Pittsburgh 30, Virginia Tech 23
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/22/97

Click here for the game recap with stats

This game report will be short, because this is one loss where I have nothing new to say and nothing positive to take away from this. When we lost to Miami of Ohio, I talked about keeping focus and learning to become big-time. When we lost to West Virginia, I very openly spoke about what was wrong with the team and what needed to be improved upon.

Now, after this loss, I can only say, "Ugh."

Don't let the close final score fool you. From the first quarter on, Pittsburgh dominated this game. The Panthers moved the ball easily on the Hokies, on the ground and through the air, and they stuffed a Hokie offense that once again had to rely on the ground game due to injuries to their main receivers.

From the time Tech led 6-0 at the end of the first quarter, to when the Hokies scored to make it 30-23, Pitt's offense had outscored Tech's offense 30-3. The Hokies had kept it somewhat close only because of a defensive touchdown that came when Anthony Midget returned a Pittsburgh fumble for a touchdown.

It was an uncharacteristically poor November performance from team that has learned to dominate in November. It was a loss that almost certainly cost the Hokies their shot at a third straight Alliance Bowl and may have cost them their third straight Big East championship. It was a loss that encapsulated the weaknesses of this team and came as no surprise in the fashion in which it occurred.

Like I said, I don't have much to say about this game that will enlighten you. But I do have a few things I want to say about it, so let's get started.


Once again, we could not rely on the receivers in the passing game, and once again, we had to run the ball. Once again, our opponent lined up to stop the run. Despite Pitt's porous run defense statistic (174 yards per game surrendered on the ground), the Panthers easily stuffed the Hokies at the line.

Although quarterback Al Clark was 22-32 for 183 yards with no interceptions, the passing game was anemic, due to the lack of contribution from the receivers. Only 10 of Clark's completions were to receivers, with the other 12 going to running backs, and of the 10 completions to receivers, 7 went to Gildersleeve and 3 to Stuewe. Angelo Harrison had very few passes thrown his way, if any, and Ken Handy, who played most of the game, was a total non-factor.

More telling is that the 10 completions to Gildersleeve and Stuewe only gained 99 yards, which means that they were flanker screens, short slants, and buttonhook patterns. With Shawn Scales still on the sideline and Harrison sub-par, Tech again showed a complete lack of ability to stretch the defense downfield. As a result, Pittsburgh lined up to stop the run, and they stopped it easily.

Tech's running backs (Oxendine, Parker, Pegues, and Hawkins) combined for just 77 yards rushing on 26 carries, barely less than 3 yards per carry. Al Clark added 40 more yards on 10 carries. It appeared that the option was working, but once again, the official line was that we didn't run it much because Al wasn't 100% healthy.

We can't run effectively because we can't pass to the wide receivers effectively. That's it in a nutshell. We've had this problem since Shawn Scales went down with an injury in the Miami of Ohio game, and the problem got worse when Harrison was injured in the WVU game. Stuewe, who has been nursing a bad ankle all season, has been ineffective. That leaves Marcus Gildersleeve and Ken Handy to carry the torch. Gildersleeve doesn't have the size and the hands that our other receivers have (he dropped two against Pittsburgh), and Handy can't get open consistently (and at Pitt, he apparently couldn't get open at all).

This isn't intended to knock the guys who are in there putting out the effort. It's just a fact that our offense is an eight-cylinder machine that is only firing on about four of those cylinders. Week after week, these problems continue, and each week, it's one more game film that chronicles our weaknesses for the next opponent.

And each week, I run out of new things to say about this offense.

I'm also developing the belief that our coaching staff is not being honest about our injury situation. All week long, I heard that Michael Stuewe was 95% and Angelo Harrison was 90%. If those figures are true, then they ought to start, but who lined up to start the game? Handy and Gildersleeve. Again. Harrison barely played, and Stuewe played sparingly.

Stuewe has been having trouble with his ankle all year, and the only official report I heard about it was that it was sprained. It's "sprained," and it still isn't healed? I sprained my ankle once, badly, so bad that I was on crutches for three days, but within two weeks, I was 100% healthy again. As for Harrison's foot, it was "sprained" also. A month ago. And he's in worse shape than Stuewe.

I'm not questioning the heart and desire of these athletes. I'm not that stupid, or that malicious. I know they want to play, and I know they want to play badly. I guess I'm just a little annoyed that I'm being fed reports by the coaching staff that downplay the extent of the injuries, yet week after week, they're bad enough that they take us completely out of anything resembling an offensive game plan.

For example, the coaches admit that rollout passes and the option would fit really well in the game plan, and week after week, we don't do it much because Al Clark isn't healthy enough.

Against Miami, Pegues barely played, and afterwards, Coach Beamer said something vague about "who you want to have in the game" (Oxendine) and "who you think can make plays for you" (again, Oxendine). And then a week later, he says, "We didn't play Pegues much because he dislocated his finger. It was sticking out at a right angle from his hand." Well, why didn't you just say so, Coach? And while you're at it, what's really wrong with Stuewe, Harrison, and Clark?

Again, I'm not questioning anyone's desire to work hard and win. I'm just a little steamed that I'm being led to believe that we're getting better, only to have a team show up that's playing only half its cards.


The defense gets incrementally less effective week after week. The same guys who pasted Rutgers and shut down Syracuse are suddenly struggling to stop the run, guard receivers, and tackle effectively. It's a little baffling, frankly.

In all honesty, they are playing about like they should play, because they're young. I like to compare this defense to the 1993 defense, because both teams featured young players who were still trying to learn the system. I'm willing to be patient with them while they develop.

The 1993 defense, while it showed flashes of promise (against UVa and in the Independence Bowl), also got pasted occasionally, most notably against Glenn Foley and Boston College. This 1997 defense has also shown flashes of promise, against Syracuse and Boston College. They played well for most of the game against WVU, where they gave up most of their points and yards in just one quarter.

What has been alarming is their recent tendency to fade late in the game. Against Miami, this defense gave up gobs of rushing yardage in the fourth quarter, and although they started out strong against Pittsburgh, the Panthers were abusing them by the time the game mercifully ended.

We've seen the Hokie defense limp to the finish line once before, back in 1994. From the eighth game onward in that year, a good defense with some talented players suddenly ran out of gas, and our opponents suddenly started rolling up point totals that an interception-plagued Hokie offense couldn't keep up with.

Suddenly, late in 1997, a defensive unit that has been solid is starting to show signs of wear and tear. They're blowing assignments. They gave up large runs to Miami on simple breakdowns, and against Pittsburgh, the Panthers scored on two long passes (40 yards and 56 yards) to wide-open receivers, on plays where the coverage was obviously blown.

And they're tackling poorly. Bill Roth and Mike Burnop bemoaned broken tackle after broken tackle while Billy West was rolling up 130 yards on just 21 carries.

So why bring up the comparison to the 1994 defense? Because I think 1994 holds a clue.

After the 1994 season was over, it slowly became public knowledge that the reason the defense started breaking down was that defensive coordinator Phil Elmassian's fiery style was wearing thin on the Hokies. He supposedly drove the team like dogs during practice, and although this worked in 1993, the 1994 team grew tired of Elmassian's tactics and simply expired before the season was over. Elmo left at the end of the year, Frank Beamer backed off the intensity of the practices, and the 1995 team responded with a great defensive year.

Now, let me head you off at the pass before you come to the wrong conclusion. I AM NOT SAYING THAT THE PROBLEM IS BUD FOSTER. On the contrary. I like Bud Foster, and I think he is a sharp guy and a good leader.

My point is this: I think something's going on that is taking its toll on this defense. It's something we can't see as fans, but it's something that is causing this defense to get worse as the year goes on, not better.

Why do I think that? I believe that because I can't come up with any other explanation as to why a talented defense that was shutting teams down at the beginning of the year is starting to sprout holes as the season goes on. A young defense should get better as the year goes on, but this one is starting to tackle poorly and miss assignments, instead.

I think that there is a good explanation, and heck, maybe it is just youth. Whatever, I think it will all become clear over time, and it will be interesting to see what the final explanation is.

Am I being too hard on them? Am I expecting too much of them? I don't think so. I'm only holding them up to the standard that they set for themselves with their early-season demolitions of Rutgers and Syracuse. I know they've got it in them. I don't expect them to play like that every week, but the fact is that they're making mistakes now that they didn't make earlier in the year.

Am I not giving enough credit to the other teams? That's not it, either. James Jackson didn't rip off a 78-yard TD run because he made an exceptional play. He did it because our players were out of position, and he had the speed to take advantage of it. And Pittsburgh didn't score on two long passes because Pete Gonzalez threw an amazing pass and their receiver made a great catch in traffic. They did it because their receivers were running down the field without a Hokie defender within 15 yards. And Bill Roth and Mike Burnop, my eyes and ears for the Pitt game, didn't say Billy West was getting 6 yards a carry because we were getting blown off the line. They said we were missing tackles.

So I think something's going on that we can't see. I think that because I can't come up with any other explanation. That is ultimately just one man's opinion, and we'll see if things become clearer over time.

The Bowl Scenario

Oddly enough, the Fiesta Bowl is still a possibility (shudder). If Miami beats Syracuse next weekend, the Hokies will wind up in a two- or three-way tie for the championship, depending upon whether WVU beats Pittsburgh (three-way tie) or loses to them (two-way tie).

Before we start on this discussion, here are the rankings for Syracuse, Tech, and WVU after the games of November 22nd:

Team AP Ranking USAT/ESPN Ranking Average Ranking
Syracuse 16 16 16
Tech 26 21 23.5
WVU 28 26 27

Two-Way Tie: in the case of a two-way tie, the polls will determine who goes. Each team will receive a "ranking" that is the average of the AP and USAT/ESPN rankings. If Syracuse is not ranked six or more spots ahead of the Hokies, then Tech will go, because Syracuse lost the head-to-head matchup with VT. If Syracuse is ranked six or more spots ahead of the Hokies, then Syracuse will go.

As you can see from the table, Tech trails SU by 7.5 slots. If Tech wins and Syracuse loses next weekend, it's likely that Syracuse will not be ranked the six or more slots above the Hokies that are required for the Orangemen to get the Alliance bid. In that case, Tech would go to the Fiesta ... if Tech wins and Syracuse loses. If Syracuse wins, they will go, regardless of what Tech does.

Three-Way Tie: in this case, the highest ranked team amongst the three earns the bid. If two of the three teams have the same ranking, the bid is earned by the team winning the head-to-head matchup. If none of the teams is ranked, the Alliance Bowl would select the team of its choice from amongst the tied teams.

For a three-way tie to occur, WVU will have to beat Pitt. If Tech wins over UVa while WVU beats Pitt and Syracuse loses to Miami, the Orangemen will have to drop pretty far in the rankings for Tech to overcome them. This isn't likely. It's also unlikely that WVU, with their average ranking of 27, will overtake Tech in the rankings, if Tech wins.

So oddly enough, you should root for WVU to lose next weekend. If they win, and a three-way tie occurs, the Hokies are less likely to go to the Alliance than if WVU loses and a two-way tie results.

A Summary: here's the breakdown for all the possible scenarios, in table form. In some cases, the Alliance Bowl team is a prediction based on what the polls are likely to do. In other cases, it's a fact.

Tech's 11/29
Game Result
Syracuse's 11/29
Game Result
WVU's 11/29
Game Result
Alliance Bowl Team
Win Win Win Syracuse
Win Win Lose Syracuse
Win Lose Win Syracuse
Win Lose Lose Tech
Lose Win Win Syracuse
Lose Win Lose Syracuse
Lose Lose Win Syracuse
Lose Lose Lose Syracuse

As you can see, there is only one scenario in which Tech can still go to the Alliance. Tech must win, Syracuse must lose, and WVU must lose. Other than that, it's unlikely that Tech will go to Tempe.

I invite you to do that analysis yourself and see what results you come up with, based on the rules outlined above.

Gator Bowl Possibilities: let's assume that Syracuse goes to the Alliance. With Florida's victory over Florida State, I think the Alliance's two at-large teams will be Florida and the Big-10 runner-up. This will bump UNC to the Gator Bowl. Since the Gator had WVU/UNC last year, I think they will take the Hokies, but perhaps only if Tech beats UVa next weekend. If the Hokies lose to UVa next weekend, we could be looking at the Carquest Bowl or even the Liberty Bowl.

A Nightmare Scenario: if Pitt and Miami both win next weekend, the Big East will have five bowl-eligible teams and only four slots to fill. If this happens, will Syracuse, WVU, Miami, and Pitt go to bowls, with the Hokies getting shut out? We better win the UVa game, because we don't want to wind up 7-4 and find out the answer to that question.

Next Up: the 'Hoos

I don't like the way this smells. I said in the preseason that we were going to lose to UVa, and unless something changes dramatically, that prediction still holds true.

My guess is that the offense will still be hampered by Stuewe and Harrison (and maybe even Clark) not being completely healthy. If this is the case, UVa will shut us down, because their defense, particularly their run defense, is much better than Pitt's. UVa is ranked #18 in the country in run defense, and if the run is all we have available to us, they'll put 10 guys on the line and stuff us. On defense, it doesn't much matter how well we play, because UVa might be able to shut us out, so all they'll have to do is score a few points to beat us.

If our offense is able to play full strength, maybe we'll be able to get something going, maybe not. In this case, the defense will have to step it up and reverse the trend they're on. If we give up one, two, or three cheap touchdowns to Brooks, Crowell, and company, like we did to Miami and Pitt, we're done for.

I'll be there. I'll be cheering. I hate going into Scott Stadium and watching those Hoos sway and sing, but I do it, anyway, every two years. Hope to see you there, and I hope to see a Hokie victory.

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