by Bill Glose, 10/7/02
As with every other football season, a recognizable pattern has emerged this year, one that Hokies used to detest, but now embraceóthe withering of underdogs against heavily favored opponents. Every year, numerous underdogs hang in for one or two quarters, only to lose by a lopsided score by gameís end. Tulsa gave Oklahoma all they could handle in their opener (for one half), Rutgers scared the Rocky Top out of Tennessee (for one half), and Western Michigan put a fright into the Hokie nation. For one half.
When people discuss parity in college football, theyíre really talking about a more equitable dispersion of talent among the starting lineups. However, once you push past the front lines of a mid-to-lower tier football team, the talent drop-off is considerable. On those teams, the starters must win the battle with no hope of reinforcement. Not an impossible task, but a daunting one.
For an underdog to stand a chance in a mismatched contest, the starters must first have enough talent to compete. But talent alone isnít enough. To win, they also need emotion on their side. Of course, underdogs always start out with an emotional edge, playing the role of David to the opposing Goliath. That energy can motivate the team enough to make plays as long as the game is close. But then, as soon as the favorite pulls ahead by a couple of scores, the effort dies out.
Two years ago, when VT traveled to East Carolina, the pesky Pirates hung in for a few series, gaining big chunks of yardage, holding the Hokies in check, and talking a great deal of smack between every play. But then, the Hokies blocked a punt, returned another for a score, and the hyperactive ECU sideline fell into a lethargic daze as if their Prozac had just kicked in.
So why does the same thing happen every year? In a word, depth.
In the first half, everyone is fresh and anything is possible. As long as the game stays close, the underdogís starters can feed off emotion because theyíre riding an adrenaline high. They can practically hear the ESPN "shout out" and picture the next dayís headlines. WMU recently gave the Hokies a scare, keeping the game close until the final two minutes of the half. Then, with two quick VT scores, the fight evaporated. Game over.
Tech learned the power of team depth the hard way, many times falling victim to superior teams. Often times, the Hokies would keep a game close only to have victory snatched away in the closing minutes. National Champion Georgia Tech did it in 1990 with a 6-3 victory, Oklahoma did it in 1991 with a 27-17 victory, and FSU also got the Hokies 33-20 in 1991. The most notable experience came in the í96 Orange Bowl when Nebraska swapped 3 or 4 linemen every other down. By the fourth quarter, VTís line was out of gas and allowed the Huskers to score 17 unanswered points. After that game, defensive line coach Charlie Wiles altered his philosophy to mimic that of the Huskers Ė rotating the D-line by platoon.
Now, itís the Hokies breaking other teamsí hearts. WMU fought the good fight, but in the end they just didnít have the manpower to win the game. While their first teamers were going all out, the Hokie starters were recharging on the sidelines. As the game wore on, the Hokies were running on fresh legs while the Broncos were wheezing like sway-backed mules.
Injuries are another critical reason to build team depth. If the second string canít perform close to the same level as the starters, then a losing season is just a key injury away. The Hokies have had their share of injuries this seasonóand then someóbut theyíve fared well thanks to backup players. When Eric Green was lost for the season, Vince Fuller stepped in and the team never lost a beat. When Jim Davis and Mikal Baaqee were slowed with ankle injuries, their backups (Cols Colas and Alex Markogiannakis) not only started in their places, but they also earned TSLís Defensive Player of the Week award.
Now, team depth becomes even more critical. With the exception of Temple and Rutgers (and maybe UVa), all the teams remaining on Techís schedule are stocked with competent backups. So itís doubly important for VT to have a solid rotation in every position.
Big Jimmy Williams is set to arrive on the field at just the right time. Okay, 6 weeks past the RIGHT time, but at least heís dressing up for the conference schedule. The defensive line has been impressive without him so far, but they will be able to play even harder with him added to the mix. Even if Williams doesnít become a starter by seasonís end, adding a speedy 300-pounder into the DL rotation will give the other tackles time to rest, allowing them to play full tilt when theyíre in the game. And that, my friend, is the formula for success.
One area of concern for the Hokies after the last game was the play of the offensive line. Offensive Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach Bryan Stinespring said that the Hokies havenít been able to rotate in as many players on the O-line as he would have liked because of the tough stretch of games Tech has played so far. It showed. The O-line during the WMU game was unable to perform on the same level as the rest of the team. Without adequate experience and rotation, their play became sloppy.
Several backup linemen who havenít played in all of Techís games so far played in last Friday's JV game in an effort to give them more game experience. "Down the stretch," says Stinespring, "we're going to be depending on these guys to play more. It will help our number 1 line to know they can play 100 miles an hour because they have some quality behind them."
The best thing that can be said about this season so far is that the Hokies are working all their backups. It may knock the Hokies down in some of
the defensive statistic categories, but it might also be the reason the one empty display case in the Merryman Center eventually is filled. You know,
the one waiting for the National Championship Trophy.
Bill Glose is a former paratrooper, a Virginia Tech graduate, and a die-hard Hokie fan. When he's not watching a game or writing an article for TSL, he spends his time editing the literary journal, Virginia Adversaria. Over 150 of his articles have appeared in numerous markets and his fiction has been accepted for publication in four countries.