31 (7.8 ypc) from behind Tony Muskett versus 3-for-8 (2.7 ypc) when lined up next to him.
So, why did pistol work so well? First off, the pistol formation allows for the backs to get a running start into the handoff while maintaining the value of the quarterback being able to better survey the defense while in the gun. Pistol also balances the advantages of playing out of the shotgun and going under-center without giving away whether a pass or run play is incoming.
Pistol allowed UVA’s zone blocking schemes to be more effective, especially with such a young line. It gave them time to push upfield and meant that, when Volunteer defenders did get penetration, Jones and Pace had already built up enough momentum that they could change direction with speed to find space.
On Kobe Pace’s 22-yard run, it becomes apparent how effective he can be when he’s able to hit a hole at full speed. It’s also notable that this run and Jones’ touchdown scamper came as rushes to the left side of UVA’s line where bigger bodies McKale Boley and Noah Josey created the initial space before quicker, more agile blockers Ty Furnish and Brian Stevens got upfield to the second level.
That formula kept working for the ‘Hoos. Furnish got beat immediately on Jones’ touchdown run, but Jones drifted left before making a beautiful cut upfield and to his right to avoid the Tennessee defensive tackle and edge. Guards Steven and Josey got to the second level, and a nice bit of blocking from Malachi Fields to occupy two Vols sealed the touchdown.
Putting the onus on UVA’s shifty, veteran backs to get downhill and make plays is the right move for the Virginia offense. Keeping the run blocking schemes fairly simplistic is similarly beneficial for an offensive line that doesn’t have much experience at all, much less together.
Virginia Offensive Coordinator Des Kitchings catches a lot of flack as a play caller, which is sometimes deserved. But despite the lopsided nature of Saturday’s result, he made some nice adjustments in the second half which made a tangible difference.
Yeah, it would’ve been preferable if relying on pistol, running to the left side, and giving the right side of the line help in pass protection were a bigger part of the original game plan. But it’s almost better that Tony Elliott, Kitchings, and the rest of the offense were able to identify problems and find solutions within the flow of game.
There are absolutely questions regarding how good this offense can be against the typical level of competition it will face in the ACC. Tony Muskett’s injury status could throw a major wrench into the works. But if the ‘Hoos can establish the run via inside and outside zone looks out of pistol then they’ll be able to build the offense from there, like how Elliott and Kitchings have preached that they’ve wanted to since arriving in Charlottesville.