Virginia Tech 38, East Carolina 3
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 9/5/98
On a frigid November night in 1996, a Hokie team that was adrift in controversy and uncertain about its future made a statement against an East Carolina team that was unfortunate enough to show up on the Hokies' schedule at a time when Tech needed to pull together and right the course of the team.
Earlier in that week, the Hokies had suspended a handful of players, including All-American Cornell Brown, that had been indicted for their part in the infamous Blacksburg Brawl. Controversy had dogged the team for months, and by the time they took the field against ECU, the team was more than ready to concentrate on football, and it showed.
On that night, a near-capacity crowd braved 13 degree wind chill temperatures to watch the Hokies run up almost 600 yards of offense in a 35-14 victory that would propel Tech on a late-season roll and result in a trip to the Orange Bowl.
Now, nearly two years later, East Carolina once again was put in the position of playing a Virginia Tech team that was trying to find itself, establish an identity, and set a course for a successful season.
Although the result of this game resembles the result of the 1996 game - a blowout, in favor of Tech - the actual game was very different, from the weather right down to the yardage totals.
And whereas the 1996 game answered a lot of questions and gave the team direction and focus, this 1998 opener brought up almost as many questions as it answered, and it remains to be seen if this game will serve as a harbinger of the season to come, or merely as an aberration that tells us nothing about the rest of the year, much like the 1995 Cincinnati game and the 1997 Syracuse game.
I didnt have much time to think about this game in the week leading up to it, but when I finally did get to analyze it, I felt that the Hokies would win, for two reasons: (1) we had more experience at quarterback; and (2) our kickers were better. I wasnt so sure our kicking game was better, but I knew our kickers were better.
Other than that, the two teams appeared to have the same strengths and weaknesses. Like Tech, ECU's strength was its defense, and like Tech, ECU had an inexperienced offense that was an unknown. The game shaped up to be a defensive battle.The Flow of the Game
At first, the game went as expected. The defensive lines dominated, and neither offense could get anything going consistently. The experience difference at quarterback didn't appear to matter much, as both defensive lines were infiltrating the offensive backfields and causing trouble.
Early in the game, ECU tried a fake punt around their 20 yard line, and Tech DB Anthony Midget fought his way through blocking to stop it. Tech would eventually kick a field goal for a 3-0 lead, and although reporters and fans have talked lot about the ECU fake field goal since Saturday, I don't think it mattered much in the overall scheme of things.
What mattered more, and in my opinion, what set the tone of the game, was Tech's second touchdown, the one that gave the Hokies a 17-0 lead. After taking a 10-0 lead on a well-executed flanker screen to Ricky Hall, Tech surrendered a 49-yard bomb to ECU that gave the Pirates a first down at the Tech 4. After some unimaginative play-calling by ECU, the Hokies held, and the Pirates lined up for a short field goal.
As you know by now, Tech blocked the field goal, and as you also know, Pierson Prioleau scooped it up and was off to the races. He was a good 15 yards behind his closest pursuers and on his way to a TD when Loren Johnson - a senior, for crying out loud - threw an illegal block that nullified a Prioleau touchdown. The ECU player that Johnson blocked did a masterful job of turning his body so that Loren hit him from behind, but still, L.J. shouldn't have even been touching anybody.
No matter. The Hokies took control at the ECU 45-yard line and drove down the field for a ten yard Ken Handy touchdown reception.
Whoops, penalty. Bring it back.
No matter. The Hokies continued to mow over the ECU defense, eventually scoring on a one yard Lamont Pegues run.
It was at that point, with the Hokies holding a 17-0 lead and only 3:33 to go in the second quarter, that the wind went out of ECU's sails. Remember, just minutes earlier, the Pirates had been on Tech's 4 yard line with a first down, and a TD would have closed the gap to 10-7.
The rest of the game was a formality. The Pirates would mount a nice opening drive in the second half, but when the Hokies stopped it for a field goal and answered with an 80-yard TD drive to take a 24-3 lead, the game was really over.
I don't know what's going on in Greenville, but ECU isn't putting up much of a fight for the Hokies anymore. In 1996, I watched shell-shocked ECU fans streaming out of Lane Stadium after being drubbed by Druckenmiller and company, and now, the Pirates have had another licking laid on them by a Tech team that isn't in the same class as the 1996 team.
Has Tech left ECU, a once formidable foe, behind? It looks like it. I wondered about it after the 1996 game, and now I'm almost convinced of it. I think we're seeing the difference between Tech's Big East status and ECU's independent/Conference USA status. It's making a difference primarily in recruiting, because for the first time in years, I didn't see talented ECU players on the field. ECU appears to have a pretty good QB in Garrard (#9), but beyond that, the talent level has fallen off severely. That's a shame, because I like ECU, but you have to admit, they folded up pretty easily on Saturday.
The offensive line played well. Without a doubt, the play of Tech's much-maligned and closely-watched offensive line was a big positive. The line started out a little rough, but after a while, it steamrolled ECU effectively and controlled the ball when it had to. The three-touchdown drive late in the second quarter, as well as touchdown drives of 80, 52, and 80 yards in the second half, established the dominance of the Tech offensive line over an ECU defensive line that started four seniors.
In particular, I noticed that this offensive line does a good job of running Tech's flanker screen, a play that wasn't very effective last year. Saturday, the linemen got out quickly in blocking position for the flanker screen, and the play worked best when Ricky Hall sprung it for a 20-yard TD early in the game, thanks mostly to a block thrown by Dave Kadela.
This is a good start for a Tech offensive line that coaches say is talented physically, but inexperienced. We'll know more about them after the upcoming Clemson and Miami games.
Tech had no turnovers Saturday. After having only 13 turnovers last year, the Hokies are picking up where they left off.
John Engelberger made some exceptional plays. In the first half, he caught a short pass from Nick Sorensen off a fake punt, and late in the game, playing on the punting team, Engelberger ran down the ECU punt returner and dragged him down from behind before he could turn the corner.
But I don't think most people noticed Engelberger's best two plays, or at least the ones that pointed out his importance to the defense. On their first drive of the second half, ECU moved quickly down the field on a flat Tech defense, rapidly moving the ball deep into Tech territory. Disgusted, Frank Beamer yanked most of his defensive line, and put in Chad Beasley, David Pugh, and Engelberger.
Big John proceeded to make the next two tackles at the line of scrimmage, one on a sweep, and one on a run up the middle. End of drive, and ECU had to kick a field goal.
From what I could tell, after a much-talked-about move to defensive tackle, Engelberger spent most of his time at defensive end on Saturday. He is Tech's best defensive lineman, and if he stays healthy, he will be a terror all year long.
Jimmy Kibble just gets better and better. Recruited as a placekicker, Kibble had to make the difficult transition to punter when Tech signed All-American Shayne Graham as part of the same recruiting class. Kibble has struggled over the last two years, mainly with consistency and the speed of his punting delivery.
On Saturday, as the two offenses sputtered early in the game, Kibble's booming punts, including a seeing-eye 60-yarder that rolled out on the ECU one yard line, were the difference. His kickoffs, which routinely landed 5-8 yards deep in the end zone, frustrated the ECU kick returners, and when they finally brought one out, Benny Wolfe crushed the runner at the fifteen.
Kibble averaged 51 yards on four punts, and he was using a two-step motion, instead of the lengthier, time-consuming, come-block-this-please, three-step motion.
Although 38-3 sounds impressive, be afraid - be very afraid - for these reasons:
ECU had no turnovers. Although it appeared that Tech was pressuring ECU's offense fairly well, the Pirates committed no turnovers, much like many of Tech's 1997 opponents. This despite the fact that ECU was playing two green quarterbacks.
This Tech defense needs to take the ball away from the opposition to help out Tech's offense, which isn't a quick strike offense. I'll be keeping a close watch on the turnover stats in the weeks to come, because for the Hokies, it's a telling stat.
Tech's pass coverage was erratic. Loren Johnson had a pretty good game in coverage, and so did Ike Charlton (whom the TV announcers called "Ike Carlton" for the entire first half), but there were a number of breakdowns in the coverage. There were also a couple of instances where Tech defensive backs were more or less in position but didn't make plays.
The play of the DB's was a big improvement over late last year, but it still has a ways to go. Kudos to Ike Charlton for his run defense. #3 showed quickness and the desire to hit by coming in from the corner to stop a number of ECU sweeps. Ike, a sophomore, is developing into a heck of a cornerback and will be a monster by the time he's a senior. And I've got to figure that Nick Sorensen had a lot more fun playing a lot and hitting people on Saturday, as opposed to standing on the sidelines and signaling in plays, like he did last year as the backup QB.
Lack of a pass rush. More accurately, a lack of sacks. Tech only had one sack, for a loss of seven yards on Saturday. The Hokies pressured the QB fairly well, but the real sign of success are the sacks, which weren't there.
In particular, after dominating spring and fall practices, Corey Moore was eerily quiet on Saturday. I noticed him getting good penetration on ECU's first few series, and then I didn't notice him at all after that. I'm looking forward to The Hokie Huddler's weekly depth chart feature, so I can find out Corey's stats, because he was the invisible man on Saturday (but I've been known to be unobservant before, so we'll see).
Tech still has no long passing game. The Hokies still can't go deep with authority. It's not Al's forte, and it never will be. This makes it imperative that the offensive line continue to improve, because the Hokies are going to have to steamroll teams with the running game and short passing game. This offense can't strike from anywhere on the field like the Druckenmiller offenses of 1995 and 1996 could.
Except for the score, the stats were even. Tech only outgained ECU by 40 yards (343 to 303), and in fact, until Tech's last TD drive, ECU had the yardage lead. Tech only had a 21-16 lead in first downs, and only a five-minute lead in time of possession. This was against an ECU team that looked totally unimpressive.
In the End, We've Learned That One Game is Meaningless
Cincinnati, 1995. Syracuse, 1996. Syracuse, 1997. These games all stand in stark contrast to how the rest of those seasons unfolded.
The attitude of the Tech fans as they walked out of the stadium on Saturday was subdued. Tech fans are savvy enough to realize by now that one game, particularly one game early in the season, doesn't tell a lot about how the team is going to do over the long haul.
We're thankful for the victory, because we now face Clemson and Miami on the road, but we're smart enough to realize that there are some chinks in the armor that are in dire need of repair. Not only do the fans know it, but the players and coaches know it, too.
The interesting thing is, the pollsters noticed Saturday's victory margin and boosted Tech significantly in both polls. The Hokies are knocking on the door in the coaches' poll at #27, while over in the AP, it's business as usual, where the Midwest- and West-heavy concentrations of voters have pegged the Hokies at #36. At this point, I'm more inclined to side with the AP voters, but the recognition from the coaches is nice. It's also true that what goes on on the field is more important, at this point.
Next Up: Clemson
Call this one a dead heat. The spread is one point, and the two teams appear to match up well. The Tigers start a senior-laden offensive line, but their traditional strength - the running game - plays into Tech's strength, defending the run. Clemson quarterback Brandon Streeter is rather green, having thrown only 21 passes last year.
The Clemson kickers are pretty good, so Tech's advantage there will not be as pronounced as it was in the ECU game. The good news is that Clemson only returns one starter on the defensive line, so if the Hokies' offensive line can continue to gel, Tech should be okay in that area. With three returning starters in the defensive backfield, Clemson should provide a stiff test for Tech's average passing game, so the Hokies are going to have to make some yardage on the ground to have a chance.
Of particular interest in this game will be the play of Tech senior Lamont Pegues. As you know, Lamont is a transfer from Clemson, and he will be returning to Death Valley for the first time since leaving a couple of years ago.
It should be fun. This will be my first trip to Death Valley, and last I heard, Tech had sold over 2000 tickets for the game. There should be plenty of Hokies there, and this game will tell us a little bit more about this year's Tech team. See you there.