by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/19/01
This win had a little bit of everything, and in many ways, it encapsulated the seasons for both teams. But in other ways, it was unique from any game either team had played this year.
The similarities? The Hokies played like gangbusters in the first half, as they have many times this season, and faded in the second half, as they have before. They shut down UVa's running game and handed the ball off to the tailback on 46 of 79 offensive plays.
For their part, Virginia started one QB (Bryson Spinner) and replaced him with another (Matt Schaub). The Cavaliers got down early but never quit. Billy McMullen had over 100 yards receiving (7 catches for 130 yards), and defensively, the Cavaliers were beaten in pass coverage and in the power running game.
The differences? Tech QB Grant Noel put multiple deep balls on target, including perhaps the best pass he has thrown all year; the Hokies blitzed with abandon and registered a season-high total of 6 sacks; a Tech tailback carried the ball over 30 times, and almost 40 times; and the Cavaliers turned the ball over a season-high five times.
Tech's 31-0 first-half burst and a fourth-quarter power running game added up to a 31-17 win that gave the Hokies their third straight win in the series, the first time Tech has done that since taking four in a row from 1980-1983.
Early in this game, turnovers told the tale, and late in this game, Tech's power running told the tale. Let's take a look at a few important turning points and stats from the game.
Turning Point #1
In the early going, both quarterbacks were rattled and couldn't establish anything. Bryson Spinner was sacked on the first play from scrimmage when David Pugh put a spin move on his blocker and forced Spinner deep into the pocket, where a hard-charging Cols Colas was able to sack him along with Pugh.
Noel came under some pressure as well and was unable to get his rhythm, throwing two incompletions to start the game. He had a third pass that was a good one, a bomb to Andre Davis in the end zone, but Davis was interfered with and failed to come down with the ball.
The first break came on UVa's second possession, when a blitz by Ben Taylor and Kevin McCadam led to Taylor knocking the ball from Spinner's hands. McCadam got it on the UVa 18 yard line, and two plays later, Noel hit Jarrett Ferguson for a 17-yard TD to put Tech up 7-0.
That sequence was critical not just because it got Tech their first touchdown, but because it put Noel on track. He threw two more incompletions on Tech's next drive, making him 1-5 for 17 yards, but then he went on a tear, hitting 8 of his next 10 throws for 156 yards and two touchdowns.
Turning Point #2
Despite two early UVa turnovers and great field position, the Hokies only got 10 points out of their first three drives. They missed a 32-yard field goal on drive number one (started at the Virginia 47), converted for a TD on drive number two (started at the Virginia 18), and kicked a field goal on drive number three (started at the Virginia 22).
It was 10-0 when the Cavaliers mounted their first effective drive, going from their own 27 to Tech's 21 in seven plays. Despite the huge advantage the Hokies had enjoyed in field position, Virginia was just one touchdown away from making it a three-point ballgame.
But on the eighth play of the drive, Nathaniel Adibi nearly sacked Spinner. Spinner managed to stay up, but with Adibi yanking at his ankle, he threw a very ill-advised pass that Willie Pile picked off at the Tech 8 yard line.
The Hokies uncharacteristically rocketed down the field, going 92 yards in 6 plays and 3:09. Noel underthrew Davis on a bomb, and Andre outleaped Virginia's Jamaine Winborne for a 42-yard catch. Two plays later, Noel hit a diving Davis in the end zone for a 26-yard TD. So instead of a possible 10-7 score, it was 17-0, Tech.
The Hokies later struck on a 58-yard Noel-to-Davis out pattern (perhaps the best-thrown pass by Noel all year long) to make it 24-0, and they converted a muffed punt at the UVa 15-yard line into another TD to make it 31-0. On the muffed punt, it could have easily been called a two-yard "halo" violation on the Hokie defenders, but the referees kept the flags in their pockets.
The Hokies obviously had a more conservative game plan in the second half. Their run-pass ratio in the first half was 25-17, but in the second half, it was 32-7. The coaches' inclination to go conservative was only enhanced by two Tech turnovers in their first five offensive plays. Kevin Jones fumbled on play 4 to give Virginia possession at the Tech 34, and after Willie Pile picked off a goal-line pass and returned it to the Virginia 46, Noel threw his worst pass of the day, an interception that was intended for tight end Browning Wynn but was nowhere near him.
The Hokies picked up just two first downs on four third-quarter possessions, and the Virginia offense started clicking (with the exception of a stop on fourth-and-3 that turned out to be somewhat critical, given the way the game went).
Virginia's Billy McMullen, a key to the game, had 5 catches for 102 yards in the second half, as the Cavaliers outgained Tech 193-137 after the break.
Turning Point #3
Things got tense when Virginia made it 31-17 with 10:53 to go and then pinned the Hokies on their own 8-yard line with the kickoff and a Tech penalty. As has been heavily documented, though, the Hokies went KJ left, KJ right, and KJ up the middle, to the tune of 12 carries for 73 yards in the fourth quarter.
63 of Jones' fourth-quarter yards came in the last ten minutes of the game, and 46 of it came on six straight carries that helped grind the clock down from 10:53 to 5:33, effectively putting the ball game back in Tech's hands. Just as important, Jones' carries turned the field position battle back over to Tech, and the Hokies were able to tee off on a Virginia team that found itself buried on its own 8 yard line with 5:33 to go. Matt Schaub, who had replaced Spinner early in the game, was sacked two times in the last five minutes.
Summing it Up
The four keys to victory for Tech were (1) Virginia turnovers; (2) timely passing by Noel to take advantage of the turnovers (with a nod to Andre Davis for some nice catches); (3) a heavy blitz from the Hokie defenders that made it hard for Virginia to put anything together; (4) hard running by KJ against a UVa defense that doesn't defend the run well.
The Hokies blitzed far more in this game than they had all season, and it paid off in the early Spinner fumble and in creating general havoc in the Virginia offense. Numerous times, the Hokies rushed eight players and left just three back in coverage, and Virginia was unable to make Tech pay with passes to the backs and tight ends.
One first-half rush even featured the ultra-rare corner blitz, with Ronyell Whitaker lining up on the line of scrimmage and rushing the quarterback. The Hokies usually confine their blitzes to the linebackers and Rover, with the occasional free safety blitz.
Jones did quite a bit of ad-libbing on his rushes, particularly in the fourth quarter. He turned a number of rushes that were intended to go up the middle outside. The Hokies have been handing the ball to him deeper in the back field to give him a better look at the defense, and that, combined with a good push off the ball by the Tech linemen in the fourth quarter, gave KJ plenty of room to make his cuts and run.
Jones is also learning to stop cutting and put his head down in traffic to gain the last few yards at the end of a run. For a freshman, he is very hard to bring down, and he is quickly getting acclimated to carrying the ball in college. His blocking is improving, too. Take a look at the 26-yard TD pass from Noel to Davis, and watch KJ pick up a UVa blitzer, get his pads under him, and totally upend him.
Tech running backs coach Billy Hite has said that he will never again give the ball to a running back 40 times a game, as he did with former Tech great Cyrus Lawrence in the early 80's. But the Hokies got close in this game, giving Jones 37 carries (for 181 yards), the fourth-most rushing attempts ever in a game by a Tech running back.
Lawrence carried the ball 42, 40, and 38 times in three games in the 1980 and 1981 seasons. The only performance that approaches Jones' 37 carries in the modern Beamer era is a 36-carry game (for 147 yards) that Ken Oxendine had against Miami in 1997 -- a game in which the Hokies only threw the ball 12 times.
Next Up: The Miami Hurricanes
This was supposed to be the "Big East Championship Game," but somewhere along the line, that went by the wayside. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot at stake for the Hokies and their fans in this one.
Well, okay, this one's mostly for fun now.
More than anything else, this game is a chance for Virginia Tech to do what they've never done: knock off the number one team in the country (assuming Miami takes care of business and defeats Washington this weekend in the Orange Bowl).
I'll return next week with a game preview and prediction.
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