Two Takes from Two Fans
by Phillip Wade and Random Hokie, 12/9/03
The start of our "State of the Program" series last Friday has spurred a couple of readers to submit Voice of the Fan articles, one via email and one via the subscriber's message board. Here are two takes from two fans of the VT football program.
Thoughts on the Team
I will start with this to give some background so you know where I am coming from Ö I graduated from VT with a degree in Family Financial Management in December of 2000. My dad is also a Virginia Tech alumnus, so I have been a Hokie my entire life. I have just found the beauty of TSL and the message board this past year. I still live in Blacksburg and have been a season ticket-holder since the days when we struggled to beat the Richmond Spiders, and some would venture as far as to say that we still might, but realistically speaking, I am glad to see that those days are now long past.
I have seen this team rise from near obscurity. Virginia Tech football is now widely recognized and finally getting some respect in the polls and from some other teams (coaches, fans and players alike) when we deserve it. I am not someone who thinks that how long you have been following Tech football has anything to do with how much of a "true" Hokie you are. To that same effect, even though I do give money to the Hokie Club, I donít think how much money you give has anything to do with it, either. Although I consider myself a positive thinker, I will not be a blind follower. I have a very positive outlook on the future of this team, but I will have to get into some of the negatives in order to show you how I think we can get there.
Enough about me, I just wanted to give you a reference point to see where I am coming from with my analysis. As a disclaimer, this is not a complete list of what I think we need to do, but this is where I think we need to start.
On to the important issuesÖWe have, in the past, been known as a team with a stingy run defense and one really tough place to play for incoming visitors (especially night games). We also are famous for having defensive ends that wreak havoc on opposing backfields. The past few seasons though, I have noticed that something is out of character. Something has been missing that we need in order to get us through November with more than a couple Wís.
What is it you ask? That is the million-dollar question isnít it? Well, I regret to inform you that I donít have one answer that will wipe away our struggles. Believe me, if I did, I would quickly e-mail Beamer and company. What I do know is that our offensive play calling and defensive aggressiveness have been, to put it nicely, somewhat lacking.
At the beginning of the season, I thought that the play calling seemed new and fresh, but about halfway through, I noticed the same "new" plays over and over again with little variation, thus, making them "old" plays again. For instance, the misdirection play where we have a receiver coming around on a reverse and have the option of handing it to the receiver, throwing the ball, or giving it to the halfback up the middle, went to the halfback more times than Iíd like to remember. There was one give I recall to the receiver on that play, which I do have to give the coaches credit for involving Marcus Vick lining up as the receiver (which I thought was great).
That is the kind of thing that gets me on my feet with anticipation before the play even gets underway. Those plays that actually show we arenít afraid to take some risks. It shows heart. I just kept thinking to myself, "Where has that been all year?" And on the next play, Randall and Vick switched roles, except Randall did not get the hand-off. That showed great variation. I realize there is a surprise factor in saving some plays, but that was way too brilliant to save until the last game, when all hopes for a national title or even a Big East title have all been washed away. Plays like that that should have been in the rotation all along in this not-really-a-writerís humble opinion.
It was not all the offenseís fault or the play calling predictability though. The aggressiveness on defense was also MIA most games during our November slide. I donít have the actual figures, but I can tell you that we blitzed very rarely compared to prior years (or at least with less positive results). I think that it has a lot to do with linebacker play. I have to give Vegas Robinson credit; he always showed me that he had heart, even when his body was sometimes unable to get the results he wanted. I cannot be as positive about the rest of the group. No offense intended to any of our guys, but this group just did not perform the way they needed to in order to attain the desired results. I am sure that they know that as well as anybody and I expect that they will bounce back next year, with the addition of redshirt freshmen Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall. Thus, what has been somewhat of a weakness, may turn into one of our strengths in years to come. We need a Ben Taylor-type player who can really make a difference, and hopefully one of these guys (or both, if we are lucky) will take that role. I say keep working hard at it, and the results will come.
This defense gave up 149 more yards per game in the last 6 games than they did the first six, which helped bring an 84-week steak of being ranked in the top 25 to an end. It was the second longest streak in all of college football before being broken. We lost all chemistry towards the end, going from the least penalized team in the Big East, to a team who got personal fouls and made undisciplined decisions as if that was their job. We had some players who defended very well versus the run, but continually killed us in pass defense and vice versa.
For an example of poor pass defense, see the WVU game when botched coverage gave up a 93-yard touchdown, which has to be one of the longest pass plays ever given up by a Virginia Tech defense (Editor's Note: the longest ever was 97 yards, from BC's Tim Hasselbeck to Dedrick Dewalt in the 1999 BC game). I wonít call anyone out on that play, but that is just one example I saw of just how inconsistent we became. I tend to believe that the loss of Garnell Wilds had a much greater impact than many realize, although that can not be blamed for all of our problems. In my opinion, he was the most consistent person we had in the secondary. After that West Virginia game, most of the fanís attitudes turned very sour. We regained confidence after the Miami game, only to have the air let out of our balloons at Pitt. We never recovered from that point on.
Another thing I keep going back to in my mind (again with no disrespect to our DEís) is, "Where is the 'force to be reckoned with' on the defensive line?" We have ALWAYS had it as far back as I can remember. Names like Bruce Smith, Cornell Brown, Corey Moore and John Engelberger. Just hearing those names would strike fear into the minds of quarterbacks who had to face them and probably still give some of them the chills when they are mentioned. Our current ends have not been bad by any means; In fact, I would say most programs would love to have them, but they did not "take over" games like those I have named. Without that initial push by our D-line, it makes it much harder for blitzes to be effective by the linebackers. They need to work as a unit. Iíd like to see who is going to step up to that level and take the defense under their wings. I see great potential in some of the younger players and canít wait to see who will be the oneÖor two, if we are as lucky as we were with Corey Moore and John Engelberger.
One thing I see that hasnít changed is the home field advantage of Lane Stadium, and even that was a little slack at the BC game (until the final quarter). The fans do still show up and cheer as loud as ever though for the most part, which is a great testament to our fans considering the struggles we have seen. Keep up the good work.
What I would like to see is new strategies on defense (or at least reverting back to a more aggressive style), less predictability on offense, a defensive leader to step up, and one of our great quarterbacks deciding that he is truly the one to beat. If these things happen, I believe we will be in much better shape heading into the future.
I canít predict the future, but I trust that our coaches and players will figure out what needs to be done and bring us to the next level...this level includes making opponents scared to play us (even on the road), ACC titles, and maybe even a national title. I have faith that this IS the future of our program.
To the team and fans I will leave you with this, keep on working hard and sooner or later you will find what you and everyone else in the Hokie family is seeking. Hopefully sooner rather than later. GO HOKIES!
This collapse has been happening for three straight seasons. The fact is that the QBs we have had do not measure up to MV1 -- and quite frankly, who has expected them to -- but the coaches seem to have lost confidence in the things that got us to the top.
I think that when FSU beat us with big play after big play in the Sugar Bowl, our defensive coaches and maybe even the head coaches changed their philosophy. The idea that we need to protect ourselves from the big play is relatively new, but we have heard Beamer and Foster mention it several times this year (changes in the defense - zone coverage, prevent looks, 6 DBs on the field at once, refusing to play man coverage, attempting pressure with only 4, etc. -- were made to prevent being beaten by the big play).
VT coaches have apparently given up on the stunts and all-out blitzes of the past. What once was an "if you beat us, you will have to do it deep through the air" philosophy has become a "we need to prevent the big play" philosophy.
How many times have we heard Beamer say that any defensive changes are a result of teams adjusting to the Hokies style, and we don't want to give up the big play? In other words, when we got to the top of the mountain, the risk-taking stopped and we became a team that was playing to maintain our position at the peak, not one that was playing to prevent others from reaching that level. We stopped taking risks.
Let me ask this: if we had Ken Oxendine and MV1 on the field this year, how many times would we have punted from fourth and short in our opponent's territory? VT completely stopped taking risks, and the opponents didn't. To prevent giving up the big play, we gave up the short yardage, we stopped attacking, and stopped making teams fight for every inch of ground. We rarely rushed more than four, keeping seven back to protect against the deep pass. We used soft zones to prevent getting beat deep (did we ever have a corner play bump and run coverage this year?).
The players were recruited to play in an attacking and dominating defense. They were recruited for their speed over size, and we have become a defense that does not use that speed. How many times has Nathaniel Adibi or Cols Colas lined up more than two yards outside the opposing down linemen, ala Corey Moore? We now broadcast to opposing offensive linemen that we will rush only four, and we tell them precisely which four will be the rushers, making no attempt to confuse their blocking schemes.
There have been a few games this season where this new "philosophy" has not been used. VT manned up to stop Miami's Kellen Winslow, and they attacked the line to stop Syracuse's Walter Reyes. These two games saw the old school, risking, attacking Hokie style defense we grew to know and love in the '90s. For the SU game, the team was facing what, at the time, was the nation's best rusher, and a lackluster passing game. The coaches were not worried about the SU passing attack, so the Hokies were able to attack. In the Miami game, the Hokies were coming off a horrible loss in WV, taking criticism from everyone, and really had nothing left to lose, and everything to gain. They manned up on Miami's all-American TE, shut him down, blitzed, and pressured Berlin all night long and won the game.
This put them back in the hunt for everything, and back came the low-risk, low-return style of play with four rushers and soft zones. Offensively, when the ball was turned over, all talk of our two great QBs went out the window for fear of the possibility of more mistakes/turnovers, and we ran the same plays over and over again, not taking any risks. Did we ever actually run an end around off of the formation where we fake the end-around and send KJ up the middle? Anyone else notice that by the end of the season, the fake end around wasn't drawing any defenders?
When it comes to facilities, Frank Beamer has said that if you aren't moving forward, you are falling behind. I think the same is true of playing on the field. If you play to stay at the level you are, the only direction you will go is down. If you stop taking the risks, stop going for the throat, stop playing to win, and start playing to not be beaten, the only place to go is backwards. Look at OU, even when they are up by huge margins, you still see Bob Stoops fake field goals, gambling on deep plays, risking turnovers, etc. Has he ever played to "protect a lead" this season?
When your philosophy is not to destroy the other team, but simply to prevent yourself from losing to teams you should beat, there is a different emotional level and a different intensity level. Playing not to lose is a blatant declaration that a coach does not have the confidence in his own players to take risks, because he doesn't want to rely on them to make up for big plays, setbacks, etc. This carries over to the players, and they come out flat and uninspired, and they play like they are more afraid of making a mistake then trying to make the play.
VT needs to get back to playing like it has nothing to lose, like it doesn't fear the big play, that it does not fear reprisals for shellacking opponents. They need to play with the same intensity and the same drive all game. Take the risks that can carry the rewards that will fire up a team. Tell the players, you are counting on them to make the plays. Make the opponents fight for every yard, every punt, every score. Of course, this is all just my opinion, and probably not worth a hill of beans, but it is just what I have observed for the past three years. So what if FSU and Miami have beaten us with the big play in the past. If we play scared of the big play, all the small plays opponents run will set up the big one anyway (see UVa this year).