by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/24/02
(Editorial note: please excuse the lateness of this analysis, but I fell ill Thursday night, and it continued through Friday morning. Insert your own joke about how home losses make you sick here.)
I'm starting to run out of new things to say about the Hokies' losing streak, which has now grown to three games and threatens to become even longer. When a team is getting whipped along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, winning and losing doesn't become rocket-science analysis.
In this analysis, I'll talk about how Tech's defensive letdowns in this game were just a little bit different than they were against Pitt and Syracuse, plus I'll talk about some of the coaching decisions made and what I thought about them. Over in the TSL Extra supplement, I'll share ten random thoughts and observations about the game, plus I'll break down that swell officiating job turned in by veteran Big East officials Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Helen Keller.
Our Savior, Vegas
The return of Vegas Robinson did little to shore up the Hokie run defense. Like Pittsburgh and Syracuse before them, WVU found gaping holes in the middle of the Tech defense and exploited those holes for over 200 yards rushing, 263 to be exact. Here's the breakdown of how the season has gone for VT's rush defense:
I watched Vegas closely during the game and while breaking down the film, and he didn't look a whole lot different than the rest of the Hokie defense has the last few games: he overpursued, took the wrong angles, and got blocked completely out of some plays.
He did make some positive plays. He stopped a few runs as they came through the middle, and he laid a vicious hit on Quincy Wilson on a fourth-quarter play that prevented Wilson from picking up a key first down.
You could tell that Vegas wasn't a hundred percent. He didn't limp around noticeably, but he wasn't as forceful on some plays as he had been earlier in the season, and once he got blocked, he tended to stay blocked.
Lastly, Vegas lost literally fifteen pounds while he was out of action. That news item surfaced last week in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article, and I asked a source close to the program if it was true. I was told yes, he definitely looked lighter. "He's been too depressed [about not playing] to eat," my source said.
So Vegas wasn't the answer. He certainly played a better game than his replacements, though, so it was worth having him in there.
What's Wrong With the Defense?
The Hokie defense is suffering from several maladies right now. Here are a few:
1.) They're getting blocked.
Nothing fancy going on here, folks. They're getting mauled not just at the line of scrimmage, but beyond it. Their defensive tackles in particular are getting pushed off the ball, and in watching film, I've been amazed at how blockable the linebackers have been. Mikaal Baaqee, James Anderson, and even Vegas Robinson have been blocked by tackles and guards shooting off the line, getting into them, and pushing them downfield.
2.) They're overpursuing.
Getting blocked at the point of attack has been a problem for weeks now, but WVU threw in a new wrinkle: they took advantage of the Hokie defense overpursuing.
If you watch replays of WVU's most successful running plays Wednesday, nearly all of them were of this variety: ball is snapped, entire offense starts blocking in one direction, all players flow in that direction, tailback runs along behind the line, and boom! tailback plants and cuts upfield, behind overpursuing linebackers, rovers, and safeties -- who are, by the way, being blocked in the direction of overpursuit by offensive linemen.
One player who has a chance to make the play in these situations is the trailing (unblocked) defensive end, but in this game, they weren't getting down the line fast enough to catch the running back before he cut up through the hole. Trailing defensive ends are trained to cheat into the backfield a little to guard against a reverse -- it's called "staying home" -- and this makes it easier for a quick back like Avon Cobourne or Quincy Wilson to cut up through the hole in the line and avoid the trailing defensive end.
If the defensive tackles were getting any penetration at the line and holding the play up at all, the trailing defensive end might be able to make the play, but not for VT, not right now.
Young defensive players are famous for overpursuing and taking bad angles. In 1997, when the Hokie defense was young, they faded late in the season as well. One game in particular stands out, a game against Miami in which they surrendered gobs of rushing yardage late -- because young players were taking bad pursuit angles.
If you look at Avon Cobourne's 9-yard TD run early in this game, you'll see freshman free safety Jimmy Williams approach the line at too much of an inside angle, and Cobourne cuts outside of him for the score.
3.) Players they counted on aren't stepping up.
Defensive end Jim Davis, the same Jim Davis who had three sacks against LSU, has been invisible during this entire losing streak. Nathaniel Adibi's play has been spotty. DT Big Jimmy Williams was derailed by a qualification process that took forever, and is still trying to get into the swing of things.
One player whose weakness has been exposed by the run-stopping problems of the defensive line and linebackers is Willie Pile. Willie is a great leader and a good playmaker, but he is not and never has been a particularly physical player, or a run-stopper. Willie's not one to come up from the secondary and stick his helmet on a running back.
When VT had physical rovers like Cory Bird and Kevin McCadam, this masked Pile's lack of run-stopping ability. Now that the less-physical Michael Crawford and Billy Hardee are manning the rover spot, and the defensive line and linebackers are letting running backs through unmolested, Pile's inability to arrive at the point of attack and make hard-hitting stops is becoming a liability. The 53-yard touchdown turned in by Pitt's Brandon Miree is a classic example: the line and linebackers missed the play, and Pile was unable to hit Miree and wrap him up.
Willie did a great job stopping the run on WVU's first series in this game, making two tackles, but after that, he wasn't a factor in the running game. He had ten tackles on the night to lead the Hokies, but it was a quiet ten tackles. In all fairness, you donít really look to your free safety to be a run-stopper (that job belongs to the line, linebackers, and rover/strong safety), but Willie hasn't been able to fill the void.
One guy who is stepping up, in my opinion, is Cols Colas. He's not dominant, but he has been in the opponent's backfield many times, even during the losing streak, and generally, if a running play gets blown up by the VT defense, it has been Cols Colas who has done the deed.
Big Jimmy Williams showed some spark in this game, as well, finally getting some push upfield. Just five days after being unimpressed with his performance in a JV game, I found myself thinking that he was showing some promise.
4.) Injuries. Injuries, injuries, injuries.
The list of the wounded is growing longer by the game: losing Robinson and DeAngelo Hall were big blows, but a bigger, more subtle loss is the injury suffered by Kevin Lewis. Lewis tore a pectoral muscle (ouch!) during the Syracuse game, and it greatly weakened him. He simply hasn't been effective, as you might imagine, with just one arm, and now comes the news that he is considering surgery to repair it, thus ending his season.
Having watched him play in obvious pain against SU and Pitt, I recommend the surgery. I respect the hell out of him for trying to play, but he's hurting, and he's not effective.
And now we hear that Jason Lallis is done for the season (see the link above). That means the two starting defensive tackles are gone.
5.) They're not flying to the ball.
We hear all the time about how the VT defense flies to the ball, but that aspect of their game is gone. I watch them now, and after the tackle I see a lot of guys standing around who were not involved in the play. In the past, every VT defensive player you could see on your TV screen was going after the ballcarrier and getting in on the tackle, but these days, a lot of guys are standing around after the play, looking down at the one or two guys who did make the tackle.
That's confidence. This confidence of this defense is shot, so they're not firing to the ball and playing aggressively.
Anatomy of a Touchdown
Quincy Wilson's unmolested 42-yard romp for a touchdown put the Mountaineers up 21-10 in this game, and that one play demonstrated Virginia Tech's defensive problems.
The Mountaineers snapped the ball and handed it off to Wilson, who started to the right. The West Virginia offensive line moved en masse in that direction, and they blew backup tackles Tim Sandidge and Jason Murphy 2-3 yards off the ball as they did so, creating a huge gap in the VT line.
At the same time, linebackers Mikal Baaqee and Vegas Robinson, who had cheated to the line before the snap and looked as if they were going to blitz, both started towards Wilson and got tangled up.
WVU left tackle Lance Nimmo came firing off the line and wiped out both Robinson and Baaqee with one block. Willie Pile, who was very close to the line in run support, got caught up in the Nimmo-Robinson-Baaqee traffic jam and was taken out of the play, giving Nimmo a rare three-man block on one play.
With the two linebackers and free safety taken out far from the point of attack, and with the demolition of Murphy and Sandidge creating a hole big enough to drive a Ford Expedition through, Wilson cut upfield untouched and romped into the end zone for the score.
Wilson's touchdown was critical, because it staked WVU to an 11-point lead, and here's a little nugget for you: since coming back from a 29-12 deficit to defeat Virginia in 1995, the Hokies have not come back from a deficit of 11 points or more to win. Recent history tells us that if the Hokies get down by 11 or more, they're toast. They very nearly broke that string in this game (and should have), but it still stands.
By the way, Tech has come down from ten points to win three times since 1995, all of them against Miami: 1997, 1998, and 1999.
Some Coaching Decisions
There were several coaching decisions that have been talked about on the message board. Here's my take on them:
1.) Running three straight running plays on 2nd and goal from the one, and failing to score.
I have a little voice in the back of my head, and that voice chants, all day long, "IF YOU CAN'T SCORE ON THREE STRAIGHT RUNS UP THE MIDDLE FROM THE ONE YARD LINE, YOU DON'T DESERVE TO WIN."
I'm old school. I believe that if you have a first and goal or second and goal from the one-yard line, then absolutely, cram it up the middle. Be a man about it. I even called the QB sneak on second down and was surprised it didn't work.
I've had people say two things to me about this sequence: (1) run a bootleg or a toss sweep. From the three-, four-, or five-yard line, sure. But not from the one, not with the way Tech's offensive tackles have been blocking the run -- i.e., poorly. (2) Run play-action to the tight end. Beautiful call from the five yard line, but not necessary from the one. Stick it in.
Other fans have also said, "Run it up the middle three straight times, with the way our offensive line was blocking? That was stupid." Oh, really? Are you talking about the same offensive line that had reeled off three straight running plays up the middle that took the ball from the 20 to the 1 yard line right before that?
I'm not saying a toss sweep or something else wouldn't have worked, mind you. I'm just saying that in my opinion, three straight runs up the gut should work. If it doesn't, then take your lumps, you deserve to lose. Sorry.
I tell you what would have worked: a quick snap count on that QB sneak. Head up to the line, have Randall look it over, have everybody look like they're getting ready, and the instant Randall sticks his hand under center, snap it and drive in behind Grove, with nobody else even moving (that's legal, right?). I think that would have caught WVU napping.
2.) Going for two points late in the third quarter.
When the Hokies scored with 1:29 to go in the third quarter to make it 21-16, Coach Beamer called for the two-point conversion. My first thought was, "What? No need to panic yet." Beamer was obviously thinking that if the team could get the two-pointer, that would close it to only 21-18, and a field goal would tie it.
But if you don't make it, all WVU has to do is kick a field goal to make the deficit 8 points, and the next time you score a TD, you'll have to go for two. And if you don't get it, you'll lose.
The math works out for Coach Beamer's decision. I know what he was thinking. I just didn't like it. Regardless of the math involved, there's a subtle psychological signal that is sent when you go for two that early, and the signal is, "We've got to do everything we can to catch up with you, because I don't think we can," or something similar.
Or, as ESPN announcer Rod Gilmore said, "You look desperate when you go for two that early." Bingo. I thought it looked that way when Coach started going for two early in the 1999 Sugar Bowl, and I thought it looked that way Wednesday night.
Tech did not make it, of course. Successful two-point conversions by VT are hard to recall. The last one I can remember was against Miami last year, and before that Ö. I have no idea.
The decision affected a later decision made by WVU coach Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez called an intentional safety by having his punter run out of the end zone on fourth down inside their five yard line. That bumped the score to 21-18, meaning that VT needed a field goal to tie and a TD to win.
Had the Hokies kicked the extra point, it would have been 21-17, and Rodriguez would have been really crazy to call a safety that would make it 21-19 and put his 'Eers in position to lose by a Hokie field goal.
Of course, Beamer and company didn't know all that was going to happen when they made the decision. It's a decision I just don't like, because VT almost never converts two-point conversions, and because it has an air of desperation to it. It's not what lost the game, but I would have liked an extra-point kick that put a point on the board and kept the momentum going.
3.) Not calling timeouts at the end of the first half.
At the end of the first half, WVU took possession deep in their own territory. West Virginia had one timeout left, and VT had two.
WVU drew a penalty, and after a short run (two yards) on first down and 15, WVU called a timeout with 19 seconds to go on their own 30. I was stunned by this call, because it gave VT a chance to call two timeouts on the following plays and possibly force a punt on the last play of the half. I instantly saw the WVU mistake and hoped that VT would take advantage of it.
No dice. On 2nd and 13, Avon Cobourne was tackled for a 2-yard loss with 13 seconds to go, and for some reason, Virginia Tech chose not to spend a timeout. This would have forced a 3rd and 15 with 10-12 seconds to go, depending upon how quickly the refs would have stopped the clock.
Assuming VT stopped WVU on third down, the Hokies could have then spent their last timeout with a few seconds to go, forcing a fourth down play by WVU. But the Hokies chose not to do this, and instead to go into halftime down 14-10.
4.) Taking the safety (WVU).
WVU's Rich Rodriguez took a big gamble when he had his punter step out of the back of the end zone on 4th down with 2:30 to go. This made the score 21-18 and moved the Hokies to within a field goal, without Tech having to lift a finger.
I know what Rodriguez was thinking. He was thinking that he'd rather have a free kick from his 20 than a punt from the back of his end zone. The gamble was that VT would not be able to kick the field goal to tie.
The strategy almost backfired, and had Bryan Randall not thrown that last interception Ö well, we'll never know. But if VT had forced overtime and won the game, Rich Rodriguez would have been crucified by WVU fans and sportswriters for giving the Hokies two points.
The ironic thing is that the gamble earned very little for Rodriguez. A punt might have gone to the WVU 40 or 45 yard line. As it was, his kicker kicked the free kick out of bounds, giving the Hokies the ball on the 50. So Rodriguez donated two points to the Hokies and only got 5-10 yards out of it.
Ah, well, as I said, he got away with it. Had he called for the punt, with the Hokies blocking it or otherwise scoring a TD out of it, he would have been crucified for that, too. That's what it means to be the head coach.
The Bottom Line
The VT coaches are undergoing a lot of second-guessing these days, with plenty of it coming from me, but I thought the bottom line in this game was that the players let them down. The players didn't make the plays necessary to win.
Missed tackles, critical penalties, and a game-ending interception Ö these are the things that lost this game. Did the coaches call a perfect game? Of course not. No coach ever calls a perfect game. But they did put the players in position to win, and the players didn't seize it. They didn't make the blocks on that goal line stand, and Bryan Randall threw an interception when it was the worst thing he could have done in that situation (second-worst thing? Take a sack).
In tight games like this, coaching matters, but it also comes down to players making plays. The problem with Virginia Tech right now is that they have plenty of guys making the wrong plays -- missed blocks, missed field goals, missed tackles, dropped passes, thrown interceptions, and critical penalties -- but almost nobody making the right plays.
Bryan Randall made a lot of the right plays against WVU. His scramble that went from the WVU 25 to the WVU 11 in that last drive was positively Vick-like, and like Vick's 1999 WVU scramble, it put the Hokies in position to win the game. But he followed it up with the wrong play, an interception.
The Pitt game is the only game where I thought the coaches really put the players in a bad position. I thought the offensive playcalling in that game was horrendous. But the coaches certainly put the players in position to win against Syracuse, only to have the Orangemen make the plays, while the Hokies were dropping TD passes, giving up fourth-down TD's, missing field goals, and throwing interceptions in the end zone.
And in this game, the players were once again in position to win. But they didn't make the plays.
Somewhere, somehow, someone's got to step up. Someone's got to do a Chris Kinzer-Jim Druckenmiller-Cornell Brown-Corey Moore-Michael Vick-Shayne Graham routine and make the play when the game is on the line. Make the field goal, don't miss it. Make the block, don't miss it and give up a sack. Make the tackle, don't get driven five yards off the ball, and donít hit the runner and fall off. Make the sack, donít get manhandled at the line. Throw the TD pass, not the interception. Catch the ball, don't drop it.
I know people who act as if coaching can cure every single ill in the world and win any game, but eventually, somebody's got to make a play. And no one is making the play for the Hokies right now.
TSL Extra Addendum
There's some additional material for TSL Extra subscribers in the TSL Extra supplement to this analysis. In that article, I give you ten random thoughts on the game, and geez, somebody get those refs canes and seeing-eye dogs!
Next Up: Virginia
Fresh off a 48-13 thrashing of Maryland, the Virginia Cavaliers strut into Lane Stadium on November 30th with a chance to break Tech's three-game winning streak over the Hoos. The game is set for 3:30 and will be televised by ESPN.
We'll return later this week with a preview.