Akron Game Analysis:
The Pressure's on the Defense
by Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com , 9/4/00

Click here for the game recap with stats

It's always a good thing when you don't get any surprises during a season opener. It's comforting when the Hokies roll, as expected, and no major injuries are suffered. Last year's season opener against JMU brought one big unpleasant outcome -- an injury to Michael Vick, an injury that he didn't seem to fully recover from until the Sugar Bowl.

At the time, Hokie fans didn't know what they had in Vick. He made some great plays against JMU, but the athletes he was playing against weren't Division 1-A caliber.

This year, in the season opener against Akron, Vick was the known quantity, and it was the defense and special teams that Hokie fans were wondering about. And much like Vick did against JMU last year, both of those units made some great plays in the 52-23 victory, but they're still largely a mystery to Hokie fans. One thing is clear: the potential is there, but it remains to be seen how quickly they'll come together.

As I said in the game recap, this one went about as expected. The defense was energetic but inconsistent, the offense was dominating, and Vick was exciting and worth the price of admission all by himself. It's arguable that the only surprise, and it was a pleasant one, was the performance of Tech's placekicker and punter, Carter Warley and Robert Peaslee.

Let's break it down, starting with the offense.


The Offense

Vick. Vick, Vick, Vick.

It goes without saying that Michael Vick is unlike any other star athlete that has ever played at Virginia Tech. We've had talented, famous players here -- Bruce Smith, Dell Curry, Bimbo Coles, Cornell Brown, Antonio Freeman, Jim Druckenmiller -- but the hype surrounding Vick, and the types of plays he is capable of making, put him on a different level. The blinding light that reflects off this guy makes it hard to truly see what you're looking at.

My esteemed colleague at TheSabre.com, Mike Ingalls, is infamous for attending the Virginia High School League (VHSL) All-Star Game Vick's senior year and returning from it with a less than complimentary opinion of Vick. One of the things that he reportedly said about Vick (I did not read Ingalls's comments at the time) was that Michael didn't have a particularly strong arm.

That's a real head-scratcher, because I simply don't see it. Everybody likes to talk about how Michael Vick can run, cut, and dodge, but me, I like to watch him rifle the ball.

I've never seen Hokie fans smile, laugh, and shake their heads in awe over an interception thrown by their own quarterback, but with 5:39 to go in the second quarter, that's exactly what they were doing.

With the ball spotted on the Virginia Tech 32 yard line, Vick dropped back to pass and rifled a deep ball to Andre Davis that was picked off on a spectacular play by Akron's Dwight Smith (who did nothing in the game to hurt his chances at winning the Jim Thorpe award, for which he has been placed on the 40-man watch list).

Smith caught the ball at the Akron 7 yard line. Vick had thrown it from roughly the Tech 27, which means that it traveled 66 yards in the air. Okay, so that's no big deal. The world is full of quarterbacks who can throw the ball 66 yards in the air. But there's very few of them who can do it flat-footed, on a line.

Vick is notorious (in my mind, anyway) for having a poor throwing motion. He often throws from an open stance, flat-footed. And if Tech quarterback coach Rickey Bustle has any clue what he's doing, he won't dare try to "improve" Vick's throwing motion. Monkeying with it now would probably just mess up one of the best guns in the country.

Need more evidence? Look at the velocity on his 34-yard TD pass to Andre Davis in the third quarter. There's not much hope for a defensive back to stop a pass play when the ball goes from the quarterback to the receiver in the blink of an eye.

That's the latest installment in the Legend of Vick. Donít forget to savor the moments, folks. We now return you to our regular game analysis.

Lee Suggs. Suggs has indeed, as rumored, elevated his game. He's a lot bigger, a lot more sure of himself and doesn't go down as easily. Billy Hite's tailbacks must first be able to run up the middle in Rickey Bustle's offensive scheme, and Suggs can now do that well. He's not Ken Oxendine or even Shyrone Stith in that respect, but he is much more comfortable in the middle than he was last year.

He also isn't either one of those guys when he breaks open -- he's faster. Unfortunately, we only got a small peek at Suggs's speed, on his 13-yard off-tackle run for a TD in the third quarter. Hopefully, Suggs will get into the open field against ECU this coming Thursday and will get to show us a little bit more of a burst. For this game, Suggs totaled 90 yards on 14 carries (6.4 yards per carry), with no lost yardage on any of his runs.

Offensive Line. Of course, the offensive line played well against Akron. The Zips only had one sack, and that came on the third play of Tech's first drive. Vick and backup Grant Noel had all kinds of time to throw.

In the running game, the Hokies averaged a whopping 7 yards per carry, totaling 335 net yards on 48 carries. An important stat to look at here is how many runs by the tailbacks lost yardage, and the answer is one. Backup tailback Doug Easlick lost a yard on one of his carries. That indicates that the Akron defensive line was getting no penetration into the backfield.

Also important is that the backup offensive linemen got plenty of playing time. As indicated in earlier articles, this is critical to Tech's success not just this year, but next year. It will be interesting to see the depth chart in the next Hokie Huddler Ö er, hokiesports.comthenewspaper.

Play Calling. Ah, yes, play calling. The easy target. I noticed some things in this game that indicate that with a more mature Michael Vick and a senior-dominated offensive line, Rickey Bustle is willing to get away from purely safe plays. Mainly, he threw into the middle of the field, and to the tight end.

Bustle still isn't a fan of the short slant pattern and probably never will be, but the 34-yard dart to Davis for a TD was on a deep slant that, with Vick's arm and Davis's speed, will be nearly impossible for anyone to defend if Tech keeps throwing it. Now that Vick has a full year under his belt and is probably learning how to look for the safety, Bustle will probably call that pattern more often. Last year, he stayed away from calling passes to the middle of the field, where the traffic is heavy and the ball is more likely to get picked off.

As for the tight ends, it was telling that Vick and Grant Noel both went downfield to them multiple times. Browning Wynn had two catches from Vick for 58 yards, Keith Willis caught one pass from Noel for 21 yards, and Bob Slowikowski barely missed catching another one from Vick that would have been for a healthy gain.

If I've said it before, I'll say it again (and so will many of you): they can't stop the tight end downfield in the pros, and they most certainly can't stop it in college. I wouldn't call Bustle a convert just yet, but hopefully, he'll keep that weapon in his arsenal and use it often.


The Defense

Of course, the performance of the defense was the main topic of discussion in the post-game. Tech gave up 410 yards to Akron, including 300 yards in the first half. Akron did it with the running game (162 yards) and the passing game (248 yards). They threw to the receivers, they threw to the tight end, they ran up the middle, they threw it short, they threw it long -- everything. And in the process, the Virginia Tech defense got an education.

Overall Comments. Akron's offensive coordinator called an excellent game. Knowing that the VT defense was talented but inexperienced, they used misdirection in both the running game and the passing game. Tech's young defenders bit on the play fakes and misdirection all day long, leading to a lot of yardage for the Akron offense.

One play that the Zips used repeatedly with success was the play-action rollout. Quarterback Butchie Washington would fake the run into the line, pull the ball back out, and bootleg in the opposite direction. The Zips would often have 2 or 3 receivers running with him, giving Washington plenty of options. The Zips preyed on the quick, enthusiastic Tech defense, teaching them a lot about playing with discipline and staying in their lanes.

For the Tech defense, the speed and tenacity were there, but the consistency wasn't. For example, on one play, Ben Taylor and Jake Houseright would go to exactly the right spot and tackle the runner for a loss, but on the next play, they would be nowhere to be found as Akron ran for 8 yards up the middle.

Missed tackles were a problem, particularly early in the game, and it seemed as if every player fell prey to it at one point or another. Although tackling technique is taught nearly every day in practice, it requires playing time to get it down right, and that will come with time.

The Hokie defensive ends were spotty in their performance. One thing they'll learn to do as time goes on is to control their side of the field. Corey Moore was a master at showing great range and shutting down anything that came to his side. Tech's current defensive ends can make a play if they're in the neighborhood, but they don't yet have the range that they'll have later, and they don't stay in their lanes like they'll eventually learn to.

In short, the result is energy and chaos, just what the Tech defensive scheme seeks to create, but there were also plenty of open spots on the field for the Akron offense to go to work. The Tech defense will get better, but it will take time, and with East Carolina just three days away, time is short.

Substitutions. The good news is, Tech substituted liberally, getting valuable experience for a lot of players. 32 players recorded tackles (although some of those may have come on special teams).

As usual, Tech substituted a ton of defensive linemen, but they also rotated a lot of linebackers in and out, as well. Last year, Michael Hawkes and Jamel Smith seemingly never came out, but this time, all three linebacker spots saw a lot of rotation.

Larry Austin and the Tech Defensive Philosophy. The Zips threw at Tech cornerback Larry Austin over and over and over, while pretty much ignoring opposite cornerback Ronyell Whitaker. It's telling that Whitaker is credited with one-half of a tackle for the entire game, while Austin recorded seven tackles. It's not because Whitaker can't tackle -- it's because Akron threw at Austin repeatedly.

Many Tech fans expressed dismay at Austin's coverage, or lack thereof. In fairness, it really wasn't that bad. Austin made some plays to knock the ball away, but the Akron receivers caught a bunch of balls in front of him, too.

This is nothing new. Tech cornerbacks are known for playing soft. It's part of the defensive scheme. The Tech defensive scheme is predicated on making the opposing offense use as many plays as possible to get down the field, all the while applying pressure to the opposing quarterback to force him into making a mistake.

This means that Tech gears up to stuff the run, and in the passing game, the cornerbacks play behind the receiver, preventing the deep ball, and letting pressure on the quarterback force the other team into a mistake. If the pressure on the quarterback isn't there, then he often completes a pass for relatively short yardage, the two teams line up, and they do it again.

When Tech has a veteran defensive line with great defensive ends like Corey Moore and John Engelberger, it's almost impossible to drive 60 to 80 yards against them. When the defensive line is young and can't bring consistent pressure, however, the team gives up a lot of receptions, and the cornerbacks wind up taking the heat.

In 1997, the last time Tech's defensive line was relatively ineffective (35 total sacks, 27 by the DL), Tech cornerback Loren Johnson got roasted by Tech fans for playing soft pass defense. The Hokies had just 10 interceptions and weren't a very good pass defense team.

One year later, in 1998, when Tech was healthy and the defensive line had matured and could bring all kinds of pressure (48 total sacks, 34.5 by the DL), Tech's defensive backs and linebackers picked off 23 passes and generally looked like all-stars.

In 1999, Tech had 58 sacks, with a stunning 40 coming from the defensive line. The Hokies only had 10 interceptions, but hey, their pass defense was generally regarded as pretty darn good.

So don't pick on Larry Austin. He was doing his job. The real problem was that the Tech defense only had 2 sacks on Saturday, and Washington had a lot of time to throw. And give the Zips credit -- they put together a good offensive game plan and executed it well.

And if you check the tape, you'll see that it was Ronyell Whitaker, not Austin, that was beaten for Bailey's 37-yard TD late in the second quarter (I think that probably came more from poor positioning by Willie Pile -- Pile bit on the play fake and rollout, leaving Whitaker alone to guard two receivers), and Phillip Summers was beaten for Brandon Payne's 24-yard reception down to the VT 1 yard line earlier in that quarter. Austin did give up some pass plays, but he wasn't alone.

None of which means I'm defending Austin or sucking up to him. Iím just pointing out the way the cornerbacks are instructed to play in Tech's defensive scheme.

Props. Special props to Billy Hardee for two big hits, and to Willie Pile and his nose for the ball (one interception for a TD, one fumble recovery).

Pile's nickname is Pile Driver, but I prefer Playmaker Pile. This is nothing new for Willie -- picking off passes in JV games and scrimmages was a common occurrence for him. He is tall (6-3) and has great vision. He'll make many, many more plays from the safety position this year.

With Kevin McCadam's ankle sprain, Pile was one player who put in major minutes in this game, not coming out until late, when the Hokies rotated Billy Hardee over to safety to give Willie a break.


Special Teams

The special teams play, in particular the play of the kickers, was a pleasant surprise. Granted, the opponent was Akron at home, not the Miami Hurricanes on the road, but all players involved showed that they can play when the lights go on.

Carter Warley's first kickoff was weak, but he quickly got the hang of it and started booming them literally ten yards deep in the end zone. And he kicks straight down the middle of the field, not to the corner like Jimmy Kibble did (which resulted in the irritating habit of Kibble kicking off out of bounds a lot).

The snaps, holds, and kicks on the extra points and Tech's one field goal were all solid, not the adventures we feared they'd be.

As for Robert Peaslee, what a first punt! He kicked it 44 yards and dropped it right on the Akron 2 yard line (the punt was incorrectly attributed to Carter Warley on Tech's stat sheet, when it was clearly Peaslee, #89, who did the punting). Peaslee's second punt wasn't so successful, going only 25 yards and landing on the Akron 26, but he does get the ball off quick.

One important side note is the return of the blocked kick to Virginia Tech. After blocking just two kicks last year (the fewest blocked kicks since 1989), Tech blocked a field goal attempt on Akron's first possession. Cory Bird blocked the field goal, just two plays after making a great stuff on a screen attempt by Akron.

The only real rough spot on special teams came when Ronyell Whitaker fumbled a punt return. Whitaker bobbled the catch (he was looking to run before he caught it), picked it up, juked and jived, and then coughed the ball up when he was hit from behind. Akron scooped it up on the 16 and returned it for a touchdown.

You're going to think I'm a total Whitaker homer (and I am), but that doesn't bother me. He'll learn from it, and the thing I love about Whitaker is that when he catches a punt, he dearly wants to score. His effort on the botched return shows it, as does his effort on the second return.

On his second return, he caught the ball cleanly and was presented with two choices: 1) run the ball meekly out of bounds to the right; or 2) go left and make something happen. He went left and got 16 yards, instead of just the five yards he would have gotten going right.

I just think the guy has amazing feet, a real competitive fire, and is exciting to watch. I wish Beamer would make him the primary punt returner, over Andre Davis. No knock on Davis -- I just think Whitaker has better moves.

One more note: congrats to true freshman defensive back Eric Green (#1) for getting the first tackle of his collegiate career on the opening kickoff.


Conclusions

Again, no surprises here. I predicted 48-17 and was pretty close. I was way off on Akron's yardage total, saying they would get 250-300 yards. Bud Foster is worried about his defense, but this is nothing that time and experience won't cure.

The problem is, the Hokies don't have much time before the ECU game. They'll watch the Akron tape as a team early this week, like they always do, but since the ECU game is on Thursday, the individual players won't have the time to hit the film room and put in the extra work before the next game.

Coach Beamer always says that the biggest improvement in a team comes between game one and game two, and he's right. But ECU has a veteran offense and veteran QB, and a very experienced offensive line (4 OL starters plus last year's starting tight end return, and among the five OL and the TE, they've got 13 varsity letters).

The ECU game is going to be a shootout. The defense will have to pick up the slack, and the offense will have to keep rolling for the Hokies to win. More on that Wednesday, in my ECU preview.

          

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