Virginia Tech 37, Clemson 0
by Will Stewart,, 9/12/98

Click here for the game recap with stats

At halftime of this game, with the Hokies suffering through a miserable 4-for-20 performance by Al Clark, and clinging to a 34-0 lead ….

Uh, wait. That's not right. Let's start again:

At halftime of this game, with Tech's rushing attack averaging less than three yards a carry, and the Hokies hanging on to a perilous 34-0 lead…

Hmmm, that's not right, either. One more time…(seriously now):

At halftime of this game, with the Hokies hanging a completely unexpected 34-0 goose egg on the backs of the Clemson Tigers, I had a thought that I suddenly knew what the atmosphere must have been like in Pittsburgh's stadium back in 1993, when a Hokie team that had gone 2-8-1 the year before and had been unimpressive in a 33-16 opening win over Bowling Green exploded on Pitt for a 63-21 road win.

I think everyone in attendance Saturday was in total shock. The Clemson fans were shocked, their players and coaches were shocked, the Hokie fans were shocked (happy, but shocked), and I'm sure both radio crews were shocked.

Notice who I left out of that list? The Hokie players.

I went down before halftime and stood in the tunnel that the Hokie players used to go to and from the locker room, and I clapped for the team and watched them as they went by. They weren't cheering. They weren't "happy," and they weren't woofing and high-fiving.

They looked serious. They looked business-like. Hell, a few of them looked mad.

History tells us that Virginia Tech football is at its best when it feels it has something to prove. And after folding down the stretch last year, this football team feels it has something to prove.

History also tells us that two games does not a season make. Two games into the 1997 season, the Hokies had outscored their opponents 90-22, and in the end, that meant nothing.

Two games into the 1998 season, the Hokies have outscored their opponents 75-3, and we've got nine more games - perhaps ten - to find out what that means.

The Flow of the Game

This one was over in a hurry.

Much like last week, the young Hokie offensive line struggled in the early going. Despite some generous penalties and turnovers by the Clemson Tigers, Tech couldn’t advance the ball and was only able to post a 3-0 lead on the Tigers when the first quarter came to a close.

The good news was that the first quarter ended with the Hokies knocking on the Clemson goal line. Tech used a 23-yard Al Clark pass and a 35-yard run by Shyrone "My Sharona" Stith to quickly advance to the Clemson goal line, and as the second quarter started, Al Clark ran it in from the one. 10-0, Tech, and the Clemson crowd started to get uneasy.

From that point on, the flood gates broke open. An obliging Clemson team spent the second quarter turning the ball over or going three-and-out, and Tech suddenly got into an offensive groove and began raining touchdowns on the Tigers.

The Hokies’ second TD came minutes after a 49-yard Al Clark bomb to Andre Davis, when Al ran it in from ten yards out. TD#3 was a picture-perfect 56 yard Clark-to-Ricky Hall rainmaker, and TD #4 came on a 1-yard Lamont Pegues run after Cullen Hawkins just barely missed scoring on a great fullback screen call.

The Hokies closed out the second-quarter barrage with a 53-yard Shayne Graham field goal that started out wide right, and then hooked like a bowling ball into the middle of the uprights, barely clearing the cross bar.

The first half horn sounded, and everyone in the stadium looked up to find Hokies 34, Tigers 0 on the scoreboard. Ballgame.

The second half was just going through the motions. Almost nothing remarkable happened after intermission as Tech pinned their ears back on defense and both teams played some backups and ran out the string. Tech would add a meaningless field goal to make the final score a stunning 37-0.

What the Heck Happened?

When Rickey Bustle gets in the zone, he really gets in the zone. Sometimes, Tech’s offensive coordinator struggles to find the right combinations, and the offense sputters and comes to a standstill, but other times … you get offensive shows like the second quarter of this game.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quarterback have as much time to throw as Al had in the entire second quarter of this game. Clemson refused to believe that the Hokies were going to pass, so they didn’t bring many blitzes, and Rickey Bustle called pass after pass after pass. The pass-blocking was superb, and Tech’s receivers were getting good separation against Clemson’s man-to-man coverage, and for Al Clark, it was simply target practice.

Unfortunately for Al, his gun misfired on most of his first half attempts. But he nailed enough of them (4-for-20 for 171 yards in the first half) that it didn’t matter that he was cold.

On the defensive side of the ball, Tech found success pressuring Clemson quarterback Brandon Streeter with the front four, particularly from the ends. John Engelberger and Corey Moore pounded Streeter relentlessly. Because of the great pressure from the front four, Tech didn’t have to blitz much, and the linebacking crew was free to stop the run and lay back in coverage.

The result was a handful of great run stops by Michael Hawkes and Jamel Smith, and three interceptions by whip linebacker Lorenzo Ferguson.

By now, you’ve heard the stats:

  • Clemson only had 102 yards of offense
  • Tech held the Tigers to 31 yards on 31 carries
  • Tech had four interceptions and recovered one fumble

Good defensive line play makes the rest of the defense look a lot better. For example, none of Lorenzo Ferguson’s interceptions were great plays by ‘Zo. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time as his defensive line abused the quarterback. And part of the reason he was in the secondary at all is because the Tech coaches didn’t think it was necessary to blitz the Whip in order to get good pressure, so he got to cover receivers, instead.

Good line play also covers up poor coverage by the secondary. Recall Larry Green, who was an average cover guy at best, but looked like a world beater in the 1995 Sugar Bowl, while J.C. Price and company were scaring Texas’s James Brown into the "chuck and duck" mode.

So give most of the credit for Tech’s dominating defensive performance to the guys up front (Engelberger, Moore, Bradley, and Williams, with a host of backups).

The Positives

I raised the red flag last week over the lack of sacks by Tech and lack of turnovers by ECU. This week, the Hokies had three sacks, and about nine-million near-sacks as they brutalized Brandon Streeter into a poor performance. And on the turnover front, the Hokies forced Clemson into four INT’s and a fumble. So, for this week, the Hokies get an A in the "defensive pressure" department.

The play of the defensive backfield, another red flag last week, is hard to evaluate, since Clemson could barely get off a decent pass. The Hokie defensive backs looked bad during one late-game stretch where they committed two interference penalties, but geez, it’s hard to care about what happens when the score is 37-0. I’ll keep the jury out on this one, and we’ll know more after they tangle with Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne in Miami this week.

The offensive line play was again encouraging. Last week, it was the run-blocking, and this week, it was the pass-blocking. From what I could tell, Clemson geared up to stop the run, and Tech took advantage of it by eating them up with the pass.

The Negatives

One red flag from this week is the play of Al Clark. Despite having enough time to retake his summer school exams each time he dropped back to pass, Al struggled to a 7-for-26 performance.

I think it's just a bad day at the office. This is the same guy who went 10-12 with two drops during the Miami game last year, so he’s capable of high percentage passing. The Hokies were airing it out against Clemson, often throwing far downfield (where Al’s accuracy is at its worst), so I’m not going to get too bent out of shape about his performance. Which doesn't mean I don’t want to see it again, because I don't.

Al is not the type of QB who will win games with his arm, so don’t go hyper when he doesn’t pass well. He once again went without throwing an interception, and when your defense and your kicking game are as good as ours, not making mistakes is Job One for Al, a job that he has always done well.

The only other dim spot was the run-blocking. It wasn't exactly a nightmare, but then again, if you take away Stith's 35-yard run and a 23-yard reverse by Angelo Harrison (which was a curious call, considering that it came late in the game, with the score way out of reach), then Tech's rushing stats were 48 carries for 118 yards (2.45 yards/carry). Not very good, and something that is in need of improvement.

Some Fun Stuff

Most Bizarre Thing I've Seen in a While: how about a programmable highway construction sign that says, "Go Hokies, Beat Clemson!" sitting on the side of the road - off I-85, in South Carolina. Sounds like the work of a South Carolina Gamecock fan. The rivalry between Clemson and USC is a bitter one indeed, but that bitter? Wow.

Top Comments By Roth and Burnop (with thanks to the message board posters):

  1. "That pass floated around like a Carolina butterfly" (Roth, describing a Streeter wounded duck).
  2. "Benny, the big bad Wolfe" (after a special teams hit)
  3. "Frank has played everybody but the Hokie Bird today". (best part is that it was only the 3rd quarter)
  4. "I've been on shuttle flights to Atlanta that were in the air shorter than that" (after one of Kibble's bombs)
  5. "The defense is hitting the QB like a piņata!"
  6. "The defense is having a fiesta in the CU backfield!" (there's a theme here)
  7. "I don't believe how hard he hit him, Mike. They'll need a shovel to get him off the field" (after a HUGE hit by Nate Williams on a Clemson running back)
  8. Burnop: "If you take out the second quarter, this is a much closer game." Roth: "You can't take out the 2nd quarter. That's like asking someone: 'Other than the explosion, how was your flight on the Hindenburg?'"

Final Thoughts

It's funny how savvy Tech fans have become. Yes, we enjoyed ourselves Saturday against Clemson, and my, our team looked good, but we still have fresh memories of last year's fast start fading to a sad finish. So we take our moments where we can find them, but we're always careful to understand that it can come crashing down at any moment if you don't work at it.

The players and coaches know it, too. They know that great seasons are built one game at a time, and they seem to be totally focused on a point in time that is never farther than one week away. They don't talk about Pittsburgh, BC, WVU, or Virginia, or bowl games. They talk about who they're playing next.

I will never, ever forget their faces when they trotted off the field with that 34-0 half time lead. No smiles, no laughing, no cheering. Just business, and the look of a team on a mission.

We continue our one-game-at-a-time journey next week, with the Miami Hurricanes. Speaking of which…

Looking Ahead to Miami (Saturday, Sep. 19, 8:00, ESPN)

I never got to write a preseason predictions article, but if I had, I was planning on saying that I felt the Hokies were going to lose one of these first two games against ECU and Clemson. So at this point, things are going better than I expected.

I was also going to write that I didn't think the Hokies had a snowball's chance of beating the Miami Hurricanes in Miami this year. Tech has hung three straight L's on the Canes, and the law of averages, plus the law of football revenge, tells me that a fourth straight, on the Canes' home field, is too much to hope for.

Now I'm not so sure.

Each week, this team has something to prove, and each week, we find out more about them. The defense, which was good enough in game one, was downright dominating in game two. Now we get a chance to test them out against a team with some seriously talented - and seriously fast - skill players.

In the last three years, Miami's Achilles heel has been their line play. This year, from what I hear, the Canes' defensive line has been susceptible to the run up the middle, and the offensive line hasn't done a great job picking up the blitz (drool, drool). But these Canes have revenge on their mind, and it can be a powerful motivator.

So can the search for respect.

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