by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 12/3/02
Hokie fans had to endure a lot during Virginia Tech's three-game losing streak. They had to give up a lot of long-held beliefs, some of which were at the very foundation of their beliefs about Virginia Tech football.
They had to face the fact that Virginia Tech, over the last two seasons, was not the Big East's second-best program, behind Miami. With a two-year Big East record of 7-6 (likely to be 7-7 after this coming Saturday), including no wins over Syracuse or Pittsburgh, the Hokies are more like the third or fourth best team in the conference the last two years.
They had to come to grips with the fact that the Hokies are no longer invincible at Lane Stadium. After winning 16 in a row at home from the start of the 1999 season through the 2001 Boston College game, the Hokies went a pedestrian 5-4 over the next 9 home games.
They had to learn that Tech is not invincible in home night games, either. Tech hadn't lost a home night game since the 1995 opener against Boston College, until Pittsburgh pulled it off this year Ö and then WVU did it again just 18 days later.
They had to stomach losing to the worst Syracuse team in 20 years, a hapless 4-8 squad that set Syracuse records for defensive ineptitude.
The last stone unturned, the last horrible truth that Hokie fans were afraid to face, was that Virginia had caught up with them, that the Cavaliers could once again beat the Hokies, after three straight easy Tech wins.
Fortunately, Hokie fans have put off that nightmare for another year. On Saturday, Virginia Tech didn't just defeat Virginia, they dominated them again. They blocked a punt for a TD, they stuffed Virginia's high-powered offense, led by ACC Player of the Year Matt Schaub, and they ran it down Virginia's throat for nearly 300 yards. Instead of a loss to the Cavaliers, Hokie fans can kick back and think about how this game could have been 28-0 or worse, had the Hokies not committed three turnovers.
All is right again for the Hokie Nation. The good ship SS Hokie Football still has some leaks, but at least it's not plummeting to the bottom of the ocean like a stone.
There's not a lot to analyze about this game -- it was pretty basic football -- but I'll take a shot at it.
That Whole Going-With-the-Wind Thing
A lot of the post-game conversation centered around the fact that the Hokies received the kickoff to start both halves of the game and had the wind at their backs in the all-important fourth quarter. That baffled a lot of Tech fans, and they wondered how that came about.
The best treatment of this issue that I saw was written by Doug Doughty of the Roanoke Times, who addressed it in an article called Wind Doesn't Blow Game in Either Team's Favor.
Here's how the coin toss works: If you win the toss, you can elect to kick, receive, or choose which side of the field you want to play on. Or, you can not make any decision at all, and "defer" your decision to the second half. If you choose to kick or receive, the other team chooses the side of the field. If you choose the side of the field, the other team chooses to kick or receive.
So here's what happened Saturday: Tech won the coin toss and deferred the decision. Virginia chose to take the wind in the first quarter. VT chose to receive. In the second half, VT chose to receive again, and Virginia chose to take the wind in the third quarter. And that's how the Hokies wound up receiving both kickoffs.
UVa Coach Al Groh's decision to take the wind in the first quarter was understandable. He wanted to get the jump on the Hokies. And after Tech took a 14-3 half time lead, Beamer felt he didn't need the wind in the third quarter; he wanted it in the fourth quarter, so he chose to receive, gambling that Groh, not wanting to fall further behind than 14-3, would take the wind in the third quarter. He did.
The underlying presumption by both coaches was that the team "with the wind" would be more likely to score. They were right, because the team with the wind scored all the points. Neither team scored any points against the wind.
The only odd thing about all the decision-making was that Virginia didn't attempt to take full advantage of the wind in the third quarter. Of the eight passes UVa threw in the third quarter, only one was thrown more than about five yards downfield. Five were screens that were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage, and the other two were thrown short, just over the line of scrimmage.
This is in sharp contrast to the entire first half, in which UVa attempted a number of long passes (ten yards or more) -- and by the way, had no success. Not only that, but that lone third-quarter long ball ended in an interception by Tech's Garnell Wilds.
I have a more detailed analysis of this, including a breakdown of the screens and short passes that UVa threw, in the TSL Extra supplement to this analysis, linked at the end of this article.
The Running Games Take Over
If Virginia has a weakness, it's their line play. They're not particularly strong or mature along the offensive and defensive lines. Of the eight starters on their offensive and defensive lines, senior right offensive tackle Mike Mullins is the only player who is not a freshman or a sophomore, and right offensive guard Elton Brown is the only one over 300 pounds.
So far this season, the Hoos had masked their line deficiencies on offense by spreading the ball around and creating uncertainty in the opposing defense, and on defense, they got great linebacker play to cover for their sometimes weak line play. Plus, to be honest, their DE's, Brennan Schmidt and Chris Canty, played pretty well.
With the swirling winds, freezing temperatures, and intermittent snowfall, I thought UVa's offense, which relies heavily on the pass, was handicapped. To their credit, they didn't blame their problems on the wind and cold, but you could clearly see that they weren't in synch. Schaub, the second-most accurate passer in the NCAA coming in (at over 69%), was generally inaccurate, and at times downright horrible. Star receiver Billy McMullen, who usually catches everything, dropped two passes in the first half.
The ESPN sideline reporter said that Groh asked Schaub at half time if the wind and cold were bothering him, and Schaub said no, that he just wasn't executing. Whatever the reason, Schaub and McMullen played poorly, and they're two guys that Virginia relies on heavily.
With the UVa passing game almost completely unproductive (43 yards passing by Schaub, 14 yards receiving by McMullen), the contest turned into a battle of the running games, and that's one that the Hokies are going to win every time, until Virginia gets older, bigger, and stronger. The Hokies have now run for over 200 yards four consecutive times on Virginia, including the 272 they put up in this game.
But Virginia's offense had success running the ball as well, particularly over left tackle. UVa's Wali Lundy had 127 yards on 29 carries (4.4 yards per carry), and peeled off runs of 13, 16, 14, 11, 9, and 8 yards.
Looking at the statistics reveals something interesting about the UVa rushing game. The Wahoos gained 36 yards on 16 first-down carries, or an average of 2.25 yards per carry on first down.
On second down, though, they had 100 yards on 11 carries, for a whopping 9.1 yards per carry. And on third down, they had 30 yards on 6 carries (5 yards per carry). Their lone fourth-down carry netted 4 yards.
These statistics go hand-in-hand with a perception I had during the game, namely, that the Hokies were getting the Cavaliers in second-and-long and third-and-long situations, and then giving up big chunks of yardage via the running game. Virginia rushed for a first down on 2nd and 10 (twice), 2nd and 9, 3rd and 8, and 3rd and 6. They had an 8-yard run on another 2nd and 9.
So, if they were doing so well with the running game, why did they only have 203 yards of offense and just 9 points, all of them off of Hokie turnovers? Because they kept going back to the passing game, even though it wasn't working very well. In one sequence, the Hoos got a six-yard run on first down, and then proceeded to throw two incomplete passes and punt, when I thought two more runs would have picked up the first down.
But passing the ball is what Virginia does. It would be out of character for them to abandon the pass and start running the ball. Still, I felt that UVa offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave got too cute with the football and didn't adjust what he was calling to the conditions and trends in the game. Virginia was having success running, mostly on second and third down, but Musgrave couldn't move away from the passing game. He appeared to be determined to "dance with the one what brung 'em."
Give credit to the Hokie defense, though. While their run defense was solid but not stellar, their pass defense was outstanding. They were all over the swing passes and screens that the Cavaliers like to run, and they tackled well. They covered well, and Cols Colas (2.5 sacks) pressured the quarterback consistently.
But overall, I thought the Cavaliers played into Tech's hands. With Schaub and McMullen not playing well, Musgrave didn't adjust and stick with what was working. Every time the Virginia offense got going, he would short-circuit it with the unsuccessful passing game.
Meanwhile, over in the Hokie camp, they went to old reliable -- the rushing game -- and abandoned the passing game for most of the second half. Of Tech's 11 passes, 9 of them were thrown in the first 30 minutes. The Hokies threw 8 passes in the first half and then threw # 9 on the very first play of the third quarter. From that point on, they ran the ball on 32 out of 34 plays and put the game away.
And the two passes they did throw, they no doubt regretted. On a third and 2 in the third quarter, working against the wind, VT offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring called a pass on what is otherwise a tailor-made rushing play. His reward was that the pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage, killing the drive. Later in the fourth, the Hokies threw an incompletion on 3rd and 6. Overall, the Hokies were 0-of-3 passing in the second half.
As the second half wore on, I found myself wondering why both teams didn't just abandon their passing games and run the football. Virginia Tech did just that, but Virginia didn't, and I thought it was to UVa's detriment. It was just the kind of game VT wanted.
This was a cut-and-dried, smash-mouth game, but there were a few instances where some Hokies made the types of plays that had been missing during their three losses. Here are some noteworthy plays:
1.) After Randall's game-opening interception, the Hoos faced a third and goal from the Tech four-yard line. Schaub hit fullback Jason Snelling with a short pass, and Tech's Willie Pile met him and dropped him in his tracks, forcing a field goal. Pile forced a fumble when he hit Snelling, but fortunately for UVa, Snelling fell on the ball to keep possession.
2.) With the Hokies holding a 7-3 lead and facing 3rd and 6 from the Virginia 31-yard line, Randall dropped back to pass and hit Ernest Wilford for a 19-yard gain on a down and out. Wilford made a spectacular leaping catch -- in stark contrast to McMullen dropping two passes that hit him in the hands -- of a ball that Randall threw before Wilford had even turned around to look for it. The Hokies went on to score to take a 14-3 lead.
3.) With 3:15 to go in the second quarter, Virginia ran a sweep to the left with Lundy, and Cols Colas pushed UVa's D'Brickashaw Ferguson six yards into the backfield and into Lundy, knocking him down without touching him. Two plays later, Colas sacked Schaub on a pass play, forcing a fumble that rolled out of bounds. Colas has been Tech's best, most consistent defensive end this year, with a nod to Nathaniel Adibi.
4.) With one minute to go in the second quarter, Richard Johnson took a short pass from Randall, cut to avoid a UVa defender, and then took the ball 39 yards to the Virginia 11-yard line. Sadly, the Hokies wasted the scoring opportunity when Randall was stripped by Darryl Blackstock and fumbled.
5.) Late in the third quarter, with the Hokies leading 14-9, the Cavaliers finally took a shot at the end zone, with Schaub throwing deep to McMullen. Garnell Wilds read the ball before McMullen did and played it perfectly, cutting in front of the tall receiver and meeting the ball at its highest point. As McMullen tried to slow down, he slipped to the ground, and Wilds caught the ball cleanly for the interception. Tech buried the Hoos from that point on.
As noted, there wasn't a lot of sophistication to this game. The wind controlled the offenses, and the Hokies got a key momentum-turning punt block to get things rolling early in the second quarter. Tech hammered away with the running game and made a few key plays early with the passing game, then just wore the Wahoos down. Had it not been for three Tech turnovers -- two of which led to UVa's nine points and one of which killed a key Tech scoring chance late in the second quarter -- this game could have been 28-0 or worse.
Next year, the series shifts back to Charlottesville, where the Hokies will shoot for their fifth win in a row over Virginia. Neither team has won five in a row in this series since Tech won six straight from 1958-1963. Both teams lose very few players of importance, and they'll both be older, stronger, and better.
Over in the TSL Extra supplement, I've got a breakdown and a diagram of Justin Hamilton's punt block. After watching it at least 15 times, most of them in slow-motion, I am amazed at the level of coaching and execution that went into what is normally a jailbreak play. That punt block wasn't a case of ten guys going helter-skelter; it was a case of a coach seeing a flaw in an opponent's scheme, drawing up a play to exploit it, and then getting perfect execution from his players. Donít miss it. There's also a breakdown of Virginia's failed attempts to run screen passes and swing passes in the critical third quarter, when they had the wind at their back.
We'll return later this week with a Miami preview.