Virginia Tech 27, West Virginia 13
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 10/31/98
Going into this game, there were three subplots, or three questions to be answered:
The answers? Yes, yes, and yes.
The worry-wart in me thought that it might take all three ingredients for a Hokie victory. In retrospect, I'm not sure that all three were required, but Tech got all three, anyway, and the result was a comfortable two-touchdown win that put Tech's season back on track.
Highlights of the game were a special teams touchdown, a sterling-silver game by the injured Ricky Hall, a good game by a gimpy Al Clark, and the emergence of Ike Charlton against an offense that finally tested him - and found out to their regret that he is worthy.
The two teams traded punches in the first half and went into the locker room with the Hokies holding a slim 17-13 lead.
Tech's defense slammed the door on WVU's potent offense in the Mountaineers' first two possessions, but the Hokies weren't having much luck on offense, either. Al Clark looked good, but Tech wasn't able to move the ball consistently.
The first score was the all-important special teams score, which came on a blocked punt by Marcus Gildersleeve and a return of the block for a TD by Ricky Hall, who scooped the ball effortlessly out of the air on a clean bounce.
WVU responded with a long drive for a TD. It wasn't easy, but the Mountaineers picked up the first downs when they had to, including a fourth down conversion on a beautiful play call that saw WVU QB Marc Bulger roll out and hit the fullback for a long gain. The Mountaineers then scored on a pass to the tight end, who was well-defended by John Engelberger, but to no avail. After a blocked extra point, Tech still had the advantage, 7-6.
Tech responded with a field goal, and then WVU effortlessly shredded the Tech defense for an easy touchdown on a four-play drive. Hokie faithful, me included, wondered if the WVU offense was getting on track, and if they were about to put up 30+ on the vaunted Tech defense.
I didn't really see any poor plays or strategy on the part of the Tech defense during WVU's two TD drives. What I did see was a great WVU offense that was spreading the field and using a stable of talented players to full advantage. 13-10, WVU.
The Hokies answered with a much-needed drive that culminated in Clark tossing a 40-yard score to Angelo Harrison. Harrison made a great one-on-one play, taking what was essentially a jump ball away from the staggering WVU defensive back, who fell to the turf as Harrison trotted into the end zone.
The two teams had scored 30 points in just under 24 minutes, and it was questionable whether the Hokies could keep up in a shootout with the Mountaineers. Tech's two TD's had come off of unlikely, spectacular plays, and I didn't think Tech could keep it up.
On the other side of the ball, Bulger was a surgical 10-11 passing, and after a slow start, WVU was making it look easy.
At that point, the Hokie defense started to get its feet back under it. The rest of the half played out with no more points being scored, and Tech went to the locker room to applause, holding a 17-13 edge.
The Pivotal Third Quarter
Tech didn't do itself any favors by starting off the second half with a limp offensive effort that gave the ball back to the Mountaineers after just a few plays.
WVU marched down the field to a first down at the Hokie two-yard line, aided by a personal foul call on Tech defensive end Corey Moore, who pushed Marc Bulger to the ground after Bulger had gotten rid of the ball.
The TV announcers called Moore's shove "cheap," but I think there's a big difference between a cheap (read: dirty) play and a play that's not very smart. Corey's shove was the latter.
But hey, can you blame the guy? He has been getting held and tackled by opposing linemen on nearly every play this year, so forgive him if he got a little close to Bulger and got excited that he was still standing up when he did, instead of being dragged to the turf by a lineman pulling his jersey. Memo to the Big East refs: start calling holding, will ya?
I noticed that after Moore's shove, which wasn't particularly vicious, Bulger didn't do anything good the rest of the game. As a matter of fact, he fell apart.
Amazingly, Tech held the Mountaineers on four straight downs and took over on the one (yawn, another goal-line stand). The key play was the fourth down, in which reserve linebacker Brian Welch met Amos Zereoue in the hole and stopped him cold. You know Zereoue - he's the fireplug with the tree-trunk arms who's almost impossible to tackle, and Welch hit him, stood him up, and with help, took him down.
This is the part where I remind you that Welch was a state AAA-champion wrestler in high school, and we discuss how wrestlers make great football players, particularly linebackers, because they understand the principles of leverage, they have strong hands and arms, and they know how to grab people and wrestle them to the ground.
Let's put it this way: there aren't a lot of people who will meet Zereoue head-to-head and take him down. Welch did.
Unfortunately, Al Clark served up a shocking interception on the very next play, shocking because that's exactly the sort of thing Al doesn't do.
Back on the field came the defense, and after a season of slumbering quietly, Ike Charlton, the sleeping giant at cornerback, finally awoke.
On the Mountaineer's second play, Bulger was flushed from the pocket and made an ill-advised throw back across his body. Charlton made a breathtaking play to pick off the pass, running across the end zone and grabbing the ball out of the air cleanly.
Big momentum swing. Big.
The goal-line stands were only one part of the equation. The second part came with the ensuing touchdown drive by the Hokies, which culminated with Clark hitting Hall on a beautiful 36-yard strike that put the Hokies up by two scores and took the air out of the WVU team.
The aspect of the Hall TD reception that I found unbelievable was that the Hokies were in a third and 22 situation. How in the world does a DB get burnt deep (like toast, because it wasn't even close) on a third and 22?
Clark and Hall ran the perfect pitch and catch. I didn't notice this, but two Hokie fans told me that when Clark released the ball, Hall was actually two yards in front of the WVU defensive back. When Al let it fly, Ricky blew by the defensive back, got well behind him, and cradled a perfectly thrown ball.
After that, with the Hokies holding a 24-13 lead, the fourth quarter was much sound and fury that amounted to nothing. The Hokies continued to torture Bulger, who threw three more interceptions, including two more to Ike, whose three interceptions in fifteen minutes robbed Ricky Hall of Player of the Game honors. As it is, Ike got the well-deserved honor, and Ricky will have to settle for two touchdowns, a "well done," and a big Big East victory.
Keys to Victory
This was a multi-faceted win, and there are about a million keys to this victory. Here are the ones I've isolated, and there may be even more.
1.) Containing WVU's Offense: before the game, I wondered, just not aloud, if WVU had figured out how to beat the Hokie defense. One WVU fan told me words to the effect of: "Don Nehlen designed this offense to beat the Tech defense." And, I added mentally, he has recruited the personnel to run it.
Did WVU have Tech's number? The Mountaineers torched the Hokie defense in Morgantown last year, and only one question remained - was that because Tech didn't play well enough, or was WVU's offense, and the players who run it, simply too much for Tech's defensive scheme?
WVU's strategy of isolating their receivers on Tech's defensive backs, and hitting them with quick-strike passes before the Tech D-line could pressure the quarterback, looked impossible to beat. And such a strategy would soften up Tech's defense for the long bomb. Throw in Amos Zereoue as the running back, and it's a tall order to stop it. I told the WVU fan, "If Tech can stop WVU's offense, then I'm glad I've got tickets to this game, because I want to see how."
Well, now I know, and it's actually very simple in theory, but you have to have the players to pull it off. Last year, Tech wasn't good enough to do it, but this year, they are.
First of all, your defensive secondary has to play a great game, and Tech's did. WVU hit some short passes, but they didn't slaughter the Hokies with them, like they did last year. Often times, Bulger came up on the short drop, and his receiver was covered. That leads to ...
Step two: pressure the quarterback. Almost every time that Tech's DB's had the receivers covered, the D-line was able to pressure Bulger, despite the constant holding, most notably Solomon Page (#77) grabbing any and every part of Corey Moore that he could get his hands on.
Lastly, flush Bulger from the pocket, and get him to throw on the run. Bulger's weakness, as we discovered in this game, is that he can't throw on the run. His interceptions, all four of them, were all thrown on the run, if I remember correctly.
Zereoue got his yards (148 of them), and in fact, it was no big deal that he did. The key for Tech was stopping the WVU passing game, and the Hokies did, at least to the degree that they needed to.
2.) Al Threw it Well: Al had 162 yards passing on 12 of 21 passing, but the keys were the 40-yard and 36-yard TD's to Harrison and Hall. I don't think Nick Sorensen could have thrown both of those TD passes on one game. One, but probably not both. Dave Meyer could have thrown them both, but he may not have been able to pull off the timing of the Clark to Hall TD, which was a thing of beauty.
As worried as we were about WVU's passing game, it was the Hokies, not the 'Eers, who got big plays from the passing game.
3.) Great Plays by the Receivers: the Harrison TD catch was a great individual play, pure and simple. Ricky Hall made several nice catches, despite playing in pain (more on that later). As Frank Beamer says, "Get your tailgate supplies at Kroger."
No, wait. Wrong quote. As Frank Beamer says, "It comes down to players making plays." Harrison and Hall made plays.
4.) Great Play, and Plays, by the Defensive Secondary: as detailed above, the play of Tech's cornerbacks and safeties was paramount to victory. They came through. Loren Johnson played perhaps the best coverage game of his career, Anthony Midget played well, and Ike Charlton, who finally got some action, came through big-time.
5.) Ricky Hall: Ricky Hall may never escape the stigma of the drop against Temple. He will always be remembered for it. But against WVU on Saturday, he did all he could to erase it from our minds, most notably by playing in obvious pain.
Ricky's shoulder is bothering him, but you couldn't tell from the way he played. Hall made big play after big play, scoring on the blocked punt, and catching 6 passes for 80 yards, including a TD. I noticed him writhing on the ground in pain after one catch, and he made another great leaping catch on the sideline, also causing pain in his shoulder as he extended himself to make the first down grab.
Hall is a playmaker, and he has scored a lot of touchdowns for Tech this year. He is up to 7 TD's, 6 of them receiving, and one on special teams. He is within reach of Antonio Freeman's record for TD catches in a season, which stands at 9 (Freeman did it in 1993). With one TD catch in each game from here on out, Hall could tie the record, and break it in a bowl.
6.) Ike Charlton: I like Ike. We all do. We just don't see him get much action. He finally ran into a team with the resources and the willingness to go his way, and he came up big with three interceptions. If Ricky Hall was going to have Player of the Game honors snatched away from him by a fellow Hokie, then Ike was one of the guys I would want to get it. And he did.
7.) Kibble and Graham: Kibble, who entered the game a surprising third in the Big East in punting, averaged a whopping 47 yards a punt. And Shayne Graham crushed his two field goal attempts, nailing them, after struggling recently. If the Hokies are to succeed down the stretch, we need Kibble and Graham to keep it up.
Gripes and Complaints
The kneel play: this is the play where the center snaps it if a defensive lineman moves, and the Tech QB kneels. The hope is that we catch the opposing lineman offsides.
I hate this play. I used to be neutral on it, but now I hate it, hate it, hate it. I have seen Jim Druckenmiller, and now Al Clark, kneel down for a docile two-yard loss way too many times, and I've had it. Get rid of it coaches, or it will cost you a game someday. Mark my words.
Failure to capitalize on opponent's turnovers: Tech has been awful at converting turnovers to points this year, and it's starting to set off big alarms in my head. Of more concern to me is the fact that Tech got only three points off of Bulger's last three interceptions. Even worse, at a time when we could have totally trashed WVU, not only did we not score many points, but we took maybe four minutes off the clock in three possessions, tops.
Do that with Syracuse, and they will make us pay. When the Hokies get a turnover, and the game is still in question, we need to go for the throat. In this game, Tech was happy to run the ball into the line three times and punt it back. That needs to change down the stretch.
Next Up: the Carrier Dome
You will not hear me say that Tech is playing Syracuse next. You'll hear me say that we're playing against the Carrier Dome, Syracuse's home stadium.
That's what it's all about, isn't it? Tech has proven that they can hammer the Orangemen outside the Dome, but what we haven't proven is that we can handle Syracuse in the cozy confines of their Jiffy Pop stadium.
Beating Syracuse at home - this is what it has come down to. Rutgers, who won their fourth game of the year Saturday, still looms on the horizon, but if the Hokies want to grab another Big East crown, they'll have to get through Syracuse first. Beat the Orangemen, and the Big East crown - and a big Bowl Championship Series payday - awaits with a victory over Rutgers.
Lose to Syracuse, and it's hello Gator Bowl, Insight.com bowl, or ... something else.
The Orangemen have an important date at WVU next Saturday, in a prime-time game on ESPN. The Hokies, who need a week off badly, get one. Tech, most notably Al Clark, will spend the next week recuperating, enjoying a great victory over WVU, and getting ready for a date with destiny - and the Carrier Dome.