by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 9/23/02
Turnovers and special teams always matter,and in a titanic defensive struggle, they are magnified three-fold. But when this 13-3 defensive battle is remembered in the years to come, one offensive play will stand out and be recounted.
With the Hokies holding a 6-3 lead and the game still very much in doubt early in the fourth quarter, Bryan Randall read a blitz and hit split end Ernest Wilford with a short pass. Wilford shook off Texas A&M's Bryon Jones and raced 52 yards to Texas A&M's 1-yard line, where Lee Suggs took it in on the next play.
That made it 13-3, Hokies, and although there was still 12:29 to play, everyone knew that the Aggies were done. In this defensive slugfest, a two-score lead was golden, and all the Hokies had to do from that point on was hold on to the football offensively and watch their defense skewer a Texas A&M offense that was forced to do something it doesn't do very well: pass.
The two defenses controlled this game, and although there were four turnovers, each of which could have been crucial, it was a simple hot read of a blitz and a missed tackle that iced this game. Ernest Wilford will never be able to erase the memory of his dropped two-point conversion pass against national-champion Miami last year, but in his effort to redeem himself, he now has one big play he can put on the positive side of the ledger.
The other player whose feats will be remembered is true sophomore quarterback Bryan Randall, whose 10-for-11 performance was the very essence of what Frank Beamer looks for from a quarterback: steady, cool leadership, with no turnovers and a big play at a key time. Randall came of age in one of the toughest places to play in college football, putting to bed a quarterback controversy that has been going on since the Hokies opened spring practice in March. He is now solidly entrenched as Virginia Tech's starting QB.
This win puts the Hokies at 4-0, and other than a particularly optimistic TSL message board poster who likes to scream "WE'RE GOING TO WIN THE MNC!" in nearly every one of his posts, pretty much no one predicted this. Hokie fans, coaches, and players have now squarely set their sights on a 12-0 season heading into Miami on December 7th.
The Gobbling Crew
Texas A&M's fierce "Wrecking Crew" defense received all the attention in the week leading up to the game, which was billed as the Immovable Object (the Wrecking Crew) meeting the Irresistible Force (Tech's Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones).
Theme #2 was the difficulty out-of-conference opponents have had winning at Kyle Field: 29-0 in A&M Coach R.C. Slocum's thirteen-plus year tenure as the Aggies' head coach.
Nobody talked about the Virginia Tech defense that was about to face an A&M offense that was cranking out the yards (352 per game coming in) but not the points (22.5 per game). A&M was averaging a mere 3.3 yards per carry in their first two games and only hitting 41% of their passes, so Hokie fans saw a VT defensive shutdown coming a mile away, but the media didn't talk much about that possibility. They all homed in on the flashy nicknames, talking about the Untouchables vs. the Wrecking Crew.
The Hokies held Texas A&M to 38 yards on 28 carries and 156 yards overall, but exactly how dominating was Virginia Tech's defense? Well, A&M had 95 yards on their first two drives and last two drives; in the ten drives in between, which comprised all of the second and third quarters and some of the fourth, Texas A&M had a mere 61 yards of offense.
That's 6.1 yards per drive. The longest of those ten "drives" was a paltry 17 yards. The Hokie defense held the TAMU offense under their meaty thumb and patiently waited for the Virginia Tech offense to do something. Finally, in the beginning of the fourth quarter, they did, when Randall hit Wilford.
The defensive leader for the Hokies was free safety Willie Pile, who had 10 tackles, an interception with a 17-yard return, and a fumble recovery with a 31-yard return. Pile had a very quiet game against Marshall the week before, and ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit remarked that his name hadn't been called much against the Herd, but added "This isn't his kind of game. Next week [against Texas A&M] will be his kind of game." Bingo, Kirk.
After Pile, the Hokie defensive stars were legion. Kevin and Jonathan Lewis made big plays; Vegas Robinson had a big interception at the Aggie 12-yard line; Nathaniel Adibi had three sacks, two more than he had all last year; rover Michael Crawford shook off a pass interference call and had two tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a sack, and a pass breakup; and Ronyell Whitaker and DeAngelo Hall each broke up two passes.
Turnovers and Special Teams
If there was one area in which these two teams were evenly matched, it was turnovers. Texas A&M was #1 in turnover margin coming in, forcing 12 turnovers and giving up just three. The Hokies were tied for fifth, gaining ten turnovers and giving up just two.
Texas A&M struck blood first in this area when Tech's Kevin Jones fumbled and the Aggies recovered on the Hokie 37 yard line with 9:04 to go in the second quarter. A&M promptly surrendered it back when Pile picked off a tipped pass at the Tech 12-yard line on fourth and four.
In a defensive clash like this, A&M's failure to capitalize on VT's only turnover was costly for them. Tech would respond in kind by scoring just three points off of three A&M turnovers, including two that gave Tech possession inside the A&M 15-yard line.
Tech wasn't able to do anything with Pile's interception. Vegas Robinson's third-quarter interception spotted the Hokies a first down on the A&M 12, and the Hokies fizzled and settled for a 26-yard field goal to go up 6-3. Early in the fourth quarter, after Tech went up 13-3, Pile plucked a fumbled pass reception out of the air at the A&M 38 yard line and ran it back to the 7, where the Hokies were again punchless, and then had a 22-yard field goal attempt blocked.
In all, the four turnovers in the game netted just three points. While each turnover had the potential to be a big play, they all amounted to a lot of nothing.
Tech placekicker Carter Warley took aim at four field goals from 26 yards or closer and made just two, missing a 21-yarder from the right hash and suffering the aforementioned block. Meanwhile, A&M true freshman Todd Pegram was money on his only attempt, a 43-yarder on A&M's second possession that was their only score.
Neither team had a punt blocked, and neither team broke a punt or kickoff return. The longest kick return of any kind was a 23-yard kickoff return by A&M's Terrence Thomas.
In short, in a game that was expected to be decided by turnovers or special teams, neither one had very much of an impact, and it was Wilford's 52-yard catch, which was 30 yards longer than the next-longest offensive play of the day, that proved to be the difference in this tight contest.
Red Zone Execution
The Hokies cracked the A&M ten-yard line five times in this game and converted those five possessions into a disappointing 13 points. They scored one TD, made two field goals, missed a field goal, and had another one blocked.
If you're impressed by Tech's 13-3 win at Kyle Field, try to imagine how you would feel if the Hokies had won it 35-3, because it was possible.
On the surface, it looks like the Hokies got mega-conservative, because they ran ten plays inside the Aggie ten-yard line, and not a single pass was thrown. The overriding image of Tech's trips inside the ten-yard line are a series of runs up the middle and handoffs designed to position the ball for a field goal. Ugh -- Jerry Claiborne offense at its best.
So what happened? Fortunately, the whole point of these game-analysis pieces is to break things down in sometimes-excruciating detail, so you can regurgitate those details to your friends and look like a football guru. Here's what the Hokies did when they had the ball inside the ten-yard line:
Possession 1 (early 2nd quarter, TAMU up 3-0):
2nd and 7, 8-yard line: The Hokies line up in the shotgun, with one running back and a four-wide set. The tailback goes in motion left, leaving Randall alone in the backfield. The ball is snapped, and Randall runs a QB draw for four yards to the 4-yard line.
3rd and 3, 4-yard line: I-formation, two tight ends. Randall rolls right, looking like he wants to pass, but he keeps it and gets hit for a two-yard loss.
4th down: Warley misses the 22-yard field goal from the right hash mark.
Comments: The Hokies mixed it up by spreading the field on first down and trying a QB draw, then rolling Randall out. Texas A&M was simply too quick and too smothering for VT to do anything. On the QB draw, Randall had a small seam, but it closed quickly.
Possession 2 (late 2nd quarter, TAMU up 3-0):
1st and goal, 5-yard line: I-formation, two tight ends. Randall takes the snap, looks left towards Doug Easlick, who is double-covered, and Randall eats it for a 3-yard loss. ABC commentator Bob Griese comments that the tight end, "Knight" (we can only assume he means Jeff King), was probably supposed to release and go out for a pass. Griese theorizes that King didn't hear Randall's audible at the line of scrimmage.
2nd and goal, 8-yard line: Shotgun, one tailback (Suggs), four-wide set. The tailback goes in motion left. The ball is snapped, and Randall stands up and looks left, where two wideouts, Witten and Wilford, have shot off the line towards the end zone, taking their men with them. For some reason, Randall doesn't pass to the wide-open Suggs and instead tucks the ball and is almost swallowed by the A&M rush. He manages to make an amazing run for a four-yard gain to the 4-yard line.
3rd and goal, 4-yard line: Shotgun, one tailback (Suggs), four-wide set. Suggs does not go in motion this time, but instead, takes an inside handoff, where he is mauled at the line of scrimmage.
4th and goal, 5-yard line: Warley hits a 22-yard field goal.
Comments: First and second down were both called pass plays. First down was a possible communication problem with King not going out, and on second down, I donít know why Randall didn't throw the ball to Suggs and give him a chance to score. Third down was a spread field, but the inside handoff was obviously designed to put the ball in the middle of the field for a field goal attempt.
Possession 3 (early 3rd quarter, scored tied 3-3):
(Note: two plays from the 12-yard line are included here, so not all three plays are from inside the 10-yard line.)
1st and 10, 12-yard line: I-formation, one tight end, right hash mark. Handoff to Kevin Jones off right tackle. No gain.
2nd and 10, 12-yard line: I-formation, one tight end. Option left, Randall keeps for hard-fought 7 yard gain.
3rd and 3, 5-yard line: I-formation, one tight end, left hash mark. Option to middle of field, Randall gets swallowed up at 9 yard line.
4th and goal, 9-yard line: Warley hits a 26-yard field goal.
Comments: By now, Beamer's Hokies are in full "turtle" mode, as I call it, playing it safe and making sure they don't turn it over. The first two trips inside the ten apparently convinced Beamer and staff to abandon the passing game, hope for the best from the running game, and play for field goals.
Possession 4 (early 4th quarter, TD drive, after Wilford's catch, Hokies up 6-3):
1st and goal, 1-yard line: I-formation, two tight ends; Suggs up the middle, touchdown.
Comments: The right call. From the one-yard line, on first and goal, the proper call is four straight rushing plays up the gut. If you can't score on four straight rushes from the one yard line, you don't deserve to.
Possession 5 (early 4th quarter, after Pile fumble recovery, Hokies up 13-3):
1st and goal, 7-yard line: I-formation, two tight ends. Handoff to Jones up the middle, stuffed for 2-yard loss.
2nd and goal, 9-yard line: I-formation, two tight ends. Handoff to Jones up the middle, stuffed for no gain.
3rd and goal, 9-yard line: I-formation, two tight ends. Toss sweep to Jones from the right hash mark towards the left hash mark. 4-yard gain to the 5 on a great run.
4th and goal, 5-yard line: FG blocked.
Comments: Ultra-conservative, don't-give-up-a-turnover-for-six mode. The Hokies are sitting on the lead at this point.
Summary: That's ten plays inside the ten-yard line, three of which appear to have been called pass plays. But not a single ball was thrown. The first two possessions showed some imagination and varied formations, but after that, it was no messing around with the flashy stuff.
Going in, I think Virginia Tech wanted to do some interesting and varied things inside the red zone. A four-wide set, with a lone tailback, who then goes in motion as Suggs did on the first two plays, is a new wrinkle for the Hokies.
Tech tried to mix things up at first, but due to poor execution, miscommunication, and the fierceness of the Texas A&M defense, the cute spread passing formations didn't work, and the Hokies scrapped them and went straight to suicidal smash-mouth football that didn't work, either.
What baffles me and most Tech fans are the absence of these two plays:
1.) The corner route to 6-4 Ernest Wilford. Texas A&M doesn't have a defensive back over six feet tall. Just have Wilford, who has a 37.5-inch vertical leap, go for the corner, and throw it up to him.
2.) The bootleg rollout. On this play, the offense fakes a handoff to one side, and the QB reverses his field and rolls out to the opposite side. Send a tight end and/or a fullback with him on a pass pattern, and you've got a play that is almost impossible to stop. An athletic QB can run, throw to a (usually wide-open) TE/FB, or if things break down, throw the ball out of the back of the end zone. Barring a great defensive play, there is no down side to this play. If I was a coach, I'd run this thing almost every time inside the ten-yard line, almost to a fault. I once saw Don Strock score untouched on this play, for crying out loud.
Give some credit to the Texas A&M defense. I'd pay good money to have #94, Ty Warren, on my team, but I guess that would make me more of an SEC booster than a Hokie fan. But it's obvious that the Hokies have a lot to learn about running red-zone offense in a loud, hostile environment.
The first few plays described here, using the spread formation, will give the VT coaching staff and players something to talk about and learn from when they break down the film. They may not need the knowledge again until the December 7th game against Miami, but hopefully, the next time they get in this situation, they will have better play-calling and better execution.
The Young Guys Step Up
People asked me all week long what I thought about this game, and I told them, "Well, we know the Hokies can beat good competition at home (LSU and Marshall). But we'll know a lot more about them after they go on the road, in a hostile environment, with all those young players."
We do know a lot more, and what we know is that Bryan Randall is indeed a gamer who remains unfazed by adversity. That bodes well for road trips at Miami, Syracuse, and Boston College (although BC isn't a particularly hostile environment). You now know that Randall won't cave in the Orange Bowl or the Carrier Dome.
Randall's first pass was an incompletion to the flat that hit Shawn Witten in the hands but would have been a difficult catch. His second pass was a hideous overthrow down the middle of the field that was nearly intercepted. You don't see that one in the stat sheets, because Randall was roughed on the play, negating it.
From that point on, he was ten-for-ten, and every one was deadly accurate. Sure, they were all short throws, but he completed them all. He also turned in three or four outstanding runs.
The QB controversy is dead. Grant Noel might have been able to pass the ball as well as Randall did in this game, but he never would have been able to have the positive rushing yardage that Randall managed (17 carries for 14 net yards, including 49 positive yards and 35 yards in losses).
In other areas of the team, many of the standout players were young guys who have never been big contributors prior to this season. Vince Fuller was a special teams demon, downing one punt at the one-yard line, nearly downing another at the one, and tattooing the Aggie punt returner on another.
The young guys in the middle of the defense -- Vegas Robinson, Kevin Lewis, Jonathan Lewis, Jason Murphy, and Tim Sandidge -- were run-stopping studs, and J. Lewis absolutely crushed Dustin Long in the end zone after Long released one pass early in the game.
Michael Crawford locked down the starting rover spot for good with two tackles for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble.
The Hokies also got their fair share of big plays from the experienced guys, too, like Nathaniel Adibi (3 sacks), Willie Pile (an outstanding day), and Ronyell Whitaker and DeAngelo Hall (two pass breakups each).
Next Up: Western Michigan
The 4-0 Hokies keep their road show going with a trip to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to play Western Michigan. The game will be at noon and will be televised by ESPN+. Last year, the Hokies whipped WMU 31-0, holding the Broncos to 166 yards and 7 first downs.
We'll return later this week with a preview.