Virginia Tech 27, Pittsburgh 7
by Will Stewart,, 9/26/98

Click here for the game recap with stats

Going into this game, there was little doubt in my mind that Tech was going to win. For those of you who missed it, I predicted a 17-6 victory for the Hokies on the message board, and if you remember, I also said at the end of my Miami game report that Pittsburgh would not score 10 points on this Hokie defense.

Such bold predictions were, of course predicated on the assumption that the Tech offense, under the direction of first-time starter Dave Meyer, wouldn't put the defense in a bad position by turning the ball over deep in Tech territory. If the offense started giving Pittsburgh cheap points, then all bets were off.

As it turned out, the offense did indeed put the defense in a bad spot a couple of times, but it didn't matter, anyway. Pittsburgh had two possessions that started far on the Tech side of the field, and they were only able to muster one touchdown out of it, and that was only because Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Helen Keller were reffing the game.

In the process of winning, however, the Hokies lost yet another quarterback, Dave Meyer, to injury. The Hokies' first open week of the season couldn't come a day too soon, because we're going to need it.

Now, let's talk about that game, and about that defense, which features perhaps the best combination of defensive ends in the country.

The Game

Perhaps the most stunning statistic from this game is not Corey Moore's four sacks, Keion Carpenter's three interceptions, or Pittsburgh's 140 yards of offense.

No, the most stunning stat was the 50,057 fans who showed up for a game against Pitt, and even more amazing than that, the fans were in their seats for the noon kickoff! It was the first time in many years that a game other than WVU, UVa, Syracuse, or Miami had sold out.

And this was a vocal crowd. Great defensive play brings out the animal in every football fan, and every time Pitt tried to check off at the line of scrimmage, the Tech fans cranked it up a notch.

After losing to Pitt last year, I told people that the one silver lining in the loss was that Hokie fans would take Pitt more seriously from that point on, and perhaps they would show up and pay attention the next time the Panthers came to Lane Stadium. Well, they showed up, and yes, they paid attention.

Great conference rivalries are built over long periods of time, and if the Big East can hang around for 10 or 20 more years, and if we're still in it, sellouts for conference games should be the norm. Except for Temple and Rutgers, of course.

The Early Going

Dave Meyer sounded calm in the weeks leading up to the game, so it wasn't a big surprise to me that he came out of the gate playing well. What was a surprise to me was that he was blazing hot, completing his first six passes for 91 yards, and even more amazing was that he was throwing to the tight end!

(There, that's this week's "we never throw to the tight end" jab.)

If you had told me at the beginning of this year that we would sell out the Pitt game, and that during that game, our backup quarterback would complete three passes to two tight ends, I would have laughed at you and told you (a) to get a computer (b) log on to HokieCentral, and (c) read it for a year, and then come back later, when you knew what the heck you were talking about.

So when the Hokies scored on their first two possessions, in a sort of dueling tailbacks scenario that saw Lamont Pegues and Shyrone Stith score on runs of 20 and 16 yards, I was feeling pretty good. The way the Tech defense has been playing, 14 quick points seems like an embarrassment of riches, and a recipe for victory.

In my overconfident mind, the game was effectively over at that point (good thing I'm not a player or a coach, with that attitude). The Hokie defense spent the rest of the afternoon proving me right and providing some of the best entertainment I've ever seen for $23 (and yes, that's the season ticket price, not the single-game ticket price).

Not that it didn't get interesting at times. After the hot start by Meyer, the wheels came off for a while, as he threw an interception and then fumbled while being sacked deep in Tech's territory. Derek Carter contributed to the mess, fumbling a nicely thrown ball after a tough hit by a Pitt defensive back.

It was one of the few decent calls by the Big East refs all day long. Carter caught the ball, took two steps, and was popped. Naturally, he fumbled, since Virginia Tech tight ends aren't used to running with the ball in their hands, and the refs actually called it correctly. By the way, you're forgiven, Derek.

However, the zebras are not forgiven for their hideously blown no-call of a holding on Pitt's lone touchdown. With the Hokies up 17-0, following the interception of Meyer, Pitt QB Matt Lytle tossed a 12-yard pass to Pitt's only bright spot of the day, their talented receiver, Latef Grim.

On the play, Tech defensive tackle David Pugh was positively undressed by a Pitt offensive lineman. I've got myself and 50,056 of my closest friends who agree on that point. The hold of Pugh was blatant, lengthy, and out in the open field, right in front of God and everybody (including Mike Tranghese). But there was no call, so Grim's touchdown stood.

Thousands of Tech fans began chanting, "HOLDING! HOLDING! HOLDING!" So, like laboratory rats who respond to stimuli, the refs gave the fans what they wanted by calling a holding on Tech's offense on the very next play.

Uh, that's not what we meant, guys.

And off in the distance, a trained geese honked happily, knowing that his money was well spent.

A Goal Line Stand

Pitt had another prime opportunity to score, this one coming in the third quarter after a Dave Meyer fumble. The Panthers had a first and goal at the Tech three yard line, but Pitt coach Walt Harris inexplicably called three wide running plays in a row, and the super-quick Hokies, of course, stuffed all three of them. Corey Moore blew up the middle and blocked the ensuing field goal attempt, the score stood at 17-7, and it was all over but the crying.

I thought about questioning Harris's play-calling in this game. The Panthers threw 22 passes (and tried to throw 9 more, which all ended up in sacks), and ran the ball a whopping 42 times against one of the best run defenses in the country. All this despite being down by two scores for most of the game.

But then I realized, if you're Walt Harris, whatcha gonna do? It's either drop back and get sacked for a seven-yard loss, or run the ball and gain a yard.

After the big goal line stand, the rest of the afternoon was a sack-a-thon by Moore, who would tie Bruce Smith's record of four in a game, and a pick-a-thon by Keion Carpenter, who would wind up with three interceptions on the afternoon. Keion's picks included a nifty one-hand grab of a deflected ball in the flat that he turned into 16-yard TD that iced the game early in the fourth quarter at 24-7.

The Tech offense spent the second and third quarters floundering. First it was the turnovers, and then it was a separated shoulder for Meyer, who will be out 4-6 weeks. QB-turned-safety-turned-QB Nick Sorensen once again got to take some snaps under center, and Hokie fans breathed a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that he could handle the job.

Sorensen did just fine, and in fact, he threw one of the best passes I've ever seen him throw, a post pattern to Andre Davis that was tipped away at the last second by a Pitt defender.

And then it was over, and the Hokie defense had once again shown the way to a victory, 27-7 in a sun-splashed game that left Tech at 4-0, 2-0 in the Big East, and ranked #16 in the coaches poll and #19 in the AP poll.

I don't know about you, folks, but having a defense on the field like the one we've got this year gives me a mighty comfy feeling. With a full house in Lane Stadium, fourteen quick points, and defense that is on a roll, I was never really worried in this one. That isn't a slam on a vastly improved Pitt team, but rather, a compliment to a great Hokie defense.

The Post-Mortem

Looking for 8 Good Men

The 1995 and 1996 seasons taught the Tech coaching staff that depth on the defensive line is critical. In 1995, Tech rode an 8-man defensive line rotation to victory in the Sugar Bowl, and in the 1996 Orange Bowl, Nebraska demonstrated that anything less than eight good lineman is not enough against a team of their caliber.

I once met Jeff Holland, who played on the 1995 defensive line, but finished his eligibility after that year and didn't have the honor of playing against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. When we discussed the Orange Bowl, Jeff shook his head and said, "If we could have played them with 1995's defense, we would have beaten them."

I couldn't argue the point.

Saturday, against Pittsburgh, I watched Frank Beamer once again make wholesale substitutions on the defensive line. The starting four of Moore, Engelberger, Williams, and Bradley would play one or two series, and then they would all come out, replaced by Chris Cyrus, Chad Beasley, David Pugh, and Ryan Smith.

But Saturday, there was a difference, and that difference is that the performance didn't drop off when the backups came in. Bit by bit, week by week, the second team DL is closing the gap between itself and the first team DL (although it's still a big gap, and it's unlikely that they'll ever catch them. But there's no shame in that).

This is in stark contrast to the ECU game, in which the Pirates opened the second half by driving easily down the field on the backups, forcing Beamer to insert the first-team DL to stop the drive.

Bradley and Pugh are turning into great run-stoppers at the tackle positions, and Cyrus is finally staying healthy enough to contribute consistently. And more than one fan, including me, has noticed that Ryan Smith is making some great plays and bringing some heat from the opposite side of the field as Cyrus.

Smith, a transfer from Southern Illinois, doesn't have the raw talent of Tech's other defensive ends, but as a redshirt senior, he's fully developed, and he knows the defense. He's the Jeff Holland of this eight-man rotation, meaning that he's not the name you'll hear a lot, but he's doing more than just holding his own. He's been making a contribution when the ball is snapped.

The punch line? Among those eight defensive linemen, only one - ONE - is a senior, and that's Ryan Smith. The top four are juniors, Cyrus is also a junior, and Pugh and Beasley are redshirt freshmen.

Another year of these guys? I can deal with that. I don't think the rest of the nation can, but Hokie fans can.

Cause for Concern

Despite my complacency, I've got to admit that there are a ton of reasons to be concerned about this football team. There's the obvious reason to be concerned (injuries to the quarterback), but there are also reasons to be concerned that aren't so obvious.

Or maybe they are.

Tech had just 206 yards of offense against Pittsburgh. 27 points is a nice number, but it masks the fact that once the first quarter was over, the Hokies didn't muster very much offense at all. Pitt started getting to the quarterback and stuffing the run at some point in the second quarter, and they never really quit.

Dave Meyer, who was having a good game, suddenly started ducking and running a lot. Given that we were turning the ball over and then turning the quarterbacks over, perhaps I shouldn't be so concerned, and should take the 206 yards as a one-game aberration.

That's possible, and only time will tell. But one thing is true: once the Hokies are done with Boston College (who will be a stiff challenge), Temple, and UAB, Tech is going to run up against some teams that will require some serious offense in order to beat them: Syracuse, WVU, and UVa all loom in the month of November.

All three of those teams have enough talent to score multiple touchdowns on this great Hokie defense, in much the same way Miami posted 20 points. If Tech can continue to put up 28-35 points a game, then the Hokies are in good shape, but it's going to be a tall order to do that against UVa and WVU in particular.

And against Syracuse, never mind just 20 points. In the Dome, the Orangemen might put up 35 on us. Sorry, I love my Hokie defense, but Syracuse put up 52 on a pretty good defense in 1996, so you never know. I hope I'm wrong.

Anyway, my point is, in the next month or so, I'll be watching the offense closely, in particular the offensive line, to see if they're jelling and getting better. Quarterback and fullback injuries aside, the key to the offense is improved blocking as the season goes on. We knew that coming into this year, and we still know it. And with the way this defense is playing, it's going to bring pressure on the offense to step up and do their part, if we're going to finish the season strong.

The other key will be continued improvement in the receiving corps. Ricky Hall has been everything we hoped, and Reggie Samuel, Andre Davis, and Angelo Harrison have played well, also. The biggest change I'll be looking for is for true freshman Emmett Johnson to evolve from a receiver who has had a few flanker screens thrown his way into a receiver who is a threat all over the field.

If Al Clark can't come back from his injury (and all indications are that he will), then all bets are off, but if you assume that Al is going to make it back, I'd like to see improvement from the O-line and the receivers. We'll need it in order to make it through a tough November without getting shelled.

A couple of other concerns:

1.) If Nick Sorensen has to continue to be available as a quarterback, then this thins us out massively at safety. The Tech coaches have said that they will not take the redshirt off of freshman T.J. Jackson, and in fact, they're working cornerback Anthony Midget out at safety as a backup to starter Keion Carpenter.

And some eagle-eyed Hokie fans thought they noticed Lorenzo Ferguson lining up at the safety position during the Pitt game. The same fans thought they noticed that when this happened, Prioleau was switched from Rover to Whip.

Whatever - you get the point. With Nick gone, that creates a hole in the two-deep rotation, and suddenly, the coaches are shifting players around in the defensive backfield. This is not a good thing, and if Tech suffers an injury back there, it's going to get worse. So cross your fingers.

2.) Jimmy Kibble is struggling. He hasn't been himself since Miami blocked the opening punt in our game down there, and on Saturday, he struggled his way to an un-Kibble-like 38.2 yard average on six kicks. Most of his kicks were wobbly, and the trademark booming spiral was nowhere to be seen.

Jimmy needs to return to the form he showed at the beginning of the year. This is perhaps just as important as improved offensive play as the season progresses. Defense goes hand in hand with the kicking game, because if Jimmy can pin them back, then the Hokie D can keep even a good offense like that of WVU or Syracuse out of the end zone.

Quotes of the game

"Silent but violent." -- Corey Moore, describing fellow defensive end John Engelberger, who doesn't grant interviews to the press (just for clarification, he's not a jerk - he's just shy and doesn't want to draw attention to himself).

"We didn't run very aggressively, but they pursued us aggressively." -- Pittsburgh Coach Walt Harris, talking about his offense, and Tech's defense.

Injury report

Dave Meyer is out for 4-6 weeks with a separated shoulder. Defensive tackle and strongman Carl Bradley suffered a slight separated shoulder, but he should be back for BC. Running back Shyrone Stith sprained his ankle but is also projected to be back for the BC game.

Next Up:  Boston College

Man, I love Thursday night games.

The Thursday night game on ESPN is college football's equivalent of Monday Night Football.  It's a showcase, the prime time, the only game in town.  Every college football fan who wants a fix will tune in to check out the Thursday night game on ESPN.  Channel surfers all over the country will blunder upon this one and instantly be fixated on the ugly orange and maroon uniforms with the square root of one on the helmet.

(Please, no emails.  It's a joke.  I love orange and maroon.)

I also like Thursday night ESPN games because the broadcast crew is one of ESPN's best.   No, it's not Charlie Steiner and Todd Christiansen ... it's Ron Franklin and Mike Gottfried, unless they changed it somewhere along the way while I was watching Friends on NBC and ignoring the Duke and Wake games that ESPN likes to show on Thursday night.

In addition to being a good color analyst, Gottfried is always very complimentary of Virginia Tech, because he's old pals with Frank Beamer, from waaaaay back in their Murray State days.  I think that Gottfried preceded Beamer as the head coach there, and Beamer was on his staff.

So for once, the talking heads on ESPN won't be driving us nuts.  But more importantly, it's a chance for this incredible Hokie defense to have a coming out party.   Nobody in the country knows who Corey Moore is, but by Friday, October 9th, they will.

But BC will also be looking at this game as a chance to show the country what they can do.  They just better hope that the BC that shows up isn't the same one that got whipped by Louisville last weekend.

With next Saturday off, that will give me a chance to do some research on Boston College, and before we kick it off with them, I'll have a preview and a prediction.

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