by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 12/11/02
It was just three short years ago that Virginia Tech capped a five-game winning streak over the Miami Hurricanes by battering them 43-10 in Blacksburg. The Hokies did it that night without much of a contribution from Michael Vick (11-23 for 151 yards, 14 rushes for 46 yards, and 0 TD's), instead mauling the Canes with defense and special teams.
While no reasonable Hokie fan felt that VT would keep beating the Canes forever, they were secure in the knowledge that Virginia Tech could go toe-to-toe with the Hurricanes, man-to-man, and not get embarrassed. After all, for five straight years, Tech had been doing just that, and had been fortunate enough to win all five.
After a Vick-less, Andre Davis-less, blowout win by the Canes in 2000, Tech once again gave the Canes a good shot in 2001, playing them straight up, before losing 26-24, in a game in which Grant Noel had more turnovers (5) than completed passes (4). Hokie fans felt that if Tech had gotten just a half-decent effort from the QB that day, they could have made it 6-out-of-7 over mighty Miami.
But now … now, it looks like the gap might be widening in favor of the Hurricanes. For a long time.
Take pride in Virginia Tech's 45 points, the most scored on Miami since 1998, when they beat UCLA 49-45. Take pride in how the Hokies stormed back from a 49-21 deficit to outscore the Canes 24-7 for the remainder of the game. Take pride in Tech's ability to still put up big plays on the Canes, particularly in special teams. And take pride in the performances by Bryan Randall (297 yards total offense) and Ernest Wilford (6 catches for 68 yards and a TD).
But realize also that this game was never in doubt. The Hurricanes controlled both lines of scrimmage, completed long passes seemingly at will, dominated Tech with their rushing game, and got so bored at one point that they tried an ill-advised halfback pass to their lanky, non-athletic quarterback. When it was 49-21, the Canes weren't even taking the Hokies seriously anymore, and it's doubtful whether they did the rest of the way, as they seemingly coasted to victory.
The Hurricanes are now a class above Tech, perhaps two, and the Hokies' five-game winning streak is a distant memory that really ought not to be referenced anymore (so I won't).
But all is not bleak. While winning streaks are a thing of the past, Virginia Tech can still beat the Hurricanes, and there was evidence in this game of how and why Tech can do it.
This game analysis will focus on why the Miami offense dominated the Hokies, why their defense didn't, and various other topics and notes. Over in the TSL Extra supplement, we'll break down exactly what Bryan Randall was able to do scrambling with the football (he put up astounding numbers), and exactly what a lousy day DeAngelo Hall had in pass coverage.
Doomed From the Get-Go
I think Virginia Tech lost this game in their first five possessions. In their first five possessions, the Hokies punted twice, scored one TD … and fumbled twice.
Meanwhile, Miami punted once and scored four touchdowns in their first five possessions. That made the score 28-7, and with tailback Willis McGahee running the ball the way he was, there was no way Tech was going to come back from a three-score deficit.
Although the Canes were scoring easily at that point, they weren't having to go very far to do it. Their first four TD's were on drives of 21, 42, 70, and 35 yards. That's right, they started three possessions on the Tech side of the field. The first came as the result of a 43-yard punt return by Roscoe Parrish that put the ball at the Tech 21-yard line, and their second and fourth TD's were short drives kicked off by Hokie fumbles in Tech territory.
Virginia Tech is used to getting a slow start against Miami. Even during the winning streak -- there I go, talking about it again -- Miami led three of those five games early. But what Virginia Tech absolutely cannot do, while they're getting their feet wet and figuring Miami out, is start forking the ball over and giving the Canes a lot of points early on.
Particularly not these days. During the streak -- oops, pardon me, can't seem to get away from it -- Miami could be counted on to do two things: (1) run the ball ineffectively; and (2) turn the ball over.
From 1995-1999, Miami averaged just 106.8 rushing yards per game against the Hokies, and they turned the ball over three times a game. In return, the Hokies rushed for 209.2 yards per game and turned it over just three times total in all five games (0.6 TO's per game).
In this game, Miami outrushed the Hokies 256-192, and Tech had 3 turnovers to Miami's 2. If you're falling behind a team 28-7, and then letting them run all over you, and you're losing the turnover battle … well, this game was exciting, but it was never in doubt.
Miami's run dominance came not so much from gaping holes cut in Tech's defensive line as it did from poor tackling. Sure, Willis McGahee had some big holes to run through, but he also ran over and through a lot of Hokies, Mikal Baaqee in particular. Even when the Hokies corralled McGahee in the backfield, they were unable to completely stop his forward progress. If he wasn't breaking tackles outright, McGahee often dragged tacklers (notably Baaqee and whip linebacker Mike Daniels) for an extra 1-3 yards after contact. In plays that come to mind immediately, he picked up one first down and one touchdown after being hit behind the first down marker and behind the goal line, respectively.
Getting It When They Need It
Miami just toyed with the Hokies, and whenever they needed a play offensively, they got it. They converted 9 of 13 third downs, an astounding 69%. Of their 13 legitimate drives (drives that were not ended by the clock expiring in a half), they scored on eight of them, punted just three times, and turned it over twice.
What was most depressing -- and it has been since November 2nd against Pittsburgh, really -- is how the Hurricanes ran the ball, particularly on third down. Miami ran the ball on third down five times and picked up four first downs, failing only when they ran it on a third and 15 and picked up just five yards.
The symbol of their dominance over Virginia Tech's defense was their game-clinching, 11-play, 56-yard drive that put them up 56-37, after the Hokies had closed to 49-37. On that 11-play drive, Willis McGahee ran the ball nine times, picking up 32 yards and two first downs. Miami passed only when they felt they really needed to, throwing to Andre Johnson for 13 yards on third and 7, and for 11 yards and a TD to Kellen Winslow on third and 7.
They ran it down Tech's throat for two first downs, and threw for a first down and a TD like it was nothing. That made it 56-37 and notified Virginia Tech that their little big-play extravaganza, which had gotten them back into the game, wouldn't be enough.
Hokie Offense Clicks
While Miami dominated Virginia Tech offensively (556 yards on 68 plays, or 8.2 yards per play), they didn't exactly shut the Tech offense down. The Hokies had 364 yards on 72 plays, or 5.1 yards per play, and they converted a snappy 8 of 14 third downs. On Tech's 14 possessions, they scored six touchdowns, kicked a field goal, punted just four times, and turned it over three times.
The Hokies ripped off three impressive drives throughout the game: 14 plays, 73 yards; 15 plays, 80 yards; and 9 plays, 93 yards. And the Canes never put in the scrubs. This was against their starters.
Much had been made of Miami's relatively weak rush defense, which came into the game giving up 3.8 yards per carry, and had surrendered 194 yards to Pittsburgh, 363 to WVU, and 296 to Florida State. So many people expected Tech to have great success with Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones running the ball.
But that's not how it went. Jones (4 carries, 1 yard) and Suggs (15 carries, 55 yards, 3 TD's) combined for just 56 yards. Instead, the day was ruled by quarterback Bryan Randall, who rushed for 132 yards on 25 carries and went 15-of-26 passing for 165 yards and a TD. His 297 yards of total offense represented 82% of Tech's yardage on the day.
In short, offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring put the game on his QB's shoulders. The Hokies eschewed the power running game, going instead with an option game and some QB draw, plus a short passing game that featured the running backs and Ernest Wilford.
This is in direct contrast to earlier in the year, when it was run, run, run, up the middle, middle, middle, with very little effort made to disguise plays or spread the ball around. Earlier in the season, Virginia Tech didn't ask Randall to carry the burden, but in this contest, it was the game plan.
Miami plays their safeties deep, so I didn't expect the Hokies to throw much deep or down the middle, and they didn't. Instead, what they often did was line up in a four-wide set, spread Miami out, and use their receivers to clear out the middle (sometimes, Tech would line up in the I-formation and use play-action to pull the linebackers in towards the line). This freed up Randall to either run the ball or hit his backs out of the backfield, and either way, there was plenty of room to work. Overall, it was a well-thought-out game plan that worked well …
… except that Randall is fumble-prone. He had two in this game, and they were costly, leading to Miami touchdowns. Of Virginia Tech's 24 offensive fumbles on the year, Randall has 12 of them, or half -- Kevin Jones has 8, Lee Suggs 3, and Richard Johnson 1 (note: Johnson is credited with two fumbles on the year, one on special teams against Syracuse, and one against Western Michigan. It's not clear if the WMU fumble was on special teams or on offense, so it is credited as an offensive fumble here).
Randall's fumble total sounds alarming, and it is, given that he has carried the ball just 163 times to 238 by Suggs. But it's not the worst Tech has ever seen. By comparison, in the 2000 season, Michael Vick had 13 fumbles in just 104 rushing attempts. Randall fumbles once for every 13.6 carries (including sacks), and Vick fumbled once in every 8 carries. Yikes.
But back to the game plan. Bryan Stinespring has improved by leaps and bounds as an offensive coordinator just since the Pittsburgh game. He's not the greatest coordinator around, and there's still a big question as to whether he can coach the offensive line and be OC and do either one effectively, but there is no question that his offense looks ten times better than it did earlier in the season.
If you draw a line right after the Pitt game, VT averaged 31.4 points per game before and including Pitt, and 31.5 after Pitt, but the quality of the playcalling appears to have improved dramatically.
In this game, the Hokies completed 10 passes to the wideouts for 119 yards, and 6 passes to the running backs for 53 yards, including one beautifully-executed swing pass to Cedric Humes for 26 yards. When VT threw to the backs, they were generally wide open, with plenty of room to work, and that's an indicator of a good play call.
The one thing missing in the passing game was the tight end, and I'll admit that I don't know if that was because they were being used to block, or if they were being used to clear out linebackers, or if they were in patterns and just weren't getting open. With the safeties playing deep, tight end down the middle isn't a good option, and that's why you didn't see that.
In the running game, the Hokies used the option and QB draw effectively and stayed away from running power football over and over. Randall kept some on the option and pitched some, and although he didn't run it as well as he did against WVU, he did run it well.
When the Hokies went to the up-the-middle rushing game, they did fairly well with it, because they weren't relying solely on it. Overall, Tech had 192 yards on 45 carries, or 4.3 yards per carry, and that includes sack totals. Not too shabby.
Reading all this, you would think the Hokie offense tore the Canes up. Frankly, they did much better than I thought they would, and they held up their end of the bargain. They had three long scoring drives, and in the ultimate test of an offense, they went 6-for-6 in the red zone (5 TD's, 1 field goal).
I'll take 38 offensive points against the Miami Hurricanes any day. The 45 total points are the most VT has ever scored against Miami, and the 38 offensive points are also the most-ever against Miami.
About Those Big Plays….
With the score 49-21 and the Canes perched on the Hokies one-yard line early in the third quarter, this one was threatening to get extremely ugly. Tech had three turnovers to zero for Miami at that point, and that, combined with the Hokies' complete inability to stop the Miami offense, had everyone wondering just how bad it would get. 56 points for Miami? 63? 70? More?
Then the Miami offensive coordinator got stupid. In an attempt to create a SportsCenter moment for Ken Dorsey, Miami's OC brought tailback Jarrett Payton into the game and called a halfback pass to the skinny Heisman candidate. Dorsey pitched to Payton to the right, went running to the left, and Payton threw a pass back to Dorsey that couldn't have floated higher if it was filled with helium and had a string attached to it.
Tech's Willie Pile read the play like the top line of an eye-doctor's chart, cut in front of Dorsey, picked the pass off, and rolled 96 yards for a TD to make it 49-27, instead of 56-21.
CNN/SI covered that play in detail in a great article called Halfback-pass debacle could cost Dorsey the Heisman. In that article, Miami players reveal that that play is called "Heisman," because it is intended to create a Heisman moment for Dorsey. The most comical line in that article is this one:
But the Canes didn't, and that play opened the door for the Hokies to make the game look respectable. It gave a little life to the Hokies and took the air out of the Canes.
That was Tech's second big play of the game -- Richard Johnson's 91-yard kickoff return with the Hokies down 28-7 was the first -- and it led to more big Tech plays. After the Hokies forced a rare Miami punt, DeAngelo Hall took it 71 yards from the VT 11 to the Miami 18, and only a leaping ankle-tackle stopped him from scoring. The Hokies converted that punt return into a field goal, their only red zone "failure" of the day, and that made it 49-30.
Then on Miami's next possession, a rare VT blitz pressured Dorsey into throwing an interception to Ronyell Whitaker. Whitaker made a great cut on the ball, stole it from the gut of the Miami receiver, took it down the left sideline, and -- thinking that Andre Johnson had been blocked by Mikal Baaqee, and sensing his own SportsCenter moment -- he slowed up for the cameras and made sure to turn towards the Miami sideline and no doubt talk a little smack on his way to the end zone. Johnson, who had shed Baaqee's block like McGahee was shedding Baaqee's tackles, ran Whitaker down from behind on the Miami 9-yard line.
(An aside: If you're of the mind that Whitaker was doing something other than coasting and trash-talking, then you need to take another look at the tape. Watch him visibly slow down, carry the ball carelessly, and stare at the Miami sideline for a full 10-15 yards. He should have easily outrun Johnson to the end zone.)
Suggs saved Whitaker's bacon by scoring on the next play. That made it 49-37, and the Hokies had scored 16 straight, quick points.
At that point, the turnovers had almost evened out; VT had 3, Miami 2. This is as close as the game would get, and the only difference was that Miami's offense had been more efficient than VT's. The two teams had traded one VT turnover for a UM touchdown, and that was essentially the difference in the game.
Then Miami flexed McGahee, scored another TD to go up 56-37, stuffed the Hokies on their next possession, and that was it. Tech added another "meaningless" TD with under two minutes to go for the final margin.
Can VT Close the Gap?
In some ways, this game was close, but in other ways, it wasn't. All else being equal, Tech's complete inability to stop Miami's offense is what settled this game.
Admittedly, the Hokies were simply unable to meet McGahee in the hole and stop him in his tracks. But the real problem Tech had is that Miami's awesome offensive line once again dominated Tech's defensive line. The Hokies had no sacks and didn't pressure Dorsey much at all, and it goes back to the defensive line.
Nathaniel Adibi, Cols Colas, and Jim Davis had two tackles among them -- two. In all, Tech's defensive linemen made just 13 tackles (Darryl Tapp's one tackle was a special teams takedown). By contrast, DeAngelo Hall had 13 tackles by himself. VT's linebackers and defensive backs had 56 tackles. Only one D-lineman placed in the top eight tacklers (Jimmy Williams with five), and that's a sign that you're getting thoroughly whipped at the line of scrimmage.
For the Hokies to have a chance to beat the Canes in the coming years, Tech's defensive linemen need to get back to being able to make tackles at the line and pressure the QB. The Hokies have sacked a Miami QB just once in the last three games, and we're not talking a mobile QB here.
Offensively, I like what the Hokies showed here. The offense was able to move the ball, they just turned it over too much. But I like the way Stinespring and company attacked the Miami defense, and unless the Canes change philosophy (fat chance), the Hokies can build from this.
Tech doesn't have to match Miami player-for-player, and as a matter of fact, never will. All the Hokies need is what they had from 1995 to 1999 -- good line play. The rest can be settled with good coaching, good execution, and a few breaks, which Tech certainly got their share of during The Streak -- oops, sorry, there I go again.
Is Miami way ahead of Tech right now? Yep, but that doesn't mean the Hokies can't get a win over the Canes here or there. They almost did it last year.
Now, about beating Syracuse, WVU, and Pittsburgh … that's a whole 'nother matter entirely, and something to be dealt with another time.
TSL Extra Supplement
In the TSL Extra supplement to this game report, I'll talk
about two things, one good, one bad: Bryan Randall's awesome day scrambling with the football, and DeAngelo Hall's
not-so-awesome day in pass coverage.