Virginia 34, Virginia Tech 20
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/29/97
At some point in this game, I was able to separate myself emotionally and ponder what I was watching happen in front of me. That moment came on an Al Clark run some time in the third quarter, when the Tech QB saw an opening on third down, decided to run, and limped his way to a first down.
I spent the next play or so really watching Clark, and I realized that I was looking at a guy who fits the definition of warrior. Despite the bad knee, which has been bugging him for weeks, and despite having only half (or less) of an offense to work with, he was still plugging away, still trying to do everything he could to win.
Then I thought about the whole team, and how hard they were all trying, and how much they all wanted to win but they just couldnt. There have been some comparisons made between this team and the 1994 team, and I dont think those comparisons are fair. Not to speak ill of the departed (the 1994 Hokies), but the line Ive heard on that team is that they were a collection of me-first types who may have been missing something in the heart department. At least, thats what the 1995 Hokies said about the previous year as they stormed their way to the Sugar Bowl.
If theres one thing this 1997 team has, its heart. They just dont have the other things it takes to win a ballgame, like good knees and ankles, and players who make clutch plays. The struggles are not due to a lack of effort. Theyre due to a rash of injuries, a lack of depth and experience at key positions, and a mediocre performance from a coaching staff that didnt have one of its better years.
Theres a lot that can be said about this game. There are a lot of reasons why we lost. Time prohibits me from talking about every aspect of the game, so Ill just touch on some thoughts that I wanted to share. Lets go over the pros and cons of the offensive and defensive performances.
Let me preface the rest of this game report by saying that I haven't watched my tape of the game, and I really have no desire to. I also didn't get to listen to Bill and Mike after the game, and needless to say, I haven't checked out the euphoric "reports" on the UVa victory from the Virginia media (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, et al). So I'm going strictly on memory and what was observed by myself and those around me.
Disclaimer: all errors, typos, and mistakes are strictly intentional and are designed to test you.Offense
Pro: the coaching staff finally got Marcus Parker involved heavily in the game plan, and I dont just mean by putting the ball in his gut at a jammed-up line of scrimmage. Marcus touched the ball on 10 of Techs 51 offensive plays, and every time he had it in his hands, I felt like I was watching a big, talented back at his best. The only time I felt supremely confident all day on offense was when Marcus Parker had the ball in his hands. He ran 7 times for 38 yards (5.4 yards/carry) and caught three passes for 33 yards (11 yards per catch).
Pro: the Tech coaching staff finally tried to stretch the field with the passing game, throwing a number of bombs. Unfortunately, those bombs were ineffective, and as a matter of fact, I thought they were over-utilized. I dont agree with throwing a bomb on third and four. But give the staff credit for trying to mix things up.
Pro: the TD pass to Lamont Pegues was a thing of beauty. The play featured a fake handoff and a fake flanker screen to one side of the field, and then a reversal swing pass to Pegues, who was running wide open down the other side of the field.
Pro: the onsides kick, which immediately followed the Pegues touchdown was Thing of Beauty #2. I think that Frank Beamer is one of the master gamblers in college coaching. Most of the time, he shows very little fear about gambling, and most of the time, its effective, like this play and the fake punt against WVU.
Pro: Stuewe made a few tough catches in traffic.
Con: again, we just didnt have enough guns to get the job done. Scales is out, Clark was hobbled, Harrison was completely ineffective due to his ankle, etc., etc.
Con: play-calling. Its easy and popular to criticize play-calling, and I usually avoid it, but I wanted to call out a couple of instances where I thought we didnt call effective plays.
1.) As I said before, I thought the bomb was overused and was used at the wrong time. I hate to see the bomb on third and short, almost as much as a I hate to see the draw play on third and 20. Clark was consistently unable to hit Gildersleeve with the long ball, and yet we kept killing drives by attempting it.
2.) With the score 27-10 and Tech driving after the onsides kick, the drive bogged down inside the UVa 20 after a succession of playing-it-safe running plays up the gut. Aargh.
3.) With the score 27-13, Tech was putting together a nice drive in the fourth quarter. The Hokies faced a second and six on UVas 30 yard line or so. Ricky Bustle called a long pass to the corner of the goal line, and then followed it with another long pass to the corner of the end zone. Both fell incomplete, and the drive stalled. Aargh again.
In one instance (#2), we killed the drive by being too conservative, and in the other instance (#3), we killed it by going for more than we needed. Sure, if the pass to the corner of the end zone had worked, I would be singing a different tune, but since it didnt work, I get to second-guess it. Its my job, and its also Ricky Bustles job to be second-guessed.
Con: once again, Lamont Pegues scores a touchdown and is rewarded with a seat on the bench. Once again, Ken Oxendine is slammed into a clogged line over and over and over (19 carries, 59 yards). I cant believe the Ox is still walking after the way we have abused him this year. Take a bow, Ken, you deserve it for showing up every game and giving it everything youve got.Defense
Pro: Engelberger, Engelberger, Engelberger. When Big John is healthy, he's a man among boys, and he played like it on Saturday. There was one play where he reached around a block and grabbed a UVa running back by the shirt sleeve and pulled him to the ground with one hand. If Engelberger can stay healthy next year, he will be a major contributor. This year, a knee injury in the Temple game hampered him until nearly the end of the season, but before that injury and after it, he was a joy to watch.
Pro: run defense. UVa ran 38 times for 112 yards. Take away Thomas Jones's 60-yard TD run, and you've got 37 rushes for 52 yards. Jones was 22 rushes for 102 yards, which means the rest of the UVa team had only 10 yards on 16 carries. Not too shabby, my friends.
Pro: Ike Charlton. Quick question - how many passes did UVa throw to Brian Owen, the receiver that Ike was guarding? I counted one. On the play, which was early in the game, Ike had Owen covered like a blanket. Owen fell down, the ball fell on the ground, and UVa offensive coordinator Sparky Woods, no fool, must have said to himself, "Hmm, I guess I'll quit doing that. Who's guarding Germane Crowell?" Which leads me to my first .
Con: every time Crowell lined up, it was across the line from Anthony Midget, or even worse, the hopelessly outsized Larry Green, who covers well but just isn't big enough. Midget is a pretty decent cornerback, but it takes a great cornerback to cover Crowell effectively. Every time Tech tried to guard Crowell one-on-one, which was pretty much all the time, UVa went to him and abused us. In an alternate universe, maybe Ike Charlton gets to cover Germane Crowell, but not in this one. In this universe, Tech committed the cardinal sin of guarding Crowell one-on-one, despite the fact that UVa doesn't really have any other good receivers.
Con: UVa had the back out of the backfield open all day long, including a 55-yard TD pass from Aaron Brooks to Anthony Southern. The Tech linebackers were victimized all night long by the back out of the backfield.
Con: mental breakdowns. Southern was wide open on his touchdown. Jones was not nearly so wide open on his TD run, because I saw Keion Carpenter come up to make the tackle and fall flat on his butt (and where I come from, that's a physical mistake, not a mental mistake). I don't know if the TV guys picked up on that or not, but perhaps Jones doesn't score if Carpenter doesn't fall down. And lastly, Anthony Midget was very upset at the safety (Summers?) on Crowell's last TD, leading me to think that the safety was out of position. It goes without saying that when the offense is struggling, the defense needs to play a near-perfect game, and we haven't been doing that lately.
Con: inconsistent pass rush. Tech has not demonstrated the ability to rush consistently with just the down linemen (is anybody missing Cornell Brown - Cornell the player - right about now?). When the Hokies have blitzed, the opponents have picked it up, and UVa did a pretty good job of it. Sometimes the Tech linemen and linebackers brought pressure, but it was generally only from one side, and Aaron Brooks, who is very mobile, escaped it easily.Coaching
I'm going to rake the coaching staff over the coals for a little while, because (a.) they get paid, so I don't feel bad criticizing them, whereas pointing out the shortcomings of the players is an uncomfortable task; and (b.) they have not done a good job this year, in my opinion.
I think Frank Beamer is an excellent coach, maybe a great coach, but he's got his faults, one of which is loyalty to players who either can't produce or don't produce.
I'm specifically talking about Al Clark, who is a real trooper, but you've got to ask yourself, when a guy can barely walk, should he be playing? This is a popular question these days, as many folks are railing on Beamer and saying that Nick Sorensen should have played while Clark healed.
After downing Syracuse in September, Frank Beamer realized that he was staring a Big East championship in the face. When Clark was hurt against WVU, he took a calculated risk that Al could continue to play effectively and lead us to the championship. This is Frank's way of handling things.
Does anybody remember 1989? That was the year that Will Furrer went down early with a knee injury. Beamer plugged Cam Young into the quarterback slot. There was only one problem with that: Cam had a bad shoulder and couldn't throw the ball more than about 15 yards. But Beamer milked him all year long, despite having a strong-armed replacement, Rodd Wooten, on the bench.
I'll never forget the UVa game that year. The Cavs were whipping us 24-0, and they made the mistake of knocking Cam Young out of the game. Wooten came off the bench and fired bullets in all directions. UVa went into shock. It was unlike anything they had imagined seeing from Cam Young, and the Hokies stormed back, nearly winning the game. Tech eventually ran out of time and lost, 32-25.
My point is, despite the fact that Cam Young could barely throw, Beamer stuck with him. So as long as Al Clark could walk, he wasn't coming out. No way.
I don't know what I think about that. I'm not sure that Sorensen could have been more effective. We'll never know. What we do know is that with Al injured, the option and the roll-out pass, which were key elements of this offense, disappeared. We became a one-dimensional team, and our opponents feasted on us.
I do know this: Marcus Parker and Lamont Pegues should have been used more, period. I will listen to no excuses or explanations on that point, because Marcus Parker was the best offensive player we had, bar none, and he only touched the ball 5-10 times a game. That was a mistake. And Lamont Pegues was an excellent runner and a great change of pace, so why didn't he play more? Am I missing something here?
The other area in which the coaches could have done a better job, in my opinion, was in adjusting to the injuries. Instead of realizing that a depleted wide receiver corps and a gimpy quarterback required some changes to produce points, the coaches stubbornly continued to pound Ox into the line and hope for the best. As the competition improved, it finally caught up with the Hokies, and the roof fell in.
And there's one question that's been nagging me this week: why was Al Clark allowed to limp around for over a month before an MRI was finally run last Monday?
I don't like all this negativity, folks, but those were just some things I had to say. And the bottom line is, anybody can coach when you've got all guns firing, like the Hokies did in 1995 and 1996. Coaching without all your guns is another matter indeed, and I don't think Beamer and Bustle acquitted themselves all that well this year. Frank and his staff were the Big East Coaches of the Year the last two years, but this year, they weren't.The Upshot
My, my, all that negativity. Let's take a break and let me say that I sure am glad we have the luxury of griping about a 7-4 season. Five years ago, we had to gripe about a 2-8-1 season, and given the choice between 1992 and 1997, I'll take 1997 any day. I know one thing - I'm going to get to go to a bowl this year, and that's always been good enough for me.
Returning to an earlier theme, let me also say that I'm proud of the team for not quitting. These guys played hard all the way, and that can't be said of every other Tech team in the past. Most of them, but not all. This team's legacy will be a ton of effort in a season where they just couldn't get it done, and there's no shame in that.
They got us all jacked up with their early season play, and yes, they did play well, make no bones about it. We as fans let the talk of an 11-0 season go to our heads, so I think we all need to take a breather, collect ourselves, and do what we do best - go to a bowl and support the team. While Colorado and Texas suffer through miserable seasons in conferences equally as mediocre as the Big East, we were treated to a pretty good 7-4 season that included victories over Miami and Syracuse.
Not that there aren't some serious holes that need to be plugged. I'll cover a few of those as I finish this report.The Future
Recruiting: the Hokies have had some good success in the last few years, but there is one inescapable fact. When Ken Oxendine graduates and leaves, he will be the last highly-touted impact player that the Hokies have signed in state. And he'll be gone.
More so than ever, Tech needs to land impact players, players who can contribute right off the bat. Players like Cornell Brown and Jim Pyne, guys who stepped into starting roles and moved on to All-American status.
Frank Beamer is fond of talking about great players making great plays, and the Hokies are starting to run short on guys who can make plays. In Saturday's game, Angelo Harrison dropped a fair catch. UVa recovered it, and a few plays later, Aaron Brooks laid the ball into Anthony Midget's hands at the goal line. Midget dropped it. On the next play, Brooks fired to the corner of the end zone, and Germane Crowell pushed Midget away and caught his first TD.
I turned to Mrs. HokieCentral and said, "Harrison dropped the ball. Midget dropped the ball. Crowell didn't drop the ball. End of story."
It's that simple, folks. We need some big-time players. I don't know if any of the guys we have now fit the bill. We'll find out in the next year or two. But I do find it odd that as our success has built on the field, our ability to land big-time recruits like Cornell Brown, Ken Oxendine, and Tony Morrison has waned.
We need to get back the recruiting magic, and soon. If the Merryman Center doesn't start bringing them in, then I dont know what the answer is, other than getting into a better conference with a better TV package and better leadership and media presence. Because we've got everything else - a good coaching staff, great fans, and a new winning tradition ("new winning tradition" - is that an oxymoron?).
Shoring Up Weak Positions: we need receivers with good size and great hands, and soon. We need big cornerbacks, and soon. Tech has compromised the receiver position for four years, and now we're paying for it. We have also made the mistake of thinking that 5-10, 175 pound cornerbacks will get the job done, and it's not working. If you want to run with the big dogs, you need CB's who are 6-1 to 6-3, and at least 195 pounds, so they can jam the big receivers at the line and then stick with them down the field. Ike already has that routine down.
Just for reference, Ike Charlton is 6-0, 196. Lorenzo Ferguson is 6-0, 193. Philip Summers is 6-0, 191. Those guys are all redshirt freshmen. The "more mature" DB's we've got are Loren Johnson (5-10, 175, junior), Larry Green (5-7, 179 senior), and Anthony Midget (5-11, 181 sophomore). With the exception of Midget, you can see that the most recent recruits are heading in the right direction size-wise, and even Midget is no, uh, Midget. He's kind of a 'tweener, size-wise.
As for receivers, we've got some guys with some good size waiting in the wings. Redshirt 1997 recruit Andre Davis is 6-1, 180, JUCO transfer and current redshirt Ricky Hall is 6-4 210, and 1997 recruit Ben Taylor, who will arrive in January (I believe), is 6-3, 200.
This year's notable recruits (just verbal commitments at this point) are Lamar Cobb at 6'4, 215 and Emmett Johnson at 6'3, 185. Whether these guys have good speed and good hands remains to be seen, but I like the way the size is trending. Taylor may play DB, and highly touted DB recruit Ronyell Whitaker is 5'10, 190, not real tall but with good weight.
So you can see that help is on the way, at least in the size department. It's hard to say how good these guys will be, and how soon, but at least on paper, the future looks good at DB and WR.
The Defensive Scheme: first of all, let me drag out a quote from my own Syracuse game report:
"I believe that what youre starting to see in Techs defense is a nearly-perfect system coming to fruition."
Now, nine games later, I'm not so sure. I have watched team after team pick up our blitzes and burn our defense with the short passing game, and on Saturday, George Welsh added a new wrinkle with the pass completions to the back out of the backfield. The linebackers were unable to stop that play Saturday night.
It's a well-known fact that offensive and defensive schemes come into vogue, are successful for a while, and then wane and are discarded. In the early days of Frank Beamer's use of the wide-tackle six, it was an excellent defense, but by the end, I was watching linebackers like P.J. Preston trying to guard receivers like the ones the University of Miami always puts on the field.
I think that our defensive coaching staff needs to take a good hard look at the defense we're running and answer one question: has it failed lately because of the players, or because of the scheme? Do the players just need to play it better, or is the eight-man front becoming a beatable defense?
I can answer that question partially. If every one of our DB's could cover like Ike, the short passing game wouldn't work very well. But when Loren Johnson, Anthony Midget and Larry Green line up ten yards off the line, and their first move at the snap is to backpedal, then we don't have prayer of stopping the short passing game.
And if we were able to get consistent pressure on the QB, then the long passing game wouldn't work, either. This defense still works well against the run (when the players execute), so the coaching staff has got to answer the questions about the pass defense. And they may need to make some adjustments.That's a Wrap
So we're 7-4, #2 in the Big East (after being picked to finish #3 or #4), and going bowling. I hope like crazy that it's the Gator Bowl, because I don't want to go to the Carquest Bowl. Miami didn't impress me in the least last year. I think South Florida "fans" are among the worst in the country, and they were mediocre hosts at best, but that's another topic for another time.
Later this month, I'll try to post a wrap of the season. I'm going to drag out my preseason preview and bounce it off of what happened, which should be fun. Unlike that bunch at ESPN, I believe in being held accountable for my picks and predictions, so I'll belly up to the bar and review my prognostications and preseason comments one by one. See you then!