Virginia Tech 31, UAB 10
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 9/11/99
Blacksburg, VA - September 11, 1999
1 2 3 4 F
VT-Johnson 41 pass from Meyer (Graham kick)
As this season of high expectations unfolds, I find myself pondering Tech's chances to go undefeated, and I alternate between believing that it will happen and wanting to slap people just for talking about it.
This week, I'm in slap mode. I just watched a pretty good Virginia Tech team beat UAB 31-10, but I came away with a clear picture of some things that need fixing in order for this team to even think about getting past Clemson, UVa, Miami, and company.
I'm still focusing on the games one at a time, and after seeing that Clemson dismantled UVa 33-14 on Saturday, I actually can't see anything beyond our Thursday night contest with the Tigers on September 23rd.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's take a look at this game and see what it says by itself, instead of trying to figure out the meaning of life and predict the other ten games Tech will play this season.
The Hokies came out smoking, with Dave Meyer throwing a beautiful 41-yard TD to Emmett Johnson, and then Michael Hawkes intercepted a UAB pass and ran it back to the Blazers 32 yard line. Tech methodically worked the ball downfield and picked up a fourth and one around UAB's ten yard line, and with the Hokies poised near the Blazers ten yard line and ready to punch it in, it looked as if the rout had started right on schedule.
Things started to slow down, though. UAB stopped Tech's predictable goal line offense, and the Hokies settled for a field goal to make it 10-0.
The Blazers responded with a three-and-out, of which there would be many, and the first crack in Tech's armor appeared when Dave Meyer threw an interception on Tech's next possession.
That was the first of five Tech turnovers in the first half, but to be fair, one came on a hail-Mary pass at the end of the half, and they don't really count. The Hokies would score another TD to make the score 17-0, but the truth was, Tech was coming unglued.
The Hokie turnovers resulted in 10 UAB points without the Blazers really moving the ball appreciably. UAB only had 5 first downs and 35 yards of offense in the first half, but Tech kept giving them a short field, and they took advantage of it.
What was looming larger than the mere 7-point half-time advantage was the complete lack of confidence that Dave Meyer was exhibiting. The junior was in a funk, and when a QB's confidence goes south, merely finishing the game without a flurry of turnovers is a difficult task.
Much like his only start against Pitt last year, Meyer had started out strong but was fading fast. The Hokie coaches solved that problem by going with a conservative, run-oriented offense in the second half. In the first half, Tech ran the ball 23 times and passed it 13 times, but in the second half, those numbers were 32 and 9.
This led to some grousing by the Tech fans, but the fact is, the strategy worked. The Hokies didn't score in the third quarter, mostly because they got down to the UAB ten yard line and once again mysteriously bogged down, and then Shayne Graham missed a chip-shot field goal. The snap and the hold were good, and the ball was placed near the center of the field - he just missed it.
The Hokies were moving the ball, though, and the Blazers weren't, and early in the fourth quarter, Tech blew the game back open with a trick play, a half back option pass from former high school quarterback Andre Kendrick to Andre Davis.
It was the same play that produced a TD in Tech's spring game, and it's a shame that the game was so close that the Hokies had to reveal a valuable trick play against an opponent they were expected to clobber without pause.
After that, it was all going through the motions. The Hokies tacked on another touchdown late to make the final margin palatable. When the damage was all done, the score was 31-10, which shows well on the sports tickers, but many fans, including me, see gaps in Tech's pretty white teeth. More on that later.
The Hokies finished with 375 yards to UAB's 63, and the total for UAB was a Tech defensive record. In three games, the Blazers never tallied over 100 yards against Tech, ringing up totals of 65, 94, and 63. That's barely over 200 yards for three games, prompting UAB Coach Watson Brown to say, "I'm an expert on the Virginia Tech defense, and I've seen quite enough of it."
We bid you adieu, Watson - thanks for the 2-for-1 deal, now please get out of the way, because we have important games in future seasons against Western Michigan and Kent.
Chicken Little Time
I'm about to make some comments about my interpretation of the game that many of you will perceive as Chicken Little-ish, "the sky is falling" bleating. That's not really true. I'm too smart and have seen too many seasons unfold to run for cover over some worrisome aspects of Tech's football team.
Plus, the fact is that we've heard so much about how great our team is, from its defensive line to its special teams to its wide receivers to its redshirt freshman quarterback, that it's almost refreshing to hear about the areas where we're not beating the world to a pulp.
Let's start with that redshirt freshman quarterback. Sure, he's great, but he was also supposed to have two games of experience under his belt heading into that crucial Thursday night matchup with Clemson.
Instead, he got some extended scrimmage time (about twenty minutes) against a 1-AA team, and that's it. Everybody talks about how great Vick is going to be, and from what I've seen, I agree, but not if he doesnt play. The party line on our schedule is that it was set up to give our new QB some valuable experience in two cake walk games before he had to face a "real" opponent, and guess what? It's now time to face that real opponent, and Mr. Vick is barely more experienced than he was at the end of last year.
None of this hand-wringing is relevant to the UAB game, of course. I just had to get that off my chest.
The Offensive Line
I have said more than once that I think the offensive line is the most important part of a football team, and the brutal truth is, as a unit, this offensive line we're putting on the field right now is probably the weakest part of our team (although our inexperienced defensive backs might challenge them for the title).
I find it very bothersome when drives stall against both JMU and UAB, who are supposed to be the weakest teams on our schedule and are supposed to be physically outmanned by the Hokies.
We were only 1-of-3 on fourth down attempts against JMU, a team we should absolutely run over, and against UAB, we had two drives stall around their ten yard line, and two other times, after having a first and goal from their two yard line, it took the Hokie three plays to cram it into the end zone.
Rickey Bustle has taken some heat over the two-tight-ends, run-it-up-the-gut style that the Hokies employ near the opposition's goal line, but my own personal theory is that it's Beamer calling the shots there.
Ever since Tech QB Rodd Wooten threw an ill-advised goal-line pass that an ECU linebacker named Greg Grandison returned 95 yards for a touchdown in a 24-17 loss to the Pirates back in 1991, Beamer has played nothing but smash-mouth offense inside the opposition's ten yard line. Tech rarely monkeys around with cute stuff down around the goal line. I think Beamer believes that if you can't smash it in down there, then you dont deserve to score.
But back to the topic. Tech's o-line is struggling right now. I'm not ready to push the panic button, because I remember a 1995 offensive line that was pretty good, and it was thoroughly embarrassed early in the year by both Cincinnati and (gulp) Navy.
There's still time for this offensive line to get better, but the simple fact is, if this team has designs on a Big East championship, then this is one area that is in dire need of improvement, and soon. There have been too many one- and two-yard runs against supposed doormats JMU and UAB, and too many sacks, for me to feel comfortable.
The good news is, true freshman Anthony Davis is getting lots of playing time, and he's showing real promise. Sure, he's inconsistent, but he has shown good movement and quickness, and he's big. He arrived at Tech weighing over 330 pounds, and he has trimmed about ten pounds.
There was a flanker screen to Ricky Hall late in the game where Davis arrived at the scene so quickly that it almost looked as if he was waiting for the pass to arrive when Hall caught it. Even former Hokie great Eugene Chung didn't get out there was quickly as Davis seemed to. After the catch was made, Davis then turned up field and escorted Hall nicely, showing good feet in the process.
Yep, despite all the publicity and the hype, the Hokies do indeed have inexperience on defense, and it's showing. Or rather, it's not showing.
What I mean by that is that we haven't heard much yet from the Whip linebacker and free safety positions, as Ben Taylor and Nick Sorensen learn their new roles. After being burned on JMU's long run last week, Sorensen made a few plays this week, including a sack on a safety blitz, but Ben Taylor has been mostly quiet. Taylor and Sorensen both need to get into the groove for the Tech defense to live up to the Army's motto and be all that it can be.
Not only have the Hokies not blocked any punts, they don't even look like they're trying. In the case of the JMU game, that could have been a case of not wanting to pile on the overmatched Dukes, but in the case of the UAB game well, when it's 17-10 at the end of the third quarter, then by all means, please pile on.
But we know that the Hokies know how to block punts. What really ticks me off about the lack of production in this department is that the N.C. State Wolfpack appears poised to take over Tech's lead in this area. The 'Pack, by my count, has blocked four punts in just two games so far this year.
Okay, Enough of That
Ah, let's take a deep breath and talk about some good things.
Number one, Shyrone Stith is well on his way to 1,000 yards for the year. He has 246 yards in Tech's first two games, which means that he only needs 754 yards in his last nine games, or 84 yards a game, to reach the magic plateau, which only one Tech tailback has reached since 1986 (Dwayne Thomas did it in 1993, with 1,130 yards in 11 games).
For a primarily run-oriented team such as Tech, it's strange that only one runner in the last twelve seasons has reached the 1,000 yard benchmark, and it tells you that platooning is a way of life for running backs coach Billy Hite.
Number two, the receivers are living up to their preseason hype. They have caught nearly every ball that has been thrown their way, and Andre Davis and Emmett Johnson have both registered TD catches.
And number three, what about the play Ike Charlton made near the end zone? He had a UAB sweep covered well, but wasn't intent to simply string the play out and make the tackle. Instead, he attacked the ball carrier and nearly turned in an unexpected sack. It was a spectacular play.
Next Up: Clemson
In the preseason, I had this one pegged as an easy Hokie win. Tech stomped Clemson 37-0 last year on the road, and Athlon ranked the Tigers 70th out of 114 Division 1-A teams to start this year.
But more important than that, according to Athlon, the Tigers return no starters on the offensive line, and they planned on starting two freshman and three sophomores on the offensive line, with a total of just three varsity letters amongst the five of them. That's a recipe for disaster against Tech's talented and experienced defensive line.
I don't know if the lineup that new coach Tommy Bowden eventually settled on is really that young, but regardless, it's important to remember that they return no starters on the o-line, and Tech abused that line last year.
But now I dont think the Tigers will be so easy to beat. They stomped UVa last weekend 33-14, without even trying. They feature a new pass-oriented offense that may give Tech's inexperienced defensive backs fits. And their defensive line played very well against a UVa offensive line that is supposed to be a talented, veteran group.
Perhaps more important than that, though, is the fact that this previously downtrodden Clemson team, which lost 13-10 in its first game to Marshall, now believes they can win. It's up to the Hokies to slap them back down, but it won't be easy.
So instead of an easy romp, I think the Hokies are in for a battle, and it's complicated by the fact that Michael Vick didn't get his two games of experience, as I mentioned before. I can see the Hokies romping in this one, but I can also see the exact opposite happening.
That's the beauty and the mystery of the early stages of a college football season. Our thoughts and emotions tend to rubber band up and down with the inconsistent play of our team early in the year, and only time will tell how this thing is going to unfold.
But one thing's for sure. Playing Clemson on a Thursday night in front of a national TV audience beats playing JMU and UAB all hollow.