The 1997 Gator Bowl:
North Carolina 42, Virginia Tech 3
by Will Stewart,, 1/1/98

Click here for the game recap with stats

This is going to be a short game report. We have watched this team unravel since the Miami of Ohio game, or as some would argue, since the Temple game, a narrow 23-13 Tech victory in the 3rd game of the season. In that time, we have picked this team and its coaches apart, analyzed them, and put them under a microscope as we tried and tried to figure out what was "wrong," and how a Tech team that showed so much promise in the first two games of the year could drop five out of their last eight, with the last three looking particularly disastrous.

I don't want to do any more analyzing, breaking down, and explaining, and as a matter of fact, with this Gator Bowl, you don't have to. In this game, the Hokies ran into a buzz-saw, playing a North Carolina team that was not just one level above Tech, but two. In every Tech loss this year, you could point to a handful of plays and say "if," but in this game, all you could say was, "Wow. We got totally thrashed by a much better team. We never had a chance."

The UNC Tarheels slapped Frank Beamer with his worst loss ever as the Tech coach. The Hokies were beaten by 39 points, eclipsing the 38-0 trip to the woodshed that the hated UVa Cavaliers laid on Tech in 1991 (for that, strangely enough, we can thank North Carolina - they removed the UVa loss from that particular portion of the record books).

So it's pointless folly to try to analyze this loss. I was there, and I watched the Tarheels line up on the field with the Hokies, and I'll be blunt: they looked like men, and we looked like boys. UNC is huge, fast, and fierce, and Tech didn't belong on the field with them.

I came away from the Gator Bowl feeling that UNC is at least as good as any other team I've seen Tech play in the last ten years, including the 1989 FSU team that whipped a good Tech team 41-7, and the 1992 Miami team that throttled the Hokies 43-23 (in that game, the Hokies were out of it by half time and posted three TD's on the Canes' scrubs. Miami effortlessly converted a 3rd-and-27 in that game, symbolic of how the game went for Tech).

This Gator Bowl game was such a blowout that it induced a perversely comic metamorphosis in the attitude of Tech offensive lineman Gennaro DiNapoli. Gennaro went from pregame comments like "UNC is a beatable team" and "We're going to kick some Tarheel ASS!" (spoken during the pep rally the night before the game) to the post game comment, "If we played them fifty times, we wouldn't beat them once."

He's right.

So how did we get here? How is it that this once-proud Hokie team stepped on to the field and absorbed a whipping the likes of which hasn't been seen since Vanderbilt waxed the Hokies 45-0 in 1982? The answers lie in both the past and the present.

The Past

Tech's 1993 and 1994 recruiting classes would have resulted in this year's redshirt seniors (1993), seniors (1994), and redshirt juniors (1994). Juniors and seniors are the players who, when push comes to shove, make plays and win games. Here are the players from those two classes, 1993 and 1994, who were still here this year (the others either graduated or left school - all information comes from Chris McCrea's old recruiting site):

1993: Brad Baylor, Larry Green, Korey Irby, Shawn Scales, and Sean Sullivan.

1994: Al Clark, Gennaro DiNapoli, Shelly Ellison, Ken Oxendine, Marcus Parker, Derek Smith, Dwight Vick, Todd Washington.

Look at that. Two complete recruiting classes, and only thirteen players from those two classes were here for this Gator Bowl. Those two years suffered massive attrition and player loss, and they were followed by the 1995 recruiting class, which is arguably the weakest Tech recruiting class in at least seven years (that's what everybody said when the class was signed, anyway). Not to mention that Tech recruited zero offensive linemen in the 1995 class. None.

Contrast what happened with the 1993 and 1994 classes to what happened with the 1991 and 1992 classes, who produced the following players: Mike Bianchin, Hank Coleman, George Del Ricco, Jim Druckenmiller, Jeff Holland, Jermaine Holmes, Lawrence Lewis, Chris Malone, J.C. Price, Dwayne Thomas, Antonio Banks, Billy Conaty, Torrian Gray, Jay Hagood, Waverly Jackson, Bryan Still, T.J. Washington, and Cornelius White.

The 1991-1992 classes produced nineteen players who all impacted the Tech program, some in a huge way. Of those nineteen, a whopping twelve were either drafted or got a good look from the pros: Del Ricco, Druck, Holmes, Price, Thomas, Banks, Conaty, Gray, Hagood, Jackson, Still, and Washington. Many of them are on NFL rosters today, and heck, I may have even missed a few.

For comparison, from the 93 and 94 recruits who are still with us, Only DiNapoli, Oxendine, Parker, Washington, and perhaps Smith or Vick (if they have great senior seasons) will get interest from the NFL. And out of those guys, I'll bet that only Parker is really capable of making the scouts drool.

You get the point? In the last two years, the Hokies lost a load of talent. Early this year, after whipping Rutgers and Syracuse, we thought we had replaced it. We were apparently wrong, for the time being, anyway.

About halfway through this year, I started to think that there are two kinds of leadership: off-the-field and on-the-field. Whereas the 1995 and 1996 teams were weak on off-field leadership, they had a truckload of guys who knew what on-the-field leadership was about: making plays. Plays that win games.

This year's team was the exact polar opposite. They were stellar leaders off the field (most notably Ken Oxendine, who is the very definition of the word "class"), but there was barely a single guy on the field who could make a play when it needed to be made, particularly when you throw in the injuries suffered by the receivers and the whip linebackers. Sorry to be so blunt about it, but the proof is in the scores: 24-17, 30-17, 30-23, 34-20, and 42-3 (Miami-OH, WVU, Pitt, UVa, and UNC).

The Present

After 1993-1995, the recruiting started to pick up steam, at least on paper. The 1996 and 1997 classes are regarded as good recruiting classes, and the 1998 class will be Tech's best ever. That's great, but the 1998 class isn't here yet, and Beamer redshirted the entire 1997 class, except for three guys who barely played: Matt Lehr, Dave Kadela, and Derek Carter.

The decision to redshirt the 1997 class, including JUCO transfer receiver Ricky Hall, was made with the future in mind, but boy, it body-slammed the present, particularly in the receiving corps. According to those in the know, we could have used Andre Davis and Ricky Hall, both of whom supposedly couldn't be covered in practice late in the season.

There are other things in the present that we could talk about that hurt us this season, such as injuries, but I don't want to get into that. Like I've said, we have beaten it to death all year, and I don't want to harp on the same stuff again, because I don't have anything new to say. And in this particular game, this Gator Bowl, it wouldn't have mattered what we tried. We were outclassed, period, in a big way.

The Future

North Carolina showed us (and last year, Nebraska showed us) that you can't just recruit a good player here and a good player there. You have to stockpile your roster with studs, like all the elite programs do, before you can expect to be a fixture in the Top 10. And even that's not a guarantee. Look what it's gotten UNC - perennial trips to the Gator Bowl!

A number of Hokies jokingly said after the game, "Wait'll next year!" and I jokingly replied, "Uh, maybe not next year. You may have to wait until the year after." Tech will be paper-thin on the offensive line next year, experience-wise. We'll have Dwight Vick and Derek Smith returning, but beyond that, very little game experience will be lining up on the OL. I think the guys we have will be good in time, but probably not next year. They're too young and too green.

And I won't believe that the JUCO offensive line transfers from Utah will make a difference until I see it. I'm not saying they won't, mind you, I just won't believe it until I see it, because the jump from JUCO to Division 1-A is a tough one. Just ask Ricky Hall.

Elsewhere, like it or not, Frank Beamer's got a burgeoning quarterback controversy on his hands between Clark and Sorensen. I think so, anyway. I like Al's work ethic, his warrior attitude (don't take me out till my leg falls off), and his speed, when he's healthy. I don't like the way he's too short to see over the line (roll-out, anyone? Bustle? Bustle? Bustle?), I don't like the way he holds the ball until he gets sacked, and I don't like his lack of accuracy on the long ball.

I like Nick's pocket sense, his speed, and his scrambling ability. I like his height, and the fact that he works so hard in the weight room. I like how he makes decisions quickly, and they're usually the right ones. I don't like the fact that Sean Sullivan was running downfield wide open in the Gator Bowl, and Nick, unpressured, threw it in the dirt, ten yards behind him. He did a similar thing in the UAB game, underthrowing an open Ken Handy (yes, he was open) for an INT.

So what flavor do you like? Al or Nick? Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it will be interesting to see if Beamer opens the job up, or if he hands it to Al again like he did this year, with no discussion or competition.

That's a Wrap

Lastly (yes, I'm wrapping this game report up early), I had to comment on a letter that I saw in Sunday's Roanoke Times. It was written by Jim Swope, of Clearwater, Florida, and it ran under the headline, "Virginia Tech didn't belong in a bowl game."

(well, we certainly didn't belong in the Gator Bowl, but we won't get into that)

In a nutshell, Mr. Swope suggested that Tech should have tucked its collective tail between its legs, refused the Gator Bowl bid, and stayed home for the holidays. He asked the question, "Was it (the humiliating loss) worth $800,000?"

Yes, Mr. Swope, it was. In this day and age of Title IX and $500,000 women's softball fields (for crying out loud), in this day and age where state legislatures elsewhere allow universities to spend state funds on athletics and Virginia doesn't, in this day and age where Carl Smith strokes $25 million checks to our in-state rival while we struggle to come up with a lousy $10 million for the Merryman Center, we most certainly take the money. And run like hell.

Running a big-time football program means that you take your lumps from time to time. Anybody remember Nebraska slaughtering Florida two years ago in the Fiesta Bowl? I do. Florida won the national championship the next year. Anybody remember Tech getting hammered by Tennessee in the Gator Bowl in 1994? I do. We went to two straight Alliance Bowls after that.

Message to Hokie fans: the sky isn't falling, Chicken Little, so calm down. If this ride is a little too bumpy for you, either buckle your seat belt, or get out of this machine so someone else, someone who can handle the ride, can have your seat.

See ya next Spring. I'm going to bed. I'm tired. I'm sure the Hokies are, too, but tomorrow's a brand new day.

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