by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 9/24/01
As Virginia Tech plows its way through a weak September schedule, Hokie fans, coaches and players alike find themselves picking apart every little flaw in their team, fearing a December matchup with the mighty Miami Hurricanes that is still over two months in the future.
In a 50-0 victory, the worries that are surfacing are a measure of how far the program has come, and how unchallenging the month of September is to this team. As the team takes care of business, so far outscoring their three opponents 133-10, all eyes are on the future, and Tech fans are asking the question, "Is this team good enough to beat Miami?"
That's a valid question, and at this point, most reasonable Tech fans would agree that the odds would be with the Hurricanes, if the two teams were to meet today. Miami's team is almost bullet-proof, whereas the Hokies have displayed a spotty running game, a passing game that has shown no ability to go farther than 25 yards downfield, and a quarterback that is learning on the job.
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, the Hokies and Miami don't meet "today." Both teams must wade through October and November schedules full of potential minefields, more so for Tech than for Miami. The Hokies have road trips to West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and a resurgent Virginia team to deal with, as well as a home games with Boston College and Syracuse. And no one, least of all #15 Florida State, appears to have the guns to stick with Miami. If the Hokies can negotiate their way through the next seven games without a loss, it's almost a mortal lock that two undefeated teams will meet in Lane Stadium on December 1st.
Till then, the trick for Tech is to keep improving ... and keep winning.
As the wins mount for the Hokies, their strengths (namely, the defense) are given passing acknowledgement, and the perceived weaknesses and areas of inexperience are analyzed in fine detail.
This game analysis will concentrate on areas where the Hokies came up short against Rutgers, but it is not intended to sound like a negative report. It is meant only to highlight the areas where Tech can, and some say must, improve as the season goes on.
Let's start with the ever-popular subject of quarterback Grant Noel.
Thanks to a statistically impressive performance (17-22, 164 yards, 4 TD's, 0 INT's), Noel is now sixth in the nation in passing efficiency. For the season, Noel is 46-67 for 575 yards, 8 TD's, and 0 INT's.
Having completed his third game as a starter, Noel looks just like a guy with only three games experience under his belt. The good news is, his mental execution has been very solid, at least to this layman's eye, but the bad news is that his physical execution has been inconsistent.
I have been impressed with Noel's grasp of the offense. He gets the ball snapped on time, he makes the right reads, he audibles out of trouble, and he hasn't turned the ball over in three games. Noel only has one fumble, against UConn, and hasn't thrown any interceptions this season.
He did throw one awful pass against the Knights, an ill-advised pass into the left flat that should have been picked off and returned for a TD, but such mental mistakes are rare on Noel's part. Of course, he hasn't been under much pressure -- Tech quarterbacks have only been sacked twice.
His physical execution, on the other hand, comes and goes. His screens and dump-offs to the fullback (Jarrett Ferguson has 7 catches so far this year) have been almost flawless, but by contrast, he has not thrown a good deep pass yet, in three attempts that I can recall. In between, his mid-range slant passes have been good at times, sometimes very good, but behind the receiver at others. And his curl patterns, mostly to Shawn Witten, have been very good.
It is obvious that the coaches are going with a controlled passing game this season, one that looks very different to me than Tech passing offenses of the recent past. The "new" passing offense includes slant patterns for both the receivers and the tight ends, as well as passes to the fullback out of the backfield. These elements are being used more this year than in recent seasons.
Tight ends caught 12 passes in the regular season last year; this year, they have already caught 6 (Slowikowski 3, Willis 2, Wynn 1). Fullbacks caught 11 passes last year; this year, they already have 11 catches (Ferguson 7, Briggs 3, Easlick 1).
Meanwhile, Noel has thrown three "bombs" that I can recall: one to Witten in the Western Michigan game (not even close), and two to Andre Davis in this game (one woefully underthrown, and a second that was much closer, but Davis was interfered with, and the ball was too far inside for him to reach it).
I don't think it's any stretch to say that the long passing game needs continued work, but it's also obvious that the coaches, to this point, are de-emphasizing it. My guess is that they're working to Noel's strengths (short passing game, ball control offense) and away from his weaknesses (deep ball accuracy).
One need only look at the fact that Noel is averaging 22.3 attempts per game, in around three quarters worth of work per game, to see that the passing game, in particular the short passing game, is now a bigger part of the Tech offense.
By contrast, Michael Vick only threw the ball 16.1 times per game last year. But of course, Vick ran it from the pocket often and was sacked more often than Noel, resulting in many of Vick's passing plays turning into rushing attempts. Still, I think the larger point -- that the short passing game has been integrated into the Tech offense -- holds.
For all the hand-wringing over Noel's inability to throw the deep ball thus far, he has made some very nice throws that have been overlooked. He threw a down-and-out to Ernest Wilford that was sharp, and his TD pass to Keith Willis was rifled into tight coverage as Noel was hit by a defensive lineman. He also completed a short pass to Davis in the face of a nine-man rush. Yes, he did make one or two poor throws, but he has flashed some ability. And zero turnovers in three games, no matter how weak the competition, is a stat to build on. Noel has come a long way since the day Vick said he was entering the NFL draft (heck, he has come a long way just this fall), and he continues to get better as he plays more.
The performance of Tech's rushing offense, or lack thereof, in this game was unexpected and alarming. The defensive line and linebackers are not Rutgers' strong suit defensively, so the Hokies were expected to roll over the Scarlet Knights with the rushing game. Statistically, Tech did well, running the ball 46 times for 223 yards (4.85 yards/carry), but a close analysis of the stats reveals a not-so-rosy picture.
Out of Tech's 46 rushing plays, 25 of them (54%) went for 2 yards or less. And 156 of Tech's 223 yards were accumulated on just 8 rushes, meaning that the other 38 runs gained only 67 yards, or a paltry 1.76 yards per carry.
Another way to say that is that if you scrape off the top 17% of Tech's rushing attempts, the other 83% of Tech's running plays averaged less than two yards per carry.
An examination of the game tape doesn't fully answer the question of why. I can offer three contributing factors:
The coaches can, and probably will, shed more light on the lack of a running game after they analyze the films, but those are my theories.
Up Next: Central Florida
Tech's sleepy September is almost over, and so far, the Hokies have managed to escape it unscathed. Their last test of the month comes in a home game against Central Florida this Saturday at noon (the game will be shown on Florida's Sunshine Network and will be tape-delayed on Fox 21/27 out of Roanoke, at approximately 4 p.m.).
Last year, in one of the most boring games in the history of college football, the Hokies rolled UCF (note: not CFU), running 61 times for 313 yards (and passing just 8 times, completing 2 for 55 yards). With Michael Vick out, backup QB Dave Meyer was injured in the game, and Grant Noel came in to hand the ball off 20 straight times, without throwing a single pass.
UCF had 362 yards passing in the game, but they killed themselves with four interceptions and two lost fumbles, one of which was returned for a TD by Nathaniel Adibi.
I'll return with a game preview later this week.