Gator Bowl Game Analysis: Making a Point
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 1/3/01
I'll admit that prior to this game, I was a bit of a skeptic when it came to this Hokie football team. Even after 11 games, I wasn't sure how good they were.
There's no question that the Tech coaching staff had done a superb coaching job this year. With the defense and special teams gutted by graduation, with Michael Vick's performance dropping slightly, and with major injuries in the defensive backfield and receiving corps, the fact that this team posted a 10-1 record is a tribute to the coaching staff and a remarkable achievement.
The irony is that Frank Beamer was the national Coach of the Year last year, but he and his staff really deserved it more this year.
But was the team really that good? Did they really "deserve" their #5 ranking in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll and the BCS? It was hard to say, because they didn't have the opportunity to take the measure of themselves against quality opponents. The one time they did, against Miami, they were injury riddled and got run over by a Miami team whose time to break "The Streak" had finally come.
But other than that, the schedule was subpar. The BCA game against a quality Georgia Tech team was canceled; ECU was a feared road opponent but managed just an 8-4 record and didn't even win Conference USA; Boston College was also a tough road foe, but they were unable to improve upon last year's 8-4 record and actually slipped to 7-5; and punchless, uninspired UVa had their worst season in 15 years, finishing 6-6.
So the Hokies came into Jacksonville with a shiny 10-1 record and #5 ranking, but very little of substance to hang their hats on. They went up against a 13th-ranked Clemson team that was much improved over a team that last year took the Hokies to the wire in Blacksburg before falling 31-11.
Clemson featured a multi-faceted offense that presented matchup problems for Tech, and the Tigers also had a defense that last year had given the Hokie offense trouble, intercepting Michael Vick three times.
But in the end, this was no contest. Virginia Tech controlled the game from start to finish and dominated the Tigers up and down the field in cruising to an easy 41-20 win. The Hokies clicked on offense, they clicked on defense, and the coaching staff turned it up a notch with some great adjustments and playcalling. It all added up to a convincing victory that demonstrated yes, the Hokies did belong in the BCS, especially in light of Notre Dame's 41-9 whipping at the hands of Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl.
And in the process, the 2000 Virginia Tech Hokies made a convert out of me. I believe this was an outstanding football team, and that's the way I'll remember them in years to come.
Bowl games tend to color your perception of a team as the season fades and you're left with just your memories (and, admittedly, a rack full of game tapes). The 1998 Music City Bowl changed fans' perceptions of the '98 Hokies from that of a punchless team with a good defense to a team on the verge of greatness, a prophecy which they fulfilled in 1999.
This Gator Bowl game will launch the 11-1 Hokies into the 2001 season with a similar boost, and the 2000 Hokies will be perceived not as a decent team that racked up wins against a weak schedule, but rather as a great team that was limited by injuries and deserved a better bowl fate.
Having said all that, I was indeed surprised by how the Hokies dominated this game. And I thought the reason the Hokies won so easily boiled down to two things: defensive performance and outstanding play-calling. This analysis will center primarily around those two things.
The Defense Doesn't Rest
The defensive line, particularly the defensive end position, was widely regarded as one of the weak spots in the Hokie defense this year. David Pugh and Chad Beasley are top-notch tackles, but the rest of the players were young and inconsistent. The DL was unable to bring pressure on opposing QB's like Hokie defensive lines of the past, and the result was the lowest sack total (just 28) for a Tech defense since at least 1994.
In this game, however, the defensive linemen were superstars.
David Pugh served notice on the very first play from scrimmage that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with, blowing past his blocker like a swinging gate and flushing Dantzler from the pocket. Pugh pulled the same trick two plays later, and the Clemson offensive line, small and light, was forced to adjust.
The adjustments didn't help. More than once, Pugh bulled his way through double teams to pressure the QB or tackle the running back. Pugh is an oddity, a pass-rushing defensive tackle. Normally, tackles are big guys who plant themselves in the ground, clog up the middle, and ruin the other team's running game. Pugh does that too, but he is extremely unusual in that he also excels at sacking the quarterback.
Prior to the season, the Tech coaching staff said that Pugh's ratio of "plays made" to time on the field was probably higher than that of Carl Bradley and Nathaniel Williams, who started at the defensive tackle spots last year. But Bradley and Williams were seniors, so they got the nod. After leading the team in sacks this year with five (in a tie with Nathaniel Adibi), Pugh fulfilled the high expectations the coaching staff had for him.
But it wasn't just Pugh who had his way with the Clemson offensive line. It was the entire Tech defensive line. Chad Beasley was not as active rushing the passer as Pugh was, but he filled up the middle in the running game, making several tackles that stopped the Clemson running backs and Dantzler cold.
Meanwhile, Adibi and Lamar Cobb, Tech's two starting defensive ends, were relentless. Both have had their problems this year. Cobb started out weak and improved as the year went on, while Adibi ran hot and cold and was often pushed around like a rag doll by opposing tackles.
With Clemson's smaller offensive linemen, Cobb and Adibi were not overpowered, and they were able to be very active. Both players fought off blocks to make tackles, and both even pulled off the occasional bull rush.
But when it comes to bull rushing, there is still no defensive end on this Tech team who does it like Jim Davis. Late in the third quarter, with Tech leading 34-13, the Tigers replaced Woody Dantzler with Willie Simmons, and Davis greeted him with two straight sacks for a total of 15 yards in losses. Davis simply overpowered his man and went after Simmons.
And salivate over this fact, Hokie fans: Adibi and Davis are freshmen, and Cobb is a sophomore.
The performance by the defensive front four, which totaled six sacks, gave Tech coordinator Bud Foster the luxury of not having to blitz, and he was able to keep the other seven players back in coverage. This kept the middle of the field relatively crowded, which hampers Clemson's wide-open offense.
The Tech linebackers, with the DL playing so well and very little blitzing going on, didn't have one of their more prominent days, but one exception is Jake Houseright. Being the biggest and slowest of the Tech linebackers, it was arguably Houseright who had the biggest challenge in facing the Clemson offense, and I said as much in my preview. I made the statement that Houseright was going to have to anticipate well and tackle with authority.
He did both. Before tearing a knee ligament in the second half, Houseright turned in his best performance as a college linebacker. He snuffed Clemson's first two drives, first by batting down a pass on third and four, and in the next drive, by tackling Travis Zachery one-on-one in the flat on third and twelve. Houseright was a man on a mission and was living up to the hype that accompanied him when he was recruited into the Tech program in February of 1998.
The knee injury is a shame. I have not had time to find out yet how serious the injury is. Hopefully, it won’t keep him out of spring football. At the very least, I hope he can return for his senior year in 2001. The knee has been a chronic problem for the injury-prone Houseright since high school, and it will probably prevent him from having any shot at an NFL career. Jake's knees will probably convince him to try to make a living with his head instead of his body, if they haven't already.
The Tech DB's had a pretty solid game and for the most part avoided getting beaten deep. Tech once again had problems with the backup DB's getting out of position, but it was nothing that threatened the game.
I thought that one of the more interesting sidebars of the game was the fact that Ben Taylor and Cory Bird, who have been stalwarts for the Hokies on defense, were not much of a factor in this game. That's a testament to Houseright, the defensive line, and the cornerbacks.
All in all, although Clemson did total 331 yards on the day, this was a great effort by the Tech defense. The Tigers were able to move the ball at times, but a lot of that yardage was gained against the backups. The Hokies return the entire defensive line two-deep rotation next year, and with their performance in this game, that is cause for great optimism going into next season.
Making the Right Calls
This game was one of the best games I've ever seen Tech offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle call. When he struggles, he really struggles, but conversely, when he's "on," he can really get on a roll.
I'm one of those guys who believes in going for the jugular when the other team makes a mistake, and Rickey did that twice in this game:
1.) Right after Clemson had a poor snap on their first punt attempt and the Hokies took over on the Tiger's 23-yard line, Bustle called a play that has worked well for the Hokies in the past: a throw down the middle to the fullback. We've seen Cullen Hawkins catch that pass, but this time, Rickey had Vick throw it to Jarrett Ferguson, who had a grand total of three receptions during the regular season. The call caught Clemson totally off-guard. Their safeties cleared out, and the linebacker who was left behind was, well, left behind.
2.) On the Hokies' first drive of the second half, after the Tigers roughed Tech punter Robert Peaslee to give the Hokies new life, Bustle immediately had Vick go up top to Andre Davis. The result was a 55-yard bomb that came up just one yard short of a TD (Suggs took it in on the next play). The Tigers, who had been looking at taking over possession with a 21-10 deficit, were suddenly down 27-10, and you got the feeling they weren't coming back.
But Bustle's best call of the day, and arguably his best of the entire season, came late in the second quarter with the Hokies clinging to a 14-10 lead. Tech faced a third and two from their own 47 yard line, and Bustle brought in two tight ends and lined the Hokies up in the power I formation, which consists of a fullback (Jarrett Ferguson) and two running backs (Kendrick and Suggs, with Suggs deep in the I).
Now, let me take a break and tell you what always, always happens here. Kendrick goes into motion, and whichever side of the offensive line he goes to, Vick hands the ball off to Suggs off-tackle on that side. Led by Kendrick and Ferguson, Suggs almost always gets the first down. You know it, I know it, and the Clemson defense knew it. The Hokies were going to play smash-mouth football on third and two.
On this particular play, Kendrick went in motion from right to left, the ball was snapped, and Vick pulled back from center and went to hand it off to Suggs … but didn't.
Meanwhile, Kendrick was not blocking. He was running down the left side of the field, far behind three Clemson defenders who had realized the error of their ways a little too late (want to see something funny? Watch the replay from behind the Tech offense, and get a load of the body language of the Clemson defenders as Kendrick runs by them).
Vick dropped back deep, lobbed the ball to Kendrick, and 49 yards later, the Hokies had a first down on Clemson's 4 yard line.
It was the only time Tech threw from the power I all year long, and it came at a great time. The score put the Hokies up 21-10 and silenced the Clemson crowd. Truly a great call by Bustle.
The Importance of a Win
In the aftermath of the 1998 Music City Bowl, I noted that the 38-7 win over Alabama was important, because it broke a two-game bowl losing streak for the Hokies. I wrote something that I still feel to be true:
One thing that was not talked about going into this bowl game was the fact that the Hokies had lost three of their last four bowl games, and a loss in this Gator Bowl would have made it four out of five. Sure, this game was important for reasons other than that, but if the Hokies had lost this one, once the immediate impact settled down, I guarantee that you would have heard next year, "Virginia Tech has lost four out of their last five bowl games" more than once.
As it is, though, the Hokies are now 4-4 during their eight-bowl streak, which as I noted above is a reasonable expectation. Anything better than that is gravy, and anything below that starts to raise concern (just ask Ohio State's John Cooper, who was fired for, among other things, going something like 3-11 in bowl games).
As I said earlier, a win in this game is a great springboard for next season. A lot of the expectations for the Hokies ride on Vick's shoulders, of course, and his decision to return or not return for the 2001 season.
But try not to let that drama diminish your appreciation for this season and this game. For the second year in a row, the Hokies were 11-1, and for the second year in a row, they were one of the top 5 teams in the country.
This program is on a roll.