by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 10/22/02
Saturday, 42-point favorite Virginia Tech "only" beat Rutgers by 21 points, 35-14. By their own admission, the Hokies lacked intensity in this game, and that, combined with some key mistakes and timely plays by the Scarlet Knights, combined to leave many Hokie fans feeling upset, despite the victory.
Me, I'm not one of those people. Any football season will involve many twists, turns, ups, downs, injuries, and breaks, both good and bad. Things will go for the Hokies and against the Hokies at different times, and ultimately, the goal is simply to win, not necessarily to win by a lot.
With margin of victory removed from the BCS computer polls, a 2-point win over Rutgers counts just as much as a 42-point win over Rutgers. Only the human pollsters care about style points these days, and this game wasn't on TV, so the AP and Coaches' polls didn't notice that Tech put forth a sometimes-lackluster effort.
That's not to excuse poor or sloppy play, and not to discredit Rutgers, but remember, these are young men we're dealing with here, and they won't always bring maximum intensity for 60 minutes, particularly when the opponent doesn't scare them.
An undefeated season is never comprised solely of blowout victories. Even the 1999 Hokies had off games, eking out 22-20 a win over a West Virginia team that would finish just 4-7, and giving up 427 yards passing in a 30-17 win over Pitt.
Sometimes closer-than-expected victories over big underdogs are the products of mistakes, lack of focus, turnovers, or just freak plays. This game involved a little bit of everything, keeping it close.
A Drop in Intensity
"We got up 21-zip and just relaxed," Lee Suggs candidly admitted to the Roanoke Times. "We were thinking about how we're going to cruise, keep scoring touchdowns and have the second team in there by halftime."
Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but you could see this coming earlier in the week, after Virginia Tech's Tuesday press conference. Wednesday's papers were full of offensive tackle Anthony Davis' descriptions of his basketball exploits at the press conference, as well as a few quotes from Davis, Pile, and Suggs talking about the Miami/Florida State game the week before. The focus on Rutgers obviously wasn't completely there, which is understandable.
You can pick the very play where the Hokies, up 21-0 at the end of the first quarter, let their guard down and opened the door for this to become a game. It came early in the second quarter, on a Rutgers punt, when Knights punter Mike Barr boomed a 54-yarder, forcing VT's DeAngelo Hall to backpedal to his 22 to field it. Hall, despite being ten yards away from the nearest defender and at least twenty yards away from the second-closest defender, called a fair catch. It was an uncharacteristic play from the aggressive Hall, leading many to wonder if the fair catch was his decision, or if he was ordered to do it before he even stepped on the field.
In the next few plays, the Hokies had a beautiful 33-yard completion to Kevin Jones called back because of an illegal man downfield, Bryan Randall was flattened by Rutgers defensive end Raheem Orr, and Ernest Wilford bobbled a pass that the Knights' Brandon Haw picked off at the Tech 35 and returned to the 24.
The Hokie defense held, but then on fourth and ten, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano made the right call at the right time, faking the field goal. The Knights pitched to Sean Canty, who motored down to the 12-yard line, and after an incomplete pass, RU QB Ryan Cubit and wide receiver Aaron Martin executed the perfect pitch-and-catch for Rutgers' first score.
The fake field goal was a great call, because the Hokies were so intent on blocking the kick and preserving the shutout. Normally, a team will guard against a fake when they're up by three scores and backed up deep in their own territory -- the thinking is, it's better to give up the three points than try to block it, fall prey to a fake, and give up more. But that's not Tech's style on special teams, and Rutgers took advantage of it.
In just five minutes, the Hokies were victims of a lack of intensity/aggressiveness (Hall's fair catch), a lack of focus (illegal man downfield on a big gainer, giving up the fake field goal), and a turnover.
Later on, Tech victimized by another turnover, followed by a somewhat freakish play. Holding a 28-7 lead, the Hokies turned it over deep in their own territory when a late Bryan Randall pitch on an option was dropped by Lee Suggs. Rutgers recovered at the Tech 36 and scored a few plays later, on a 31-yard pass from Cubit to Markis Facyson.
The pass was a desperation third and 17 heave. Cubit threw the ball into pretty heavy coverage, and I watched DeAngelo Hall close on the ball and coil himself for what looked to be an easy interception or knockdown. There were a number of players in the end zone, but Hall was by far the best athlete there, and he was zeroed in on the ball.
But as he got ready to leap, a Rutgers receiver crashed into him, knocking him off line, and all he could do was bat the ball. It floated to Facyson, who caught it and fell to the turf.
A turnover, followed by a tipped ball, and Rutgers had their second TD.
Rutgers only had one decent drive the whole game, a 17-play, 73-yard clock-eater (nearly 9 minutes long) that took them all the way to the Tech 8-yard line, where they faced a fourth and 1 with less than 12 minutes to go and Tech up 28-14. Had the Knights put the ball in the end zone, it would have been a one-score game, but the Hokies got aggressive, called a blitz, and Mikal Baaqee sacked Cubit, ending the drive.
Other than that, Rutgers was not good offensively, just opportunistic. Tip your hat to them, because the two times they had the ball in Tech territory, they cashed in. No other Tech opponent had cashed in on a Tech turnover this year, and Rutgers did it twice. Not only did the Hokies turn it over an uncharacteristic three times in this game, but they failed to hold defensively when they did.
Offensive Line Woes
The Hokie offensive line is definitely struggling the last three games. You can forgive them for struggling against Texas A&M's great defense, but against Western Michigan, they themselves admitted to playing poorly and without focus, resulting in difficulties running the ball. They followed that up with five penalties against Boston College: three illegal procedure penalties, one offsides, and a false start.
Against Rutgers, they committed the critical illegal man downfield penalty mentioned above, plus a whopping five holding penalties (one of which was declined). And they gave up four sacks to a Rutgers team that only had six sacks coming into this game.
The O-line's worst series came in the third quarter, with Tech holding a 28-14 lead. The Hokies drove to the Rutgers 19 yard line and had a first down, but in the next seven plays, the Hokie offensive line committed two holding penalties and gave up two sacks. The sacks came on consecutive plays, and on the second one, Randall was blindsided by Raheem Orr, causing a fumble. Fortunately, Jon Dunn, who was trying to chase Orr down from behind, was johnny-on-the-spot to grab the fumble. The sacks pushed Tech out of field goal range, where they were forced to punt. You can hang the failure of that drive on the Hokie offensive line.
It's not as if this Tech football team is bulletproof. They're young, and they've got their soft spots, but without a doubt, the biggest detriment to a possible undefeated season is the inconsistent, mistake-prone play of the offensive line. Their run-blocking is at times outstanding, but they continue to be average pass-blockers, and they're still very vulnerable to a blitz.
Many facets of this Virginia Tech team are improving as the season goes on, but the offensive line is arguably not improving. Inconsistent blocking is one thing, but committing five penalties a game and killing drives, if it continues, could cost the Hokies dearly at some point.
Anatomy of a Tight Game
In a nutshell, several things contributed to this game being tighter than expected, with the main factors being: Tech turnovers, an opportunistic Rutgers offense, and inconsistent offensive line blocking.
On the Bright Side (A Whirlwind of Stats)
Tech's tandem of Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones, "The Untouchables," continue to make a name for themselves nationally and drive towards 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Suggs now has 781 yards, and Jones has 632, putting them both easily within reach of the 1,000-yard mark. If they pull it off, it will be the tenth and eleventh time it has been done in Tech history, and Suggs and Jones will be the only Tech duo to ever do it in the same season. Suggs will be the third Tech player to do it twice, joining Roscoe Coles and Cyrus Lawrence.
Jones' reverse-field 42-yard TD was named the third-best play of the week by ESPN and is the kind of thing that Hokie fans have gotten used to seeing from number 7, be it Jones or former QB Michael Vick. Suggs, meanwhile, had seven rushes over ten yards: 11 yards, 17, 42 (the goal line got in the way on this one), 30, 13, 21, and 35.
As a team, the Hokies have 1,782 net yards rushing this season, and thanks to the 13-game schedule, they're on course to shatter the team rushing record of 3,076 yards set in 1975. If the Hokies keep up their 254 rushing-yards-per-game pace, they'll gain 3,309 yards this season, which will also break the Big East record of 2,975 set by the Hokies in 2000.
In the passing game, Bryan Randall was very sharp in this one. He went 11-for-15, with two drops and a throwaway, and his one interception was a ball that was tipped by his own receiver first. The 33-yarder to Jones that was called back was a perfectly-thrown ball, and in general, Randall's passing was nearly flawless.
In the playcalling department, according to my count, the Hokies called a pass play on first down an astounding ten times in the first half. On those plays, Randall was 8-for-10 for 111 yards and a TD, though it must be noted that two of those passes, the 33-yarder to Jones and a 23-yarder to Wilford, were called back because of holding penalties. So what went in the books was 6-for-8 for 55 yards and a TD on first down, in the first half alone.
Tech's eight sacks on the day were another bright spot, led by the defensive line, who had six of them. Friday's TSLMail talked about how the Hokie defensive ends had 16 sacks on the season going into the Rutgers game, and Cols Colas and Nathaniel Adibi each had another sack, giving the DE's 18 for the year. With seven sacks on the season, Adibi has the highest single-season total since Corey Moore had 17 in 1999.
Colas and Adibi continue to shine not just in sacking the QB, but in applying pressure in the form of QB hurries. Colas and Adibi led the Hokies with 17 and 15 QB hurries respectively in 2001, and this year, they already have 15 and 11.
DeAngelo Hall's door-slamming punt return for a TD was a clutch play by a clutch player. Hall caught the ball, took a couple of steps, and then exploded up a seam to the left for the TD to put the nail in the coffin on this one.
Speaking of players making plays, true freshman safety Jimmy Williams showed us what he's about with his goal-line interception. Williams has some learning to do, but I have a feeling that down the road, he will be a Willie Pile-caliber playmaker, with more physical size and ability to back it up.
Every great season -- okay, I'll say it, every undefeated season -- requires at least one game where luck gets involved (the 1998 Tennessee Volunteers will tell you it takes more than one lucky break). Had Rutgers been a more talented team, they may have made this one even closer than it wound up being. Hokie fans would find themselves thinking they had dodged a WVU-1999-style bullet, instead of grousing that they lost $100 because they bet a 42-point spread that the Hokies didn't cover.
Intensity, focus, and execution will ebb and flow throughout a season, and when you have the talent that Tech has, the key is to have your luck match up favorably with those ebbs and flows. This is one of those games where some things went awry, most of which were Tech's fault, but some of which were simply luck (the good bounce on Facyson's TD) or good playcalling and execution on the part of Rutgers (the fake field goal).
The Hokies got the win. That's the key thing. The only big red flag at this point is the offensive line play, which, if it's going to be inconsistent, needs to be good at the right times and poor at the right times. They were very good in crunch time against Boston College, when it was critical, and they were sloppy and mediocre at times against Western Michigan and Rutgers, but it didn't kill them.
Thirteen games is a long, long season, and the important thing is that the Hokies got the W and a gentle reminder not to leave a crack for their enemies to bust through and not to leave things up to chance.
Next up: Temple, at 1 p.m. Saturday in Lane Stadium. The game will not be televised by anyone in any way, shape, or form.