Virginia Tech 27, Miami 25
by Will Stewart,, 11/8/97

Click here for the game recap with stats

This was a gut-wrenching roller-coaster ride of a game that twisted the emotions and left many Hokie fans grim-faced in victory. While there was much to cheer, from the near-perfect performance of Al Clark to the gifted play of Pierson Prioleau, there was also much gnashing of teeth over unimaginative play-calling and a defensive collapse in the fourth quarter that nearly cost Tech the game.

In the end, this game was another hard-won November victory that gave rise to more than one play that will go down in Tech football history. Pierson Prioleau saved the Hokies with a goal-line interception of a Miami two-point conversion, and on the ensuing onsides kick, a Miami player barely tipped the ball in a final play that was thankfully controversy-free and (for once) correctly called by a Big East officiating crew.

For the record, the Hokies won a third straight game over the Miami Hurricanes and continued their drive towards a third straight Alliance Bowl. Off the record, a venerable Tech running back rose once again to the occasion, and a maligned quarterback silenced his critics with a signature game that will perhaps define his career.

As I did with the Miami game report last year, I’ll depart from my familiar offense-defense-special teams game analysis and go with a sequential analysis of the game from start to finish.

The First Quarter

Did it surprise anyone else when the Miami Hurricanes came out of the gate and posted two easy touchdowns on the Hokie defense? In a way it shocked me, and in another way, it didn’t.

The surprise was the ease with which Miami ran the ball, picking up yardage in five- and seven-yard chunks by tailback James Edgerrin. What was not a surprise was the success Miami had with the pass.

The Hokie defensive backs were playing soft from the start, sometimes lining up ten yards off the line of scrimmage and then backpedaling when the ball was snapped. Time and again Miami’s receivers did a short down-and-out, leading to easy sideline completions. The Canes marched downfield easily and posted the first touchdown on a nifty scramble by quarterback Ryan Clement.

Tech came right back, storming down the field to a first and goal at the Miami seven yard line, but the Hokies shot themselves in the foot with a penalty. Backed up to the twelve yard line, the Tech drive fizzled, and the Hokies kicked a field goal.

This was characteristic of Tech’s offensive drives in the entire first half. The Hokies moved the ball well, but a single mistake that resulted in lost yardage - a penalty or a tackle for loss - would kill the drive.

Miami took the following kickoff and again cruised down the field, scoring on a short run by James. The extra point would become one of the most important plays in the game, as Carl Bradley squirted up the middle and blocked it. No one realized how much it meant at the time, because unless the Hokies figured out how to slow Miami down, one missed extra point wasn’t going to amount to anything. Little did we know.

The Second Quarter

As the second quarter opened, Tech responded with a touchdown drive. Clark distinguished himself with a long option run in which he motored almost 40 yards before pitching the ball back to a trailing Oxendine at the Miami fifteen yard line. The Miami defense adjusted well to the pitch, but it was still good for additional yardage, as the Ox was dragged down at the seven. Marcus Parker bulled it into the end zone on the next play. The score stood at 13-10, and both teams and their fans settled down for what appeared to be a shootout.

Finally, the tide turned. Miami committed penalties on their next drive that slowed their momentum, and the Canes were finally forced to punt. The two teams played out the rest of the quarter with no other points being scored, and at halftime, the score stood at 13-10.

The Third Quarter

The Hokies have made a living off of their first drive of the second half. Generally, Tech comes out of the locker room strong, and this game was no exception. The Hokies chewed up about seven minutes of clock with an impressive touchdown drive that culminated in Cullen Hawkins’s 14-yard TD run.

Just before the TD run, I saw Marcus Parker trot off the field and Hawkins trot on, and I said out loud, "What is Beamer doing taking Parker out?" No big deal. On the very next play, Hawkins took a handoff from Clark, stutter-stepped to let Oxendine get in front of him, and then used a great block from the Ox to clear a path to the end zone. Oxendine sealed off two Miami defenders on the play, allowing Hawkins to pick his way into the middle of the Miami defense and to run past a Miami team that didn’t even seem to realize that he had the ball.

17-13, Hokies.

The next three series of the game were critical and would provide a buffer that would allow the Hokies to weather a fourth-quarter storm.

Miami again started moving downfield, but as they crossed over into Hokie territory, something funny happened on the way to the end zone: their passing game quit working, thanks to Ike Charlton.

On Tech’s previous touchdown drive, Charlton had been inserted at receiver and to the delight of Hokie fans, he was sent on a post pattern into the end zone. Delight quickly turned to disappointment as Two-Way Ike dropped a near-perfect pass from Al Clark that would have been a TD. Fortunately for Ike, the Hokies picked up the touchdown anyway on Hawkins’s scoring run.

Now on defense, Ike rose to the occasion. Facing a first down in Hokie territory, the Canes threw a timing pattern down the right sideline. Charlton, the Hokies’ most physical and most talented cornerback, stuck to the Hurricane receiver like glue from the line of scrimmage to the point where the pass fell harmlessly incomplete on the turf.

On second down, Clement took a short drop and again looked to the right side, where once more Charlton had the receiver blanketed. Clement pulled the ball back in, was flushed to the left by a Hokie blitz, and was sacked by Pierson Prioleau.

On third down, Clement pulled back from center and looked right one more time, only to find that his receiver was once again covered by Charlton. Clement pulled the ball back in, and this time Kerwin Hairston, coming on a bull rush, blew past his blocker, knocked Tech’s Corey Moore to the ground, and then plowed into Ryan Clement, taking him to the turf. Two straight sacks, for a total loss of 22 yards, all of it attributable to Charlton’s play at the corner.

Bolstered by a key stop in a critical situation, the offense came back on the field and marched to another TD. As I mentioned, a mistake in the first half killed Tech drives in their tracks, but not so this time. Facing a first and 19 after a holding penalty, Tech didn’t buckle. The Hokies ran for a five-yard gain on first down, and then Al Clark threw a perfect buttonhook pass to Ken Handy – low, and where no one but Handy could catch it - to make it third and inches. Miami jumped offsides on the next play, and the Hokies had a first down and were back in business.

The drive featured the only appearance of Lamont Pegues all night. The speedy Clemson transfer gained large chunks of yardage on all three of his carries, including a 27-yarder that saw Gennaro DiNapoli and Brad Baylor totally destroy the left side of the Miami Hurricanes’ defensive front. With five seconds to go in the third quarter, the Hokies appeared to be pulling away and starting to dominate.

Appeared to be.

The Fourth Quarter

That appearance was kept up on the Canes first possession of the fourth quarter. With the 11-point lead, the Hokie defensive backs crowded closer to the line of scrimmage, and in a meek three-and-out series for Miami, both Pierson Prioleau and Loren Johnson batted down short passes. Miami punted, and the Hokies took possession in anticipation of the killing score.

Not so. The Hokies themselves were meek with the football, barely taking two minutes off the clock before punting the ball back to the Hurricanes.

But what was the big deal? Miami was still 80 yards away from paydirt, and the Hokies were in control, right?

Enter #21 for the Hurricanes, James Jackson. The Miami freshman did what almost no running backs do against the Hokies these days – he turned the corner on Tech and motored to a 78-yard touchdown run. The Lane Stadium crowd stood in stunned silence. Suddenly, at 24-19, it was a ballgame again.

Here is where the blocked extra point entered the equation. Down by five, the Hurricanes went for two, throwing into the corner of the end zone. The conversion was ruled out of bounds, and with the score still 24-19, Miami still needed a touchdown to take the lead.

On Tech’s next possession, Frank Beamer made a call that went against the grain of coaching wisdom, and in so doing, he won the football game. Tech moved the ball down to the Miami 28 yard line, and with about eight minutes to go, Shayne Graham earned his scholarship by booting a 45-yard field goal that pushed the lead back to eight points at 27-19.

As the crowd roared, a yellow flag lay on the turf. Graham had been roughed on the play.

There’s an old coaching axiom that says "Never take points off the board." The saying gets carted out every time a coach pulls a field goal off the scoreboard and fails to get it back or turn it into a touchdown. It’s a catchy little phrase that clueless "coaches" like myself can pull out to sound cute after the game.

The saying probably never crossed Frank Beamer’s mind. Instead, he looked at the clock, looked at the score, thought about the way his offense was moving the ball, and decided to take the penalty.

Ultimately, the gamble paid off. Tech took four more minutes off the clock, and Shayne Graham put the field goal back on the board, this time as a 22-yarder, when a promising Tech drive bogged down inside the Miami five-yard line.

For the most part, Frank Beamer is a gambler as a coach. Every once in a while, he plays it conservatively, like when he decided not to try a 52-yard field goal late in the game against BC, but usually, he’s not afraid to take chances. He showed it again, placing faith in his players to not make the mistake and to make him look smart. Players appreciate the vote of confidence, and in Saturday night’s game, they came through for Beamer.

Tech kicked off, and again Miami moved through the Hokie defense almost effortlessly, beginning with another long run by Jackson and ending in a 12-yard touchdown run, again by Jackson, Tech’s own personal demon in the fourth quarter. With just two minutes to go, Miami lined up for a two-point conversion to tie the game. Most Hokies would agree that the prevailing mood in Lane Stadium was, "If this thing goes to overtime, I think we’ll lose. They’ve got us on the ropes."

Earlier in Miami’s final drive, I had leaned over to Mrs. HokieCentral and said, "This is where you count on Clement to throw an interception." As it turned out, once Clement was finally given a chance to put the ball in the air on the two-point conversion, he came through for Tech with one of his few poor decisions of the night.

The replay shows a crowd of Hokies around the receiver that Clement was throwing to for the conversion, and from that crowd, Pierson Prioleau emerged for an interception that was eerily reminiscent of Keion Carpenter’s pickoff a year ago. Prioleau was not able to score like Carpenter did, because a player named James Jackson, who was still in high school last year, was on the field this time. He ran Prioleau down and tackled him before Pierson could tack on two more points for Tech.

Everyone knew what was coming next – the onsides kick. Miami kicker Andy Crosland rapped a hard one straight at Marcus Parker, and it appeared to take a perfect hop towards Parker’s belly. But suddenly, the ball was behind Marcus, and a Miami Hurricane player retrieved it and held it high like a trophy. Hokies groaned, and a palatable feeling of fear descended upon the Lane crowd.

I remember hearing a referee blowing his whistle loudly, but since it wasn’t accompanied by a flag, I didn’t think much of it. I wondered how Parker could have completely missed a ball that was coming straight towards him, and a few moments later, the refs explained how: a Miami player had touched it before it had gone ten yards. That isn’t a penalty, so no flag was thrown. It’s the same as a downed punt. Possession, Tech.

That was it. The Hokies ran three times for a first down, and then took a knee. Hokies 27, Hurricanes 25, for Tech’s third straight win over Miami and yet another chapter in what is developing as the best rivalry in the Big East.

On the field, a furious Coach Davis ran after the officials. He would complain about the play, but later, the player who had supposedly tipped the ball, Duane Starks, would admit that he had indeed touched it.

Nits and Picks

It’s rare that you see so many grim faces after a victory, but on my way out of the stadium, I saw plenty. Questions abounded. Why hadn’t Pegues played more? Why didn’t Tech pass more? Why did the Hokies insist on running those maddening, slowly-developing off-tackle runs with a power back like Oxendine? What the hell happened to the Hokies’ run defense in the fourth quarter?

How in the world did those lousy Big East refs actually make a good call at the end of the game?

Pegues, Ox, and the Running Game: on the question of Pegues’s playing time, let me say that I’m a big Ken Oxendine fan. He’s a class act and a great running back. But I have also said that running Ken Oxendine off-tackle repeatedly is not working, and Saturday night did nothing to prove me wrong. The Hokies ran the toss sweep and that "here’s the ball" off-tackle run over and over, and by the end of the game, Miami was totally stuffing it.

Sure, Ox had 147 yards on 36 carries, but 40+ of that was awarded to him as a result of Clark’s great option pitch in the first quarter. So that means that Ox had about 100 yards on his other 35 carries. He was getting jammed at the line, folks, and it wasn’t on his runs up the gut, which were successful. It was on the slow-developing off-tackle runs that Ken Oxendine was getting swarmed over. Ox carried like a trooper, plowing through the Miami defense when he had a seam, but when he was asked to get outside, he didn’t have the speed to outrun the Hurricane players that met him there.

During Pegues’s brief stint in the game, he made significant yardage squirting through holes that the Ox may not have been able to clear before they closed. So for those of you who want to see more Pegues, I’m in your corner. Beamer speaks highly of Pegues, and in the past he has split time almost evenly between multiple tailbacks, so I don’t understand it.

My last comment on that subject is that from what I can tell, Hokie fans don’t have anything against Oxendine, who has been a pleasure to have on the team the last four years. They (the fans) just want to see Pegues more. When he comes in the game, he’s a tremendous change of pace. Just look at what James Jackson did when he came in the game for Miami!

Passing: I also don’t know why Tech didn’t pass more. My only guess is that with the offensive line improving (zero sacks again) and Al Clark playing well (more on that later), the low number of passing attempts indicates a complete lack of confidence on the coaches’ part in the backup receivers.

Week after week, it appears that play-action passing would kill the opponent, and week after week, the pass/run ratio is something like 55/12, as it was Saturday night. Thankfully, Clark was effective when he did throw the ball. If he had turned in a bad performance, it could have been a long night for Tech.

Run Defense: Tech had breakdowns on three runs by James Jackson, including both touchdowns and a long gainer that didn’t go for a score. In each instance, Tech’s containment broke down on the corner (read: cornerback), and the rest of the pursuit underestimated Jackson’s speed, took an inside track instead of an outside track, and wound up trailing the play. In all fairness, the inside track was taken because the outside containment was supposed to turn the runner back to the inside.

When Jackson broke free on his way to the 78-yarder, I instantly took inventory of the Tech DB’s on the field, and the list didn’t include Ike Charlton or Lorenzo Ferguson, the only Tech DB’s who have a prayer of catching a guy like Jackson. With Torrian Gray, the Ultimate Pursuer, gone to the NFL, we’re not likely to run people down unless Ferguson and/or Charlton are on the field.

The Referees: holding. Holding, holding, holding. On one play, ESPN announcer Todd Christiansen praised Miami tackle Kerlin Blaise for great blocking on a play where Blaise committed one of the most blatant holds I’ve ever seen. Blaise got a hold of Cory Bird and latched onto his jersey while the Miami running back ran by him for about a 15 yard gain.

When a defender is looking at a running back who is running by him, and that defender is flapping his arms and trying to get away from a blocker, and his body language is screaming "I’ve got to get over there!" and he’s not moving, it’s holding, Mr. Ref.

There. Got that off my chest.

And Marcus Gildersleeve’s catch in the end zone was a catch. Again, Christiansen, who is one of my favorite announcers, totally glossed over the blown call.

Gildersleeve did come down with the ball, make no mistake about it. He had a funny grip on it, capturing it between his forearm and his shoulder, but he was gripping it firmly, and he took two steps before the Miami defensive back knocked it free. Yes, it was a bang-bang call, but the refs get paid to make that call. Fortunately, it cost the Hokies no more than piece of mind, and not a victory.

Mountains of Praise

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t think that Al Clark played a perfect game? He was 10 for 12, and the two incompletions hit the receivers in the hands (and heck, Gildersleeve caught his, as I just told you).

But more than that, Al showed great decision-making ability and a new willingness to tuck the ball and run. He picked up a few first downs on great runs and generally looked composed and in charge of the offense. This is the second big game Al Clark has played in Lane Stadium, and it’s the second time he has been equal to the task. We’ll find out in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville if he can win big games on the road.

I could go on and on about Al, but I think his performance speaks for itself. I wondered if he was capable of making the exceptional plays that win big games, and on Saturday, at least, he made several of them.

As most of you know, a letter was printed in The Roanoke Times the weekend of the UAB game in which the author ripped Clark, criticizing him in every way possible and singling him out as the primary reason for Tech’s struggles on offense (this when the receiving corps is depleted by injuries, the offensive line coach is out with bypass surgery, and Clark is playing hurt).

It was the sort of letter that made you cringe to read it, considering that Clark is just a college athlete who isn’t getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and is doing the best he can. The coaching staff has praised Al’s work ethic in the weight room and the film room since Spring football started, and I think all we can ask of these athletes is to try their hardest. I said last Spring that as long as Al was working hard, that was fine with me.

I know the author’s name, but I don’t know him personally. He is a Roanoke resident who expressed himself clearly and concisely, and his dislike of Clark was plainly evident. I’d like to ask him what he thinks of Al Clark today. I’m sure his response would be negative, or grudgingly complimentary at best, but I’d still like to hear his answer.

But I digress. I thought Al played a heck of a game and may in fact have been the difference between a win and a loss. On a night in which Miami made very few mistakes, we needed the maximum effort from our quarterback, and we got it.

My Crystal Ball is Quaking

Looking into the future, I’m not relishing playing this Miami team again. As you saw, they’re loaded with talent. They need to shore up a porous defensive line, and their offensive line needs to improve a little, but their skill players, the offensive skill players in particular, are scary.

And they’re all freshmen. Reggie Wayne (#87), Santana Moss (#48), and James Jackson (#21) will be back to torture us for many more years, and highly-recruited QB Kenny Kelly is waiting on the bench. If the respect of the Big East rests on its marquee team, Miami, being a top 10 team, then the conference is in good hands, but only if the Canes improve their line play.

I also think that they need to work on their extra points, because according to what I read in The USA Today, they’re going about it all wrong: "When freshman tailback James Jackson scored from 12 yards out late in the fourth quarter, Miami was down only two points at 27-25. If UM had gotten that extra point, Miami licks this PAT and the game was tied at 27."

In addition to being a horribly constructed sentence, that last quote points out the dangers of getting saliva on the ball. Assuming that Miami licks all their PATs, then if the football hadn’t been covered with drool, maybe Carl Bradley wouldn’t have blocked that kick, and the Canes would have won the ballgame.

Assuming they can work their way around that problem, I for one think that Miami has an excellent chance of beating Syracuse when they meet on December 29th. If the Hokies beat Pittsburgh on November 22nd, Miami might just take care of the "Syracuse problem," giving the Hokies an outright Big East championship.

The Next Opponent

The Hokies play at Pittsburgh on November 22nd in a 3:30 game that will not be televised (what do you expect? We’re just the two-time defending Big East champs).

I don’t know much about the Panthers. I know they’ve got a pretty good quarterback in their fifth-year senior, Gonzalez, but as I said before, they aren’t very fast, and in the game I saw, they didn’t tackle well. As the game approaches, I’ll dig up the stats and give you some idea of what to expect.

Till then, the Hokies can enjoy the week off and try to return to full strength for the Pittsburgh game. Maybe, just maybe, with Stuewe and Harrison back, we’ll pass a little bit more. And maybe Pegues will get a little more playing time.

(And silence filled the room as Will held his breath.)

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