by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 1/7/03
Analyzing this game is a real chin-scratcher. Usually, after looking at a game film, I've got some themes that emerge, but after plowing through three hours of game tape of Tech's victory over Air Force Ö nothing.
Okay, not "nothing." I do have one thought: Why didn't Tech win by more? And I donít mean that from a whiny, the-Hokies-ought-to-blow-out-MWC-teams standpoint. I mean it from this standpoint:
And so on, and so on. If you look at the statistics, Tech didn't dominate Air Force, but certainly, particularly by looking at the key statistics above, you get the impression that the Hokies should have won more handily. As it was, they needed a tackle on the five-yard line as time expired to preserve the win.
And from a subjective standpoint, I expected Tech to win and never felt threatened by Air Force. I know from watching the post-game message board comments that quite a few Tech fans had some Maalox moments, but even after the Falcons jumped to a quick ten-point lead, I thought Tech would win. Yet, there Air Force was, five yards and a two-point conversion away from sending Tech away as losers.
So how did that happen? What kept it close?
We'll take a look at that, but first, let's set the game up a little bit.
The Three "Effects"
For the Hokies, this game suffered from what I like to call "The ECU Effect" (alternately known as "The Southern Miss. Effect," or "The TCU Effect," or a number of other names).
Namely, it was a no-win scenario: if you win, everyone shrugs their shoulders and says, "You were supposed to," but if you lose Ö they do what Loni Anderson once said you should never do to a man: point and laugh.
Kind of like playing ECU, Southern Miss, TCU, et al. For a BCS-conference team, playing those teams is a no-win scenario.
The ECU Effect was compounded by what I call "The Temple Effect." Not to sound ungrateful, but this was a nothing bowl game, played in front of a nothing crowd (25,996, and most who were there agree it was much less than that), in a nothing venue, with a sloppy field, both teams on the same sideline, with bush-league referees, played at night on New Year's Eve, when everyone's out partying, and no one is watching TV.
I call that "The Temple Effect," because it's like playing against Temple in Veteran's Stadium, with about 10,000 fans on hand. It feels like a scrimmage. If you play a football game that no one comes to watch, does it matter if you lose?
The players on the Tech team that went to San Francisco are used to playing bowl games that matter. They played in the 1999 national championship game, they played in the 2000 Gator Bowl and its Michael Vick-inspired media crush, and they played in the 2001 Gator Bowl against mighty Florida State.
The inaugural Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl against Air Force is hard to get up for, after all that.
Here's one more thing that the average fan doesn't think about: media presence. For this game, there wasn't one. No television stations from the Commonwealth of Virginia made the trip; if you saw taped practice highlights and interviews on your local affiliate, it was because ISP did them and sent them back. And there were only about five or six of the regular Tech newspaper beat writers there.
Players notice this. When the media isn't swarming, it contributes to that "nobody's watching" perception.
Lastly, there's "The Vacation Effect." My guess is that after spending the last two years in Jacksonville, which isn't exactly sightseers' heaven, this trip to San Francisco, with its fabled Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, and Alcatraz Prison, probably felt like more of a vacation, instead of a business trip, than any other VT bowl game in recent memory.
If you add all this up -- the ECU Effect, the Temple Effect, and the Vacation Effect -- you've got the makings of, as Coach Beamer warned us, an Upset Special. The favored Hokies had a lot of things stacked against them.
What Kept it Close
Despite all that, the Hokies, as noted in the opening, outplayed Air Force in a lot of ways. But the Falcons jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead and then made the Hokies earn the victory. What happened that prevented Tech from pulling away?
Number one, Air Force made some early plays before the Hokies settled in. They opened with a 47-yard completion on the second play of the game to put the ball on the Tech 28-yard line, picked up another first down with their triple option, then boom, ran it in from the 15 on an end-around. They scored just three minutes into the game.
Number two, the Hokies "was robbed" by the refs. Right after Air Force went up 7-0, Lee Suggs was tackled, and when the ball popped free after he hit the ground, the referees incorrectly ruled it a fumble (I saw a replay of the play -- it was a terrible call). Air Force recovered at the VT 35 and was able to convert it to a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
Late in the second quarter, with Tech facing a second and goal from the Air Force five-yard line, Bryan Randall threw a fade route to Ernest Wilford. Wilford and the Air Force defender both came down with the ball, with Wilford maintaining more control than the defender (a tie goes to the offense, anyway). Wilford's left foot was in bounds at the time of the catch, but he and the defender landed on their backs out of bounds. The refs, faced with a difficult call, made the wrong one, calling an incomplete pass. The Hokies kicked a field goal instead of getting the TD.
Number three, the Hokies didn't make plays. On Tech's first drive after Air Force went up 10-0, the Hokies had third and four from the Air Force 24-yard line. Bryan Randall scrambled and threw to Terrell Parham at the three-yard line, and Parham dropped the pass. Tech had to settle for a field goal attempt, which Carter Warley bounced off the right upright, no good.
Early in the second quarter, on first and ten from the Air Force 34-yard line, Randall hit Wilford in the hands at the goal line. Wilford outjumped the defender on the play, and though it wasn't an easy catch, it is one that he has made at other times this season, most notably against Boston College. This time, he didn't make it, and Tech would later take a sack and not get any points out of the possession.
Number four, Tech converted poorly on third and fourth down, and Air Force converted relatively well. The Hokies went 3-for-11 on third downs and 1-of-2 on fourth downs, for a combined 4-of-13 30%).
Air Force came into the game with a nation's-best (if I remember correctly) third-down conversion rate of 49%. They were also an unbelievable 16-of-22 (73%) on fourth down. In this game, they went 6-of-17 (35%) on third downs, and 4-of-5 on fourth downs, for a combined 10-of-22 (45%).
The Falcons extended some drives with conversions, while the Hokies struggled mightily to convert on third downs. The simple act of converting third downs can have a big effect on the outcome of a game, as we learned during the 2001 Syracuse game, when the Orangemen controlled the game in the second half by converting third downs against the Hokies, during an otherwise dismal offensive day for the Orange (220 total yards).
If you go back and look at items 2 and 3 (bad calls by the refs and VT not making plays), and you play the what-if game, you can see that this game, like many games, could have easily had a very different outcome:
As it was, it was just 10-10 at half time. All else being equal in the second half, in which Tech outscored Air Force 10-3, the final score could have easily been 38-10, Hokies. It's not likely that all else "would have been equal," because strategy in the second half would have been very different for both teams.
But you get my point. This 20-13 squeaker was four plays away from being a 38-10 blowout.
I have analyzed a lot of games over the years, and it is true that while football games generally feature somewhere between 125 and 175 plays, you can always take four or five plays and drastically change the outcome of the game by changing the outcome of that small percentage of plays. It's one of the things that fascinates us about football.
Of course, this doesn't even delve into the plays Air Force could have made that would have won the ball game for them, perhaps by as much as 10-14 points or more. I was just explaining how a game that I felt confident the Hokies were going to win wound up being that close.
Some Random Thoughts from the Game
Oops, where'd he go? I thought Tech played Air Force's triple-option fairly well. They did the best job defending QB Chance Harridge, but were a little shaky at times on the pitch man and fullback.
Tech didn't consistently hit Harridge, but there were a few times where defensive ends knifed through to stop him cold and force the pitch, and Cols Colas and Jim Davis both ran him down from behind at different points in the ballgame.
When the ball was pitched to the tailback, he generally had room to run, except for an occasional play where a VT defender would shoot the gaps and take him down. Mikal Baaqee had one particularly impressive tackle where he slashed from the middle of the field through the gaps to take down the tailback. Billy Hardee also played well, with 8 tackles and a team-leading two tackles for loss.
It's worth noting that the one fourth down that Air Force failed to convert -- they were 5 of 6 -- was caused by the slippery field, not the Hokie defense. On a fourth and 2 from the Tech 39 in the third quarter, Anthony Butler took a pitch left and would have easily had the first down, but he slipped and fell around the 40-yard line.
Jimmy Williams ready to step in? The difference in run support between Willie Pile and true freshman free safety Jimmy Williams was remarkable. I didn't pay a lot of attention to it for most of the game, but it really stood out in the last two Air Force possessions. Williams played the next-to-last AF possession, and he roamed from sideline to sideline and hit with authority. Pile played the last possession and pursued tentatively and overran plays. Williams slashed forward and in and made the tackle; Pile ran laterally to make tackles, without advancing up the field.
Williams' case was helped by the fact that he played closer to the line and keyed on the run more than Pile did. Pile lined up deeper and had a longer way to go in run support. This, combined with Williams' more aggressive approach to tackling, made Williams more effective in run support.
Though he is a heady, intelligent player and a playmaker, Willie Pile has never been much of a run defender (case in point: Pitt's Brandon Miree ran through Pile on his game-winning 53-yard TD run this season). He's not a hard, fierce hitter, and though he is NFL-ready in every other way, that could be his Achilles heel.
Williams is more of a slasher, a bigger hitter, stronger, and better in run support. If he has Willie's playmaking ability (it appears he does), and half of Willie's head for the game, then Jimmy Williams is going to be an absolute force at free safety for the Hokies for the next three years. Having a free safety who can play run support is a bonus, one that Tech will get to enjoy while Williams is here.
In short, Jimmy Williams is Willie Pile cranked up to full volume.
Exit Left, Ronyell. Ronyell Whitaker went out on a high note. He made an incredible play to bat away a sure TD pass on Air Force's last possession, and it was he who clocked Harridge on the last play of the game, knocking Harridge backwards and jarring the ball loose.
Whitaker was very nearly remembered as a being a bowl-game goat yet again, though. Four plays after his great knock away of the TD pass, he gave up a 19-yard completion on fourth and 11 that allowed Air Force to have a first down at the Tech 10. Had the Falcons scored to tie the game (or worse), that lapse would have been brought up.
One note on the pass that he knocked down: that play embodied every Hokie fan's dream of the Whitaker/DeAngelo Hall combo. As Whitaker was leaping high to knock the pass away from Air Force's Anthony Park, Hall came in from the opposite side of the field, took the low road, and leveled Park. Even if Whitaker had missed the ball, I'm not sure Park would have caught it, because of the hit Hall laid on him.
In any event, it was a good end to a spotty career, both on and off the field, for Whitaker.
Nice Game by Bryan Randall. Bryan Randall was incredibly accurate in this game. As noted in the opening, he was 18-of-23 for 177 yards, no TD's and no interceptions, and he came within an eyelash of going 21-of-23 for 240 yards and 3 TD's.
That's right -- if Wilford catches the 34-yarder he dropped for a TD; if Parham catches the 24-yarder he dropped at the 3 and scores; and if the referee makes the correct call on the 5-yard pass that Wilford caught as he wrestled with the defender; then Randall would have had three more completions for 63 yards and 3 TD's.
The VT coaches made it possible for Randall to have that kind of a night by calling pass plays that he can complete consistently. Note that he averaged a little less than ten yards per completion, an indicator that they had him throw the short stuff and swing it to the backs out of the backfield. He showed that he can be a very effective passing QB, if the correct plays are called.
That's a Wrap
Thus ends the longest season in Virginia Tech football history, with a bowl game that, in my opinion is what bowl games used to be about. What I mean by that is this game was truly a reward for the players. They got to travel to a place that many of them would otherwise never see, a place that is a true tourist destination. They got to see some sights and enjoy themselves as a reward for their season.
While there, they took care of business. They got a win for their seniors, they notched another 10-win season for Virginia Tech football, and they gave the program momentum going into next year. I've always said that it's reasonable to expect to win 50% of your bowl games, and in their ten-year bowl run, the Hokies have gone 5-5.
Next year, things look bright for VT. Defensively, they return the starting front seven from this bowl game, including 12 of the 14 players listed in the two-deep for the front seven. In the defensive backfield, they return DeAngelo Hall, Garnell Wilds, Eric Green, Vince Fuller, Michael Crawford, and Jimmy Williams.
Offensively, they lose Lee Suggs, Anthony Davis, Shawn Witten, and Luke Owens, plus Terrell Parham and Grant Noel. They return 7 starters and 16 of the 22 players listed on the two-deep, and they will add some offensive linemen, wide receivers, and Marcus Vick to the mix.
In the kicking game, Carter Warley, Nic Schmitt, Vinnie Burns, and Brandon Pace will all be back, though there's no denying that some improvement is necessary at the placekicking spot.
Kudos to the team for a 10-4 season and another bowl win. Winter workouts -- and spring practice -- will be here before you know it.
In TechSideline Pass: more detail on third-down conversions, plus a transcript of and some comments about
that awkward sideline interview with Marcus Vick.