TSL Extra
Defensive Player
of the Game

picture: hokiesports.com
#8 Vincent Fuller
CB, 6-1, 184, rSo.
Score: 22.0 points

Click here for an
explanation of the
award and how the
scoring is done

Vincent Fuller wins for the
first time ever, 
with 1 unassisted tackle
and 2 interceptions.
Both of Fuller's interceptions
came deep in Tech territory,
one at the 8-yard line and
one in the end zone.
Total: 25.6 points.

Game Analysis: Temple
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 10/28/02

Click here for TSL's Game Recap

VT head coach Frank Beamer has a fear of turnovers that I've always thought bordered on the irrational. Sure, turnovers are important, but should you live in fear of them all the time, like Coach Beamer seems to do?

We're talking about a man who thinks nothing of isolating his cornerbacks in man-on-man coverage, to the point where they sometimes cough up big gains, losing games almost by themselves (see the 1999 Sugar Bowl, the 2001 Gator Bowl, and any gut-wrenching affair with Pittsburgh for reference).

But when it comes time to take risks offensively, Beamer has always been, for the most part, unwilling to do so, and the primary reason is fear of turning the ball over. We've all heard him say a helmetful of times that he thinks the key job his quarterback can perform is to take care of the football. Not throw TD passes or run for lots of yards, but take care of the football -- i.e., not turn it over.

Like I said, I've always thought he was a little too preoccupied with turnovers. We all know they're important, but how important? Well, the bottom line is that this game with Temple was decided by turnovers. It was unexpectedly close because of Virginia Tech turnovers, and Temple lost a golden opportunity to win, in large part because of their own turnovers. So, I understand Coach's preoccupation with turnovers, because they played a very big part in this game.

There were other subplots -- Vince Fuller pulling the Hokies' bacon from the fire yet again, and concerns about why the Hokies haven't been more intense in their last few games -- but the key component of this game was the turnovers.

One Third of Your Possessions, Down the Drain

The worst thing about turnovers is that they can give your opponent a short field to work with. If you turn it over on your side of the field, you have put your defense at a disadvantage.

The second worst thing about turnovers it that they're a wasted possession. That's one time you've had the ball and have lost the chance to score.

The Hokies had four turnovers in this game, two interceptions and two fumbles, and it's worth noting that they only had twelve possessions for the entire game -- really only eleven, because the twelfth possession was the end-of-the-game, run-out-the-clock possession.

By turning the ball over four times, the Hokies short-circuited four of eleven possessions, or more than one-third of their chances to score. In their remaining seven possessions, they were pretty efficient: two touchdowns, two field goals, one missed field goal, and two punts.

Just for grins, I went over the Hokies' previous seven games, and I found that they averaged 13.3 possessions per game, and just over one turnover per game (eight turnovers in seven games). This means that in their previous seven games, the Hokies averaged more than twelve possessions per game where they did not turn the ball over -- while in this game, there were only eight Hokie possessions where they didn't turn the ball over.

As for Temple, they blew two fantastic scoring opportunities with turnovers. Vince Fuller picked off Owl passes at the Tech 8-yard line and in the end zone. What if the Owls had scored on those possessions, even just field goals?

As noted above, turnovers can put your back against a wall defensively. This is where the Hokie turnovers were particularly dangerous ones, because three out of the four wound up in Tech territory. Tech turned it over on the VT 32, 40, and 26, and the only turnover that wasn't in their territory was the Bryan Randall fumble that was recovered on the Temple 37.

So not only did Tech kill some of their own scoring opportunities with turnovers, but they also gave the Owls some golden chances to score. Fortunately, the Tech defense held on the first two, giving up no points, and they didn't surrender a score until the last turnover, when it was 20-3 and it didn't hurt as much.

In short, turnovers played a big role in the scoring in this game: Temple's TD came after a Tech turnover; Tech's second TD came after a Temple turnover; Tech's scoring chances were limited by turnovers; and Temple turnovers killed two prime scoring opportunities for the Owls that might have made the outcome of this game completely different.

Big Plays MIA

Turnovers partly explain the low point total by the Hokies, whose 20 points represent their second-lowest total of the season (the 13 scored against Texas A&M was the lowest).

But what also explains the low point output is the lack of big plays, particularly in the running game. As noted in the game recap, Tech's longest run of the day was ten yards, and that was by fullback Doug Easlick. They had longer runs in every game this season, with a long of 19 against Western Michigan, a long of 22 against Texas A&M, and runs of 32 yards or longer in every other game.

The passing game produced a couple of long plays for the Hokies -- 32 and 30 yards, with every other completion being less than 20 yards -- and ironically, both plays either set up a score or scored directly.

The first long pass play was a 32-yard toss from Randall to Easlick that put the Hokies up 17-3. The second long pass play was a 30-yarder from Randall to Suggs that moved the ball from the Temple 41 to the 11 and set up a 22-yard field goal by Nic Schmitt, pushing the margin to 20-3.

But other than those two plays, every Hokie offensive play was 19 yards or less, and only five plays the Hokies ran went for more than ten yards. This means that the Hokies were slogging it out offensively, moving in small, hard-earned chunks of yardage.

To give you some perspective, the Hokies had seven plays longer than ten yards against both LSU and Texas A&M. Those were the games in which the Hokies recorded their two lowest yardage totals of the season (231 against LSU and 248 against Texas A&M). The fact that Tech only had five plays of over ten yards against Temple tells you what a difficult day the Hokies had gaining big chunks of yards. And if nothing else, not seeing the Untouchables break free all day long leaves you feeling like the Hokies had a pretty bad day offensively.

Remember, though, Temple had the 12th-ranked rush defense in the country coming in, and if you ask me, they played like it. They clogged up the middle of the line, and when the Hokies tried to go to the perimeter, Temple showed good pursuit speed and good tackling. VT offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring admitted on BeamerBall.com after the game that Temple's perimeter run defense surprised him. Me, too.

There are two things you need to realize about Temple:

(1.) The athletes they're putting on the field, on defense in particular, are better than in the past. There were no 5-7, 175-pounders out there for the Owls. And a former Hokie player remarked on the message board Sunday that Temple was always a tough, physical team, and their persistent losing was a bit of a mystery to him.

(2.) The Owls started 14 seniors and four juniors on offense and defense, meaning that 82% of their starters are upperclassmen. Experience isn't everything, but the point is, this is not a young Temple team, and perhaps even more importantly, their seniors, even the redshirt seniors, have been playing under the same coach for their entire careers. Continuity is king in college football.

Now that we've paid our respects to the opposition, it bears repeating that if the Hokies hadn't turned the ball over so much, this game wouldn't have been close at all.

Red Zone Offense

Tech's offense in the red zone was a little quirky in this game. The first time Tech was in the Temple red zone, with a first and goal from the four-yard line, Suggs ran it in.

The second time, again with a first and goal from the four, the Hokies ran the ball up the middle for one yard, passed it for no gain, and then ran a sweep that lost a yard. They had to settle for a field goal.

The third time, with first and ten from the eleven, the Hokies ran up the middle for no gain, ran a QB draw for 7 yards (resulting in a third and three from the four-yard line), and then ran a sweep for a loss of one yard. They again settled for a field goal.

And that was it. Only three trips into the red zone, which is one reason they didn't score more points. But when they were there, they displayed an unusually high amount of finesse ball, instead of the two-tight-ends, straight-up-the-middle style they usually employ (still no fade route to Wilford, though).

It's not unusual, however, for the Hokies to run toss sweeps down near the goal line, and they're usually very successful, but not in this game. Temple cut them down both times, forcing field goals. As discussed above, Stinespring thought Temple would be vulnerable to the perimeter running game, and they weren't. So the sweeps near the goal line didn't work.

Fuller to the Rescue

Prior to the season, we had a round table question in which we asked our panelists which previously-unheralded player would step up and surprise Hokie fans in 2002. One of our panelists, Chris Hoover, actually answered that Vince Fuller would surprise people, but Hoover's exact words were, "For my pick, I'm going with Vince Fuller at FS [free safety]." So he was only half-right.

Fuller has been a real find at cornerback, where he was moved after a season-ending injury to Eric Green. The move was viewed as a stopgap measure, but it appears as if it will be permanent now. Fuller has four interceptions in the last three games, and the two he picked off here were (1) a great catch of a poorly thrown ball; and (2) a perfect read of a situation.

His first pickoff, on the VT 8-yard line, was a diving, twisting play, and his second INT, in the end zone, was a play in which he read the offense perfectly and went to the spot where the QB was throwing the ball. Fuller admitted after the game that Willie Pile told him exactly what Temple was going to do before the play. Pile said Temple would run a fade route, and they did (which is why Pile will play in the NFL next year -- he's a decent athlete, but it has always been his brain that makes him a good safety), and Fuller simply took advantage of Pile's instructions for the interception.

Comments on the Defense

Defensively, the Hokies did almost everything they wanted to in this game. They took away the running game, limiting Tanardo Sharps (125 yards per game coming in) to just 38 net yards on 17 carries.

With the exception of a 58-yard catch-and-run by Sean Dillard, which did not go for a TD, the Hokies kept the Temple passing game under wraps. They did struggle, however, with what the VT coaches called a "jailbreak" pass, a play in which the Temple wide receiver ran back down the line towards the center, caught a short pass from the QB, and then turned it upfield behind a cadre of blockers that included other receivers, maybe a tight end, a tailback, or even an offensive lineman. It's a particularly difficult against-the-grain pass play that typically gains a lot or nothing, and in this game, Temple chipped away with it, picking up a lot of yards.

The linebackers play a big role in stopping that play, and that may be where James Anderson's inexperience hurt the Hokies (without a tape of the game, it's impossible to break it down and know for sure -- the curse of non-televised games). Anderson was subbing for Vegas Robinson, who will also miss the Pitt game with an ankle injury.

It's my opinion that Robinson's absence will mean less in the Pitt game than in any other game the Hokies play. Pittsburgh's offensive forte is the vertical passing game, and they usually stress the defensive backs and defensive linemen, not the linebackers. The Hokie linebackers have been nearly invisible against Pitt in recent years -- not that they haven't been making tackles, but they just aren't in position to make impact plays against the Pitt offense.

Anderson (and fellow linebacker Mikal Baaqee) might have one important responsibility, though: shadowing Pitt QB Rod Rutherford, who is more mobile than former Hokie killers Pete Gonzalez, David Priestley, and John Turman.

All this talk about Pitt segues nicely into

Next Up: Pittsburgh

The Hokies have been in a bit of a malaise the last four games. They struggled running against Western Michigan, they had trouble finishing off Boston College, and they have committed turnovers against Rutgers and Temple. The offensive line has admitted to not executing well, and the team in general has confessed to not being focused at times, particularly the last two games. This is not a big surprise, because they're a young team. Despite that, they have notched four wins.

A more formidable opponent comes calling next. It's not as if Pittsburgh is a perennial top 20 opponent. No, what they are is a team that guns for Tech and matches up well against them. Think of them as the anti-Boston College (a team that doesn't match up well with Tech). If the Hokies come out flat and/or turn the ball over against Pittsburgh, they're in big trouble, and there's not a person in the Hokie Nation that doesn't know that, from the fans to the players to the coaches to Bill Roth and Mike Burnop.

Fortunately for Tech, the game time has been set at 7:30, and crowd participation, shall we say, should not be a problem. Not only is the game a night game, making it a special atmosphere, but Tech fans respect Pittsburgh and will bring the heat from the stands. The fans will do their part, and the Hokie football team has to do theirs. They have to be intense, block better, and not turn the ball over.

There's no doubt that this is a pivotal game. Lose, and the Hokies might tank against any of their remaining foes. Win, and momentum going into the last four games will be on the upswing. It's not a stretch to say that the Pitt game could be the difference between 13-0 or something like 10-3 or 9-4.

The Hokies will be looking for revenge from last year's 38-7 smackdown at Pittsburgh, when two of the Pitt players told the press that they thought the Hokies quit early in that one. For those of you keeping score, one of the two players -- receiver R.J. English -- is gone, but the other -- linebacker Gerald Hayes -- is still at Pittsburgh.

We'll be back with a preview later this week.

But one last thing before we go: about the coolest thing I have ever seen was the B-2 Stealth Bomber flyover before the game. I've seen fighter jet flyovers, and all sorts of planes, of course, but I don't think I've ever seen anything as weird-looking, menacing, and strangely quiet as that B-2. Click here for a video (MPG format, thanks to MzHokie for the clip).

          

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