Virginia Tech 59, Rutgers 19
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/22/97
If theres one thought I want you to take away from this massacre, its this: when you lose 13 starters from a 10-2 team, and in your opener the next year, you annihilate a team 59-19 on the road its a good sign. When you lose a quarterback who is the first QB chosen in the draft, three NFL-caliber offensive linemen, two NFL-quality defensive linemen, and your entire linebacking crew, and you still demolish a conference opponent, youve got to be happy about that.
Phrases like "We dont rebuild anymore, we reload," and "Weve arrived among the nations elite" come to mind. Hokie fans, pointing towards a great coaching staff and an exciting young group of players, have been saying all spring and fall that Virginia Tech football is still a force to be reckoned with, and theyre right. But while it is hard to witness a dominating performance like this and not get extremely excited, there were weak points in Techs game that need work and will improve over the course of the season.
But I keep thinking back to what I saw on Saturday and shaking my head in quiet awe. Make no mistake about it, there was a load of talent on the field for the Hokies. The Tech players are a level above their counterparts from Rutgers. While Druckenmiller, Cornell Brown, and company fashioned a 20-4 record over the last two years, Coach Beamer and his staff were quietly stuffing the pipeline with more talent.
That young talent is now coming out the other end of the pipeline in a flood that is going to catch a number of teams by surprise. Count Rutgers among those teams. I think the Scarlet Knights were excited about the game, and I think they thought they had a good chance of taking the Hokies at home. Why not? After all, they had played a talented Tech team close deep into the third quarter last year at Lane Stadium, and they had a history of giving Tech fits. But their hopes didnt even come close to fruition on Saturday as the Hokies demonstrated that in order to play the 8-man defensive front well, youve got to have the talent to pull it off. Tech does. Rutgers doesnt.
While showing highlights of the game this weekend, ESPNs Chris Fowler twice used the phrase, "The Hokies, serving notice." After finishing the highlights, he even asked co-hosts Corso and Herbstreet "What do you think?", but they wouldnt bite, instead turning the conversation towards the Miami Hurricanes, whose highlights ESPN had shown just before the Tech film. Tech fans seethed, and I hope at least some of the players saw the blatant disregard that the ESPN talking heads once again showed towards an emerging Tech program that, if it were located next to a major media center like Chicago or New York, would be the talk of the country.
This is a serious, focused Tech team that will do its talking on the field the next ten games. While Syracuse sputtered at home against N.C. State and West Virginia struggled at home in an emotional contest against Marshall, the Hokies did indeed "serve notice" that the recent success did not leave town with Druck and company.
Now that my understated trash-talking is done, lets turn our attention to what we saw on the field Saturday. Sometimes, in the game reports I write, Ill recount the game in narrative fashion, and sometimes Ill break down the offense, defense, and special teams. In a blowout like this, theres no point in rehashing the flow of the game, so Ill approach this game report by focusing on the strengths and weaknesses that I saw on the field.
A little bit of information: this fall, Ill write my game reports without going through the messages on the message board. I want to write my analysis based on my own thoughts and the comments I heard around me in the stands, without being corrupted by what is often excellent analysis and breakdowns on the message board from fans who saw the game.Offense
I thought the offensive performance was solid but in need of improvement. As a fan of a particular team, I think youre only satisfied with an offensive performance that creates long, sustained drives, with 5-10 yard gains on the running plays (with an occasional long gainer), and passing plays characterized by great pass protection and dart-like, precise passes from the quarterback on both long and short throws. Thats not asking too much, is it?
Tech managed some of this on Saturday, but in other areas, the Hokies fell short. There were, for instance, very few sustained drives. I only remember one such drive by the starting offensive unit, at the end of the first half.
At this point, youre saying, "Well, heck yeah, its hard to have a long drive when youre scoring on 80-yard pass plays and peeling off 50- and 80-yard runs!"
Ive got one stat for you: Ken Oxendine, 14 carries, 8 yards. Rutgers bottled up Techs tailback all day, throwing him for a loss numerous times and greeting him often on the corners with three tacklers and no running room. Throughout the course of the day, Tech was unable to consistently open holes for their running backs, but they were able to spring them occasionally, and when Rutgers defenders were isolated against Tech ball-carriers, the talent differential took over, and the Hokies scored on numerous long plays after Rutgers errors.
As you know, Rutgers runs the same defense Tech does, and the Rutgers defensive "performance" shows clearly that if youre going to run that defense, you better have the talent. The defense emphasizes pressure on the quarterback and the running game, and by doing so, it creates isolations and forces the defenders to make plays. Tech defenders have the talent to make those one-on-one plays, plus they have the speed to cover up mistakes. Rutgers doesnt have the talent to make all the plays, nor do they have the speed to cover up mistakes.
Perfect examples of this are the Gildersleeve 80-yard touchdown reception and Al Clarks 81-yard touchdown run. On Gildersleeves reception, two defenders missed the initial tackle, and then Rutgers had no one who could catch Gildersleeve. On Clarks run, Rutgers did not defend the option properly, and once Clark got in the clear, again they couldnt catch him.
Contrast this with the only big Rutgers offensive play that immediately comes to my mind. The details are fuzzy, but there was a play late in the third quarter or early in the fourth where the Rutgers tailback encountered traffic at the line and bounced the run to outside, where he suddenly found himself in the clear. He sprinted downfield full speed and was eventually run down by Ike Charlton and Lorenzo Ferguson. This was an instance where the Hokies didnt make the initial play, but they had plenty of speed to recover and prevent the score.
But I digress. Back to the Tech offense, which showed a lot of inconsistency on the offensive line. If you think about it, this is not a surprise. Yes, Tech does have four starting offensive linemen with experience, but only one of those - Gennaro DiNapoli - is starting in the same place as last year. Todd Washington has been moved to center, and Derek Smith and Dwight Vick were backups last year. Tackle Brad Baylor was on defense, and Sean Sullivan is a newcomer at tight end, which is an important blocking position in Techs scheme.
So its going to take some time for these guys to learn their roles, gel, and start really hammering defenses. Until then, Techs running backs and quarterback(s) will be able to create their own yardage and take advantage of occasional openings, as they did on Saturday.
At the quarterback spot, Im not worried about Al Clark. All in all, I thought Als performance was, as Frank Beamer likes to say, "Just fine." Against a pressure defense, Clark made no bad decisions that I remember. His one interception was just poor physical execution, when he overthrew tight end Sean Sullivan, who was running open down the middle of the field (imagine that). Sullivan, stretching to make the catch, tipped the ball, and it was picked off by a Rutgers defender who was standing in the right place only because he was out of position.
By the way, that was the only play all day where Clark disappointed me. He was standing in the pocket with no pressure and overthrew a wide-open receiver. But that was the only blot in a performance that saw him go 7-of-10 for 147 yards and two TDs, while running 7 times for 118 yards and a TD.
I felt like I was watching a bigger, better Maurice DeShazo. Clarks third quarter TD pass to Angelo Harrison was shades of DeShazo-to-Freeman. Harrison found himself wide open after Clark faked the option to one side and rolled out to the other. Clark threw a soft floater that nestled perfectly into Harrisons arms for a 33-yard TD.
Where Clark excels over DeShazo is in his running ability. Maurice would break into the secondary and then juke and jive, allowing defenders to catch up to him. Not so with Clark. If he gets an opening, hes gone, full speed ahead, no fakes involved. Clark also showed good strength on his runs. I dont know if you noticed it or not, but there were several instances where defenders bounced off his legs, the same legs that broke Druckenmillers back squat record.
I have one request, Al: after youve broken into the secondary and picked up the first down and done the damage, if youre near a sideline, use it. Run out of bounds. If theres one area where I dont want Clark to emulate Druckenmiller, its in the way that Druckenmiller would take on defensive backs and try to mow them over. That was okay for Druck, because he weighed 240 and only ran about 5 times a game, max. Clark weighs significantly less and will experience more collisions throughout the course of a game.
But overall, Id give Clark a B. If he had hit Sullivan on the numbers, I would have given him an A-.
At the running back position, this much is clear: if you gear your defense to stop Oxendine, Parker will kill you. And I have a feeling that if you gear your defense to stop Parker, Oxendine will kill you. Whereas Oxendine is the type of runner who needs a block to spring him, where he can then to damage in the open field, Parker will hurt you by hitting the whole quickly, before the defense is ready. The Rutgers defenders swarmed over Oxendines off-tackle plays, but they couldnt handle Parker when he was hitting the line quickly or when he had some open field to run in.
In summary, this offense is playing well, has excellent big-play capability, and as the offensive line improves, it will only get better.Defense
Four years ago, in 1993, Phil Elmassion instituted Techs current defense, a defense which placed emphasis on speed, attacking, and stopping the run at the line. The team that cut its teeth on that defense eventually polished it to the point where it was the dominating, run-stopping and quarterback-sacking unit it became in 1995.
Now, in 1997, many four-year starters and superstars have graduated from that defense, and those who have inherited it are superior to their predecessors in one major way: speed. There is so much speed on this defense that it is an offensive coordinators nightmare to try to figure out how to beat it. Particularly if your quarterback is making his college debut, as Rutgers Mike Jones was.
Im sure the Rutgers offense felt somewhat confident facing the Tech defense, because as they said, they "face the same defense every day in practice."
Uh, no they dont.
They face the same defensive scheme, but they dont face the same defense. Im 100% sure that there is no one on the Rutgers team who can do a good imitation of Techs John Engelberger, whose performance on Saturday lived up to the preseason hype.
Prior to Saturdays game, there were Tech fans who were furrowing their brows and wondering why everyone was anointing Engelberger as the next Tech defensive superstar. On the first Rutgers possession, Engelberger showed why, as he tracked down a Rutgers running back on a screen pass that looked destined for big yardage. Tech had blitzed the backers, creating a gaping whole in the flat that Rutgers exploited with a screen. Engelberger recognized that the offensive linemen were bailing out for the screen, and he turned and pursued the play, catching the running back and causing a fumble, the first of six Rutgers turnovers on the day.
Later, again when Tech blitzed the linebackers, Engelberger covered a running back out of the backfield and batted away a pass that may have otherwise gone for a touchdown. He made the play on the opposite side of the field from his position, showing once again that speed makes up for mistakes in the gambling style of defense that the Hokies play. Both plays show that not only is Engelberger strong and swift, hes smart. He is only a sophomore, and if he continues to develop at this pace, well then, the line for the NFL forms to the left.
Other than Engelberger, the defense was a relentless, attacking, swarming mass. My seat in the Hokie section in Rutgers Stadium gave me a low vantage point on the field, and the resulting impression from my line of sight was one of chaos. The defensive line slashes and cuts to the ball, and the linebackers, when called upon, charge into the backfield in straight lines that cut off any avenue of escape. If you fail to block any one of the blitzers, as Rutgers did on several occasions, then the quarterback better get rid of the ball or start running, fast.
I think youre getting the point. After watching a defensive performance that included scoring two touchdowns and making very few mistakes, theres very little I can add in the way of analysis, other than to say, "This is how the defense is supposed to work."
After watching the new defense in action, Im not quite as intimidated by Syracuse now, but its still early yet, and the Orange have another game to work out the kinks. Theyre also a heck of a lot better than Rutgers, so lets just say that Im looking forward to this defense taking the measure of itself against a good offense.Special Teams
Two blocked punts. The bad kind two blocked Virginia Tech punts.
I dont know enough about punting to figure out if the blocks occurred due to Jimmy Kibble failing to get the kick off quickly, or if the blocks happened because of poor line blocking by Tech. Or it may have been a combination of the two. Getting punts off has been a problem for Tech since the beginning of last year, one that had supposedly been solved by Kibble shortening his motion and eliminating a step.
Well, back to the drawing board. Techs special teams play is hailed as being among the best in the country, but if we keep getting kicks blocked, the word will get out that were not what we used to be. On the positive side of the ledger, Kibble was killing the ball on both kickoffs and punts (6 punts for a 48 yard average, including two beauties back-to-back). Shayne Graham didnt get much of a workout other than extra points, but he did boot a nice field goal from the left hash mark late in the game. Opie added 10 points to his career total, giving him 79 points early in his sophomore year (the Tech record is 254 by Ryan Williams, which Graham is on course to break). If youre sharp, then you noticed that 10 points only accounts for 7 PATs Kibble kicked the 8th.
Good teams smash bad teams, period. They do it regardless of whether theyve graduated a lot of players from key positions, or whether the press gives them the "proper respect." When you can sit here and analyze a team and find weaknesses, and that team has just beaten someone 59-19, then thats a sign that youre analyzing a pretty good football team.
With the exception of the offensive line, which displayed some surprising but understandable inconsistency, I have no complaints, except that I would like for Techs punting game to be routine, instead of a heart-stopping crap shoot. Id also like to see Al Clark drop back in the pocket and go deep with success, just so opposing defenses can have one more thing to worry about.
I would be remiss if I got out of here without mentioning my play of the day. It came on Marcus Parkers 13-yard run in the second quarter. Al Clark lined up in the shotgun, and when he received the snap, he feinted towards the left tackle. Three Rutgers defenders bit on the fake, and Clark lateraled the ball outside to Parker, who had oodles of running room. My only complaint is that I wish Tech had kept that play in the bag, instead of giving Syracuse some game film to look at. Shame on you, Ricky Bustle! But that doesnt mean that Ricky isnt hiding some other tricky stuff that you didnt see .
This years Syracuse game is reminiscent of last years, from the standpoint that if the Hokies can bag the Orangemen, its smooth sailing ahead for a while. If they top SU, the Hokies can then work out the kinks against Temple, Arkansas State, and Miami (OH), padding the ranking at the same time.
Just when the Orangemen thought it was safe to play a home opener, they gagged again, this time against N.C. State, losing in the Dome in overtime, 32-31. While this demonstrates that Syracuse is more human than they looked against Wisconsin, the Orange are still not to be taken lightly, by any stretch. I do think Tech can make a statement in the September 13 game against Syracuse, or as Chris Fowler put it, "serve notice."