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The State of the Program, Part 1: The Season
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 12/5/03

Every time someone says to me, "Hey, 8-4 with a victory over Miami isn't bad," I find myself shrugging and answering, "It's not so much what happened, but the way it happened." And not to mention the fact that it happened for the third year in a row.

This was supposed to be VT's year. A deep, experienced defense was primed to stop opponents, and the offense featured two quality quarterbacks (or so we were told), All-Americans at center and running back, and a record-setting wide receiver. Personnel losses from the previous season were minimal and came at positions that were deep with talent and could afford it. Expectations were high.

Tech fans and the media expected the Hokies to improve upon 2002's four-loss season, particularly with an easy schedule that included OOC contests against UCF, JMU, Texas A&M (at home), and UConn, plus a conference schedule that had Miami visiting Lane Stadium.

But what happened was more of the same from the 2001 and 2002 seasons: a hot start and a top-5 ranking, followed by a hard fall, this time all the way out of the rankings. In 2001, the poor finish was blamed on the quarterback; in 2002, it was blamed on youth and injuries; in 2003, the finger-pointing has turned to the coaches and players, who have run out of excuses with a Tech fan base that -- on the whole -- is looking for change. Not necessarily major change, but at least a little something new and different.

What happened? Some of the questions will be answered throughout the course of this "State of the Program" series, which will examine the 2003 season, the offense, the defense, special teams, recruiting, and such eclectic topics as heart, attitude, and chemistry. But truth be told, only those internal to the program really know what happened … or maybe they don’t. They seem baffled.

We'll start with a look at the season just completed, before branching out into the other topics in the course of the series. We hope that when we're done, you're able not only to appreciate what's right about the Tech program, but what may be wrong and may be in need of fixing.


A Season of Ups and Downs

In reviewing Virginia Tech's season, there are some positives, but the way the season ended up outshines the good things that happened along the way. That's a shame, because the positives for the regular season that just ended include three enduring memories and accomplishments that Hokie fans will take pride in for years, if not decades:

1.) The record-setting performances of Kevin Jones. Jones, who declared for the NFL draft earlier this week, broke a 25-year old record for yards rushing in a game, when he rolled up 241 yards on 30 carries against Pittsburgh, beating Kenny Lewis' 1978 rushing total (223 yards) against VMI. Jones also broke Cyrus Lawrence's 22-year old record for rushing yards in a season, with 1,494 and counting, topping Lawrence's mark of 1,403. And for you asterisk freaks, KJ's accomplishment was legit, because he broke the record in the same 11 games Lawrence played. Jones started off slow, but over the last five games, he averaged 151 yards a game and put on a rushing display that certainly earned him the right to head for the big bucks early.

2.) The 31-7 victory over Miami on November 1st. Never mind where the Canes end up -- they're currently 10th in both polls and the BCS -- on November 1st, they were ranked #2 and were making reservations for the national championship game, and the Hokies knocked them off. In future years, when obnoxious opposing fans ask that question about what the highest ranked team is that the Hokies have ever beaten, Tech fans will finally have a good answer. Not to mention that the pre-game Walk and the atmosphere in the stadium are memories for a lifetime.

3.) A 35-19 win over Texas A&M on September 18th. With Hurricane Isabel beating up the East Coast, Hokie fans filled a rain-soaked Lane Stadium and did Virginia Tech proud on a national Thursday night ESPN broadcast. Praise for Virginia Tech and its dedicated fans rained down from all quarters, and when the Hokies came out with a stirring victory, it was a night to remember with pride for those associated with the VT football program.

Beyond those three accomplishments, pleasant memories will be hard to find. On the downside of the ledger are the following:

1.) Another late-season fade, with a 2-4 finish down the stretch. The defense collapsed again, surrendering over 400 yards per game over that six-game stretch.

2.) The end of the consecutive-weeks-ranked string, which started in the 1999 preseason poll and finally came to an end this week, after 84 weeks.

3.) The end of a seven-game winning streak over Boston College and a four-game winning streak over Virginia.

4.) A third straight loss to Pittsburgh, a team the Hokies dominated from 1993-2000, going 7-1.

5.) A second straight fourth-place in the Big East, after finishing in the top three for eight straight years, from 1994-2001.

6.) A second straight bowl game way out West, on a bad day (Dec. 26th), that will be lightly attended by Hokie fans.


Putting Some of the Games in Context

A look back at how many of Tech's opponents fared this season helps put some of VT's wins and losses into perspective.

VT 49, UCF 28: The Hokies bolted to a 28-0 lead in just a quarter and a half over UCF, then relaxed and got outscored 28-21 the rest of the way. The Hokies flashed a varied offense, including a potent passing attack, accumulating 532 total yards, 380 of it coming through the air. The effort came against a UCF team ranked #46 in the preseason by Athlon that returned eight starters on defense and featured proficient senior QB Ryan Schneider.

In reality, UCF was a program on the verge of collapse. The Golden Knights floundered to a 3-9 record, their worst finish in two decades, including a loss to Kent State and a 28-0 beating at the hands of an Ohio program that won just one other game. It was UCF's worst season offensively since 1982. UCF suspended eight players for various reasons throughout the season, including a career-ending suspension of Schneider, and Coach Mike Kruczek was fired with just a few games left in the season.

VT 35, Texas A&M 19: With a roster full of Texas talent, a #20 ranking, and a proven coach in Dennis Franchione, Texas A&M looked strong, and this looked like a good win at the time. But A&M limped to a 4-8 season, including a humiliating 77-0 loss to Oklahoma, and the famed "Wrecking Crew" defense finished 97th in the nation. This was no big win. This was an expected victory over a struggling program that has taken its lumps and has fallen far behind rivals Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma.

VT 51, Syracuse 7: The Orangemen came into this game with a 3-1 record and the #1 rusher in the nation in Walter Reyes, but they currently stand just 5-6 (with one game left against Notre Dame). They are 2-5 in the Big East, good for just a sixth-place tie with Rutgers … who, by the way, pounded the Orange 24-7 in the Big East season finale. SU AD Jake Crouthamel is faced with a tough decision on whether to keep Paul Pasqualoni, who runs a class program with excellent graduation rates, or jettison him for a coach who may or may not be an upgrade.

Boston College 31, VT 27: This was not a particularly good Boston College team. They weren't bad, but the Hokies have beaten better Boston College teams. BC finished 7-5, but just 3-4 in the Big East, with wins over Rutgers, Temple … and Virginia Tech. At Virginia Tech. The Eagles have very few quality wins, over Connecticut and maybe Penn State (arguable if that's a quality win, with PSU going 3-9 this season and 1-7 in the Big Ten). But BC again failed to have success against most of the better teams in the Big East, losing to Miami, Pitt, WVU, and even Syracuse.

VT 47, Connecticut 13: This appeared to be a ho-hum win at the time, but Connecticut fielded a good team, going 9-3 and notching a 51-17 win at Wake Forest. Of their three losses, VT handed them their worst beating by far, by a wider margin than Boston College (24-14) and N.C. State (31-24). The Huskies are a rapidly improving program, and Tech made them look like they still belong in 1-AA.

VT 31, Miami 7 (best win of the season): While 2003 as a whole will be remembered as a disappointment (by me, anyway, I don't know about you), there was nothing disappointing about this victory, as noted above. The Hokies broke a three-game losing streak against the Canes, got a huge "never beaten a top 5 team" monkey off their backs, and created some great memories in the process, especially anyone who attended The Walk.

Pittsburgh 31, VT 28 (worst loss of the season): Nearly a month later, I still can't fathom how the Hokies got 241 rushing yards from a stud tailback like KJ … and lost. I watched the film, I analyzed the game, and I still don't know. High expectations surrounded this Pittsburgh program, and they turned in a ho-hum 8-4 record, finishing third in the Big East and getting a trip to the Continental Tire Bowl, instead of the BCS or Gator Bowl bid predicted by many.

Unlike last year's Pitt team, which had a great running back (Brandon Miree) and a tough defense to go with the all-world combo of Rod Rutherford and Larry Fitzgerald, this Pitt team had Rutherford, Fitzgerald, and absolutely nothing else. They finished 80th in the nation in total defense (399.5 yds/game), 87th in rushing defense (184 yds/game), and 98th in rushing offense (115 yds/game). The Hokies, because of turnovers and late-game matador defense, let a vulnerable Pitt team get away with one.


Summing Up the Season

The first six games of this season fooled everyone. The stellar passing attack the Hokies flashed against UCF was encouraging, and though the 28 points surrendered by the defense were unnerving, there was plenty of time to fix the problems.

The Hokies mowed through JMU next, a game in which whip linebacker Brandon Manning and backup QB Marcus Vick were suspended (on the heels of Jon Dunn's one-game suspension for UCF). The suspensions created a small stir but were quickly forgotten as the Hokies moved on to beat 20th-ranked Texas A&M in a 35-19 Thursday night thriller. The A&M game seemed to go a long way to establishing the identity of this team, as Michael Crawford had a monster game and Bryan Randall made clutch plays that many, including me, felt established him as a leader on this team.

The team dispatched of UConn (at home, 47-13) and Rutgers (on the road, 48-22) in workmanlike fashion. Again, questions about the defense arose, particularly against Rutgers, but the Hokie defenders then put on a monster show against Syracuse in a 51-7 laugher, holding SU to 172 yards. With DeAngelo Hall returning two punts for TDs against the Orange, things seemed to be coming together, just in time for a run at a Big East championship and a national championship.

Then, disaster. The third-ranked Hokies ran into a buzzsaw at Morgantown and got destroyed by the Mountaineers 28-7, in a game in which everyone from the head coach to the water boy lost their composure. The attitude of the Hokie Nation turned on a dime after that shocking display, highlighted -- or rather, lowlighted -- by the infamous incident of Frank Beamer slapping Ernest Wilford on the helmet on the sidelines.

The team regrouped and slaughtered Miami 31-7 in their next outing, but hidden within the fabric of that outburst were signs of what would trouble the Hokies the rest of the season. Frank Beamer pulled Bryan Randall early in the game, leaving Marcus Vick in for most of the contest and starting a revolving door situation at QB that would help drag the performance of the offense down during the remainder of the season.

Also in that game, DeAngelo Hall got into a fight on Miami's sideline and was ejected, leading to a half-game suspension against Pitt the next week, the game in which he would be needed the most all season. Worse than the fight and suspension was the spectacle, caught on camera by ESPN, of Hall on the sidelines, yelling at teammate Keith Willis in a display that would symbolize the lack of chemistry and togetherness that many insiders say contributed to the Hokies' late-season swoon.

That said, the Tech team that went to Pittsburgh the next week was ready to play, and Kevin Jones, who ran with ferocity and power against Miami, continued it against the Panthers, gaining 241 yards on 30 carries. But turnovers and less-than-inspired late-game coaching doomed the Hokies to a loss that permanently ended their BCS hopes and Big East championship dreams.

After that, things got really ugly. An uninspired Hokie team went to Temple the next week and almost lost to Bobby Wallace's rag-tag band of merry JUCOs, but the Owls, God bless them, didn't want it, missing an extra point in overtime to give VT a 24-23 win.

Then, the killing blow: a home loss to Boston College, a team the Hokies had dominated for seven years. The QB controversy finally boiled over, as Bryan Randall led the Hokies to 17 points and well over 200 yards of offense in the first quarter … only to be pulled anyway, according to a pre-game plan of Coach Beamer's. The offense faltered, the Hokies got outcoached, and the defense continued its disturbing trend of folding late, giving up a long touchdown pass that put them behind late in the 34-27 loss.

In light of all this, it is amazing that the Hokies gave Virginia as much trouble as they did in the last game of the regular season, leading 14-7 at half time before falling 35-21 in the final, painful chapter of a season gone awry. The Hokies limped out of the season with a 2-4 record over the last six games, their defense all but gone, their offense sputtering, their special teams AWOL, and many fans questioning just what the hell is going on in Blacksburg.


Signs of the Season

Three common themes were threaded throughout this season, which appears to be leading to the most tumultuous off-season since the months following 1992:

Lack of Discipline: It started with the suspensions of Jon Dunn (UCF), Brandon Manning, and Marcus Vick (JMU) for team rule violations, continued to the Morgantown Meltdown and the head-slapping incident, showed up again in DeAngelo Hall's ejection and sideline confrontation with Keith Willis, and manifested itself in a sideline tirade by free safety Jimmy Williams during the BC game that got him benched for the entire second half in favor of backup safety Mike Daniels.

Throughout the season, a lack of discipline showed itself when touchdowns were called back because of penalties, opponents' drives were extended because of penalties, big gains were given up by defenders who knew what play was coming, and offensive first downs were wiped out repeatedly by holding penalties.

Though it has managed to stay off the police blotters (an accomplishment the mid-90's Tech teams can't make), this current Hokie squad is one of the most undisciplined ever seen in Blacksburg, from players jawing at coaches (Williams in the BC game and Wilford in the WVU game), to players jawing at players (Hall snapping at Willis), to players blowing assignments and committing penalties (four personal fouls in ten minutes at WVU).

The most interesting anecdote related to discipline that I heard all year came from former Tech QB Grant Noel in the days following the mess in Morgantown. Noel made some guest appearances this season on a local sports call-in show called "Big Dog Sports Talk" with Rick Watson, and Noel related a story that after the Wilford helmet-slapping incident, three of his former Tech teammates called him to talk to him about it.

All three said the same thing: "I can't believe Ernest Wilford was talking back to Frank Beamer on the sidelines like that."

A couple of days later, in a press release that has since disappeared from Virginia Tech's web site, Beamer apologized to Wilford, his family, Hokie fans, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and his dog. Talk about the inmates running the asylum -- a coach should be able to slap the helmet of a player who won't shut up and listen to him, without having to later grovel and apologize.

(By the way, none of this is meant to disparage Wilford, whom I admire and who has fought through much adversity to become a great receiver. I think he and Beamer just had a bad moment that, unfortunately, ESPN really enjoyed playing over and over.)

A Rudderless Offense: At first, VT was a passing team, throwing for 380 yards against UCF while their Heisman-candidate running back rushed for just 83 yards. Then they were a rushing team that used the inside handoff out of the shotgun and misdirection blocking to roll up 188 yards for KJ against Texas A&M. At first, they were Bryan Randall's offense. Then they were Marcus Vick's. Then they were … both's. (Is "both's" grammatically correct? Probably not.)

At first, they threw to the tight ends (12 catches in the first 7 games), then they didn't (2 catches in the last 5 games). At first, they didn't throw to Kevin Jones (4 catches in the first 10 games), then they did (6 catches in the last 2 games). You get the idea. The offense floundered and never found an identity.

The worst sin the Hokie offense committed was not taking full advantage of a first-team All-American center in Jake Grove, a record-setting running back in Kevin Jones, a record-setting receiver in Ernest Wilford, a fine blocking and receiving fullback in Doug Easlick, and a vastly improved offensive line that stayed nearly completely healthy all season. This offense should have cranked out some serious points and yards, but they struggled late in the season in particular, and somehow, their whole was less than the sum of their parts. We'll get into that more in a later article.

A Porous Defense: They gave up 14.8 points 279.3 yards per game in their first six games, and 26.3 points and 428.5 yards per game in their last six games. And this time, they couldn’t blame injuries, not to the degree they could last year. We'll talk more about the defensive problems in a later article, but the bottom line is, when this team needed a stop late in the season -- against Pittsburgh, Temple, BC, and Virginia -- they couldn't get it. The Syracuse and Miami games were Hokie defense at its finest, but the defense went missing in the final drive against Pittsburgh and never came back.


Summing It Up

That all sounds like a fine rant, but I didn't intend for it to be. I think like most observers of the program, I'm just disappointed, as both a fan of the Hokies and someone who admires excellence and wonders where it has gone. I've seen this team do better, and I know they can do better again.

This season has its plusses, and they're significant. I stand in awe of the Kevin Jones that I saw in the last five games of this season, and it's a shame that he is departing just as he is hitting his stride.

I will never forget standing on the hill next to Spring Road in the growing darkness two hours before the Miami game, observing a mob scene as thousands of Hokies crowded the street, in a Mardi Gras-like scene, to greet their Hokies in "The Walk." And ESPN's clips of the Hokie crowd bouncing up and down as "Enter Sandman" played and the team ran out of the tunnel are spine-chillers that will warm up the slow winter months during the offseason.

But like many people, I view this season, and the way it ended, as a wake-up call that there are some things wrong with the Hokie football program that need to be fixed before they fester and grow into something worse. I'm not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water, but I do think the coaching staff needs to address some problems, or they might get worse before things get better.

Perhaps you don’t feel that way, or perhaps you feel even more strongly than I do. In any event, I hope my rambling review of the season has shed some light on things for you, and in the next installment, I'll take a look at the Hokie offense and give my thoughts on where it is, where it's headed, and I might even be so presumptuous as to make some suggestions to improve it.

Hey, I'm no coach, but that's what columns are for.

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