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Game Analysis: Pittsburgh
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/5/01

Click here for TSL's Game Recap

Well, the cat's out of the bag now, isn't it? And now that it is, it's not going to go back in. As the old saying goes, fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

There's something about Pittsburgh that just brings out the worst in the Hokies, and in this game, anyone watching got a heavy dose of the bottom of the Hokies' barrel. Tech was truly inept on offense (just 8 first downs, only 151 yards, and a meager 15 yards rushing) and powerless on defense, and they got treated to a classic butt-whipping the likes of which they haven't seen since North Carolina laid it on them 42-3 in the 1997 Gator Bowl.

For Hokie fans who were around before 1999, this game and last week's Syracuse game have dredged up memories of the 1997 tank job the Hokies pulled. Back then, Tech was 4-0 and ranked #12 in the country, riding high before a series of injuries slowed them down and a shortage of talent at key positions was exposed. That team spiraled into free-fall and finished the year 7-5 overall, absorbing three straight thrashings to end the season: 30-23 to Pitt, 34-20 to Virginia, and the Gator Bowl loss.

That 1997 team simply came unglued, and by the end of the season, their own shadows could have beaten them by three touchdowns. This 2001 team is also in danger of coming unglued, and the similarities between the two teams are striking and unnerving, if you're a Hokie fan.

This game also brought up memories of the 1998 Syracuse game, which was previously thought to be the pinnacle of Hokie offensive ineptitude. In that game, a memorable 28-26 loss in the Carrier Dome, Tech had 152 yards of offense (76 of which came on one play) and produced only 6 first downs, including a big fat goose egg in the second half.

This game rivals that one in terms of the lack of offensive firepower. In this contest, the Hokies only had 8 first downs and 151 yards of offense. In 1998, Tech only had 35 passing yards against the Cuse, and Saturday against Pitt, they only had 15 rushing yards. I could go on and on citing similarities, but I won't.

Doomed from the Start?

It wasn’t apparent early on that the wheels were going to totally fly off the Hokie wagon, but I'm sure you had your suspicions. The Panthers came out looking sharp on offense, and they moved the ball well, although only one of their first four drives was a scoring drive. The Panthers had 12 first downs and over a hundred yards of offense in the first quarter, while the Hokies only had 16 yards and zero first downs.

But as the game wore on, it looked like Pitt was getting into its offensive rhythm. Their deep passing game sputtered early, so they threw passes out to the flat, matching up R.J. English with smaller VT cornerbacks who were laying ten yards off the line of scrimmage. In their first three offensive series, the Panthers ran three such plays, and English broke tackles by Larry Austin and Garnell Wilds to turn the short passes into 8, 27 and 15 yard gains. He later caught another sideline pattern, broke a tackle by T.J. Jackson, and rambled 27 yards.

These were four short passes that should have netted five yards apiece, at best, but they went for a total of 77 yards. And more importantly, they opened up the deep passing game down the middle for the Panthers. Their first and third touchdowns came on balls thrown straight down the middle, and the second came when English beat Garnell Wilds down the sideline.

But this all took until the second quarter to fully develop. In the meantime, the Hokies got just one first down in their first five drives, and then they turned it over twice, on a fumble by Noel (when he was hit from behind on a passing play) and an interception by Noel (after Tech had driven deep into Pitt territory late in the first half).

At that point, it was 24-7 Pittsburgh, and you knew with the way the Tech offense was playing that a comeback was unlikely.

Offensive Breakdown

So why the anemic start from the Tech offense, and why the punchless offensive performance in general? The answer lies in play-calling and execution.

By now, every team that watches Tech film knows that the Hokies have no deep passing game, so they're not a threat to go downfield with the ball. That enables the opposition to stack the line, with 8 or 9 players in the box, defend the run, and blitz like crazy (because Noel has no mobility in the pocket).

In my opinion (granted, it's not backed by years of coaching) you beat those defensive calls by working the perimeter of the defense and using misdirection in both the passing game and running game. You don't beat it by running up the middle, into the heart of the defense, and yet, that's what the Hokies did.

Tech started their first four drives off with runs up the middle or off-tackle on first down, and those four runs netted just 11 total yards. The Hokies were left with 2nd and 5, 2nd and 8, 2nd and 9, and 2nd and 7, and they converted none of those situations into first downs.

On Tech's fifth drive, they started off with a sideline pass to Andre Davis for 9 yards, and they converted that into a first down. On the sixth drive, they went back to running it up the middle (for four yards), and Noel fumbled when he was sacked on a 3rd and 3.

Given that the Hokies don't have the passing game to stretch a defense vertically, then they must resort to stretching the defense laterally -- flanker screens, backs out of the backfield, and sideline patterns. Ball control offense with a short passing game against a stacked defense is possible, but you must execute. And the Hokies didn't.

I charted the game, and by my chart the Hokies never completed more than two passes in a row. When you consider that many of the passes Tech threw were flanker screens, passes to the flat, short curls, and passes to the back in the flat, that stat is stunning. When you're turning in a day of 15 yards rushing, the passing game needs to click a lot better than that.

You can also stretch a defense with the running game, by running around the corners, using the option and the toss sweep. When a defense is stacked in the middle close to the line, all it takes is one good block on a toss sweep for a talented running back like Kevin Jones, and he's off to the races.

But the Hokies never gave Jones or Keith Burnell a chance to get around the corner. Other than an end-around to Davis late in the second quarter, Tech did not run to the corners at all in the first half and did not run a single option or toss sweep until the third quarter. That play came with about ten minutes to go in the third quarter, and the Hokies lost 10 yards when Noel threw an option pitch behind Kevin Jones.

Misdirection helps to slow down a blitzing defense as well. Screen plays (such as the double-screen the Hokies run, which is usually successful) are good at taking the steam out of a defense, and when you're known for running the football, play-action on second down and third and short is helpful to freeze the linebackers and free up the passing game.

Lining up under center and executing a convincing fake will keep the linebackers at home and buy valuable time for a passing play. Lining up an immobile quarterback like Grant Noel in the shotgun simply invites the defense to come get him, particularly when you don't run the draw out of the shotgun.

Lining up under center also allows your QB to take a quick three-step drop and hit the tight end or wide receiver on a slant pattern, on a "hot read" that is made when the quarterback and receiver read a blitz by the defense. But as has been discussed ad nauseum over the years, the quick slant doesn't appear to exist in the Virginia Tech offensive playbook. The Hokie passing game generally does not work the short middle of the field, and that allows opposing linebackers to vacate that area and blitz without being punished.

So there's the Hokie offensive futility in a nutshell: no threat of the deep ball, repeated handoffs up the middle into the teeth of the defense, a complete lack of misdirection to slow down the defense, and bad execution in the passing game. The game plan and execution allowed Pittsburgh (and any team the Hokies face) to tee off on Grant Noel.

Vanilla Offense

This is nothing new. These have been characteristics of the Hokie offense for years. I talked about them three years ago, after the 1998 Syracuse loss. Nothing has changed. Having Michael Vick as a quarterback and Andre Davis as a credible deep threat (plus a very good offensive line) masked Tech's offensive problems in the 1999 season and for part of the 2000 season, but now they're vulnerable again. And Big East coaching staffs that have seen the Hokies' offense over and over throughout the years know how to defend it.

Contrast that with the Pittsburgh offense, for example. The Hokies have seen it for years and years and still can't defend it.

This Tech offense is not complex in its philosophy. They run between the tackles, stretch the defense with the passing game, and run between the tackles again. Occasionally, they rare up and burn the defense with a bomb … if the quarterback can throw it. The option is used sparingly, but it must be well-executed when it is run. And the short passing game to the middle of the field doesn't exist -- most of the passing plays are to the perimeter.

Like all offenses, Tech's scheme requires a good offensive line and a good quarterback to be successful. Right now, the quarterbacks simply aren't good enough. Noel isn't completing the passes (neither is backup Bryan Randall). The young offensive line isn't playing well, either, but it's hard to critique the performance of an offensive line that is often faced with 8-man rushes on passing plays and 9 men in the box on running plays. The offensive linemen have been self-critical, and that's admirable, but they're outmanned and ill-equipped to respond.

The quarterback that runs this offense must be a redwood tree with a gun, as Jim Druckenmiller was, or he must be an escape artist with a gun, as Michael Vick was. Noel has neither Druckenmiller's (nor Vick's) arm nor Vick's legs, and in the Hokie offense, his shortcomings reduce the effectiveness of the O drastically.

If Noel was throwing more accurately, it might not be as much of a problem, but the accuracy he showed against Connecticut in game 1 has deserted him. In his first six games, Noel was 89-140 (63.6%), 1141 yards (190 ypg), 10 TD's, and 3 INT's. In his last two games, he is 30-61 (49.1%), 280 yards (140 ypg), 1 TD, and 2 INT's.

The worst part is, there is no silver bullet for the Hokies' offensive woes. This situation isn't going to magically clear up overnight. Noel will not suddenly start firing 65-yard strikes or breaking containment and running for 30-yard gains. The hope lies with the coaches, who I think must show more variety in their play-calling, particularly with the running game and short passing game. The hope also lies with the players, who must execute better in the short passing game.

And Bryan Randall is not going to leap off the bench and rip off his jersey to reveal a big "S" on his chest. If he was better than Grant Noel, he would be playing right now. In his post-game radio comments, Coach Beamer was asked "the Randall question," and he responded that Grant Noel was going to remain his starting quarterback.

Defensive Shortcomings

While the offense is eerily reminiscent of the 1997 offense, the defense is too, in one key aspect: pass rush, or the lack thereof.

In 1997, the Hokies were breaking in a young defensive line, and they registered just 35 sacks as a team, the lowest total in the Beamer bowl era (1993 to the present) until last year's 28 sacks. As a result, the Hokies weren't a very good defensive team in 1997. They also had some injuries and some young secondary players, and that hurt them.

By contrast, since 1995, the Hokies have registered at least 46 sacks each season, with the exception of 1997 and 2000.

The ghost of 1997 is now revisiting the Hokie defense. Through 8 games, Tech has 20 sacks, which means they're on course to register just … 28 sacks. Most fans had expected to see an improved pass rush this year as last year's young defensive line matured, but it hasn't happened.

The Hokies had three sacks against Pittsburgh, which is so-so, but more telling is the QB Hurry statistic. Tech has totaled 78 QB hurries in 8 games this year (nearly 10 per game), including such gaudy totals as 13 against WVU and 11 against Boston College. Against Pitt? Just 3. Pitt quarterback David Priestley stood in the pocket unmolested all day long and fired away, and the results were expected and devastating, par for the course for a Tech game against Pittsburgh.

The defensive backs are better now than they were then, but Pittsburgh showed that without a pass rush, even good DB's are vulnerable to tall, talented receivers like R.J. English and Antonio Bryant.

Much like the 1999 game, in which Anthony Midget and Ike Charlton were injured, resulting in Larry Austin and Ronyell Whitaker being thrown into the fire, the Hokies were forced to work without Eric Green and Larry Austin in this game. Ronyell Whitaker did well covering receivers, but Garnell Wilds, who saw significant playing time, was abused by English on a sideline touchdown pass and missed assignments on other plays.

Whip linebacker T.J. Jackson, who had been playing well, missed tackles and assignments in this game.

Back to the subject of the pass rush, I don't anticipate that this current crop of players will be able to produce two pass rushers like Corey Moore and John Engelberger, who propelled the 1998 and 1999 defenses to such great heights. But it's early in their careers, and with the exception of junior Lamar Cobb, all of the Tech defensive ends are sophomores or younger.

The only adjustment that could be made here is to start Jim Davis over Nathaniel Adibi, and probably Cols Colas over Lamar Cobb. But as much as the Hokies rotate defensive linemen, and as much playing time as Davis and Colas see, that's not likely to make a world of difference. But still, Davis is the best pass rusher and should be on the field more. If he just makes one more sack and one more QB hurry per game, it could be the difference between a loss and a win.

Time to Dig In

Forget about Pasadena, and forget about the Gator Bowl. This team is now in a dogfight to salvage the season. The Hokies haven't lost 3 games in-conference since 1993 (even in 1997, they went 5-2), but with Miami coming to town on December 1st, that is now a distinct possibility.

In 1997, I recall working hard to look for the silver lining as the team slid into a tailspin. It wasn't until UNC blasted them 42-3 in the Gator Bowl that I finally fessed up to just how bad that team was by the end of the year, by Tech football standards.

This time around, there's no putting a happy face on it. Unless the coaches make some adjustments that will allow the offense to have more success (and based on today's BeamerBall.com comments, adjustments are being considered) and until the players get the fire back in their bellies, it's time to just dig in and take it (pardon the expression) one game at a time.

In a Roanoke Times article the day after the game, the Pittsburgh players accused the Tech players of quitting in the second quarter. The team obviously needs leadership, and in his most recent Kroger Roth Report, play-by-play announcer Bill Roth said the Hokies will get it:

"This team will not pull a 1997 el-foldo. There's too much leadership in that senior class. Coming off two tough losses, you'd like to have guys like Ben Taylor, Larry Austin, Jake Houseright, David Pugh and Chad Beasley on your side. They'll be back."

But is that leadership at the right positions? On the Hokie football team, the players who can take over a game -- and who are therefore best positioned to demonstrate that elusive quality known as leadership -- are the defensive ends, quarterback, and tailback. The defensive tackles, linebackers, and cornerbacks, while key positions, cannot control a game like the other positions I just listed. And at those other positions, the Hokies do not have senior leadership.

Leadership is not shown by flapping your mouth. It is shown by making plays and setting an example. If the players Roth listed can make some plays and lead by example, it will help. But they are typically not the players best positioned to make those plays, and make a lot of them, as is required right now.

A Look on the Bright Side

Having said all that, Hokie fans, lighten up. The Tech coaching staff has not suddenly turned into a bunch of idiots, although I sure would like to see some activity, and some changes, in the offensive philosophy and play-calling. If Frank Beamer has shown one thing, it's the ability to learn from his mistakes, like the wide-tackle six, and improve the team.

Only time -- and the next three games, plus a bowl game -- will determine if this team can bounce back this year, or if they are indeed stuck in a 1997-style "el-foldo." But let me point out the obvious and say that after 1997, the Hokies posted three of their best seasons ever. They'll bounce back at some point, it's just a question of when. The coaching staff, players, and fan base are too good for this team to stay down for long.

The past two weeks have clearly shown that this team is not championship caliber. We suspected as much, and Syracuse and Pittsburgh proved it. I'm sure your expectations have been suddenly and brutally lowered, but as I pointed out last week, sometimes, it's just not your year. That's the case for the Hokies this year, and probably next year, as well. They need to find and develop a quarterback who is a playmaker, and next season, they'll need to replace too many key players in the middle of the defense -- and they'll have too tough of a schedule -- to realistically entertain national championship thoughts.

So pace yourself, and don't forget to enjoy the ride. That's my advice, anyway; whether or not you take it is up to you.

Next Up: Temple

Ah, yes, the Owls. Back in 1997, in a road game at Temple, a 2-0 Hokie team that had outscored their opponents 90-22 went to Philadelphia and struggled, winning just 23-13. Temple fumbled twice deep in Tech territory, or the result might have been different.

At the time, Hokie fans took that game as an aberration, and a 50-0 whipping of Arkansas State the next week that took Tech to 4-0 masked the problems that '97 team had. Those problems were exposed the very next week by Miami of Ohio in Lane Stadium, and that started the slide.

This year, the Hokies have a chance to get back on track, at least temporarily, against a senior-laden Temple team that was supposed to do well but has instead been a disappointment, posting a 2-6 record.

I'll return later this week with a game preview.

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