Virginia Tech 27, Miami 20
by Will Stewart,, 9/19/98

Click here for the game recap with stats

Well, at least I know that my heart is still strong, because if it made it through this game, it can make it through anything.

This Hokie team has managed to do the unthinkable - win the first three games of the 1998 season, a feat that looked almost impossible at the end of last year. The performances have been less than overwhelming at times, particularly on offense, and this game could have gone either way, but in the end, here we sit at 3-0, with two road victories over Clemson and Miami.

Unlike my Clemson game prediction, I was pretty close with my prediction on this game. I said we would win, 27-13, and I also said that we would win with defense and the kicking game. Substitute "a quarterback with the heart of a warrior" for "the kicking game" and you’ve got a better analysis.

Miami’s Achilles heel continues to be their line play, and against Virginia Tech, it was their inferior conditioning, as well. After blowing multiple opportunities to score in the third quarter, the Hokies took the game over in the fourth quarter and overtime, and brought home a dramatic victory that many people said we didn’t really deserve.

Hogwash. Winners deserve it, no matter how they win. Tech made the plays, and Miami didn’t.

Let’s take a look.

The Game

This one took more twists and turns than a James Bond movie and had about just as much action. Tech got off to a rocky start defensively when Miami broke two long gainers with the running game. The ‘Canes Edgerrin James picked up 39 yards on his first two carries of the game.

Miami would total (-2) yards rushing the rest of the game, so as we thought, it came down to the question of whether Tech could stop the Miami passing game and score enough points in the process to win.

The long-term answer was yes. The three hours and forty minutes it took to find that out were gut-wrenching.

As I feared, the Miami defense did a great job of slowing down the Tech offense. The Hokies had less than 300 yards of offense and didn’t do any one thing particularly well, although the attack turned out to be well-balanced between the rush and the pass.

The First Half

Miami mentally took Jimmy Kibble out of the game immediately by blocking his first punt. In my opinion, you can’t really blame Tech for this one, because Nate Brooks of Miami made one of the most phenomenal plays I’ve ever seen. His reward for stretching out one arm to block Kibble’s punt was a separated shoulder, and Brooks would not return.

The ‘Canes got their first touchdown on a 47-yard Santana Moss TD catch where Moss just flat beat Tech cornerback Anthony Midget on the fly pattern. ‘Canes QB Scott Covington put the ball on the money, and Tech fans shivered to see a perfectly executed pass the likes of which Clemson and ECU didn’t come close to managing in the first two games.

The second Miami TD came on another well-executed play, this one a 15-yarder. Again, Midget was beaten, but I give more credit to Miami on this one, because the receiver, Reggie Wayne, curled in front of Midget, and Covington delivered a perfect strike, just inside the goal line.

And then a funny thing happened. Tech blocked the extra point. Much like last year, when the Hokies blocked an extra point that Miami would later regret, this one would also arguably cost the ‘Canes the game.

The Hokies were pretty much shut down in the first half, although they were the beneficiaries of a Miami turnover that gave the Hokies a short field and led to a touchdown just before intermission.

On a second-and-six from the Miami fifteen yard line, Al Clark stood in the pocket, took a hit, and delivered a perfect strike down the middle to fullback Cullen Hawkins, who ran right by a confused and hugely out of position Miami linebacker (Webster, #52, who found himself standing all alone in the middle of the field as Hawkins scored ten yards behind him).

It was one of a number of smart, gutsy plays that Clark would make throughout the game. He once again struggled with some of his passes (missing a wide-open Angelo Harrison in the Miami end zone, for example), but along the way, Al once again kept his cool, put his body on the line, and brought home a victory.

Jim Druckenmiller was perhaps the ultimate winner, but Al’s not far behind. When he has the support of his defense, as he did early last year and so far this year, Al finds ways to get enough points on the board to win. He is working with fewer weapons on the offensive line and at fullback than Druck had, and he doesn’t have Druck’s arm or stature, but Al is carving out a niche for himself in Hokie history that will remember him well.

This gave the Hokies 10 points, and although Miami had looked like the best team in the game up to that point, all they had to show for it was a 13-10 lead.

The Second Half

Miami spent the third quarter raining fumbles on the Hokies, but unfortunately, Tech only took advantage of one of the turnovers. This came when Al Clark scampered in from 13 yards out on a nice quarterback keeper. Al’s TD completed a third quarter that saw the Hokies in possession of the football most of the time, but which only produced a 7-0 scoring advantage for Tech in the quarter.

So on we went to the fourth quarter, with the Hokies leading, 17-13. And on the first play from scrimmage, Miami’s Reggie Wayne erased that with an athletic, 84-yard touchdown catch-and-run that had Hokie defenders grasping and the Orange Bowl rocking. 20-17, Miami

It was the Hurricanes’ last hurrah. Tech’s conditioning would take over from that point on, both on offense and defense, as the Hokies would begin moving the ball on the ground and would finally shut down Miami’s passing game, as well.

Shyrone Stith came into the game to carry the load of the work at tailback, and he would finish with 63 yards on 16 carries. That’s almost four yards a carry on a night when yards were hard to come by.

Tech came within an eyelash of scoring a go-ahead touchdown, but instead, from the Miami 2-yard line, Beamer made the correct call and had Shayne Graham kick the game-tying field goal.

The Hokie defense once again held its ground, and with about four minutes to go, Tech took possession and started what would hopefully be the game-winning drive. Along the way, Frank Beamer took a gutsy gamble and faked a punt on fourth and short in his own territory, having Nick Sorensen pitch an option to the nation’s fastest punter, Jimmy Kibble. Kibble turned the corner on a Miami defense that appeared to have the play covered well, but didn’t seem to realize how fast Kibble is.

The drive ended up with Tech’s Shayne Graham lining up for the first game-winning field goal of his Tech career. Opie trotted on the field, and although he would insist later that he wasn’t very nervous, I thought he looked scared to death. He pushed the field goal wide right, and this war of a game that had seen a dozen players lying on the field with injuries at various points would go on into overtime.

Overtime - and a Hokie Victory

The overtime ended quickly.

More than a year after arriving in Blacksburg, highly-touted wide receiver Ricky Hall has posted TD’s in each of his first three games, and none was bigger than the 24-yard strike that he pulled down from Al Clark on the second play of OT.

For Hokie fans, it was sweet redemption. For years, we have watched tall opposing receivers go up over our shorter defensive backs and make plays. Well, Saturday night, we got to watch Tech’s 6-3 Ricky Hall outjump a 5-10 Miami defensive back for a score that had me leaping off the HokieCentral couch in the HokieCentral living room.

I knew then that the game was ours. Tech’s defense had been controlling Miami’s offense for the entire fourth quarter, and sure enough, with the ‘Canes backs to the wall, Corey Moore sealed their fate with a first down sack, despite the fact that Corey was tackled by a Miami offensive lineman as he made the play.

Second down produced a sack by committee as Moore, Engelberger, and Williams collapsed the pocket. Miami completed a third down pass for about 5 yards, and then on fourth and 17, the ‘Canes last gasp was deflected by Tech and landed harmlessly on the turf.

Tech players celebrated. Hokie fans cheered.

And somewhere, off in the distance, a trained geese honked forlornly.

Post-Game Thoughts

Two years ago, after Tech had beaten Miami for the second straight time, I made the comment that if we beat them ten times in a row, only to lose to them in the eleventh game, the Miami fans would say, "See? I told you we’re better than you!"

Well, we only have six more wins to go before we get to test my theory out.

Certainly, the Hurricanes made a ton of mistakes, coughing up five turnovers and committing 13 penalties. But you also can’t deny that Tech’s defense totally stuffed the Hurricanes’ rushing attack, nor can you deny that Al Clark made a truck load of big plays.

Frank Beamer says at least three times a day that it comes down to "great players making great plays." We made more great plays than they did, and made fewer bad plays (mostly with regard to turnovers). Better teams make more good plays and fewer bad plays. It’s not rocket science.

I don’t buy into the theory that Miami is "better" than us, because if they were, they would beat us. Period. 'Nuff said.

Strategy notes

It was obvious that Miami's offensive strategy was to beat us with their receivers. Despite having good weapons at fullback and tight end, the 'Canes used those two positions primarily as blockers. Wide receivers Wayne, Moss, and King caught 10 of Covington's 13 completions, with the other three going to tailback James Jackson.

It surprises me that Miami didn't use the tight end and fullback more, because traditionally, they have been very potent receivers in the 'Canes offense. Go back and look at the 1996 tape, and you'll see that their fullback and their tight end ran roughshod over us early in the game.

It appeared to me that the 'Canes were employing strategy that worked against the Hokies last year - keep the running backs and the tight end back to help block against the blitz, and complete passes against Tech's defensive backs. Miami of Ohio was the first team to display this strategy in 1997, and it worked well for them, and West Virginia used it to perfection on us later.

This year, that strategy won't work, and the difference, as I've said before, is that the Hokie defensive front four is able to bring pressure on the quarterback all by themselves. This enables the Hokies to keep seven players back in coverage, and unlike last year, where the opposing quarterback had all day to throw, this year's D-line can bring the heat.

I noticed a couple of sacks and incompletions created by tight coverage by the Hokie defensive backs. On the defensive line, Corey Moore was a one-man wrecking crew, and that, along with the improved play of tackles Nat Williams and Carl Bradley, is the biggest change between 1997 and 1998.

As for the Hokies, they didn’t show anything new offensively, as far as I could see. Tech went the intelligent route and didn't try to run around the ends on the speedy 'Canes. This created massive complaining on the message board from posters who didn't think sending Lamont Pegues up the middle was a smart strategy, but trust me, sending him around the ends would have been even worse.

The 'Canes speed showed up in the phenomenal job they did of stopping Tech's flanker screen. The flanker screen worked very well against ECU and Clemson, but Miami shut it down, and on one flanker screen, Al didn't even throw it. He turned to make the throw, but pulled the ball back when he saw defenders in the area.

Ricky Bustle countered the 'Canes excellent flanker screen defense by faking it one time and going downfield. As I remember, the play resulted in an overthrow of a Tech receiver who had beaten his defender by a good five yards. Good call, bad execution.

And how about Beamer's call of the fake punt on the last drive in regulation? What an in-your-face maneuver! And to the short side of the field! Beamer had already sent Engelberger in motion to check out the 'Canes response to it, and on this play, he did it again.

I haven't watched the play on tape, but a message board poster said that Miami sent a man with Engelberger, and this opened up the short side of the field. As I said before, the 'Canes didn't seem to grasp that they were dealing with arguably the fastest punter in the country, not some fat shmuck with a big leg, and Kibble squirted to the first down untouched.

If the play had failed, and Miami had taken over on downs and driven for the winning score, the Tech fans would be going nuts. As it is, the play worked, and you can say one thing about Beamer - he likes taking chances.

I Knew it the Whole Time

In my report on the 1996 Miami game, I said that I knew we were going to win it as the game wound down. Keion Carpenter provided the 100 yard interception return that sealed it.

Last year, I felt that if the Miami game went on for five more minutes that we were going to lose. If the 'Canes had recovered that onsides kick near the end of the game, I really think we were doomed.

Saturday night, I had a good feeling the entire second half. From the time the Hokies posted the late first half touchdown to close the gap to 13-10, I had that same feeling I had at the Sugar Bowl when Bryan Still broke free on his punt return and closed the gap to 10-7.

In other words, I felt that our opponent had given us their best shot, and we were still close, and it was time to counter punch.

The Hokie defense was already starting to flex its muscle at that point, putting the clamps on the Miami running game, and although the 'Canes would score again on Wayne's 84-yarder, that was more of a one-shot deal than anything else. There's a difference in a team ripping off one play for a score, as opposed to grinding us into the ground like Nebraska did in the Orange Bowl two years ago.

So, yeah, I felt good about our chances. Even though Tech frittered away numerous scoring opportunities in the third quarter, I felt like we were just going to keep coming back at them until we broke them down and finished them off.

We barely missed getting a safety on them with three minutes to go that would have put us up 22-20, and shortly after that, Shayne Graham missed a 35-yarder that would have sealed the deal with 8 seconds to go.

And despite that, I still thought we were going to win. Heck, you read my pregame prediction (didn't you?). From Tuesday onward of last week, I liked our chances.

But I think that a 24-yard overtime pass from Al Clark to Ricky Hall is the last thing I would have guessed would turn out to be the winning play. It's the kind of play that we were totally missing the capability to make last year, and that's the difference a year - and a single player - can make.

This was a long game full of many twists and turns, and high drama the whole way, and I don’t think this game report does it justice. To properly capture every facet of this game would take more time than I have available to write, and more time than you have available to read.

But despite the criticism from some quarters about how sloppy the game was, and how Tech didn't take advantage of Miami's turnovers, I choose to remember it as another classic in a series that comes down to the wire every year.

Saturday night, I saw a fiercely fought game that laid out a dozen or so players for both teams. I watched a quarterback limp his way to victory on sheer guts, and I watched an offensive lineman (Josh Redding) suffer a season-ending knee injury. I watched Cullen Hawkins suffer a foot/ankle injury that will keep him out for 6-8 weeks, or effectively the rest of the season.

It's one thing to watch the pros do it for millions of dollars. It's quite another to watch collegians go at each other tooth and nail, with little more than pride on the line. That's the beauty of college football. Although money does play a big part in it at the institutional level, in the end it comes down to a handful of young men who aren't getting paid a dime to lay their bodies on the line for themselves and their fans.

Remember that the next time you see Al Clark limping around. He doesn't have to do this, you know. I certainly would think twice about doing something that resulted in my leg being bent backwards under me as a 250 pound lineman crushed me.

Looking Forward

Injury report: Al Clark has suffered what the coaches loosely described Monday night as "some kind of ligament damage" that will keep him out of the Pittsburgh game. Dave Meyer has been named as the starting QB against Pitt, and to show you how serious the coaches are about redshirting Michael Vick and Grant Noel, Nick Sorensen has been moved back to quarterback temporarily to back up Meyer.

Al is week-to-week, and the coaches hope he'll return for the BC game on October 8th.

Josh Redding (starting offensive guard) is out for the season with a knee injury. Previously injured backup Matt Lehr has returned, thankfully, and JUCO transfer Joe Marchant, who played well in the Miami game, will fill the slot.

A big concern is starting fullback Cullen Hawkins, who is out for 6-8 weeks with bone damage in his foot (it has alternately been described as "dislocated bones" and "bone fragments"). This leaves Jarrett Ferguson as the sole experienced fullback, and the problem with that is, he's not very big. It will be hard for him, at about 215 pounds, to play a whole game. There were several instances where the smallish Tech fullbacks didn't do a good job blocking the Miami linebackers, so the loss of Hawkins is huge.

I'm not sure who will become the second fullback, but for you Jake Houseright nuts, Coach Beamer said it will not be Jake. The House played fullback in high school, but his days of fullback are probably over.

Pittsburgh: I'm going to predict that if the Hokies score 10 points this coming Saturday, they will win. Pittsburgh will not score more than six points, unless they get a special teams or defensive touchdown, or unless the Hokie offense coughs up a couple of turnovers deep in Tech territory (which, by the way, may be a distinct possibility, with Meyer at QB. We don't know).

Why do I say that ten points will beat Pittsburgh? Simple. The Hokies are coming home, and they're going to be pumped. Paybacks are hell, and Tech owes Pitt big time for the licking they laid on us in Pittsburgh last year. The Tech defense in particular, which is healthy, has a few teams they have to wreak their revenge on, and Pitt is one of them.

Despite Tech's offensive injuries, which are serious indeed, I can't see Pitt getting out of the gate on a Hokie team that is on a roll. If Tech takes care of the ball, the Hokies will win, because the Hokie defense is going to take care of Pittsburgh.

See you in Lane. Game time is noon, and it's on ESPN2.

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