Virginia Tech 47, James Madison 0
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 9/4/99
1 2 3 4 F
VT-Vick 54 run (Graham kick)
VT-FG Graham 32
VT-Vick 7 run (Graham kick)
VT-Safety, Moore tackled in end zone
VT-And Davis 22 run (Graham kick)
VT-Meyer 2 run (Graham kick)
VT-Kendrick 2 run (Graham kick)
Recently, I wrote an article for the Members Only section of the web site entitled "A Dozen Wishes for the 1999 Football Season."
Wish #2: stay healthy.
(For the record, wish #1 was "no upsets.")
Nothing will derail a season faster than injuries. The Hokies, after suffering through injuries at the quarterback position for the last two seasons, know that better than any other team I can think of.
In 1997, not only did the Hokies lose Al Clark to injury, but they lost key defenders, as well, and the result was a disastrous ending to the season.
In 1998, more turmoil at the QB position was masked by a defense that got banged up along the way, but was able to start the same eleven guys in all twelve games, according to something I once read. The result was a pretty successful season, and a nice springboard to this year.
This season has not started out well on the injury front. Before the first kickoff against JMU, the Hokies already had linebacker Jake Houseright temporarily on the shelf due to a knee injury, and backup free safety Reggie Samuel was lost for the year to a torn ACL.
In this game against JMU, there was much to like. A sellout crowd, good weather, an
exciting debut from the much-hyped Michael Vick, and a 47-0 victory. But buried in all the
good things were two injuries to key players, Vick included, that found me leaving the
stadium with my brow furrowed in concern.
I'll refrain from recapping the game in detail. It went pretty much as we all expected. I predicted a 56-10 score on the message board last week, which means that I missed the point spread by just one point.
I wondered if the defense would shut the Dukes out, and more specifically, I wondered if JMU would be able to move the ball at all. I wondered if the Hokies would grind the ball on the ground and rack up 300 yards rushing, or if Tech would rain spectacular touchdowns down on JMU that would leave Tech fans buzzing all week long about what they had seen.
Despite my 56-10 prediction, I wondered if this game would be unexpectedly close, say 30-14, or maybe a total blowout, as in 66-0. It wound up being pretty close in scope to what I blurted out on the board that day.
If I could sum the game up, I would say that the performance of the defense was not as dominating as I had hoped, nor was the performance of the offensive line. The Hokies vaunted kick-blockers took it easy on JMU, although the special teams did indeed shine with deep kickoffs and long punt returns. All in all, it was a sometimes spotty effort that carried the Hokies to a win by a large margin.
But the receivers played well, Michael Vick delivered on the hype (for about twenty minutes at least), and Shyrone Stith got a much-deserved hundred yard rushing game.
He only played for about a quarter and a half, but Michael Vick showed everyone what the hype was all about. After a slow start, he cranked up his passing arm and his running legs and started pouring it on the JMU Dukes.
For the record, in his first collegiate start, Vick was 4-6 for 110 yards passing, with no interceptions and no touchdowns. He tacked on 4 carries for 54 yards and three touchdowns.
164 yards of total offense and three touchdowns. Not a bad twenty minutes for a first start, and Vick was robbed of his first collegiate touchdown pass when a wide-open Andre Davis caught a Vick bomb and then fell down. It's funny, we have learned to complain over the last few years that Hokie receivers aren't catching the football consistently, and now this? Now we have to start whining that they keep falling down after they catch it?
(Sorry, couldn't resist that good-natured ribbing of Andre.)
I thought the most impressive thing about Vick was his accuracy on the long ball. I had seen him throw some deep bombs in practice, and although he has a very strong arm, he seemed to be hit-or-miss on the long ones.
Not so on Saturday. Vick threw the bomb with pinpoint accuracy, but what impressed me was that he made the deep passes look almost effortless. While Al Clark and even Jim Druckenmiller tended to put a lot of air under the long balls, Vick's throws were tight and on target. Druck and Clark almost seemed as if they were winging it out there and hoping that the receiver would run under it, but Vick's two long passes, to Davis and Ricky Hall, were aimed and thrown to a spot, not just chucked up into the ozone.
One long throw to Ricky Hall in particular was well-thrown, gently placed in Ricky's hands against pretty tight coverage. I was thoroughly impressed with the way Vick threw, and it will be interesting to see if I still feel that way after watching Vick throw some more deep passes later in the season.
But when will he throw his next pass? In the second quarter, Vick scored on a spectacular diving run for his last touchdown. He leapt high in the air, was spun over by a JMU defender, and landed on his feet, but not cleanly. He immediately clutched his ankle in pain and spent some time on the ground in the end zone, surrounded by concerned players, coaches, and trainers. He was helped off the field and wouldn't play again in the game.
I got a creepy feeling of déjà vu as I listened to the reports about Vick's injury. The report is that the X-rays were negative (no breaks), and there doesn't appear to be any ligament or cartilage damage. So the injury has been diagnosed vaguely as a "contusion," which is a fancy word for bruise.
I got another creepy feeling of déjà vu as I watched a film clip of the play of the play that was shot from the end zone. At the very instant that Michael Vick's ankle struck the ground, his foot was twisted at the exact same angle, and his body was at the exact same angle, as Al Clark's foot and body were when the Miami defenders hit and injured him in the third game of last year. It was eerie and unsettling to watch on tape. A word of advice: don't watch the clip frame by frame, as I did. It will only make you worry.
Are we headed down the same road we went down with Al Clark the last two years? Are we about to be treated to weekly assurances that Tech's injured starting quarterback will be back soon, only to have his injury drag on and on? Obviously, I hope not, but all we can do is wait and hope that when he does come back, it will be full speed.
One thing is for sure: Vick missed valuable playing time, and valuable experience, when he went down with his injury. If he isn't able to go against UAB next week, and he makes it back in time for Clemson, he will enter the game with the Tigers as a redshirt freshman with essentially no experience.
Are you getting the point that I'm really not happy that Mike's hurt?
The Play Calling
Rickey Bustle came under a lot of heat last year for a passing game that was criticized as being unimaginative. I thought one message board poster phrased it perfectly when he said "except for the bombs we throw all the time, our receivers never seem to catch the ball in a position to do anything with it, other than get tackled or run out of bounds."
That was a good point, and it's part of the reason why Tech fans clamor for the tight end so much, specifically "the tight end down the middle." It seems that every time a tight end catches a pass, he's rambling down the field, and it's an exciting thing to watch.
Never mind the tight end. The Hokies simply don't seem to deliver the ball to an open receiver slashing across the middle or down the middle very much. Tech runs a lot of down and outs (where the receiver mostly is pushed out of bounds or runs out of bounds after catching it), buttonhooks (where the receiver is standing still with his back to the defense when he catches it), and some flanker screens (where the receiver is standing still when he catches the ball).
We've covered that ground a lot here at HokieCentral, and you could even say we've beaten it to death. The word is that Rickey Bustle has retooled the offense and attuned it to Vick's skills, so naturally, I'm watching to see if the passing game has evolved any beyond what is described above.
Long about midway through the third quarter, I wasn't seeing it. The patterns looked the same to me. I had forgotten to watch for it early in the game, but after Vick went down, I observed Dave Meyer playing QB, and I was treated to a steady diet of bombs and down-and-outs.
Not much seemed to have changed, and then the Hokies threw two straight passes to the tight end. Derek Carter dropped one and then caught the next, rambling down the middle of the field (and darn it, he fell down). Tech later tossed another ball Bob Slowikowski's way, on a mid-range crossing pattern.
The obvious point here is that if Tech has truly revamped the offense, we're not necessarily going to show it all in the opening game against 1-AA JMU. And another point is that even if you don't like Tech's relatively conservative passing game, it works, when it's well executed. Stay tuned for what the rest of the season reveals.
Other Offensive Notes
The Tech defensive effort was workmanlike, but erratic. JMU totaled only 210 yards for the game, but they rung up some long plays along the way, including an unexpected run of 78 yards on their second series of the game. The Hokies responded to JMU's threat by pushing them back out of field goal range, preserving the shutout, which was the defensive goal of the game for Tech.
After spending an eternity in the offseason reading about how spectacular the Tech defense is, it's a little unsettling to watch 1-AA JMU peel off a few long plays, and the Dukes also put together a number of four-to-six yard runs where they sprung their running back through Tech's vaunted defensive line and into the defensive backfield. I had to remind myself that the Tech defense is not perfect.
Tech had six sacks, a commendable number, and the pass coverage was generally good. Corey Moore, John Engelberger, and Jamel Smith (not "Jamal," new PA announcer, but "Jamel") all made some great plays, and Tech's defensive backs turned in some nice tackles and weren't an area of concern in this game. Derrius Monroe, the one new player on the two-deep of the defensive line, made some standout plays, including pressuring the JMU quarterback into an early interception.
I thought the best individual defensive play by far was a play Larry Austin made on a screen pass. The Dukes set the play up very nicely, and they wound up with three blockers isolated on Austin in the flat. Somehow, Larry worked his way through the blockers and took the ball carrier down with a near-textbook tackle.
Another play of note was a deep pass that the Dukes completed on Ronyell Whitaker. I think Ronyell is a big-time talent, but JMU made him look like the redshirt freshman that he is on a play in the second half. Ronyell took the inside angle on a receiver running a post pattern, and the JMU QB aired out the ball enough that it easily cleared Whitaker and nestled right into the receiver's hands for a long gainer. Ronyell ran the guy down easily and made the tackle, but was visibly upset at himself for getting out of position on a play that he otherwise defended well. He wasn't beaten badly; he just took the wrong angle on the play.
I had to laugh, not at Ronyell, but at myself. I think I half expected Ronyell to play a lot against JMU and accumulate one or two vicious hits, an interception, and a handful of scintillating punt returns. For the record, he didn't lay any hits on anybody that I remember, he didn't pick off any passes, and he only returned one punt, and it wasn't memorable.
Note to self: he's just a freshman, and although he'll be a good one, it won't happen right away.
Nathaniel Williams's Injury
Starting defensive tackle Nathaniel "Don't Call Me Nate" Williams went down with a knee injury late in the game and had to be helped off the field. Everyone was so concerned about Michael Vicks' injury that there is very little information available on the extent of Nathaniel's injury. Rumors were circulating on the message board that it was just a sprain, and he should be back in a few weeks at worst. I'm sure we'll get an update on Monday night's Hokie Hotline, so look for that in Tuesday's update of the Hokie Hotline Notes.
Next Up: UAB
To be honest, this JMU game just didn't interest me much, not before, not during, and not after. I was very pleased with what Michael Vick showed us in the brief time he was in the game, but I spent most of the day fretting about injuries and wondering idly why the vaunted Hokies weren't totally demolishing the Dukes by scoring on every single play and not allowing JMU a single first down. High expectations can indeed be a dangerous thing.
I have to hand it to JMU. They never gave up, playing hard the whole game and making some nice individual plays. They laid some good hits on the Hokies and didn't act intimidated. Considering that they had a coaching change in March and had to cobble together offensive schemes and defensive schemes and teach them to their players in just five months, I was impressed. Although they'll be hard pressed to improve on last year's 3-8 record in the tough Atlantic 10 conference, I think they're a pretty good 1-AA team.
I have tabbed three games as "Upset Specials" on the Hokies' schedule this year, meaning that Tech has three games on the slate that I think could turn into Temple-type surprises, if the Hokies aren't careful. The three games are UAB, Rutgers, and Pittsburgh.
The first of those three games comes next week against the UAB Blazers. Tech needs to play hard in this one and not mess around. According to my preseason Athlon magazine, UAB returns 15 starters, although they did lose star tailback Lucious Foster in the offseason for reasons I can't remember. Athlon also ranked the Blazers #108 out of 114 Division 1-A teams, but I'm not listening to that, and I hope the Hokies aren't, either.
UAB put forth one of their better efforts in week one, nearly pulling off the upset at Missouri, losing 31-28. With the experience the Blazers are bringing back this year, I think they'll be much improved but then again, you're talking about a team that had a lot of room to improve.
I think UAB is dangerous to the Hokies for two main reasons: (1) they've seen Tech in the last two seasons, know them well, and won't be intimidated; and (2) Tech has stomped them into the ground the last two years by a combined score of 78-0.
If you want clue #1 to whether or not the Hokies are going to truly kick the complacency bug that has plagued them for the last few years, show up in Lane Stadium on September 11th and see how they play against UAB. Sure, there are extenuating circumstances, most notably the status of Michael Vick's leg, but the effort the Hokies put up against UAB will tell you a lot about where this season is headed.