Temple Game Analysis:
The Defense Rises Up
by Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com , 10/9/00
This was an old-fashioned Virginia Tech win. Although the offense didn't exactly play poorly, it wasn't as dominating as it has been so far this year. The defense, on the other hand, was.
Virginia Tech got perhaps the best performance of the year from its defensive line, which led the way to six sacks. On the other hand, the Tech offense, after quickly putting up 21 points, sputtered for the rest of the game, posting three turnovers in the last three quarters.
The defense dominated Temple in all phases. Tech's linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs all played well in shutting down an Owls offense that had averaged 404 yards and 26 points per game coming in. In this contest, Temple was limited to 116 yards and 13 points, and 7 of those points came from their defense. The other 6 points came after a turnover deep in Tech territory, and was gained on the strength of one good play by the Owls.
But Tech's offense did not dominate, at least not consistently. A Tech offensive line that mowed over Boston College was less impressive against an improved Temple defense that played without one of its best players, defensive lineman Dan Klecko. Tech had its worst yards-per-carry rushing average of the year and passed inconsistently, completing mostly short gainers through the air.
Of more concern to Hokie fans are the struggles of Michael Vick, who had a decent day that was marred by three fumbles (including two dropped snaps) and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Lastly, Tech punter Bobby Peaslee is struggled mightily, averaging just 26.3 yards per punt in this game and shanking a couple of punts badly.
In my preview, I noted that Temple was very young along the offensive line, and that this could be to Tech's advantage. It appears that was indeed the case, as Tech's defensive line turned in one of its best performances of the year. The D-line accounted for 5 of Tech's 6 sacks on the game, and backup defensive end Jim Davis had the best statistical game for the Hokies, leading the way with 5 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
David Pugh and Chad Beasley also had good games. Pugh very nearly matched Davis with 5 tackles and 2 sacks, and Beasley had three tackles and batted down a pass.
More importantly, Tech was able to bring pressure on Temple QB's Devin Scott and Mike Frost with their defensive line. The Hokies blitzed a number of times, but the linebackers who blitzed weren't the ones making the sacks, indicating that the defensive line was in the Temple backfield.
The linebackers positioned themselves well, the tackling was solid, and true freshman Eric Green played well (the one time he got totally burned, the Temple QB missed the receiver, throwing the ball out of bounds).
So overall, it was a good game by the defense, in particular the defensive line, quite the contrast from the way the Boston College offensive line schooled them in the previous game. It doesn't tell us a whole lot about how the Hokie D will perform against more potent offenses like Pittsburgh and Miami, but the good news is, the Hokies once again substituted heavily and got good playing time and experience for some of the backups.
The bad news is, Tech is perilously thin at cornerback. The Hokies were playing five cornerbacks early in the season: Larry Austin, Ronyell Whitaker, Billy Hardee, Garnell Wilds, and Eric Green. Austin is now out for the season with a knee injury, and Wilds left the Temple game early and did not return.
Pay attention to tonight's Hokie Hotline for more details on the extent of Wilds' injury. I looked for him on the sidelines and didn't see him at all in the second half, indicating that he was in the locker room. This is bad news, and if Wilds can't go, then Tech is down to just three cornerbacks.
Temple put up a remarkably stout defensive effort in this game, despite the fact that they played without one of their top defensive linemen, Dan Klecko. Temple held the Hokies to a 3.82 yards-per-carry rushing average, by far their lowest average of the year. The Owls tackled very well, particularly in the open field, and in the passing game, they pressured Vick into four sacks for 27 yards in losses.
Tech substituted more heavily on the offensive line in this game than they did in the Boston College game, and perhaps the dropoff in rushing production can be partially attributed to the rotating line ... but that hadn't hurt Tech so far this year.
Tech didn't throw the deep ball very much in this game, if at all, and instead threw to the backs out of the backfield more than usual. Cullen Hawkins and Andre Kendrick caught two passes each.
Despite a 14-28 performance from Vick and 162 yards passing, most observers agree that he is struggling in the passing game. Vick threw two bad interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and he hit a Temple defender in the numbers one other time, but the defender dropped it.
Vick threw some nice passes, but he also missed some open receivers. Several passes were dropped by receivers who were hit in the hands with the ball, and that contributed to the overall impression of an offense that simply wasn't firing on all cylinders, despite putting up 35 points.
So the offensive line could have done better, and the receivers dropped some passes, but a lot of the concern, of course, centers around Vick. It's not so much the statistical dropoff that has Hokie fans wondering what's going on with Vick. It's also the fumbles and the frustration that he is starting to show on the field. Vick has that same look on his face that Maurice DeShazo wore as he struggled to a 13-TD, 13-interception senior year in 1994.
Basically, something ain't quite right, and Vick appears to be losing his confidence, much like DeShazo did. I touched on this a little bit in the Boston College game analysis and attributed it to Vick struggling to grow as a quarterback and learn the offense. But I don't think I took it far enough.
What follows is my guess as to what's going on with Michael Vick. I don't pretend to be a top-notch football analyst, particularly when it comes to the quarterback position, although I do learn a little bit more every year and get better and better at this.
In a nutshell, I think a lot of Vick's struggles in the passing game center around the fact that he is looking for more receivers, not just his primary receiver, and is therefore spending more time in the pocket. Last year, he had one or two options, and if those options weren't immediately open, he would tuck and run. That's how freshman quarterbacks play.
This year, he is trying to learn to deal with more receivers and more options, because (a) it will make him a better pocket passer in the long run, and (b) he's being trained to use more of the offensive weapons at his disposal.
My guess is that, as a sophomore, Vick is not to the point where he can make his reads quickly, and he is therefore holding the ball longer. This is leading to what appears to be increased sack totals, but the statistics don't bear that out -- Tech opponents had 26 sacks last year, and they have 10 so far this year.
More importantly, the increased mental burden leads to the inability to execute physical tasks that were previously a piece of cake. Last year, Vick was uncannily accurate in his passing. If a receiver was open short, he hit him, and he was pretty good with the long ball, too. That's because, for a good passer, it's easy to hit a receiver when you're locked on to him and don't plan on passing anywhere else. You can set up and throw the ball like it's a passing drill.
Now Vick has a larger mental burden, and he's not just locking on to one receiver. He's concentrating on finding an open receiver from more than one option, and the result is that when it comes time to throw, or even run, he hasn't necessarily positioned himself physically to make the best play, be it a run or a pass.
It doesn't help that the Hokie passing game affords its quarterbacks very few short pass options. The quick slants and dumpoffs across the middle that are prevalent in other teams' passing games are very scarce in the Hokie passing game. The Tech passing philosophy is to stretch the field so the running game will work better, and that leads to long passes: bombs, deep outs, and long flanker screens.
It's worth mentioning that part of the problem may also be that the receivers aren't getting open like they were last year. I've had a few people tell me that via email, but I'm not sure I buy it -- Vick has missed a lot of open receivers this year, including Andre Davis deep.
I think that many people can accept that becoming a better quarterback is a hard process and can lead to decreased passing production. Vick is approaching "the hump," and either later this year or next year, he'll get over it, I think, and be a better pure pocket passer, assuming that his ability to read defenses and find receivers gets better over time.
But again, the problem is that the struggling that comes with development decreases confidence and takes the QB out of his groove. Tasks that were previously simple don't come easily anymore, like taking a snap from center. Vick is suddenly dropping the snap from center, which ought to tell you that even the easy stuff is coming hard now.
Throw in the Heisman hype, 57 million interviews and photo shoots, and it's safe to say that the Hokies' young QB has quite a juggling act on his hands, one that he is handling as best he can, but it's hard.
What makes Hokie fans nervous about all this is that with a young defense and a faltering punting game, Tech needs Vick to play well. Last year, he didn't necessarily have to play well, because the defense was destroying teams -- who cares if you beat Syracuse 62-0 or just 28-0? It's still a victory.
But Tech can't necessarily count on its defense this year (although it's doing pretty well), and with a punter who is prone to 20-yard kicks, the idea of the Tech offense pulling a three-and-out on its own 20 yard line is bad news.
There's pressure on the offense to put up the points and hold on to the ball, because the Boston College game showed that good offenses can score on Tech when given a short field, and the Temple game showed that Tech's punting game can collapse at any given time.
That's why you get all the hand-wringing when the offense starts to sputter. It's not the Temples and Akrons of the world that nervous Tech fans are worrying about. It's the looming dates against the likes of Pittsburgh and Miami, teams that can put points on the board and may need to be outscored. The Tech offense will have to be operating at top efficiency in those games if the dreams of another Big East championship, undefeated season, and title game are to be kept alive.
"Focus"? Get Real.
What's that, you say? "Quiet, Will -- don't talk about the national championship! FOCUS on West Virginia!!"
Oh, bull. Virginia Tech is ranked #2 and #3 in the nation, and #2 in an unofficial BCS poll. The national championship should be the goal at this point, and it should be openly talked about. I guarantee that FSU players, coaches, and fans are upset about their loss to Miami this weekend primarily because it probably eliminates them from the national championship race, and any other reason to be upset over the loss is secondary. When you're in the top 5 to 8 teams in the country at this point in the season, you ought to be thinking national championship all the way, until someone knocks you off.
Not that a loss means the season is a failure. That's ridiculous. I think one of the incredibly interesting things about this season is that Virginia Tech could lose to Miami (or Pitt, or Syracuse, or WVU), not win the Big East, and still go to a coveted BCS bowl as an at large pick, thanks to the presence of Michael Vick. Word is that the Fiesta Bowl chairman is dying to have the Hokies out in Arizona, and by the way, they're not the national championship game this year -- the Orange Bowl is.
So as long as these Hokies are able to stay this highly-ranked, and as long as they're still in the national championship hunt, enjoy it, folks. This is heady stuff, and it may not happen again until, well, next year.
Speaking of the national championship, let's talk about something that could cost the Hokies a shot at it, namely, the punting game.
Robert Peaslee is having a bad year punting. He has now punted 19 times for a 33.1 yard average, and he doesn't appear to be getting any better. His confidence was obviously shaken on Saturday. After a solid first kick of 44 yards, he slipped into a shank-filled rut that saw his next three kicks go 28, 11, and 22 yards.
The last punt brought some scattered boos from the crowd. I consider booing a scholarship athlete to be a reprehensible act, particularly when the athlete is doing his best, but there are idiots in every crowd, I guess. If you were one of the ones booing, let me ask you a question ... ah, never mind. Maybe one day, you'll figure it out on your own.
In any event, Coach Beamer had linebacker Ben Taylor punt after that, and he boomed one 42 yards on his only attempt. Beamer has said that true freshman defensive back Eric Green is the most likely punter for the WVU game, if you can believe that, and Beamer has also said that he might consider taking the redshirt off of scholarship punter Vinnie Burns.
Whatever happens, the fact is, the Hokies are five games deep in the season, and they're not any better off than they were last April in Spring practice.
On Saturday, FSU's lack of a field goal kicker cost them the game against the Miami Hurricanes. The Seminoles repeatedly went for it on fourth down deep in Miami territory, well within field goal range, and came up empty, because they had so little confidence in their kicker that they didn't think he could kick 30-yard field goals. When they finally trotted him out for a game-tying 49-yarder, naturally, he missed it. Why wouldn't he? Coach Bowden had sent him the message all game long that he wasn't any good, so why would he have the confidence to make one when he was finally called upon?
But I digress. The point is, kicking woes will cost you the national championship. This coming November, for example, if the Hokies are tied with Miami with two minutes to go and are stopped deep in their own territory, the last thing they need is an 11-yard shanked punt that gives the Hurricanes the ball at the Tech 25-yard line. So Tech's punting woes stand out like a big, huge, sore thumb on an otherwise solid team.
The good thing about Peaslee is that he gets the ball off quickly and is an unlikely candidate to get one blocked. Shanked punts are bad, but blocked punts are nightmares.
There's still plenty of football to go, and the Hokies are in the thick of it. They're ranked #2, but are they the second best team in the country? Not against Temple, they weren't. But they might be against WVU, Miami, Pittsburgh, et al.
Usually, November is make-or-break time, but for this team, this year it's October. Tech has tough contests in each of the next four games, with no time off. First, it's WVU this Thursday, then @ Syracuse on Oct. 21st, Pittsburgh on October 28th, and @ Miami on Nov. 4th. The next four weeks will tell us just about all we need to know about this football team. Starting this Thursday, four games in 23 days will write the story of the season.
Given the inconsistencies we've seen this year, I think it's turning into a bit of a crap shoot. Perhaps Tech can get away with one unit of its team performing poorly, but not two or more at the same time. If the defense, special teams, or offense can step up when one of the other units need it, this team may make it through the rest of its schedule unscathed. If not, it'll take some luck, and perhaps some help from their opponents.