The 2001 Season in Review
by Will Stewart,
TSL Extra, Issue #15

It's time to fess up. I think this was a pretty disappointing football season for the Hokies and I'll tell you why. But first, a warning for you sunshine Hokies. This article is going to get pretty critical at times, so if you can't handle a little harsh truth, you might want to skip ahead to the next feature.

This isn't so much a review of the season as it is a commentary on the season and why it turned out the way it did. So, I'm not going to go over each game, because that would be boring. Besides, TSL has nicely archived game recaps and analysis, if reviewing the season is what you're interested in.

A Look Back

First, let's put up all the scores, just to refresh your memory of how the season went:

VT 52, UConn 10
VT 31, Western Michigan 0
VT 50, Rutgers 0
VT 46, Central Florida 14
VT 35, WVU 0
VT 34, BC 20
Syracuse 22, VT 14
Pitt 38, VT 7
VT 35, Temple 0
VT 31, UVa 17
Miami 26, VT 24
FSU 30, VT 17

Put your Hokie fan sensibilities aside and take a look at those last six games. The simple fact is that Tech went 2-4 over their last six games, which, no matter how you dress it up, is not good.

"Tech lost to Syracuse, but they had been set up by that crummy opening schedule and got beat on special teams." Yeah, but they lost.

"Well, the team just wasn�t ready to play against Pitt. They were down from the week before. And Pitt always plays great against Tech." Yeah, and they lost.

"They played #1 Miami to a near standstill, and that punt block was the greatest thing I had ever seen in Lane Stadium!" Yeah, but they lost.

"Florida State is a lot better than their record this year. That team is always loaded, and Tech played them tough." Yeah � and they lost.

Do you get the point? Sure, with the exception of the Pittsburgh game, Tech was "in it" in every one of their losses, but the point remains, they lost. A lot. In their last six games, the Hokies lost twice as many games as they had lost in the previous two seasons combined.

Tech was a pretty good team this year, but it all added up to an 8-4 record, which tied for their second-worst record since the Beamer Bowl era started in 1993. The only worse year was 1997 (7-5), and 2001 tied 1994 at 8-4. Other than that, the Hokies have had better teams, record-wise, for nearly ten years now.

Finding a Way to Lose

More troubling than the numbers was the way this team found a way to lose against every quality opponent they faced, with the exception of Boston College.

At one point this season, with 6:04 to go in the third quarter of the Boston College game, the Hokies were 6-0 and were leading the Eagles 34-0. They looked like a juggernaut. They had outscored their opponents at that point in the season 248-24, an incredible statistic.

From then on, though, the Hokies would get outscored 153-128, and they would very often look like an ordinary team as they limped their way to the finish line.

The problem is, much like the way Hokie teams of the past two years found a way to win, this team found a way to lose. It's harsh, but it's true. Throwing out the Pittsburgh game, which was a butt-whipping of the highest order in which Tech never had a chance, let's take a look at the Hokies' other three losses:

1.) Syracuse 22, VT 14: Tech gives up a special teams TD to start off the game; Kevin Jones fumbles deep in Tech territory, leading to another TD; Vinnie Burns drops a snap deep in Tech territory, leading to a field goal; Ronyell Whitaker commits a very questionable but critical interference penalty, keeping a Syracuse drive and resulting in a made field goal; Grant Noel takes a sack in the end zone for a safety.

2.) Miami 26, VT 24: Tech quarterback Grant Noel has his worst game of the year, throwing four interceptions and completing just four passes, negating a great effort by Kevin Jones, the Tech defense, and the Tech special teams. Ernest Wilford drops an easy 2-point conversion that would have tied the game with six minutes to go.

3.) Florida State 30, VT 17: Tech fails to convert three great first-quarter chances into more than 3 points; the Hokies have a TD pass called back on a holding call and follow that by fumbling; Tech gives up a punt block on their own 1-yard line; cornerback Ronyell Whitaker has his worst game of the year, giving up three long pass plays, including two TD's.

Painful, isn't it? It reads like a comedy of errors, the Syracuse game in particular. Not to take anything away from the Orangemen, but every single point they scored came off a Tech mistake or a failed play on Tech's part.

Virginia Tech very easily could have been 10-1 in the regular season, instead of the much less-palatable 8-3 record that they eventually put up. I don�t think there was any way the Hokies would have beaten Pitt on that day, even had they won against Syracuse. Had they been 10-1 with a win over Miami, Tech probably would have gone to the BCS, and it's hard to say what would have happened there.

In the last two seasons, players stepped up for the Hokies and won close, crucial games. Michael Vick and Shayne Graham stepped up and won the 1999 WVU game, and Dave Meyer and Carter Warley came through in the clutch against Pitt in 2000.

But this season, Tech players did the opposite. They made critical mistakes in crunch time that lost games. And the gaffes and errors were spread all over the team, from the run defense to the pass defense to the special teams to the offense to the coaching. It was a group effort.

Old Reliables -- Defense and the Running Game -- Break Down

Never mind where you stand on the Grant Noel debate (is he a decent QB? Or is he Tech's worst QB since the Mark Cox/Todd Greenwood era?). The Hokies sucked up some painful losses because some normally reliable units on their team -- namely, the defense, the running game, and special teams -- failed them at critical times.

1. Defense. Defensively, Tech had the #1 defense in the country for much of the season, and it eventually finished #2 in total yards given up, a close second to only Texas (236.2 ypg versus 237.9). They finished #2 in scoring defense as well (13.4 ppg). They finished tied for 7th in the country with a commendable 19 interceptions, and they had the #2 rushing defense in the country at 71.6 yards per game.

But the defense, including the run defense, failed the Hokies at key junctures. Down 17-7 to Syracuse late in the third quarter, the Hokies gave up four straight third-down conversions to the Orangemen, surrendering a field goal that made the Orangemen's lead an insurmountable (as it turned out) 20-7. That drive was 15 plays and took 7:11 off the clock at a time when Tech needed to get the Orange offense off the field quickly. It was also in that drive that Ronyell Whitaker was whistled for the extremely questionable pass interference penalty on third and 20.

Against Miami, with the Canes holding a narrow 26-24 lead with just 4:18 remaining, the Canes went to the running game, handing off seven straight times to Clinton Portis. Portis ripped off runs of 5, 9, 15, and 5 yards (4 rushes, 34 yards) before a penalty killed the drive. But the drive, short as it was, ate up 3:58 of the remaining 4:18, at a critical time when a three-and-out would have given the Hokies another shot at scoring.

A similar thing happened against FSU in the Gator Bowl. The 'Noles were holding a 23-17 lead and were backed up on their own 22-yard line with 5:22 to go. They went to their running game and sliced easily through the Hokie defense, with tailback Greg Jones ripping off runs of 23 and 22 yards into the teeth of the Hokie defense. FSU picked up 9 yards on three more carries, and then on fourth and 1, FSU quarterback Chris Rix picked up the first down on a keeper (on a very questionable spot).

The Seminoles scored on the next play, a pass to Javon Walker. At a time when Tech needed a critical defensive stand, they instead gave up a 7-play, 78-yard drive that took just 3:08.

Statistically, this Tech defense was superior to the 1999 Tech defense in a few ways. They gave up 4 fewer rushing yards per game and 10 fewer total yards per game. But they surrendered more points per game (13.4 as compared to 10.5 in 1999), and more importantly, they couldn't make the big play when needed.

The 1999 defense made plays when they needed them. The 2001 defense didn't. Not once did they come through in the clutch when needed.

2. The Running Game. The rushing offense failed the Hokies, as well. Perhaps it could have survived the loss of four offensive line starters to graduation, or perhaps it could have survived the loss of Lee Suggs to injury, but not both. When Suggs went down to injury, Hokie fans cheerfully proclaimed their depth at tailback, saying that Keith Burnell and Kevin Jones would pick up the slack.

Wrong. Burnell is a decent back, but he lacks Suggs' power, vision, and acceleration. Burnell couldn't find the holes (not that they were plentiful), he spent too much time spinning to get away from defenders, and he committed the cardinal sin of running out of bounds with no contact.

Jones, meanwhile, was a true freshman who played like it. He came on strong at the end of the year, but he still lacks the vision to hit the hole quickly. He'll learn, but he's just too young right now. The upside is, he gained nearly 1,000 yards, and he hasn't nearly reached his potential. That's frightening for Tech's opponents. And on another upside, Jones' blocking improved drastically as the season wore on. He did an excellent job picking up blitzes against Virginia and Florida State.

Tech's ground attack disappeared at critical times. Against Syracuse, they gained minus-3 yards in the first half (if you can call that "gaining" yards) and just 90 for the game, and they were held to just 43 yards in the Gator Bowl. Against Miami, they fared better with 167 yards, but the truth remains: better rushing attacks against Syracuse and Florida State could have meant the difference between winning and losing.

3. Special Teams. We have documented the special teams failures already, most notably the punt return for a TD that Syracuse had, and the blocked punt that Florida State had in the Gator Bowl. These were breakdowns from the normally-reliable Tech special teams that led directly to defeat, particularly when combined with the other shortcomings the Hokies had in those games.

The Lack of a Running QB

After registering a Big East-record 2,793 yards rushing in 1999 and then topping it with 2,975 in the year 2000, the Hokies' run production dropped off drastically in 2001, falling to 2,142 yards. Most of the difference can be traced directly to the quarterback position, where Michael Vick netted 585 yards in 1999 and 617 in 2000, scoring 16 rushing TD's along the way. Grant Noel, on the other hand, netted minus-14 yards rushing this season and had just 2 rushing touchdowns.

Never mind Noel's passing, which ran hot (Connecticut and FSU) and cold (Miami) this year. It was his inability to make something out of nothing that hurt. In 1999, Michael Vick made a fantastic sideline run against West Virginia that was the difference between victory and defeat. In 2000, he made a 55-yard run against Syracuse with 1:34 to go in the fourth quarter that sealed a narrow 22-14 win. Also in 2000, he rolled up 210 yards rushing against Boston College, including a game-clinching 82-yard run in the fourth quarter. Tech won 48-34.

Noel is incapable of making those plays. If he were, it might have meant the difference between losing and winning against Syracuse, Miami, and Florida State. Those were all close losses in which one great play by a running quarterback -- be it an 82-yarder or just an 8-yard scramble on a key third and 7 -- could have changed the outcome.

Summing It Up

It's very simple. The difference between the 11-1 seasons in 1999 and 2000, versus the 8-4 season in 2001, can be traced down to five factors, in my opinion:

  • Lack of key plays by the defense at critical times (Syracuse and Florida State)
  • Special teams breakdowns (Syracuse and Florida State)
  • Critical mistakes and turnovers at critical times (Syracuse, Miami, and Florida State)
  • Lack of a dominating running game (Syracuse and Florida State)
  • Lack of a running quarterback (Syracuse, Miami, and Florida State)

But it gets even simpler than that. This team just didn't make plays when it needed to. While the list of mistakes and breakdowns made over the course of the season is seemingly endless, the list of clutch plays is oh-so-short. Only one, the punt block against Miami, comes readily to mind. After that, you have to think hard.

This team had a great defense and a box full of cupcakes on its schedule, plus it had critical conference games at home against BC, Syracuse, and Miami. It failed to take advantage of every opportunity presented to it, with the exception of the Boston College game.

So was it a disappointing season? Yes, it was. Karma swung back in the other direction this year, and Tech paid for all the good fortune and great play they had in 1999 and 2000. (Speaking of which, in terms of good luck, bad luck, good plays, and bad plays, 1998-2001 balances out nicely, doesn't it?)

But you can't dwell on it; it's not as if the program is going down the tubes. They simply didn't have the game-breaking talent they needed at quarterback, and they didn't get the clutch plays they needed from anyone on the team. That changes from year to year, and the program is on the right track. Don't like the results from this season? Hang around for a few more seasons; it'll change. Good fortune in football is like the Blacksburg weather. It changes rapidly.

Next season doesn't promise to be better, record-wise. The schedule is very tough, with home games against SEC-champion LSU, MAC-champion Marshall (with QB Byron Leftwich), and road games against BC, Miami, Syracuse, and Texas A&M. All seven of those teams won their bowl games.

But next year, despite whatever the record turns out to be, will be deemed a success if it harkens the return of some of the key components of winning Hokie football: the rushing game, special teams play, clutch plays at key moments, and improved quarterback play. Throw in some improved offensive play-calling like what was witnessed in the Gator Bowl, and Hokie fans will be excited about the future of Hokie football again, no matter how 2002 turns out.



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