by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 9/16/02
You don't need an official VT game film and one of those fancy coach's clickers to break down this game. This game went the way anyone with a modicum of football analysis skills and access to last year's stats and this year's starting lineups (that would be me, by the way) would have figured it to go.
Pass-phobic team with punishing ground game (VT) meets sieve-like run defense (MU). Special teams power (VT) meets special teams weakling (MU). Stingy defense (VT) meets unbalanced, pass-oriented, spread offense (MU).
The result was predictable, as it is whenever Virginia Tech meets a pass-happy MAC team, like Western Michigan, Central Florida, or, in this case, Marshall. All else being equal, a running team with superior overall talent will almost always beat the passing team with inferior overall talent, particularly when the passing team makes too many mistakes along the way and fails on one too many drives in its "keep up and hope for the best" approach to winning the game.
Marshall could have stayed close in this one, had they played a near-perfect game. It was what they needed. They also needed the Hokies to make some mistakes, commit some turnovers, and have some breakdowns. The Thundering Herd got none of the above, not until it was too late, and the result was a 47-21 beating that was way "out of whack," as Coach Frank Beamer likes to say, before three late Marshall touchdowns made it quasi-respectable.
The Hokies rolled up 395 rushing yards on 66 carries, had no turnovers, and made no special teams mistakes. Marshall tallied 442 passing yards, but had too many drops, three turnovers, and poor special teams play.
It all made for plenty of fun for the 59,000 or so Hokie fans in attendance, but not much fun for the 6,500 or so Traveling Herd fans.
Those Helpful Herd Receivers
There is no question that Byron Leftwich is a great quarterback, one who will get even better over time. He came into the same setting that caused SEC-Champion LSU to unravel just eleven days prior and played with poise and composure. He completed 31-of-49 passes for 406 yards, with at least five drops by his receivers, maybe more. He threw for three touchdowns and had just one interception. In other words, he did his part.
The rest of the Marshall team did not, not even Leftwich's vaunted receiving corps. Curtis Jones, Darius Watts, Josh Davis, and Denero Marriott had 30 catches for 381 yards and two TD's, but each of them failed, in ways both big and small, along the way.
Much like LSU in the prior game, no one from Marshall stepped up and made a play -- or in this case, enough plays -- to keep the game close.
Marshall's first mistake was made by Marriott. On the Herd's game-opening possession, they converted a third-and-13 from their 28 when Leftwich hit Marriott at the Marshall 45. But Marriott was caught from behind by Ronyell Whitaker, who punched the ball loose. The Hokies recovered and turned the fumble into a 3-0 lead.
The next mistake was contributed by Josh Davis on the next drive. The Herd drove smartly down to the VT 5-yard line and had a first and goal from there. On third down from the five, Leftwich hit Davis one yard deep in the end zone, and he dropped it. On fourth down, Marshall placekicker Curtis Head gave a Marshall lineman a free football-laces butt-tattoo when Head's field goal attempt never made it over the line of scrimmage.
Instead of the Herd leading 7-3 or 7-0 or maybe even 14-0, it was still 3-0, Hokies. Tech responded with a 9-play, 80-yard drive, with all 9 plays on the ground, and it was 10-0, Virginia Tech.
On Marshall's fourth drive, after the Hokies had stretched their lead to 13-0, Darius Watts let Leftwich and his teammates down when he dropped a sure TD pass. On first and ten from the Marshall 44 yard line, the Hokies blitzed and left Garnell Wilds in single coverage on Watts. Watts put a move on Wilds and left him behind at the line of scrimmage, only to drop a nicely thrown ball by Leftwich that would have been six.
On the next play, Mikal Baaqee picked off Leftwich at the Marshall 47 and ran it down to the 22. Tech scored in three plays to run it to 20-0.
In just four drives, the Marshall receivers had dropped two touchdown passes and had committed a fumble that the Hokies turned into three points. And if Watts catches that home run ball, Baaqee never gets to pick the next pass off and spot the Hokies their best field position of the night.
In short, that 20-0 score, which wound up being the half time score, could have been vastly different, had the Marshall receivers stepped up and played well out of the gate.
That's how it is for outmanned teams who rely on the pass and go up against mistake-free running teams. If the passing team drops key passes here and there and throws an interception or two, the ball game's over. That's exactly what happened to Marshall. They messed up a few times too many, and this one was over before the Marching Virginians hit the field for the half time show.
Marshall: A Top-Three QB, But a Top 20 Team … ?
Marshall's receivers are quality ballplayers who made some mistakes, and their offensive line is pretty darn good. The rest of the team, however, played like it still belongs in the 1-AA ranks that the Herd left after the 1996 season.
That sounds harsh, but it's true. The Herd run defense, despite gearing up for the run and putting eight or nine men close to the line of scrimmage, still got mowed over by the Hokie running tandem of Kevin Jones (24 carries, 171 yards) and Lee Suggs (24 carries, 153 yards). In their 48 carries -- pay attention, because this is a telling stat -- the Untouchables did not lose yardage on a single down.
As a matter of fact, in 57 carries by the Hokie running backs, only one, a three-yard loss by fullback Doug Easlick in the third quarter, was for negative yardage. Marshall got thoroughly spanked at the line of scrimmage.
In their one chance to shine, the Marshall defense blew it. On Tech's first possession of the third quarter, on third and five from the Marshall 23 yard line, Bryan Randall threw a late pass to the flat. Marshall linebacker Terence Tarpley read it perfectly, cut in front of the pass … and dropped it. 80 yards is a long way to go, but there's a very good chance that had Tarpley picked the ball off, Bryan Randall would not have been able to run him down, and he would have scored with it.
The Marshall special teams were meek and mild, also. Not only did they blow their field goal attempt early in the game, but their kickoff return team was completely ineffective. Marshall's kickoff returns were 9 yards, 12 yards, 6 yards, 21 yards, and 12 yards. That's 5 returns for 60 yards, or a paltry 12 yards per return.
Give credit to the Virginia Tech kickoff coverage team, of course, but 12 yards a return is unreasonable. You can almost run that far with no blocking at all. Marshall barely got a single block for their kickoff returners all night long.
One area where Marshall did do well was punting. Curtis Head doubles as their punter, and he averaged 49 yards a punt on three kicks. Plus, he got his punts off like the ball was scalding hot, not giving the Virginia Tech punt block team a chance to get wound up.
But overall, Marshall is only half a team, or less. Ranking them in the top 20 is a questionable move, simply because their defensive line can get blown off the ball so easily. Their offense can keep them in games with a lot of good teams, but that defense and special teams …
VT Pass Pressure
The Hokies' mandate was to pressure Byron Leftwich, and statistically it would appear they were less than successful, accumulating just two sacks, one by Tim Sandidge and one by Nathaniel Adibi. And those two sacks got a big assist from good pass coverage.
In watching the tape, the Hokies relied mainly on their front four to apply pressure, and Marshall's offensive line did a much better job of holding off Tech's defensive line than LSU did the game before. Virginia Tech blitzed occasionally, perhaps ten to fifteen times in Marshall's 56 pass attempts, and it simply wasn't effective. The Herd did a good job picking up the blitzes, and Leftwich did a good job getting rid of the ball.
Leftwich's interception wasn't even the result of a blitz. The Hokies rushed four, and tackle Jason Lallis dropped back off the line, either by design or because he was getting manhandled by the guard blocking him. Lallis stepped in front of Marshall tight end Jason Rader and cut off the passing lane, and Leftwich threw the ball to an open spot in the middle of the field, perhaps hoping that Rader would slide over to that spot.
The problem was that, unseen by Leftwich, Tech middle linebacker Mikal Baaqee was occupying that spot. At least, I hope for Leftwich's sake that he couldn't see Baaqee, otherwise, it was just a terrible pass.
There was a lot of message board discussion comparing the play of Ronyell Whitaker and Vince Fuller, the converted safety who filled in for Whitaker while he was suspended for games one and two. For this game, the two were on the field together again. Whitaker forced a fumble but was beaten for several other receptions, including a TD, while Fuller made a couple of outstanding plays but was also beaten for a touchdown.
On Marshall's first eleven drives, Whitaker was in for six of them, and Fuller was in for the other five. On one of Whitaker's drives, he had an injury or equipment problem (it was not clear), and Fuller subbed for him, so the two of them got roughly equal playing time.
After Whitaker knocked the ball free from Marriott on the first possession, it was all downhill from there for Ronyell. On Marshall's second possession, he was beaten for a 38-yard reception by Curtis Jones. On Marshall's fifth possession, Darius Watts beat him for a 24-yard catch. On Marshall's tenth drive, Marriott scored a TD in the corner of the end zone, with Whitaker arriving very late, too late to do anything about it.
Marriott ran by rover Michael Crawford on the play, with perhaps some miscommunication between Whitaker and Crawford as to who was responsible for Marriott -- only the VT coaches can say. But the casual football fan watching will blame the TD on Whitaker.
Fuller came in for the first time on Marshall's third series and immediately had a positive impact. He covered Watts tight downfield on one incompletion, then knocked the ball away from him on a third down pass that would have been a first down. When Whitaker went out on Marshall's fifth drive, Fuller substituted and made a great play in the end zone, knocking a sure touchdown pass away from Marriott.
It wasn't all sunshine and roses for Fuller, though. On Marshall's sixth drive, Leftwich completed a deep sideline route to Watts, and a stumbling Fuller missed the tackle. Watts turned it upfield and would have scored, had his momentum not carried him out of bounds. And later on, it was Fuller who was twisted around and beaten for Marshall's second TD by Brad Bates.
Statistically, Fuller had a slightly better game, with three tackles and two pass breakups. Whitaker had one tackle and forced a fumble. Fuller gave up fewer completions and had more positive plays. His emergence at cornerback has been a pleasant surprise and is one of the main reasons that the VT defense has gelled early and played well.
Eric Green, who is redshirting this season after suffering a knee injury, would probably be a better corner than Fuller this season, if for no other reason than experience. But the dropoff in going from Green to Fuller has been much less than anyone would have expected. The tradeoff is that the Hokies are thin at safety, where Fuller used to back up Willie Pile. Pile has been pulling the lion's share of the snaps for the last two games, with true freshman Jimmy Williams spending most of his time on the bench. Williams didn't play safety at all against LSU, and if he played against Marshall, it was very little.
Up Next: College Station and Texas A&M
Isn't this fun? After facing LSU and Marshall in key nationally-broadcast games and rocketing up to #7 in the country, the hits keep coming, as Virginia Tech travels to Texas to take on the Aggies of #21 Texas A&M. It's like looking in a mirror, as the Aggies boast a stout defense (#1 in the country against the run) and an offense that, like VT's, isn't viewed as the most balanced and potent unit around.
This one will be a big test for a young Tech team that so far has been impressive at home. How will they fare on the road, in a hostile environment? We'll return later this week with a preview.