Virginia Tech 30, Pittsburgh 17
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 10/30/99
Pittsburgh, PA - October 30, 1999
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When this one was over and the approximately 5,000 Hokie fans in attendance filed out of Pittsburgh Stadium for the last time, very few of them had smiles on their faces. It wasnít very long ago that Hokie fans were happy with any win, and would not leave a contest grim-faced after winning it by nearly two touchdowns.
But such is the way with Virginia Tech football these days. Hokie fans were beginning to feel that their team was invincible, but on Saturday night, they were instead exposed to the sight of a team that looked not just human, but downright bad at times.
Of course, if youíre a Tech fan, how you interpret what you saw is entirely up to you. Either you saw a supposedly vaunted team getting schooled at will by an opponent that wasnít really supposed to throw much of a scare into them, or you saw a team that ran into a red-hot passing game, suffered two key injuries on defense, went into a bend-but-donít-break mode, and gutted it out with their offense.
As we like to say here at HokieCentral, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There is no doubt that in many ways, Tech was not sharp on this night, and a number of things didnít go their way, either because of their own doing, the doing of the Pitt Panthers, or just some operation of Fate on this particular evening.
In any event, the Hokies won, and as the saying goes, a winís a win. It had been a long time since the Hokies and their fans had been through a gut-check game Ė September 23rd against Clemson, to be exact Ė and although they were on the run for most of the second half, they pulled out the win.
Early on, there was very little to indicate that this was going to be a struggle for Tech. Pittsburgh only had one first down on their first two drives, picking up just 24 yards in nine plays of offense. The Hokies were having trouble getting it rolling on offense, but this was masked by a long Michael Vick option run for a touchdown that put Tech up 7-0 just 4:12 into the game.
Vickís run was a dazzling 46-yarder that followed a blocked punt by Andre Davis. It was Techís first punt block of the year, and it put Hokie fans into the mindset that once again, it was going to be Techís night, particularly when Vick followed the block up so quickly with a spectacular play.
Pitt started to move the ball well after that, but it wasnít obvious that they would eventually rack up over 400 yards passing. The Hokies stopped the Panthers when it mattered, and as the first quarter wound down, the Hokies stormed out of the shadow of their own goal post and converted a 46-yard Shayne Graham field goal for a 10-0 lead. Business as usual. The Hokies werenít blowing the Panthers off the field, but they had the expected lead after one quarter.
The Second Quarter
The first shot from the Pitt offense came when the Panthers responded to Techís score by marching easily downfield to cut the deficit to 10-7with barely a minute gone in the second quarter.
The Hokies struck right back, moving the ball smartly downfield inside Pittís 40-yard line, where they converted a fourth-and-short, and then Vick and Andre Davis hooked up on a beautiful 37-yard TD pass. Vick put the ball right into the arms of the closely guarded Davis, who continued his evolution into a great receiver by pulling in the ball through sheer concentration.
It was at this point, with the Hokies holding a 17-7 lead, that things began to break down for the Tech pass defense. Cornerback Anthony Midget suffered a pulled groin muscle, and Ike Charlton was poked in the eye, and both players had to sit out the remainder of the second quarter. Pitt went to work on their replacements, Larry Austin and Ronyell Whitaker.
Whitaker will one day be a good cornerback. Heís too much of a physical talent, and heís too competitive to not be a great player. But on this night, he was mere fodder for Pitt quarterback David Priestley and his incredibly talented receiving duo of Antonio Bryant and Latef Grim.
Likewise, Austin didnít fare well in his baptism by fire, either (more on Austin and Whitaker later). On Pittís next drive after Tech went up by ten, the Panthers motored downfield behind the red-hot Priestley, who at one point completed his eighth straight pass. The Hokies got a stop inside the Tech ten thanks to a timely sack by John Engelberger (one of just two Tech sacks in the first half), and Pitt missed a short field goal attempt.
The Hokies roared back with a "take that" drive that covered 80 yards in four plays. The highlight was a 59-yard run by Andre Kendrick that featured four blocks by Andre Davis, who has been putting on a blocking clinic this year. Stith went in nearly untouched from nine yards out, and it was 24-7, Hokies.
Pitt killed their next drive with a holding penalty, and the Hokies responded by driving from their 30 to Pittís 20. With about a minute to go, Pitt mugged Emmett Johnson in the end zone, moving the ball to the five yard line with a first and goal.
At that point, things got weird and nerve-racking. Normally, faced with a first and goal from the five yard line, the Hokies line up a full house backfield behind two tight ends and cram the ball in the end zone. Instead, Rickey Bustle called a bootleg left, and Vick was thrown for a short loss.
But that was nothing compared to the next play. The Hokies rolled Vick out right, and he got in trouble, then proceeded to dance himself into an ankle tackle that left him grabbing his tender left ankle in pain. Once a game, this happens to Vick, usually before the first half is over, and this game was no different. Much like he had in the Clemson, UVa, and Syracuse games, Vick grabbed his ankle in pain, got up slowly, and limped noticeably. But in the long term, just like the other games, the injury didnít affect his play.
The Hokies closed out the scoring and had a 27-7 lead at the half. The warning signs were there, though, that the second half was going to be a battle. Charlton and Midget were on the sidelines, and the Hokies had surrendered 199 yards of offense to Pitt, six yards over the game average given up by Techís #1-ranked defense.
Sure, the Hokies had an impressive 333 yards of offense, but they were 0-4 on third down conversions, a stat that would plague Tech deep into the fourth quarter. Time of possession was almost equal, so the 27-7 score was definitely misleading.
The Second Half
Pitt came out and told the Hokies how it was going to be on their very first series of the second half. The Panthers scored their second TD in just under three minutes, cutting the score to 27-14. The drive included a 56-yard completion to Latef Grim, who beat Whitaker and safety Nick Sorensen easily.
Techís response was no response. The Hokies fizzled quickly but were saved somewhat when Kibbleís 59-yard punt was downed on the 1 yard line.
Bud Foster put Ike Charlton back in at this point, but it made no difference. Freshman Pitt receiver Antonio Bryant, who would catch 13 balls for 215 yards, schooled Ike on three straight pass plays. Another strong Pitt drive was stopped when Tech recorded two straight sacks on a blitz and a bull rush by Chad Beasley. On third and 27, despite the fact that they were having great success passing the ball, Pitt quick-kicked, and the Hokies were pinned at their six.
Tech was able to move the ball about 35 yards, but a dropped pass by Davis ended the drive.
From their 20, Pitt once again knifed through Techís defense. This particular drive was indicative of the entire second half for the Hokies:
That one drive sent a clear message that this was not Techís night. When the Hokies made plays, they gave the ball right back (Cyrusís penalty after the stop), and when Pitt put the ball on the ground, the bounces didnít go Techís way (two unrecovered fumbles). The Hokies were lucky that Pitt only got a field goal to close the gap to 27-17 early in the fourth.
The Fourth Quarter, and a Game-Saving Drive
Although an entire gut-wrenching quarter remained, the bleeding was over, although it wasnít clear at this point. Pitt had over 200 yards passing in the third quarter alone, held the ball for nearly twelve minutes in that quarter, and scored ten straight points on Tech. Unless the Hokies could right the ship, disaster was right around the corner.
For all the talk after the game, there was very little discussion about Techís first drive of the fourth quarter. The drive would result in a field goal that put Tech up 30-17, but the drive was much more than just a field goal. It turned this game back around, sewed it up for the Hokies, and was full of drama:
After that, Tech stifled a Pitt drive with a Corey Moore sack and got the ball back with 7:23 to go. The Hokies then did something twice in a row that they hadnít done all night to that point Ė convert a third down. Graham would try another 52-yard field goal and miss it, but by that time, the clock was down to 4:04, and the game was effectively over.
After a disastrous third quarter, both the defense and the offense rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter, and despite the fact that things werenít going their way, the Hokies did what the champions do. They won.
It was a gritty win that left and unpleasant taste in the mouth of the team, coaches, and fans, but in the end, it could have been a lot worse. Corey Moore said after the game that in the past, Tech would have lost this game, and heís probably right. But these days, even when theyíre not firing on all cylinders and the opponent is, the Hokies can pull it out.
Iím never one to put a smiley face on things when itís not deserved, but I look at it this way: win number 7 is in the books. It was an interesting game fraught with twists and turns. Letís take a look at some of the details.
Kendrickís Hot, Stithís Not
It was apparent early in this game that among the two Tech running backs, it was Andre Kendrickís night, and not Shyrone Stithís. Kendrick had 162 yards on 16 carries, for a whopping ten-yard average, and Stith had "only" 65 yards on 13 carries, for a five-yard average. It should be noted that Stithís 65-yard total included one 35-yard run, so he struggled more than was apparent from the statistics.
It seemed that everywhere Stith turned, particularly on the inside runs, there were Panthers aplenty, whereas Kendrick was able to find the holes and to put on the moves. Overall, Tech had 295 yards on 46 carries, for a 6+ yard average, against the #20 run defense in the country. It was a great rushing performance by an offensive line that has made great strides this year. The holes in the middle were almost non-existent, but off-tackle and around the ends, there was plenty of daylight.
Stith watch: Stith now has 785 yards rushing on the year, and he needs 215 more in the next four games to hit 1,000. And did you catch ESPN analyst Todd Christiansen calling him "Bryant Stith," as in the old UVa / Denver Nuggets basketball player? He only did it once, but he did it.
Schoolís in for Whitaker, Austin
When Ike Charlton and Anthony Midget both got hurt and left the game, Ronyell Whitaker and Larry Austin were thrown into the fray, and they got slaughtered. It got so bad for Whitaker that he was removed from the game, and Austin, who normally backs up Charlton, was moved across the field to Whitaker and Midgetís spot while Ike played his normal spot.
Austin was out of sorts. He did okay at times, but at other times, he wasnít close to making the play. One manner in which his inexperience manifested itself was in the way that he failed to take advantage of two shots he had at stretched-out receivers. Both times, Austin had a chance to blast receivers that were reaching for high passes, but both times, he wrapped the receiver up and fell to the ground with him. When he watches the tape, coach Lorenzo Ward will teach him to run right through the receiver in those situations.
As for Whitaker, it has been a humbling year for him. Ronyell is a much-hyped redshirt freshman from Lake Taylor high school, and many observers, HokieCentral staff included, thought in the preseason that Whitaker would take Midgetís spot from him. Not so, and in fact, Midget is head and shoulders above Whitaker right now.
One day, Whitaker will be a good cornerback. One day, during his junior or senior year, heíll be interviewed, and heíll talk about this season, and in particular this game, and heíll talk about how it taught him that he had a lot of work to do, and that he couldnít ride on reputation alone. Heís at a crossroads right now where he has a lot of improving to do, and I think heíll get started on it soon.
While weíre on the topic, letís give credit to Anthony Midget. Preseason commentary said that in order for the Tech defense to remain top-notch, Midget would have to step up, and he has. He was sorely missed after his groin injury, which is not believed to be serious. But to be honest, lately, every injury has been reported as not serious, and what is being printed in the press has very little to do with reality. Weíll just have to see with Anthony whether heíll be back soon or not.
The Zone and the Disappearing Linebackers
Sharper football minds than mine noticed that with the cornerbacks struggling, Tech went into zone coverage, which is like asking a fish to dance on a parquet floor Ė itís not something he does often, and he probably wonít be good at it, and the results may even be disastrous.
The zone strategy worked, because it kept Pitt out of the end zone for the most part, but it had the effect of neutralizing Techís star linebackers, Michael Hawkes and Jamel Smith. The Hokies had nine sacks on the day, but their pressure on the QB was not consistent at all. In particular, the Tech defensive ends would often flush Priestley up out of the pocket, but when he stepped up into the middle, there was no one there, and he could throw unmolested.
Smith and Hawkes spent a lot of time lost in coverage, neither making the play on a receiver nor making the sack. When they were sent up the middle on the blitz, it was effective, and thatís partly how Tech rolled up the nine sacks (that, and Cory Bird blitzing from the corners).
It was quite obvious that Pitt was going to throw to the wideouts Ė Grim and Bryant caught 25 of Pittís 29 completions, and the tight ends stayed in to block Corey Moore and John Engelberger Ė but yet the Tech linebackers were not sent on the blitz very often. In short, Hawkes and Smith were almost persona non grata, just one game after totally destroying Syracuse.
Iíd like to hear Bud Fosterís thoughts on the subject and why he called the game the way he called it, because Iím sure he did the right thing. The final score bears witness to that. But Iíd like to hear the reasoning and the details of what he was calling and why.
Next Up: WVU
WVU is currently 3-5 after going up 13-0 on Miami at the half and then coughing up the loss, 28-20. Thereís no question that WVU and Tech are headed in opposite directions right now, as the Mountaineers are still suffering from the loss of their entire offensive and defensive lines after last season.
Perhaps Tech will be able to control the line of scrimmage, but theyíre going to have to get a better performance from their cornerbacks and shut down WVUís Marc Bulger.
HokieCentral will post a WVU preview later this week. Until then, Tech has to breathe a big sigh of relief that they had what it took to get past a Pitt team that put a red-hot quarterback and two talented receivers on the field.
Pitt is already good and will only get better. Priestley is a sophomore, Bryant is a freshman, and Grim is a junior. They start three redshirt freshman on an offensive line that did a pretty good job on Tech, so theyíll be loaded for bear on offense for years.
The Hokies havenít heard the end of the Pitt Panthers. For this year, they have, though, and itís time to move on. Win number 7 is behind them, and game number 8 awaits in Morgantown.