Game Analysis: 2002 Toyota Gator Bowl
by Will Stewart,, 1/4/02

Click here for TSL's Game Recap

Analyzing this game is a walk in the park. All you have to do is take it one quarter at a time. If you break it up into fifteen minute increments, the major themes jump out at you:

  • The Hokies blew too many opportunities (1st quarter)
  • FSU beat Tech at their own game -- special teams (2nd quarter)
  • Tech stayed close with an offensive surge and big plays in the passing game (3rd quarter)
  • The Seminoles put the Hokies away with their own big plays (4th quarter)

The themes outlined above aren't just restricted to those quarters, and various subplots are wound throughout the entire game, but each quarter of the game did have its own flavor.

What everyone will remember are the big plays notched by FSU in the fourth quarter, and the blown opportunities by the Hokies in the first quarter, but what went on in the second and third quarters is just as important and had just as much to do with the outcome of the game.

It disappoints Hokie fans and followers that Virginia Tech failed to capitalize on one of FSU's less potent teams in fifteen years, and it galls Hokie fans that for the second time in a row, the Seminoles beat Tech at their own game (special teams) and outplayed them in two of Tech's other fortes -- the running game and defending the run.

FSU made very few mistakes, covered for the ones they did make, and when it came to crunch time, flexed their big-play muscles and then brought home the victory by lining up and whipping Tech at what the Hokies do best: power football.

Never mind all the other peripheral issues. Getting beat in the areas you pride yourself on stings.

Blown Opportunities

The first quarter ended with the Hokies holding a 3-0 lead, and it's not outlandish to say that with better offensive execution, it could have been 21-0, Tech. Here are the chances the Hokies missed early in the game to ring up some scores:

1.) On their first drive, the Hokies drove smartly to the FSU 14 with the passing game and running game. New offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, calling his first game for the Hokies, got them rolling on the first play with a pass play to tight end Bob Slowikowski that turned into a 16-yard gain to the Florida State 31.

"You come out with the pass play, get your offense going," Tech quarterback Grant Noel said later. "Offense is all about confidence, especially at the quarterback position. If those other guys look in my eyes, and I don't look confident, they're going to feel the same way. So we've got to get comfortable, and we were able to do that at the beginning of the game."

But the drive stalled. Noel took a sack for a nine-yard loss that pushed Tech back and forced them to settle for a field goal. 3-0 Hokies, but it could have been 7-0 had they finished the drive off.

2.) On their second drive, the Hokies ripped off a 51-yard crossing pattern to Andre Davis that took the ball down to the FSU 18-yard line. Three plays later, Grant Noel hit Ernest Wilford on a 22-yard slant for a touchdown … but a holding penalty (a legitimate call) brought it back. On the next play, Noel fumbled when Kevin Jones bumped the ball out of his hand in traffic. "Nothing was there," Noel said, "I went to cock my arm and throw the ball out of bounds, and it got knocked out of my hand."

3.) FSU quarterback Chris Rix, who was rattled in the early going and threw the ball behind his receivers often, promptly served up a terrible interception to Eric Green, who returned it to the FSU 44-yard line. The pass was so poorly thrown that a hard-charging Green had to slow down to prevent overrunning the interception. On the next play, the Hokies went with a trick play they had been practicing all week, a reverse option pass from Richard Johnson to Ernest Wilford. The pass was underthrown, but it hit Wilford in the gut inside the FSU 20, and he dropped it when an FSU defender nailed him. Tech stalled and punted, and another missed chance went by the boards.

At the end of the quarter, it was just 3-0, Hokies, but with some red-zone execution, it could have been 21-0 at best. At the very least, had the Wilford TD not been called back, it would have been 10-0. And had Wilford held onto Johnson's pass and the Hokies converted it into a field goal or TD, it would have been 13-0 or 17-0.

And you knew -- you just knew -- that Tech's failure to build a lead would cost them when FSU eventually, inevitably, scored their points.

"We shot ourselves in the foot," Noel said. "We gave back a touchdown, we fumbled."

There were other blown opportunities for Tech, the most significant one coming when a bad exchange between Rix and tailback Nick Maddox was fumbled and recovered by Tech's Mike Daniels on the FSU 31 in the third quarter. The Hokies, who had just pulled into a 10-10 tie, failed to get any points or momentum out of that turnover, either.

Beaten by the Special Teams -- Again

The most aggravating thing about Tech's national championship game loss to FSU two seasons ago was that the 'Noles outscored the Hokies 14-0 on special teams, a Tech strength. Surely Tech Coach Frank Beamer, a special teams coaching legend, wouldn’t let that happen again, would he?

Wrong. Tech got whipped on special teams again.

Having escaped the first quarter alive, FSU took the advantage in the second quarter by blocking a Vinnie Burns punt, recovering it at the one-foot line, and then jamming it in the end zone on a Rix keeper.

The punt block happened for two reasons: number one, Ben Taylor, who had middle blocking responsibility, chip-blocked FSU's Marcello Church, slowing him down but letting him get by. Taylor's block should have been sufficient (he's supposed to chip and release in that situation), but the second reason the block occurred was that Burns took a three-step approach to kicking the ball away. That took long enough -- and put Burns close enough to the line of scrimmage -- that Church's outstretched hand blocked the punt.

"I thought he (Burns) took a little long to get it away," Beamer concurred in his post-game press conference.

The Hokies had their moments on special teams, most notably a 38-yard kickoff return by Richard Johnson in the third quarter that set up a 55-yard TD by Andre Davis, but they failed to get anywhere close to a punt block. FSU freshman kicker Xavier Beitia was 3-for-3 on field goals (50, 47, and 35 yards). All the Hokies got out of their special teams was a 36-yard field goal by Carter Warley.

It all added up to FSU outscoring Tech 16-3 either directly (field goals) or indirectly (TD scored off of punt block). That's a 13-point advantage for FSU, and guess what? The Hokies lost by 13 points.

Hanging Close … With the Passing Game?

In the third quarter, the Hokies outscored Florida State 14-3, and the Hokies did it primarily with a passing game that went 4-5 for 106 yards in the third quarter alone.

Tech opened the third quarter with a strong 9-play, 71-yard drive for a TD. The drive featured passes of 30 yards to Davis and 22 yards to Terrell Parham, and it was finished off by five straight rushes that covered the last 20 yards. Kevin Jones scored on a 5-yard option play behind perfect blocks from Jarrett Ferguson and Slowikowski, who sealed off no less than three Seminoles by himself.

"We got fired-up up front," Noel said. "I hit a long one to Andre, Terrell made a great catch and run on one, it was just a good drive. We ran the ball fairly well. We did that about a month ago (against Miami), and I told the guys, we've got to come out in the second half and do what we did a month ago. That's what we came out and started to do."

Later in the quarter, Tech went up 17-13 when Davis turned another crossing route into a 55-yard touchdown.

"We (Richard Johnson and Davis) were high-lowing the linebackers," Davis said in describing the play. "I guess it was a little bit of crossing, where the corner, if he was following me, would have to go over the top and Richard could take his safety deep. We got them when they were blitzing, and that opened up the middle and gave me a chance to run with the ball."

Of the crossing routes, two of which he caught for 106 yards, Davis noted, "We've had it in the game plan for a while, but I guess it was a different defense we were going up against."

But the one incompletion the Hokies had in the third quarter hurt. It came after Rix and Maddox botched a handoff and fumbled the ball on the FSU 31 with the scored tied 10-10. Noel dropped back to pass on first down and missed an open Browning Wynn, who was running open around the FSU ten-yard line. Noel threw perhaps his worst pass of the game, the ball landing in the dirt well short of Wynn. Noel was sacked on the next play, and the Hokies couldn't even get into field goal range.

Big Plays by FSU Seal the Deal

Then came the fourth quarter. It looked like a slugfest, both teams trading punches and heading to the wire.

Yeah, it looked that way in the Sugar Bowl two years ago, too. Just like back then, the fourth quarter turned out to be the time for FSU to flex their big-play ability and pull away.

FSU wideout Javon Walker lit Tech cornerback Ronyell Whitaker up for 3 catches, 150 yards, and 2 TD's in solo coverage during the fourth quarter. First Walker ran by Whitaker down the sideline for a 77-yard TD, then he caught a 50-yarder behind Whitaker, and then he toasted Whitaker for a 23-yard TD to end the scoring.

The first TD is one to haunt the Tech defense. Tech rover Kevin McCadam blitzed and flattened Rix on the play, but Rix managed to launch the ball high in the air, where a wide-open Walker hauled it in and outran Whitaker to paydirt.

"The first one was a sight adjustment," Whitaker explained. "We were bringing the heat, and I was up in press coverage. He (Rix) checked off, but I couldn't tell where he was checking. If I had known he was checking deep, I would have backed up. I got too close, and he (Walker) just got past me.

"They made a second half adjustment. In the first half, I was coming up and getting my hands on them a lot, jamming 'em. In the second half, he saw me coming to jam him, and he gave it a little side-step and a backup, so he could go around me."

On the second and third passes, however, Walker simply ran by Whitaker, who didn’t accelerate with him and was badly beaten.

"When he caught the first one," Whitaker said, "I was like, 'Oh, here we go again. Here we go again. Bobby Bowden is back.' I kind of went over to the sideline, you know, jawing a little bit, telling him (Bowden) to come my way. He gave me the nod, like, 'It's coming.' And it came. It came heavy."

Whitaker was philosophical about his performance. He took the blame for the loss on himself, and said, "I feel like I played solid the whole season, and I thought that I would come in and play a solid game. It happened last year in the Gator Bowl, but it didn't work out that way."

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster was exasperated. His defense let him down at key times this year, and Whitaker's failure to cover Walker was perhaps the biggest shock of the day for Foster.

"They're going to throw it down the field," Foster said of Florida State. "That's their nature. There were a couple of times where we were in zone coverage, and one of the main things there is, you don't let a guy get behind you. That's not what we coached, and that's not what we did in practice. Those are the things that drive you nuts, from a performance and execution standpoint."

But it wasn't just the big plays that hurt the Hokies. With 5:22 to go and holding a 23-17 lead, the Seminoles took possession on their 22-yard line. They handed the ball off to tailback Greg Jones five straight times, and Jones unexpectedly rung up 54 yards on those rushes, against one of the best run defenses in the country. The Hokies were giving up just 71.6 yards per game coming in, second in the nation, and Jones nearly got that in just four rushes (his fifth straight carry of the drive actually went for no gain).

Jones' first two runs in the drive went for 23 and 22 yards. "It looked like one time our whip overpursued, and in another one, he got blocked out of the gap. It just came down to execution," Foster explained.

The fourth-quarter collapse (206 yards and 17 points) ruined what had been a very solid defensive effort by Tech. FSU only had 224 yards of offense in the first three quarters. The Hokies had battered Rix all game long and had played good, tight coverage. But no one will remember that. They'll remember Whitaker getting beaten and Jones romping through the Hokies like they weren't even there.

"I thought our defensive line played very well," Foster said. "Even on a couple of those throws, Rix was getting hit as he was throwing the football. I thought our defensive line played, for the most part, very well. Where I was disappointed was our back end. We didn't play as well as we had in our earlier games, against a comparable group of receivers. But again, my hat goes off to Florida State, because they executed. They did, and we didn't."

Hitting the Hokies Where They Live

It's one thing for Florida State to hit a couple of long pass plays. You expect them to do that.

But for the Hokie players, coaches, and fans, it's disappointing to see them whip the Hokies in special teams and in the running game.

The special teams advantage FSU enjoyed over Tech has already been documented, but they did it in the running game, too. Florida State held Tech to just 43 yards on 40 carries (1.08 yards per carry). Meanwhile, they ran for 104 yards on 39 carries of their own (2.67 yards per carry), including 6 carries for 55 yards in the final drive.

Before the final drive, the Hokies were doing a good job stopping the run. Jake Houseright in particular met Greg Jones time and time again at the line of scrimmage, stuffing him for a short play or no gain. Before the fatal last drive, the Hokies had limited FSU to 49 yards on 33 carries. They held Rix to his first negative rushing game (12 carries for minus-19 yards) all season.

The Seminoles trumped the Hokies on two critical fourth-down plays, both in the fourth quarter:

  • Down 20-17 with 4th and one at the FSU 32, Kevin Jones was stopped off-tackle short of the first down. Bryan Stinespring explained that in the booth, as the Hokies were stopped on third down, the Hokie coaches thought the fourth down yardage was going to be a yard or less. They called the play, the officials spotted the ball … and it was more like one and a half yards to go. It was too late to call the play back, they went with it, and it didn't get the yardage.
  • Up 23-17 and facing 4th and inches on the Tech 24 yard line, Florida State went for it. That wasn't a smart call, given that their field goal kicker is one of the hottest in the country, and he could have easily staked them to a two-score lead with less than three minutes to go. FSU called a quarterback sneak, and a generous spot from the Big Ten officiating crew gave them the first down. On the next play, they scored the clinching TD.

When it came to power football, the 'Noles simply outplayed the Hokies. FSU defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was a terror, as expected, clogging up the middle and even adding two sacks of Noel to his total of five tackles. The Hokies found very little running room all day long.

Florida State gave up 126 rushing yards per game this year, and the Hokies came in averaging 194.7 yards per game. Tech, on the other hand, came in giving up just 71.6 yards per game, against an FSU offense that averaged 159.6 yards per game. But come game time, Tech was unable to press what should have been an advantage for them in the rushing game.

Miscellaneous Notes

  • Nathaniel Adibi was playing well until he got slowed down by an injury, and Jason Lallis wound up getting some playing time at defensive end for the Hokies. "Jason got in there when Nathaniel Adibi got banged up," Foster said. "Nathaniel was having a great game, and he ended up getting nicked up in the neck and head. We're excited about Jason. He's got a chance to be a great football player for us."
  • Mike Daniels had a great game for the Hokies, leading them with 7 tackles, including two sacks and another tackle for losses totaling 17 yards. He recovered the FSU fumble in the third quarter. Beamer praised him after the game, but also said he's too light (at 185 pounds) to play whip linebacker right now. He is also inexperienced at the position, both of which were evident on Greg Jones' 23-yard run, when Daniels first took the wrong attack angle and then was outmuscled to the corner by Jones.
  • The Hokies entered this game with 76 penalties for 739 yards, the most penalties since an undisciplined 1992 Hokie team went 2-8-1. Tech only had 4 penalties for 30 yards in this game, but they were costly penalties (a holding that nullified a TD and another holding that erased a long shovel-pass gain for a first down). At least two other Hokie penalties were erased when FSU committed offsetting penalties on the same play. The 'Noles were penalized 4 times for 25 yards.
  • Personal opinion: Grant Noel played a pretty good game. If he had played like this all year long, the Hokies would have gone at least 10-1 in the regular season.

Up Next: More Hard Work

Virginia Tech now closes the book on an 8-4 season full of near-misses -- Syracuse (22-14), Miami (26-24), and Florida State (30-17). The team is just a few plays away from being 11-1 instead of 8-4, showing how thin the margin between greatness and mere competitiveness is. The only game where they were soundly beaten was the Pittsburgh game, a hideous 38-7 loss. Other than that, this team was close, very close, to notching double figures in wins.

"I think a lot of guys are spoiled by the last two years," Andre Davis said in the tunnel after the game. "The younger guys realize now, I think, that it's possible to get beat, and not just by Miami. Hopefully, they'll be able to take these games and build on them for next year."

That may be so, but this team loses a lot of key players: defensive tackles David Pugh and Chad Beasley, linebackers Jake Houseright and Ben Taylor, DB's Kevin McCadam and Larry Austin. Offensively, Tech loses FB Jarrett Ferguson, WR Andre Davis, tight ends Bob Slowikowski and Browning Wynn, and linemen Steve DeMasi and Matt Wincek.

Much like this 2001 version, the 1998 Hokies were just a few plays away from being something much better than 8-3. But in 1999, they brought back a large number of key players. This 2001 Hokie team doesn't have that luxury in 2002. They'll need to replace large portions of the middle of the defense and their playmaking receiver on offense.

Bud Foster spoke about his defense. "We've got a good group of guys coming back, and we've got some tough people to replace, inside and at linebacker, but I think we've got some talented young guys there."

Then he added some comments that apply to the whole team. "We played two of the top programs in America (the last two games) and came up a little short. I think that gives an indication of how close we are to becoming one of the premier programs in the country ourselves. I hope that's encouraging. I also hope that our guys see how close we are and start working a little bit harder."

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