Virginia Tech 31, Syracuse 3
by Will Stewart,, 9/13/97

Click here for the game recap with stats

Someone asked me after the game if I had ever seen a more flawless performance by a Tech football team. Up to that point, not feeling a need to classify the win, I was merely satisfied to be happy with the victory. But when you consider the key word in the question – "flawless" – I had to pause and consider if this game, a truly great victory, was worthy of hyperbole.

In the end, all I could say was, "More flawless than that? Probably not."

Lost amidst all the emotion and importance of this victory is the fact that it was indeed a nearly flawless performance by a young and improving football team in nearly all phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. On offense, Tech neither fumbled nor threw an interception, and only an illegal formation penalty and an illegal block here or there marred the game.

On defense, the Tech defenders stayed in their lanes, missed very few tackles, and when given the chance to intercept a wayward pass – twice – they did. I don’t recall an offsides or an interference or a facemasking penalty all night.

On special teams, Shayne Graham made every kick he was given, Jimmy Kibble consistently pinned Syracuse deep in their own territory, and with the exception of Shawn Scales muffing a punt and immediately falling on it, there were no mistakes. Corey Moore is probably taking a ribbing from his teammates for not blocking Syracuse’s field goal, which Moore had a clear shot at, but I won’t classify his failure to make that play as a mistake.

I watched the game on tape the second I got home Saturday night, as I’m sure many of you did, and it’s a very simple game to break down. On defense, Tech’s speed and emotion covered for the mistakes of inexperience, if there were many mistakes made at all.

On offense, Al Clark stayed steady and cool, as he has done all spring and fall, and he did the one thing a Virginia Tech quarterback is asked to do above all else: don’t screw up. The offensive line, which appears to be jelling, ground out the running game on an SU defense which eventually wore down and started to give up large gains (over 40 of Oxendine’s 104 yards rushing came in the fourth quarter). Throw in the two best passes I’ve ever seen Al Clark throw, both to Shawn Scales, and I couldn’t ask for a whole lot more from an offense that still has a lot of improving to do.

So was it flawless? Well, no game is truly "flawless," but this early in season, with revenge and the inside track in the Big East title chase riding on the game, this Tech team played about as well as they’re capable of playing at this point.

And the scary thing for Tech’s opponents is that they can only get better.

The Keys

Field position. Field position, field position, field position. Jimmy Kibble, who was later named the Big East Special Teams Player of the Week, buried Syracuse deep in their own territory all game long.

It is extremely hard for anyone to mount a long drive against this attacking Tech defense, because about one play out of every three or four is going to go for no gain or negative yardage. You have to beat this team with the big play, of which Syracuse was only able to muster a couple.

The problem with trying to score on this Tech defense is that if you do pull off a big play, you better do it on a short field, because the speed on this defense will catch up with you after about 50 yards at the most. There are probably a few players in the country who can run away from this defense, but there aren’t many of them, and each year, as Virginia Tech’s speed improves, the list dwindles.

I believe that what you’re starting to see in Tech’s defense is a nearly-perfect system coming to fruition. It relies on stuffing the run, pressuring the quarterback, and covering receivers one-on-one. As the years go by and the quality of Tech’s players improves, the defense starts to look more and more unbeatable. More on that later.

Heart. Backed by more than 50,000 blood-thirsty maniacs, this Tech team showed great heart. Last year, with its distractions and egos, is gone, and on the field now is a team that is focused and determined. They are bent on proving themselves to the nation and showing college football fans around the country that Virginia Tech’s success is inherent in the team, coaching staff, and players, and was not solely due to the efforts of Jim Druckenmiller, Cornell Brown, and company.

The only thing more dangerous than a good team is a good team on a mission, and these Hokies have a mission. As long as the media continues to ignore us, and as long as there are people around who say that we don’t deserve Alliance Bowl bids, this team will always have something to prove.

Do you know when I realized Syracuse was done, and they were not going to come back? It came late in the third quarter, just after Tech had scored a lightning-quick touchdown to go up 14-0 (Clark hit Scales on a 51 yard bomb, and then Ox ran it in on the next play). Shortly after the VT touchdown, Syracuse reeled off a big play of their own, a long pass-and-run that took the ball all the way down to the Tech 20 yard line.

I checked out Syracuse’s frame of mind at that point by looking at their players on the sidelines. At a moment in which they should have been excited, having just peeled off a big play for their deepest penetration into Tech territory, I looked at them, and I didn’t see much enthusiasm. They were simply walking from one end of the sideline to the other. That’s when I knew they didn’t have the heart for a comeback. That’s when I knew they were cooked.

Conditioning. We’ve seen this the last three times we’ve played Syracuse at Lane Stadium. The two teams will start out fairly even, but by the end of the game, Tech is grinding SU into the turf, and the Orangemen are making arm tackles and being dragged five extra yards by the Tech running backs.

This year, the Syracuse defense didn’t totally fall apart, at least not until the very end. Instead, the lack of conditioning took its toll on the Syracuse offense, as they became tired and finally started making mistakes. Donovan McNabb started making risky, ill-advised throws, finally resulting in an interception by Larry Green and a cheap Tech touchdown. Tech’s last touchdown came on a short run after an errant throw by Syracuse’s backup quarterback was nearly returned for a TD by Pierson Prioleau (by the way, did anyone catch that ESPN spelled his name "PRIOLEAW" in their lineups that they show early in the game?).

Mistakes. Tech simply didn’t make many. No fumbles, no interceptions, and only 5 penalties. Syracuse didn’t make many mistakes, either, but the ones they did make (the two interceptions) put the game away.


The more I see of Al Clark, the more I like him. At this point, he is playing under control and "within himself," as they like to say, and he seems to grasp that Job One is not to put the team in a bad position by making mistakes.

I had a great angle on the 22-yard touchdown to Scales. I sit in section 15, which means that Al threw the ball along my line of sight on the play. I actually gasped at the way he threw it to the spot and Scales cut inside of the defender to catch it and score. The beauty of the play was not apparent on television or to those in the stadium who didn’t have my angle on it.

Al also threw a perfectly-placed dart to Parker across the middle on an early play (and oh by the way, how much of a weapon is that guy?). His 51-yard bomb to Scales was the best long ball I’ve seen him throw yet, and although Al’s final passing stats were only 5-11, I remember at least two plays where hard, well-timed hits by the Syracuse DB’s separated Hokie receivers from the ball.

And if that’s not enough, Al threw a couple of good blocks during the game, most notably on the 20-yard reverse by Scales, when Clark was pushing a defensive lineman backwards.

There is only one frontier Clark has not covered. He has shown himself to be a good quarterback on the road against a bad team (Rutgers), and he has shown himself to be a good QB at home against a good team (Syracuse). The last piece of the puzzle is for Al to play well against a good team on the road, in front of a hostile crowd. I, for one, will be watching his Oct. 25th performance at WVU very closely.

My favorite stat from the game is Ox’s 28 carries. He never did bust a long one and he "only" accumulated 104 yards, but I like the fact that we got the ball to the big guy nearly 30 times. Tech’s run/pass ratio was a whopping 51/11, showing that Ricky Bustle knows where this team’s offensive bread is buttered.

The Syracuse front four was suspect against the run, and Bustle went after them with the running game. Although the Orange linebackers and DB’s played pretty well, the front four didn’t mount much of an effort, particularly when Tech dropped back to pass. I was astounded by the amount of time Al Clark had to throw the ball, and more so than that, I was astounded by the fact that Syracuse ran almost no stunts and blitzes. There were times where their defensive line was so inactive on the passing game that they looked they were playing a prevent defense. But I guess if a team is expecting you to run on them, they won’t blitz or stunt very much.

As I said earlier, the offensive line seems to be improving, and through two games, they have stayed injury free. The running game was a little more consistent, although not as overpowering as I would have liked, but the pass-blocking was phenomenal.

As more time goes by, this offense will get better. The primary way it can get better is by improvement in the offensive line, which will hopefully open up Orange-Bowl-sized holes for the Ox by the end of the year.

Another player that I’m still waiting on is Angelo Harrison. Harrison was the target on Tech’s opening-play, "get your DB’s off the line of scrimmage" pass, and he was open. A Syracuse DB arrived late and knocked the ball down, preventing what I thought was a sure touchdown by Harrison. He was also the target again late in the game, and again, the pass was knocked down. Harrison is a well-kept secret at this point, because Tech has only averaged about 11-12 passes a game so far. He will do major damage to at least one opponent before the year is over.


I will resist the urge to fawn over this group of guys, and instead, I’ll try to keep my comments more on the side of analysis, instead of cheerleading.

Mark my words, this defense will one day be the greatest defense to ever play at Virginia Tech!!!!

Okay, so I slipped for a second.

I was talking earlier about the fact that as the quality of Tech’s players improve, the defense just gets better and better. Well, duh, but you know what I mean. When the Tech coaches installed the current system in 1993, our players were good enough to run it and run it well. Now that we have been recruiting players specifically for that system for four years, the strength of the system is starting to bear fruit: speed.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, this defensive scheme relies on speed: the speed required to make plays with an eight-man line, the speed required to cover receivers one-on-one, the speed that ensures that a blitz gets to the quarterback quickly, and the speed that covers up for mistakes by preventing touchdowns.

As for that last point, on Syracuse’s long pass play that I talked about earlier, did anyone notice how quickly Ike Charlton came in and smashed the ball carrier out of bounds? Loren Johnson was downfield, but he was unable to shed his blocker, and Charlton was the first to catch up with the runner. Charlton and the less-used Lorenzo Ferguson are perfect examples of the speed required to be a Tech DB in this system. Not only do the DB’s have to cover receivers one-on-one, but they have to be able to catch up with the ball if one of their fellow DB’s misses a tackle or gets caught out of position.

The Orange Bowl against Nebraska proved what else is important: depth. I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but the Hokies played a TON of defenders throughout the game, not just in mopup time. Beamer and company seem to grasp the importance of depth, particularly on the defensive line, and they are cycling 7 or 8 defensive linemen in and out of the game, in an effort to build the type of defensive line depth that we had in 1995. Corey Moore, Carl Bradley, Chris Cyrus, and Anthony Lambo all saw extensive playing time against Syracuse Saturday, and all played well.

By the way, has anybody noticed how many plays Lambo (#59) is making in limited playing time? He was the one who corralled Donovan McNugget by the neck and slammed him to the turf, causing a fumble. I’ve seen him bull rush right through offensive linemen in both the Rutgers and Syracuse games, and he’s only a redshirt freshman.

Depth within the context of a single game is not as important for an offensive line, which deals out most of the punishment in a game. On the OL, depth is important mainly when building for the future or filling in due to injury. That’s why I don’t think it’s not a big deal that Tech didn’t play many backup offensive linemen against Syracuse. In the coming month, though, I’m hoping that the young guys on the OL see a lot of playing time.

Back to the defense. This defense has a ton of guys who are making plays, not just a few here and there who do the job while the other guys take up space. Whereas Engelberger really stood out against Rutgers, the assault against Syracuse was like watching an octopus fight. Syracuse never quite knew where the next attack was going to come from. Dopey me in the preseason, trying to pick just a few guys to watch on this defense. After reconsidering, all I can say is, watch ‘em all.

I was impressed with the way Tech’s defensive backs played in this game. I thought the cornerbacks were a soft spot in Tech’s defense last year, but on Saturday, Loren Johnson and company played tight, clean coverage. Heck, the only interference I saw was offensive interference against Syracuse!

Miscellaneous Notes

The Tech team impressed me with their poise. There was very little mugging for the camera, and the Hokies didn’t bite when Syracuse tried to trash talk them … I saw Brandon Semones standing behind Bud Foster in one camera shot on ESPN … Marcus Parker was out most of the game with a sprained knee, and Cullen Hawkins looked good in relief… Ox, never known for his receiving prowess, made two nice catches on poorly thrown balls … Syracuse ran their punt team on the field and snapped the ball quickly to neutralize Tech’s punt-blocking abilities ….

Good job by ESPN announcers Mike Gottfried, Ron Franklin, and Adrian Karsten … nice call by Beamer, deciding to go for the field goal that put us up 17-3 instead of trying to get the first down (a score was more important than gambling at that point) … the "jail break sack," with several Tech players piling on the quarterback at the same time, is back this year after being absent during 1996 … Larry Green started and seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself after being absent from the team for a year and a half.

The Rest of the Season

All of you people who are talking about going 11-0 need to slow down for a second. "One at a time" isn’t just a cliché, it’s a good way to approach things in football.

The difference between this year and the past two years is that this team has passed its first major test of the season, unlike the teams of 1995 and 1996. So yes, this team is in the driver’s seat for the Big East championship, but two games does not a season make. Rutgers isn’t any good (losing to Navy 36-7 on Saturday), and Syracuse was already broken spiritually, despite their claims to the contrary. While the defense is on a roll, it’s still a young defense, and the offense has yet to play a dominating game.

I’ll start thinking "Big East championship" if this team gets through Temple (likely) and Boston College (also likely, since the game is at Lane). After that there’s still a road trip to fired-up Mountaineer Field in West Virginia, and we’ve all seen what revenge can do for a team’s motivation. Then we have to come back home for Miami, and last on the docket is a trip to Pittsburgh.

Are you getting the point? The potential is there, yes, but two games is less than 20% of the season.

There was an article by Randy King in The Roanoke Times today that had the ill-advised headline "Only Hurricanes Cloud Horizon." In the piece, King talked about another Alliance Bowl for Tech and even mentioned the dreaded 11-0. That kind of talk is poison at this point in the season. I ought to know – I was living in Charlottesville in 1990, the year that UVa started out 7-0 and achieved their #1 ranking, and The Daily Progress and The Richmond Times-Dispatch were already discussing who UVa was going to play for the national championship. We all know how that came out.

At this point, Frank Beamer faces a coaching situation that he hasn’t seen yet. He has to maintain the team’s focus and keep them under control at a time in which it would be easy to get swelled heads, due to the press clippings and the joyous cries of Hokie fans. Fortunately, he is blessed with a business-like team that feels that it has something to prove. I can’t see a guy like John Engelberger letting things go to his head.

If I was Beamer, I would use the following two pieces of motivation when talking to the players:

  1. Based on the performance of the Big East so far this year, the title of Top Dog in the conference is up for grabs. It is time for Virginia Tech to shut people up by winning the conference outright with a 7-0 record. The conference is rightfully taking a beating in the national press for its overall performance, or lack thereof, and it is up to Virginia Tech to shoulder the load for this underperforming group of media darlings. If I have some time later on this week, and I’m able to shake off this cold, I’ll discuss this subject in more detail, because it’s getting to be a sore spot with me.

  2. It is also time for Virginia Tech to send a message to the national press that we want our respect, and we want it now. The best way to do this is by posting another 10-win season (at least), go to another Alliance Bowl, and prove to everyone that Virginia Tech is more than just Jim Druckenmiller and Cornell Brown. We can’t do anything about our pitiful out of conference schedule, but what we can do is smash every pathetic team on it into dust. I made the comment during my Rutgers game report that good teams crush bad teams, and the Hokies need to serve notice that they’re a very good team by posting scores like 57-10 against the likes of Arkansas State, UAB, and Miami (OH).

If we win the Big East and make it to an Alliance Bowl, then we can talk about winning that Alliance Bowl. But not until then. Until then, I want to crush each team we play. One at a time.

In the immediate future, Tech has three very winnable games coming up, and then a date with Boston College at Lane Stadium that is also winnable. My hopes are that the Hokies will spend the next four games (a) winning; (b) honing the defense and moving it up in the rankings with great statistical performances; (c) developing depth in the offensive line and improving the passing game; (d) moving up – way up – in the polls; and (e) putting the Ox well on his way to a 1,000-yard season.

And one more thing, Hokies: stay healthy!

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