Virginia 36, Virginia Tech 32
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/28/98
Well, that's that. Another season done.
In this game, the Hokies lost yet another big lead, the third time this year that Tech has held a seemingly insurmountable margin and let it slip away. I'm becoming a little numb to it at this point, and I'm a little weary of playing some of the most exciting college football that has been played this season but losing.
Since this is the last game, it gives us an opportunity to catch our breath, take stock of what we've seen, and put it all in perspective. Individual games tend not to tell us much about the overall state of the program (for instance, we're not worse than Temple, although we looked it that day), but of course, entire seasons can tell us a lot. More on that later.
It's hard to say anything deep and philosophical about this game. We had them down, and we didn't finish them. An offense that took advantage of every single opportunity in the first half found itself unable to sustain long drives or make a big play in the second half, and ultimately, when we gave UVa a small crack in the door, they kicked it in.
When we win, I like to do a game recap, but when we lose, especially to a fierce rival like UVa, I'm not much into it. There were a few points I wanted to touch upon, however:
Why We Lost
There are a number of reasons why we lost, and here's just a few:
1.) "So the Cavaliers' task on offense is clear: run the ball, or die."
Wrong. I said that in my preview last week, and I was wrong. Virginia only had 73 yards on 31 carries (2.35 yards per carry), and ACC rushing leader Thomas Jones was shut down by the Hokies (19 carries for 50 yards, 2.63 yards per carry).
So Aaron Brooks, the Charlottesville Mouth, took over and beat Tech throwing the ball, something I didn't think would happen. I thought that if Tech forced UVa to pass, that Corey Moore and John Engelberger would pin their ears back and take care of the rest.
Wrong again. Although the usual holding was present, UVa's blocking schemes were very effective. Moore and Engelberger were not much of a factor, and when they were, Brooks was able to make the plays, anyway. On the 18-yard TD pass to Jones that made it 32-29, the Tech defense was about to pummel Brooks, and he just heaved it, and Jones made a phenomenal catch. Great players making great plays.
2.) UVa's offensive coordinator knows how to beat this defense.
Sparky Woods had a great game plan, and his players pulled it off.
When the run failed, Woods kept the backs and tight ends in to block, and Tech's pass rush was ineffective. Then he went to the slant route down the middle, to take advantage of Tech's lack of deep safety coverage.
The rest was up to the UVa players, and they executed it almost perfectly. The UVa receivers were able to beat Tech's DB's consistently, and as a result, the Hoos converted many third and longs, and even a fourth and long, which is unusual against Tech's defense.
Ike Charlton in particular was burned for receptions more times than I thought possible, including Coffey's 24-yard TD reception on fourth down, early in the third quarter (hope I didn't get my details wrong there - I think that was a fourth down).
The ability of the UVa receivers to get open against Tech's defensive backs shouldn't be a total surprise. A couple of weeks earlier, Terrence Wilkins, who had seven catches for 141 yards in this game, made North Carolina's famous Dre Bly look like a chump. Chalk it up as a lesson, Ike and company, learn from it, and get better.
Brooks is just the QB to execute that game plan, too. He is tall and rangy, and can see over the line very well to complete the middle-of-the-field passes. And when he's on, he can sling it.
The bottom line? No offensive or defensive scheme is perfect. This is one way to beat this defense, and UVa did it. Not many teams in the country have the talent to do it, and UVa does. It's that simple. Their game plan wasn't rocket science, but they executed it.
3.) Tech was unable to sustain a long drive in the second half.
Once the second half arrived and UVa quit messing around and turning the ball over, it was up to the Hokie offense to mount a long drive, and they couldn't do it.
When the Hokies did manage to get it going, a holding penalty or a sack would kill the drive, because if there was one thing Tech couldn't do, except for one time late in the game, it was complete a long pass for first down.
The running game worked surprisingly well, but the vertical passing game didn't work very well. And when UVa wanted to blitz and sack us, they did. Many times, I watched our offensive line and running backs simply fail to pick up the blitz and give Al the time he needed.
UVa suffered from no such problems, which is part of the reason Brooks was so successful, but Al wasn't. Al had some success early in the game, but when the chips were down and we needed him to make plays, he couldn't.
One thing the 1995 and 1996 teams could do that the 1997 and 1998 teams haven't been able to do is put together an 80-yard, 12-play, six-minute drive when they need it. Part of it is the offensive line, part of it is the lack of a true fullback, and part of it is that Druck isn't here anymore.
Reasons We Almost Didn't Lose
1.) Shayne Graham - in becoming Tech's all-time leading scorer, Opie was perfect, nailing 4 of 4 field goals, including a 50-yarder and a 46-yarder into the wind.
2.) Ricky Hall - Ricky was flawless, and the one time Al absolutely threw it up for grabs, on a third and long late in the game, Ricky dispatched the defensive back and made another big catch. In retrospect, I sure wish he could have scored on it, because Tech, clinging to a 32-29 lead, proceeded to lose a total of ten yards on the next two running plays.
Ricky is a big-time receiver, with good hands and great body control, and I'm going to put the pressure on him now and say that I expect him to have a great year next year. And one more thing: forget about the Temple drop folks, because if that's all you think about when you think about Ricky Hall, then you're cheating yourself out of enjoying a great receiver.
3.) Shyrone Stith - Shyrone is the hot back, and he's on a serious roll. He had 17 carries for 124 yards (7.3 yards per carry), and even if you take away the 51 yard TD he had early in the game, he was 16 carries for 73 yards (4.6 yards per carry). By contrast, Lamont Pegues, who is definitely cold, had 15 carries for 33 yards (2.2 yards per carry).
The Stat of the Year
In 1992, when the Hokies went 2-8-1, the popular stat that year said "if football games were 55 minutes long, Tech would have been 7-4."
It was a stat that boiled the season down into one simple sentence, a tidy conclusion that may not have made us feel better, but it made us understand. And hidden inside that stat were the reasons why the Hokies were 2-8-1 (not 7-4), and what they needed to do to get better.
In the parking lot, after the game, I heard Bill Roth recount the stat of the year for 1998:
"17-0, 21-3, 29-7."
Those numbers, of course, are the leads Tech held in all three of their losses. Usually, I'm a "glass-half-full" guy, but those numbers really grind my axe. I can understand losing one or two of those games, folks, but all three? Don't expect me to swallow that with a smile.
And if I hear, "8-3 is pretty good for a rebuilding year," one more time, I'm going to scream. Those of you that are saying that aren't wrong, mind you. It just doesn't do me any good to hear it, and it glosses over the losses, and more importantly, how we lost them.
I base my feelings about a season on how the season unfolds, not what my expectations for that season were at the beginning. And the way this one unfolded, it could have been better. Perhaps it's unrealistic to say that it could have been a lot better, but it certainly could have been better.
And the players and coaches would agree with me on that one. Frank Beamer told Mike Burnop after the game in his best Tale of Two Cities reference, "It's been one of the best seasons I've been involved with, but at the same time, it's been one of the worst seasons."
So What Do We Need To Do So This Doesn't Happen Again?
The short answer? Kill, kill, kill. When we get a team down, keep them down.
We have done something unusual as a team, and that's allow teams to come back on us. In 1995 and 1996, it didn't happen, but this year, it has, in spades.
Most of the post-game comments after the losses have centered around the offense, and that's probably a valid criticism. Sure, the defense didn't do their part in the Temple loss and in the second half of this loss, but the reason that most fans think it's the offense that needs to improve is simple: our defense ranks near the top of the NCAA, and the offense ranks near the bottom.
Also true is the fact that whereas our defense has bailed our offense out several times this season, the offense didn't bail the defense out once. Every time the defense struggled, we lost, period.
I told someone after the game that with a 29-7 lead, you win the game by responding to your opponent's next two scores with scores of your own. When UVa scored to make it 29-14, Tech could have put them on the brink by scoring again and making it 36-14. And when UVa posted their third TD to make it 36-21, a Tech TD to push it back to 43-21 would have finished them off.
Once a team is down by 2-3 scores, ensuing scores break their backs, and we never came up with those scores.
Sometimes, when a vaunted defense gets "solved" or has a bad day, you wind up in a shootout, and when that happens, you have to make sure that you have a big gun, lots of ammo, and the willingness to fire away with it. Tech hasn't been able to reach deep offensively when they have needed to this year. Sometimes it was the game plan and sometimes it was the execution, but we simply didn't have it when we needed it, and it cost us games.
I hope that what our coaching staff takes out of this year is a commitment to retooling the offensive scheme to make it more aggressive and bloodthirsty. One very disgusted fan told me after the game, "If I come to next year's spring game, and they're still handing off six yards deep in the backfield, throwing the flanker screen, and using the tight end as a blocker, my enthusiasm for this football program is going to go into the toilet."
Harsh words, but there's a grain of truth there. The coaching staff used a disastrous 1992 season as an opportunity to scrap the wide-tackle six, work on the defense, and move it into the future.
I hope that the coaches take these frustrating 1997 and 1998 offensive showings and see them as reason to turn our offense into something that can pressure opponents by scoring points, so our defense and special teams can really tee off.
Obviously, folks, at 8-3, I'm not looking to push the panic button, and I don't mean to get down on our offense. After all, they did put up 172 yards rushing, 361 yards total, and 32 points yesterday. But when we really needed them to score, they couldn't mount a long drive, and it's not the first time that has happened in the last two years.
So I hope our smart coaching staff and our talented players fix that broken wheel soon, because we're close. We're really close. Six years ago, a bad season was 2-8-1, and these days, "bad" seasons are 7-4 and 8-3. That's progress, and I want them to keep continuing to make progress, and to change if necessary to continue making progress.
Time to Crank It Up One More Notch
While we're comparing 1992 and 1998, let's remember that in 1993, the Hokies took it up a notch, despite how bad 1992 had been. I think that as fans, we're all feeling like it's time for that next step up, from our current level to the next level.
The "next level," of course, is hard to define, so let me tell you what that term means to me. At the next level, I think we're still "allowed" to lose to teams like UVa, WVU, Syracuse, and Miami. We have actually been pretty successful against those teams over the last six years, so I have no complaints there.
My next step, though, the one I think will define "the next level" for me, comes when we stop losing to teams like Cincinnati, Miami of Ohio, and Temple, particularly at home. And for me, the next level also includes holding big leads when we get them. Lose one here or there, sure, I won't panic, but three in one year? Hmmm.
And lastly, the next level includes a steady diet of 8-10 win seasons. No more seven-win seasons. Preferably, I'd like to see 9 and 10 win seasons, and maybe an 11-win season. With our current schedule and talent level, I'm starting to think that an 8-win season is an average year.
Of course, there are levels above that, and they include undefeated seasons, and victories over Top-5 teams. That's a bit far off, I think, and we should strive to reach it, but in the meantime, the goals that I outlined above would be "the next level" for me.