West Virginia 30, Virginia Tech 17
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 10/25/97
Every year, perhaps one or two times a year, there are games in which the measure of your team is taken, games in which the strengths and weaknesses of your team are exposed. Rarely do these games occur early in the season, although we often make the mistake of thinking that they do. There is a tendency on the part of fans to place too much importance on what happens early in the season, when teams are trying to find their leaders, their talents, and in general, their way.
The 1995 Hokies, for example, were not as bad as their 16-0 loss to Cincinnati in the second game of the year seemed to say they were. Nor were the 1996 Hokies as bad as they were in the fourth game of the year, when Syracuse soundly thrashed them in the Carrier Dome, 52-21. Likewise, the 1996 Syracuse Orangemen were not as bad as the bumbling squad that lost to Minnesota in the second game of the season in a flurry of turnovers, and most observers would agree that Syracuse is currently much better than the team that fell to Virginia Tech by the lopsided score of 31-3 just six weeks ago.
It is the games late in the season that are much more telling. Most teams most Tech teams get better as the year goes on, as coaches are able to analyze game films and tweak and tune their teams to a high state of performance. Last year, for example, a Tech team that had struggled most of the year went out and destroyed a very good ECU team in the 8th game of the season, despite the fact that the Hokies were playing short-handed due to suspensions. In 1995, a Hokie team that was still trying to find its way suddenly roared to an unexpected 77-27 thrashing of Akron in game six and never looked back.
In 1994, however, a highly touted Tech team that had unimpressively played its way to a 7-1 record suddenly fell apart. They were stomped by Miami 24-3 in game nine, struggled to beat Rutgers 41-34 in game ten, and then were mauled by Virginia and Tennessee in their last two games.
Losses like Saturdays sound thrashing at WVU, in which the game wasnt nearly as close as the 30-17 final score would indicate, raise red flags when they occur this late in the season. Particularly when the opposition comes out and does exactly what you were afraid they would do, and particularly when your team comes out and does exactly what you were afraid they would do.
Coming in, there was no mystery to this game. Everyone knew Tech would have to show better run blocking and a more successful passing game than what they had exhibited in prior weeks. Everyone knew that WVU would repeat the strategy shown by Miami of Ohio and Boston College by jamming the line of scrimmage and taking away Techs running game. On offense, everyone also knew that WVU would exploit the running game and the short passing game.
When you know what a team is going to do, and youre still powerless to stop it, then you have to sit down and analyze why, and you have to face some harsh realities as to what you can expect the rest of the season. Most of what we saw on Saturday was painfully obvious in its implications for the rest of the season, and in this game report, Ill take a look at where Tech is weak and what theyre going to have to do to finish the season well.Offense
We all know what the problems are here: the offensive line and the receiving corps. Some Hokie fans are starting to get down on Al Clark, but I liked what I saw from Al early in the season, when he had time to throw. If Al had time to stand in the pocket and deliver, like he did against Syracuse, then he would do just fine. Remember, this is the same guy whose passing efficiency stats going into the game would have put him in the top 10 nationally if hed had enough attempts to qualify. This is evidence that when Al does something with the ball, its usually something good.
On Saturday, Al made some bad throws, I admit. And he didnt make any exceptional plays to help us out. It turns out, however, that he sprained his knee very early in the game, and in fact was on crutches on Monday. Bill Roth said during the Hokie Hotline broadcast Sunday night that he was surprised that Al could play at all Saturday, because he could barely walk. So given that he didnt have good protection and he was injured, I didnt see anything that makes me want to give up on Al.
I also dont think there is anything wrong with the running backs. We are discovering what we already knew about Ken Oxendine, namely that he doesnt pick up much yardage if theres nothing to work with. Some backs are explosive, elusive runners who gain yards with just a razor-thin hole to work with. Other backs are shifty, sometimes punishing runners who must be released into the secondary before they can do the maximum damage. Vaughn Hebron was in the first category, and Dwayne Thomas was in the second category.
Ken Oxendine is also in the second category. He was marvelous in the Orange Bowl against Nebraska, when a talented and experienced Tech offensive line opened holes for him and he juked the Nebraska tacklers out of their shoes several times. This year, the holes have been slim pickings, and Ox isnt able to do much with them. I also think he has been playing with a neck injury, one that the Tech coaches and Ox himself have been coy about talking about.
On the subject of the offensive line, were fools if we think that Coach Grimess absence hasnt hurt this unit severely. At the beginning of the year, they were a group that only returned one starter at the same position guard Gennaro DiNapoli. There was some experience throughout the line, but everyone acknowledged that it would take hard work and time for this unit to gel.
Throughout the first few games, they did well. It was obvious they were not the equal of recent Hokie offensive lines, but they were playing well enough, and we knew that they would come together with time.
One quarter into the Miami of Ohio game, Techs record was 4-0, and the Hokies were leading Miami 10-0. Then Coach Grimes went to the hospital, and its been a nightmare for the offensive line ever since. They have surrendered 15 sacks in eleven quarters since then and have not looked overwhelming on run blocking, to say the least.
I repeat myself - you cannot underestimate the impact of Coach Grimess absence on the development of this unit. Im sure Coach Bryan Stinespring, who is filling in, is a fine coach, but three weeks ago, this wasnt his job. And its a complex job. Asking him to start almost from scratch in the middle of the season is a monstrous task.
Another big problem we now have, and one that wont go away soon, is the receiving corps. This is a group that has been totally decimated by injuries and other misfortunes. Think about it this years top receivers, in a perfect world, would have been Shawn Scales, Angelo Harrison, and James Crawford, with Michael Stuewe playing a major role, perhaps starting. Now, in our next game, none of those guys are going to be available. Scales, Harrison, and Stuewe are all injured, and Crawford, who appeared to be an excellent receiver, couldnt stay out of trouble and was dismissed from the team.
And lets not forget speedy JUCO transfer Walter Ford, who was also kicked off the team for misbehaving before he could even get his career underway. Another JUCO transfer, Ricky Hall, was unable to come in and immediately live up to the hype that we all generated for him (and I admit that I was one of the bigger hype generators there). Hall is redshirting and trying to learn the Hokie system.
So in the beginning of the season, we anticipated contributions from three guys who are currently injured (Scales, Harrison, and Stuewe) and three other guys (Crawford, Ford, and Hall) who are not available for various reasons.
When you sit down and look at the receiving corps like that, its sobering, isnt it? And how can we be expected to free up the running game by using the passing game, if weve only got half a passing game and a struggling offensive line to work with?Defense
There are two major things here to worry about, but one of those things inexperience will go away with time. As our young players grow into the system and learn it, the defense will improve, much like it did from 1993 to 1995.
A big concern right now is that we have zero sacks in the last three games. Thats right, none. The reasons we dont have any sacks are well known to the coaching staff. Opposing teams have been avoiding our pressure by keeping back a ton of guys for blocking, and by taking three-step drops and hitting receivers on slant patterns. Some teams are sending out one receiver and hitting him on a slant with a three-step drop. Thats tough to stop.
In the case of West Virginia, they also executed a very difficult play perfectly. Remember the 46-yard TD pass to Foreman? Bulger stood up and released the ball before Foreman was even through with his fake near the line of scrimmage. The ball was heaved way up in the air, and Foreman ran around Larry Green and caught a perfectly thrown pass on a dead run. It was a thing of beauty, and theres not much you can do to stop a play like that.
Is there anybody out there who thinks Chad Johnston could have thrown that pass? Unh-unh. No way.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster says that the secret to containing the short passing game is simple. The cornerbacks have to tighten up their coverage, bump the receivers at the line, and cover them closely, making it hard to catch the pass. More on that later.Second-Guessing and Monday Morning Quarterbacking
Although Tech coaches and fans had their suspicions about this teams weaknesses, there is now absolutely no doubts as to what needs fixing. West Virginia exposed every weakness the Hokies have, and now its time for the coaching staff to get to work on those weaknesses.
Winning made it possible for the coaching staff and fans to perhaps delude themselves into thinking that if they kept playing to Techs traditional strengths, the victories would just keep coming. Well, now we have a 30-17 loss that convinces us otherwise. The following is now obvious:
Running Ken Oxendine off-tackle repeatedly is not working and will not work. Ken needs a hole in the line in order to break into the secondary and wreak havoc, and the holes arent there. With the way this offensive line is playing, a more elusive, more explosive runner like Parker or Pegues should be given a chance to make something happen.
Keeping Al Clark in the pocket is not working. He needs to roll out on some pass plays to escape the constant rush that is bearing down him. Tech needs to run the quarterback draw on a few obvious passing downs to keep the defense honest, and the Hokies also need to return to one of their bread and butter plays, the flanker screen, even though Clark doesnt throw it well. As Coach Beamer mentioned on the Hokie Hotline, though, throwing the flanker screen will be difficult if not impossible, because opposing teams are now bringing their corners up tight to the line of scrimmage, which takes the flanker screen away.
The interesting thing is, the Tech coaching staff had every intention of rolling Al out of the pocket, and they also planned on running the option some. But when Al was hurt early in the game, those plans went out the window, and Techs coaches resorted to the running game and drop-back passing. The results, as we saw, were disastrous. Tech had just 100 yards of offense in the first three quarters against WVU.
Opposing teams are now stacking not just eight but as many as ten guys in the box, and you can make teams pay when they do that. The way you make them pay, however, is NOT by running the ball off tackle or dropping back into the pocket. Tech ought to know better than anybody that those plays dont work against an eight-man front.
With the injuries to the receiving corps, the tight end must now be used as a possession receiver within 5-10 yards of the line of scrimmage. This is another way to beat a team that is stacking 8-10 guys near the line. Pop a quick hitter to the tight end and let him mash a few defensive backs. If Sean Sullivan drops one out of every two passes thrown to him, keep doing it. Hell learn. If he doesnt, at least well go down swinging.
Defensively, Tech needs to be wary of the short passing game and should make some defensive adjustments to stop it. The Tech cornerbacks, who have traditionally employed soft coverage and relied on a fierce pass rush to help them out, now need to step up to the line, jam the receivers, and play tighter coverage. If they get burned deep every once in a while, so be it. Tech should get away from blitzing (which they actually have already done), and the Tech whip and backer linebackers need to start tattooing any receiver who has the guts to come across the middle. Same for the Tech safeties.
This flies in the face of the Tech defensively philosophy, which has always been to attack, not to read and react. I hate the thought of letting an opposing offense dictate our defensive tactics as much as you do, but lets be honest - Miami and Pittsburgh both have quarterbacks who can run the short passing game as well as Bulger did for WVU, and Ill bet that even Aaron Brooks of UVa can post some good numbers if we let him employ the same passing tactics that Miami of Ohio, Boston College, and WVU all used.
Having said all that about the defense, I dont think theres a lot there that needs "fixing," other than gaining some experience for the young guys and being leery of opponents using the short passing game on us.
Maybe the things I have suggested here will work, maybe they wont. As you know, I never said I was a good football tactician. But I do know one thing: what were doing now is not working, and we need to stop kidding ourselves. Although the Tech coaching staff is a staff that doesnt like to look like its grabbing at straws by making strategy adjustments and personnel substitutions, they need to send a positive message to the team by making changes and trying to get the problems fixed.
The tactics of running off-tackle for no gain and letting Al Clark get mauled in the pocket on third and long are demoralizing this team. A friend of mine called me Sunday, distressed by a Danny Wheel quote that was printed in the paper. Wheel said something like, "This team is in a funk. Were not in synch." The way to fix that is to go back on the attack, both offensively and defensively, by trying new strategies and giving your team some inspiration.
I think the true measure of this coaching staff is about to be taken. Watch very closely to see what adjustments they make in the coming weeks to try to get this team back on track and make the most of what we have. I wouldnt place too much stock in what we do against UAB, because I think youll see the exact sort of game plan there as you saw in the Boston College. The real game to watch from a coaching standpoint is the game against Miami on November 8th.From Here On
This team now has to claw and scratch the entire rest of the season, taking nothing for granted and fighting for every point and possession. Heres how I see the rest of the season breaking down:
UAB: dont be surprised if you see more smash-mouth football like what you saw in the Boston College game. At this point, the coaching staff will go with what they think will win the ballgame, and if they think that a between-the-tackles running attack will work, then thats what theyll go with, particularly with the Tech receiving corps demolished by injuries.
Miami: if the Canes can watch game film, then theyll realize that their best chance to beat us is with the short passing game, with an occasional bomb thrown in for good measure. From what I hear, Miamis offensive and defensive lines arent very good, so we shouldnt get dominated on the line of scrimmage like we were in the WVU game. Combine this with a sellout home crowd, and there are a number of things in our favor. This game looked like a cake walk earlier in the year, but were going to have to earn every bit of it now.
Pittsburgh: I have only watched the Panthers play once this year, in their Thursday night ESPN victory over the Miami Hurricanes, and although they were well-coached and they executed well, the undeniable fact is that theyre slow and they cant tackle. However, they do have a good quarterback who can scramble and who rolls out well, and they can bring good pressure on the QB, although they do it with numbers and not speed. Its going to take another top-notch effort to bring this one home.
Virginia: UVa has the best defense that well face in our last four games (their FSU loss not withstanding), and that ought to scare you. They have a great possession receiver in Jermaine Crowell, and our best hope here is that well avoid mistakes and get a(nother) subpar game from whipping boy Aaron Brooks. If Brooks can use Crowell effectively, and if the UVa defense shuts us down, then were in big trouble. UVa is not a great team this year, but at this point, they have better balance than we do, and theyre our most formidable remaining opponent, in my opinion.The Long Term
I realize this game report has been rather negative, but I didnt intend for it to be. I consider it to be an honest appraisal of where the team is right now, not a negative indictment of the program in general. Weve got a great football program, good coaches, improving facilities, a loyal fan base, and motivated players. Weve seen some ugly stuff lately, but hey, I predicted 8-3 at the beginning of the season, and were landing right about where I expected.
Looking down the road, I see some positive things developing. Jimmy Kibble and Shayne Graham will both be back next year, as will most of our young defense. As the defense continues to develop and mature, I think theyll be great. Remember, the same suffocating unit that smashed opponents in 1995 was mere cannon fodder against Glenn Foley and Boston College in 1993, when the Hokie defenders were mostly freshmen and sophomores.
Im concerned about the offensive side of the ball, mostly because were not developing any of our young offensive linemen, and our current offensive line will once again be depleted by graduations at the end of the year (Washington, DiNapoli, Baylor, and the tight end Sullivan will be graduating, leaving only Derek Smith and Dwight Vick). I look for another bumpy ride on the offensive line next year, as the young players develop.
Another trouble spot is receiver. We havent had a tall, fast, sure-handed receiver since Antonio Freeman graduated. Bryan Still was pretty good, but his hands were suspect. Remember when he dropped wide open TD passes against Tennessee in the Gator Bowl and against Miami in the 1995 game?
Since 1994, Tech fans have been treated to a steady diet of drops and unspectacular performances from the receiving corps. Theyve had their moments, but inconsistency has been their hallmark. In that same time span, Ive watched impressive performances by opposing receivers such as UVas Crowell and Miamis Yatil Greene. And does anybody remember the clinic that Boston Colleges receivers and tight ends put on in the 1995 game in Lane Stadium? I do. They caught anything inside the Montgomery County line, and some balls that were outside of it.
My hope for the future is that given time, Ricky Hall will get his act together and contribute, and that Angelo Harrison will come through as well. Im hoping that freshman Andre Davis, who Ive heard good things about, and incoming freshman Lamar Cobb will both turn out to be exceptional receivers. While were on the subject of Cobb, what I really hope is that the coaches wont turn Cobb, who is 6-3, 215, and fast, into yet another whip linebacker or rover. We need more help at receiver.
Why did I just digress and talk so much about the far-off future, when theres so much that needs fixing today? I did it to remind you that Rome was not built in a day, and that constructing a perennial national football power is a long-term project, and we should have long-term goals. Just because Ox cant find running room off-tackle and Al Clark is getting routinely creamed, its no reason to push the panic button. Like I said, weve got a good program. Despite how rough things looked on Saturday, the fact of the matter is, if we win just one more game, were going bowling.
And for a guy like me, who remembers six straight bowl-less years from 1987 to 1992, thats good enough, as long as the overall program is moving in the right direction. And it is.