by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 10/29/01
There are a large number of obvious reasons why the Hokies lost this game, and if you take a look under the hood and tinker with some statistics, you can find some not-so-obvious ones, too.
The blame for this loss, if it must be assigned, is nearly all-inclusive for the Hokies. Their offense was stuffed, their defense missed chances to make critical third-down stops in the second half, their special teams committed numerous mistakes, and their coaching staff mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half and made very few adjustments to try to mount a comeback, particularly on offense.
But blame is not necessary, particularly when there's so much of it to go around. The Hokies and their fans would be better off realizing that Tech didn't come to play, Syracuse did, and the Orangemen walked out with a well-deserved victory. They took care of the ball and executed in the clutch, and teams that do that earn the win.
Let's take a look inside this loss, first at the obvious reasons and then at some of the not-so-obvious reasons. Then we'll try to figure out what it means and where the Hokies go from here.
The Obvious Stuff
By now, the numerous critical plays and calls that led to the Hokie loss have been well-documented. Here's a list (probably not all-inclusive):
If you're looking for a recounting of blown calls by the refs or a discussion of whether Ronyell Whitaker made a mistake by hitting the receiver on the interference when the ball clearly wasn't catchable, you won't get it here.
I also won't dwell on the question of Grant Noel's play, and whether or not it was satisfactory (I thought he did fairly well and delivered some clutch throws in the third and fourth quarters, but then again, he didn't escape a sack all day, and he didn't turn nothing into something all day).
Those topics are popular among Hokie fans right now, so there's plenty of discussion about it (some of it very volatile) going on. I'd rather highlight some different things that go towards explaining how Tech lost this game, and how Syracuse won it.
Under the Hood
If you look beyond the horror show of plays listed above, you can find a lot of other reasons why Syracuse won this game.
Number one, the Orangemen controlled the line of scrimmage. They beat the Hokies in the trenches, and the best way to point this out is to compare what the teams did on second down.
On second down? Yes, on second down. Sure, the Hokies surrendered some critical third down conversions to Syracuse (more on that later), but what Syracuse and Tech did with their second-down plays, most notably their runs, says a lot about this game.
Watching the game live, I felt as if Syracuse was running the ball a lot on second down, regardless of yards-to-go, and was picking up big gains, particularly on second and long. On the other hand, the Hokies appeared to be squandering second and short quite a bit.
A detailed observation of the game tape supports that theory. I noted five instances where Syracuse had 2nd and long (8 yards or more), and ran the ball for either a first down or third and short:
Against a good Hokie defense, second and long is usually as big a death sentence as third and long, but Syracuse, as noted above, was pretty successful on second and long throughout the game. Syracuse ran 16 times on 20 second-down plays. That shows very little variety or imagination, and yet, they were able to execute anyway, because they were winning in the trenches.
Contrast that with the Hokies. I counted five instances where Tech had 2nd and 3 or 2nd and 2 and did not convert for the first down. Here's the anatomy of their failures:
First and Second Half Comparisons
It's worth noting that three of the second-down failures listed above came in Tech's first four possessions, and all five failures came on Tech's nine first half possessions. Of Tech's 9 first half possessions, 2 ended in fumbles, and 5 ended after Tech was facing a second and short.
It was Syracuse's first-half success on second down, combined with their second-half success on third down conversions (4-8 in the second half, 8-18 overall) that led to the feeling that the Syracuse offense was executing well. It's ironic that Syracuse only had 220 yards of offense, including 41 on a late, meaningless run by Mungro, because it felt more like Syracuse had 400 yards of offense.
It was VT's lack of success on second down in the first half and third down overall (4-13) that led to the feeling that the Hokies couldn't get the plays they needed on offense.
When Syracuse needed to reach deep and make a play on offense, they often did. When Tech needed to reach deep and make a play on offense, Syracuse often reached deep and made a play on defense, instead.
In the first half, Syracuse had 7 possessions (plus the punt return, plus the one-play "possession" where they kicked the field goal). They were three-and-out on 4 of those 7 possessions, had a 4-play drive for a TD, had a 6-play drive for no score, and a 14 play drive for no score. Outside of the 14-play possession, they didn't have much offensive success in the first half.
In the second half, however, Syracuse's first two possessions were 7 plays and 15 plays, and they ate up 10 minutes and 38 seconds of clock, carrying the game into the fourth quarter without giving Tech much chance to score on offense (the Hokies only had 4 second half possessions).
I'm sure that last section was enough to make your head spin, but if you skimmed over it, take a deep breath and go back and read it again. Then we'll take a look at some other points of emphasis.
All done? Here are some things you may or may not have noticed:
Boiling it Down
This game pointed out what most Hokie fans knew, or at least feared. If this Tech team plays sloppy and gets down by two or three scores to a good defensive team, they don't possess the offensive firepower to mount a comeback.
After Syracuse got the gimme field goal to go up 17-0, I was of the opinion that unless Syracuse made some second-half mistakes, the Hokies were more than likely not going to be able to overcome a three-score deficit. Tech came out fired up in the second half and played a lot better, particularly on the offensive line, but their style of offense did not change into something that could score quickly and pressure the opposing team. They burned the clock and eschewed the no-huddle deep into the fourth quarter, and time quickly ran out on them.
Throughout the first six games on Tech's ridiculously easy 2001 schedule, the Hokies had no way of knowing if they were a national championship caliber team. That question has been answered. And the schedule, if anything, helped set the Hokies up for this loss. It allowed them to tank the first quarter against Connecticut and the fourth quarter against Boston College, and still win going away. In this game, they tanked the first quarter against Syracuse, and that was all she wrote.
"The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire," Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni said, implying that the tough schedule Syracuse played this year helped them be prepared, for once, to play the Hokies on the road. He's right. Starting next year, Tech will have more challenging teams on their schedule, but for this year, it took way too long for the first challenge to arrive. And unfortunately, the Hokies failed it.
So, for those who were thinking Rose Bowl, it's time to ratchet down the expectations, truly take it one game at a time, and enjoy the rest of the season and the team. The Hokies still have a good shot at 9-2 and perhaps 10-1, and the Big East championship is still a possibility. If Miami beats Syracuse and Tech beats Miami, the resulting three-way tie will be broken by giving the BCS bowl bid to the highest-ranked Big East team in the BCS standings.
The Hokies are still a Top 15 team (#12 in both polls). They have a little better sense of who they are now, and what to do the next time the going gets tough. Too bad they learned those lessons in a loss, but that's usually the way it goes.
And sometimes, as a year unfolds, "the story" isn't "about" your team. And there is no question that this year, the story is about Syracuse. At one time, it was questioned if they would have a winning record this season. Now they're 7-2 with a road victory over the #4 team in the country. That's news.
Next Up: Pittsburgh
The Panthers finally snapped out of their lethargy and laid a 33-7 whipping on Temple this past weekend. This game will be played at noon at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, and it will be televised on ESPN+/Big East Regional TV. I'll return later this week with a game preview.
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