Syracuse 28, Virginia Tech 26
by Will Stewart,, 11/14/98

Click here for the game recap with stats

I keep seeing that last play in my mind.

I see McNabb roll out to his right, away from pressure, and I'm worried that a wide open receiver is streaking across the back of the end zone, and we're a split-second away from defeat.

Then I see McNabb turn and look over his shoulder, clear across the field to the opposite corner of the end zone, and my hyperactive stream of conscious thought starts screaming at me, oh-no, oh-my-god, there's-someone-wide-open-on-the-other-side-of-the-field!

And then he lets it fly, and the camera follows it.

And we see the receiver, and - yes, yes, YES! - there's a Hokie defender right there!

And the ball floats down, and I watch in horror as the receiver, a tight end, takes perfect position, blocks the Hokie defender from the ball, reaches up … and snares it.

And for one split second, I'm wishing hard. I'm wishing: pleasedropit-pleasedropit-PLEASEDROPIT.

And he doesn't. He catches it, strong and sure, and the clock shows 0:00.

And yes, it's one of the greatest college football games I've ever seen. And we lost it.

And for two days straight now, all I can think is, it never should have come down to that. It never should have come down to one play.

The Game

Oh, geez, here we go.  I've got to relive the game, for posterity's sake.   Ugh.

For the Hokies, it was a game of big plays, and little else.  The big plays began with Jarrett Ferguson's 76-yard run, a phenomenal accomplishment for a fullback.   Jarrett must have felt like he was a tailback again, bursting through the middle and motoring down the field to paydirt - all while missing a shoe that was pulled off his foot early in the run.  The play ended the first quarter, and less than three minutes later, Tech pulled off another ho-hum punt block for a TD, with Ricky Hall again being the beneficiary.

Tech continued to hold the Syracuse offense at bay during the second quarter, but a disturbing trend had already begun:  the offense was mired in a series of three-and-out possessions, which started at the end of the first quarter and continued deep into the fourth quarter.

Unaware, the Tech defense forged on, and when Syracuse drove deep into Tech territory, the Hokies once again beat them back, this time with a spectacular fumble return by Loren Johnson for a touchdown.

In the WVU game, Loren dropped two interceptions that he might have scored on, but in this game, he made no such mistakes, and once again played one of the best games of his career, perhaps the best.  Syracuse called a great play, an end around, but the Hokies defensed it properly, stringing it out to the sidelines.

Keion Carpenter popped the ball free from the ball carrier, it squirted up in the air, and when Loren pulled it down, he was already running full stride.  74 yards later, he had a TD, and the fearsome Carrier Dome fell so quiet that I could hear a guy in the top row chewing a pretzel.  A soft pretzel.

Tech kept it coming fast and furious, and just a couple of minutes later, the Hokies were starting a drive deep in Syracuse territory, inside the 40-yard line.  I remember thinking at the time that 21-3 with a full half to play wasn't enough, but if the Hokies could put another TD on the Orangemen, 28-3 would be nearly impossible for even a Donovan McNabb-led team to overcome.

The Turning Point

Instead of scoring, though, the Hokies stalled, and Shayne Graham missed a long field goal that had plenty of leg but sailed wide right.  I reflected on yet another squandered opportunity for an offense that has squandered many chances this season, and I wondered if this one would matter.

With almost no time to work, the Orangemen threw a long hail-Mary into Tech territory and then trotted out Trout, their field goal kicker.  Wouldn't you know it, after arguably losing the WVU game just one week earlier, Trout suddenly caught his rhythm against the Hokies, hitting his second field goal in a row, as time expired in the first half.  Instead of 24 or 28 to 3, the Hokies had given up a cheap score right before half time, and it was 21-6.

And now you can admit it:  the word "Temple" came to mind, didn't it?

The Second Half

I'd rather forget what happened from here on.

Tech opened the second half with a rapid three-and-out on offense, and minutes later, about halfway through the third quarter, the Orangemen put up their second touchdown to close the gap to 21-13.  They were now within one score.

At a time when the Hokie defense was starting to tire, and Tech desperately needed a lift from their offense, it was instead curling into the fetal position.  Syracuse put 8 men or more on the line of scrimmage, the Hokies got conservative and failed to execute, and the time of possession statistic started to get grossly overweighted on the Syracuse side.

Somewhere along the way, in a play that was typical of the Tech offensive performance, the Hokies called the shovel pass on third down.  The Syracuse defensive line poured into the backfield, and Al hesitated, giving the play away in the process.  Then he committed the cardinal sin of throwing the pass anyway, directly into the arms of a Syracuse defender, and for the second game in a row, the usually dependable Clark had thrown a head-scratcher of an interception.

As the second half wore on, Jarrett Ferguson's magnificent one-shoed run became a distant memory, and it became apparent that the Hokie offense wasn't going to be much help.

Syracuse tacked on a field goal (21-16), and then finally went over the top early in the fourth quarter, when Rob Konrad scored on a short run to put the Orangemen up, 22-21.

But only for a moment.  The defense did it again.  Loren Johnson stepped in front of McNabb's ill-advised two point conversion pass, picked it cleanly, and started the footrace down the sideline, with only McNabb to challenge him.

McNabb eventually did catch Loren at about the Syracuse ten yard line, but LJ pulled one of the smartest plays I've ever seen, fumbling the ball intentionally as McNabb dragged him to the turf.  After all, if you go down, that's it.  It's not like the offense gets to line up and give it a shot.  LJ was rewarded for the heady play when (a) a Hokie defender, I think it was Jamel Smith, fell on the ball in the end zone, and (b) the Big East refs, not sure if the acting job was a legit fumble or not, let it stand.

That made it 23-22, Hokies, but there was so much time left that the play, although great, meant almost nothing.

The Hokies followed that up with their first first-down in ages.  Shyrone Stith entered the game and peeled off some of the best runs of the game, including one cut-back across the field that was all Shyrone.  Tech moved smartly downfield behind Stith, but the drive stalled when a Syracuse defender knocked Stith temporarily out of the game with a tough hit.  The Hokies settled for a field goal when a touchdown was desperately needed, and the lead stood at four points, 26-22.

There was 4:52 to go.

For years now, I have had supreme confidence in the Hokies' ability to win games like this, but for the first time since early 1995, I had a bad feeling.  It was too much time, the defense was too tired, and McNabb was too good.  With our BCS hopes teetering on the brink, I didn't like our chances, and it was a nasty, unpleasant feeling.

Indeed, Donovan picked the Syracuse team up on his shoulders and carried them down the field.  I won't bore you with the painful details, except to say that he converted a fourth and 8 along the way by juking Michael Hawkes, the contain man, out of his shoes.   It's nothing for Mike to be ashamed of, because it was the umpteenth time that McNabb had done it in this game.

The Orangemen drove to a first and goal with 0:51 showing on the clock, and you had to wonder if Tech had yet another goal line stand in their bag of tricks.  The Hokies stuffed Syracuse on the first play, and as the clocked ticked and my stomach churned, Corey Moore, who played an incredible game, burst through the line to sack McNabb all the way back on the thirteen yard line.  The Orangemen hastily lined up and spiked the ball, and with five seconds to go, the Hokies called timeout.

Many people have questioned the decision to call a timeout, which Coach Beamer said was called by defensive coordinator Bud Foster.  McNabb was exhausted, and had actually thrown up on the field, so why not make him line up and run the play right away?

I don't have a problem with the timeout.  After all, the next play was a multi-million dollar play, and if Coach Foster wants to get it right, that's all right with me.

I have had several people tell me that when Corey sacked McNabb, they thought we had won the game.  Me personally, I had no such thought.  I wouldn't have been comfortable if that guy had been on the freakin' forty yard line.

And you already know the rest.  I described the last play in the opening to this game report.

The Post-Mortem

The offensive statistics were ugly for Tech.  There are five that really jump out at you:

  1. Syracuse won the time of possession battle, 37:06 to 22:54.
  2. Syracuse ran 88 plays to 38 for Tech
  3. Tech had 152 yards total.
  4. Tech had six first downs.
  5. Take away Ferguson's run, and the Hokies had 76 yards on 37 plays, an average of 2.05 yards per play.

It is absolutely incredible that with those numbers, the Hokies came within one play of winning this ballgame.  On the road.  Against one of the best offenses, and one of the best quarterbacks, in the country.

Kudos to the defense and special teams, and in particular to Corey Moore and Loren Johnson, for playing great, great games.

Now comes the ugly part.

The Popular Post-Game Topic:
Tech's Offense, and Rickey Bustle

Okay, I've never really given you my thoughts on Tech's offensive scheme and its offensive coordinator, except for some grousing after the UVa game last year. But the offense and its coordinator, Rickey Bustle, seem to be the hot topic after this game, so here's what I think.

First of all, let me say that I'm completely unqualified to critique coaching, which is why I don't do it often. My last up-close exposure to football was when I played on my ninth grade team, so it's pretty well established that I don't know squat about football. Therefore, the following observations should be viewed as the comments of a reasonably intelligent, somewhat observant football fan, and nothing more or nothing less.

As the message board was filling up with 300 messages every 8-9 hours on Sunday, someone, I can't remember who, asked a simple, poignant question that bears repeating: "At what point is it okay to question the coaching staff?"

The person was making the point that yes, sometimes injuries play a part, as they did last year, and sometimes you're outclassed on the field, and sometimes, your players just don't make plays. But at what point do you look at a loss, or losses, and start to question the coaching?

Answer: when your offense is almost 100% healthy, you've had two weeks to prepare for a game, and you get manhandled - absolutely destroyed - by a mediocre defense that isn't even within shouting distance of the Top 50 defensive units in the country.

That's when it's time to start talking about the coaching.

If you're looking for me to sum up our offense and Rickey Bustle's coaching ability in one tidy sentence, you're not going to get it, so dig in and prepare to wade through a page or two of my thoughts. I have been watching Rickey Bustle call the plays at Tech for about five years now, and I have developed some thoughts on the matter. Here they are:

1.)  The primary weakness in Rickey's offensive scheme is that it doesn't work the middle of the field at all.

On the surface, our offense seems varied and multifaceted. The plays we run truly stretch the field. The flanker screen, the bomb, the shovel pass, and the running game. We use the whole field, don't we?

No, we don't. I have noticed that our passing game barely uses the middle of the field at all. Our passing plays seem to consist of down and outs, the flanker screen, and the bomb.

Sure, this stretches the defense, but then we don't take advantage of it by working the middle of the field. Our receivers almost never catch balls across the middle, and the tight end? Forget about it.

On Saturday, Syracuse did the same thing to us that they did in the Dome in 1996: they stacked the line, stuffed the run, and sent the kitchen sink. We did nothing to punish them for it, just like 1996.

I think that you beat that defensive philosophy by using quick slant routes and the tight end down the middle. It might not work, but you should at least try, because if you succeed, those patterns are deadly.

In a fall scrimmage earlier this year, I watched Michael Vick read a blitz, take a two-step drop, and hit a receiver on a slant pattern. The receiver caught the ball, shrugged off the only defender within ten yards … and scored easily, from 30 yards out. It was a perfect example of how to punish a blitzing defense.

We didn't try the slant patterns and the tight end Saturday because those plays barely exist in our playbook, folks. The coaches will tell you otherwise, particularly about the tight end, but I'm really starting to wonder.

Our offense is built around running the ball and using the passing game to stretch the defense, so we can run the ball again. From what I can tell, our passing game is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is used to set up the run, and little more.  Occasionally, we score off of the bombs we throw, and that flanker screen can be deadly when well-executed, but that's it.

This ties into our entire team philosophy. This team is built around defense and special teams, and the offense is on the field to run the ball, grind the clock, and not make mistakes. Therefore, our passes are high-percentage, relatively safe passes. The flanker screen is almost impossible to intercept, a well-thrown down-and-out won't get picked off, and if a bomb is picked off, heck, it's just like a punt, right?

Throwing the ball into the middle of the field is too risky, because defenders can come from any angle, not just one angle or one side, so we don't do it. And Syracuse's defensive coaches have demonstrated that they know how to beat this offense, even when they don't have a good defense. They have totally shut down our offense in the Dome two straight times now by jamming the run and coming after us.

With DeShazo and Druckenmiller, we had great, truly great, offensive lines, and two quarterbacks who could get the ball to the receivers, so the weaknesses in Rickey's system didn't manifest themselves as readily and as obviously as they have in the last two years.

2.)  Rickey does not change his scheme at all according to the talents of his players.

This is the same scheme - with the same plays - that we ran in 1993, when DeShazo was QB, and in 1995 and 1996, when Druck was QB. Same flanker screen, same bombs, same runs up the gut.

I can't think of two quarterbacks who are farther apart in abilities than Al Clark and Jim Druckenmiller, and yet, the offense looks exactly the same to me. Run the ball, flanker screen, ignore the tight end, throw the bomb.

I was reading my 1997 spring game report the other day (for some odd reason), and in particular, I was reading what I wrote about Al. It was the first time I had ever seen him play, and I wrote that on short and mid-range passes, he was dynamite, but once the pass got over 20-25 yards, he wasn't very accurate at all.

Al clearly can't play the same game as Druck, but yet, I have seen a steady diet of bombs since Al took over at the beginning of last year. Not that this criticism is relevant to the Syracuse game, because we didn't throw the bomb. I'm just making a point.

Druck was horrible at rolling out and throwing on the run, and we didn't do it very much. Al is great at rolling out and throwing on the run … and we don't do it very much. Al did it twice Saturday, and both times, he absolutely nailed it. Andre Davis caught one of the balls for 14 yards, but dropped the other one.

I'm telling you folks, we've got a quarterback who's a pretty good passer from 5-20 yards, and I don't see us using his talents.

3.)  Execution plays a big part too, and we didn't have any.

Amidst all this questioning of the play-calling, coaching, and offensive scheme, one simple fact can't be overlooked:  the offensive execution Saturday night was horrible.  No offense to the players, but the blocking was about the worst I've seen in recent years.  Syracuse pinned their ears back and treated our offensive line like an open window.

I saw Derek Carter miss a block on a crucial third and short, and his man made the tackle.  I saw one perfectly executed option play by Tech, but Andre Davis completely missed his block, and his man, the only defender within five yards of the play, pushed Lamont Pegues out of bounds for a loss of four yards.  I saw Davis drop a perfect roll-out pass from Al.  I saw the Syracuse defense fill up the backfield on a shovel pass, and I watched as Al Clark threw it straight to a defender standing only a few yards away.

You can scream at Rickey Bustle all you want, but if the players execute, the offense moves, and it scores.  It's that simple.  In 1995 and 1996, the players executed, and no one was complaining about the offense back then.  The only reason that we're having this discussion is that we don't have the talent on offense, in particular on the offensive line, that we've had in the past.  It's hard for any offensive coordinator to look good when his players are having a bad game.

Time for a Change?  Yes, but not the bloodletting some of you are suggesting.

When Frank Beamer came to Tech in 1987, he brought the wide tackle six defense with him, and at first, it worked great. And then it went stale, and opponents started beating it like a drum. So Frank changed the defense.  It was a defense that was going great guns in 1989 or 1990, but by 1992, opponents were abusing it.

Well, I think the offense is getting a bit stale. It's not a hideous mess. I just think that we need to throw out a few plays, and add in a few plays. Work the middle of the field, throw to the tight end (for the millionth time).

But more importantly, I (with zero years of coaching experience behind me) think that we need to stop treating the offense as a something that holds the ball for a while until the next time the defense takes the field. It needs to be turned into an attacking unit that holds up its end of the bargain. Good grief, the entire nation is full of teams that just snap their fingers and - BAM! - score points, with less talent than we've got, I might add. Why not us?

It's simple - we have the goal of playing for and winning a national championship, soon, and one characteristic of the top teams, such as Florida State, Florida, and this year, Kansas State, is that they don't use one part of their team to prop up other parts of their team.  If you want to compete at the highest level, you've got to go at it full bore with all phases of the game, and I think Tech is playing it a little cool on offense, and has been for several years.

I sincerely doubt that we can win the national championship with an offense that is predicated on playing conservative, emphasizing the run to the detriment of the passing game, playing to not turn it over, and counting on the defense and special teams to win the game.  We can compete year in and year out in the Big East, which is a decent conference but not really powerful, but I don't think we can push for the national championship with our current philosophy ... unless our players are really, really good.

I think we have to adjust our philosophy a little bit.  We don't have to throw out the entire offensive scheme, but I think it's time for a little shift, and I think this game points that out.  The offense has been floundering for two years now, and to put on a smiley face and ignore it is a mistake, in my opinion.

Sorry if that upsets anybody reading this.  You know I'm one of the biggest Hokie fans in existence.  I support the team in about a hundred different ways, and I'll continue to do so.  And I'm not just saying this because we lost a big game.   Ask me that question one year ago, or one year from now, and I'll tell you the same thing.  I made these comments because people were asking me what I thought.

So there, that's what I think.  For what it's worth.  And it's not worth much.

Moving On

The interesting thing is, I was depressed about this game for almost two days.   That's unusual for me.

See, you've got to realize what it's like to be me. One of the unfortunate side effects of running HokieCentral is that it seems to have taken some of the enjoyment out of Hokie sports. No matter what happens in a Tech football game, good or bad, I always have to deal with it later.

That's not so bad when we win, except sometimes, I'd like to just be able to enjoy the win without having to write a game report.

But when we lose, man, it rots being me. Because I have to hash it over in my mind, analyze it, work it over, and come up with reasons for the loss. And since I'm impartial, a fan writing for fans, I have to come up with inspiration from the game, too, something positive to take away from it. Which is tough, when it's a loss.

And then, sometimes, I have to discuss the failures of individual players and coaches, and that's when it gets really unpleasant for me, because I don't like to do that. I don't like calling people out by name, because they're all doing the best they can do.

I've discovered that as I get older, individual games don't seem to mean as much to me anymore. I don't get as emotional about them, partly because I've seen so many Hokie games over the last 15 years, and I understand the ebb and flow of a program. Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down, but all that really matters is the overall direction of the program, and that's been pretty positive over the last five years. We're on the way up.

So I don't get hung up too much on any single win or loss anymore, not like I used to. I still remember how, as a senior at Tech, the 1986 Peach Bowl was like life and death to me, but I'm not sure I can generate that type of emotion these days, unless it's a BCS bowl or a national championship game.

Plus, I subscribe to the Frank Beamer theory that "it's never as bad as it seems, and never as good as it seems." So I try to keep an even keel.

But for two days, I was really bummed about this game. Really depressed. Like I haven't been for a while over a Hokie loss.

Why? It's just a game. The Hokies will live to fight another day, and they'll do us proud again some day soon, in a big way. And it's only football. Losing to the Syracuse Orangemen doesn't threaten my life, my family, or my career, so … so what?

So what, indeed?

There was something different about this game. It was a classic, a game that saw dozens of young men lay it on the line play after play after play, going full speed until they were exhausted, only to come up one play short in the end, in a heartbreaking loss.   And in the aftermath, fans turned on each other, on some of the players, and the coaches (the message board is always a dicey place to be in the days following a loss).

But more so than all that, it was a game - and a play - that ended Tech's hopes for a Big East championship.

Think about it: the players and coaches work all year long towards the goal of a conference championship, and I don't just mean during the season. They work hard in the offseason, as well.

As fans, we wait through the interminable period between seasons, which seems to take forever, and then the season starts, and it's like a big roller coaster ride. Week in, week out, we win, we lose, but our focus is always on the Big East championship. And fortunately for us, that focus extends deep into the schedule, into mid-November.

And then Donovan McNabb completes a pass - one pass - and it's over. The thing you've been wishing for all year long gets taken away, and in the space of five seconds, you realize it's not going to happen. Not this year. Another chance to earn glory has slipped by the wayside, and in this life, you don't get too many chances.

So, yes, that's depressing. And it takes a while to get over it. Even for a jaded, business-like, ride-the-waves observer like me.

So go ahead, let it bum you out for a while. Then meet me in Lane Stadium this Saturday, at 1:00 p.m, because the Big East championship is out of our grasp for this year, but the season goes on.

To read two emails that I received in response to this game report, click here.

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