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2003 Insight Bowl Analysis
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 1/7/04

Click here for TSL's game recap with stats

For nearly two weeks now, I have put off writing this article, and the reason why is very plain to me: my appetite for analyzing more VT losses is small, very small. But once again, the loss happened, and once again, I have to analyze it. Because if I don't, there will be a weird little empty spot in my 2003 Schedule/Results page.

The losses to BC and UVa hurt, but this game, I think, will be remembered as the straw that broke the camel's back, meaning that many Hokie fans, plus the media, are now looking at the Virginia Tech coaching staff, and asking, "Well?" As in, "What's going to be done to fix this mess?" Getting 52 points hung on you will do that.

For me, the lasting image from this game will not be Bryan Randall throwing darts to Keith Willis, or Marcus Vick catching passes from the receiver position, or Kevin Jones running through gaping holes in the middle of the defense. It won't even be Carter Warley shanking kicks, or Cal's mediocre field-goal kicker, Tyler Frederickson, punching the game-winning kick down the middle after having missed his last six field goals coming into the game.

No, what I take away from this game will be the image of Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers smiling widely, grinning from ear to ear, after completing yet another third-down pass for a key first down in the fourth quarter. Rodgers, his team up by just one score with six minutes to go in an important bowl game for the Cal program, was having such a breezy time of it that he was laughing. Just another passing drill for the young sophomore QB with the squeaky-clean uniform.

There was a day when opposing quarterbacks were more likely to be lying on the field writhing in agony than yucking it up as they drove down the field for their team's seventh touchdown of the game, not to mention the sixth in a row. If nothing else tells you how far this Hokie team has fallen, particularly its defense, the pearly whites flashed by Aaron Rodgers on his way to hitting 27-of-35 passes for 394 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions ought to clue you in.

Maybe this was necessary. You have to hit rock bottom to start back up. And while some of you may argue that 8-5 is not "rock bottom," I think that losing four of the last five games, with the only win being a narrow victory over a horrid 1-10 Temple team, and having a team hang 50+ on you in a bowl game, is rock bottom.

This game boiled down to three things: (1) a VT offense flashing all its weapons on the way to setting multiple Hokie bowl-game records; (2) a VT defense that was powerless to stop its opponent; and (3) a kicker who melted down in his last game.

Let's take them one at a time.

The Offense

As noted in last week's TSLMail, Bryan Randall, Kevin Jones, Ernest Wilford, and Keith Willis all had record-breaking days, as the Hokie offense shredded California for 551 yards and 42 points, with nine more points lost on missed field goals.

You can't blame the offense for this one. Randall hit 24 of 34 passes for 398 yards (4 yards more than Rodgers, if you can believe that), Willis caught two TD passes, Wilford caught 8 passes for 110 yards, and Kevin Jones rushed for almost 10 yards a carry (16 carries, 153 yards) and scored a TD.

42 points -- plus 7 more from a DeAngelo Hall punt return -- should be enough to win.

How did the Hokies do it? By hitting Cal with everything they had. In Virginia Tech's first five drives, they opened a bag full of tricks, many of which hadn't been seen all year long:

First Drive: a screen pass to KJ for a 14-yard gain on 2nd and 19; a fake end-around to Vick at receiver; a dumpoff to Jones for 10 yards on 3rd and 8; a flanker screen to Vick for 13 yards.

Second Drive: a deep option pass by Richard Johnson on the end around on the first play (incomplete); a 53-yard bomb to Chris Shreve; a 3-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Keith Willis.

Third Drive: a 36-yard bomb from Randall to Vick on the very first play, for a touchdown.

Fourth Drive: a 43-yard run by KJ.

Fifth Drive: a throw to the tight end on first down (incomplete); QB draw by Vick on 2nd down; a poorly-executed screen to KJ that was rescued by Randall flicking the ball to Jones; a pass to Vick that went to the Call 11; the Hokies score on the option.

So in the first five possessions, in which the Hokies scored four touchdowns, they utilized Vick as a receiver, threw to the tight end, called the screen play to Jones at least twice, ran a Richard Johnson option pass, called a Vick QB draw … they did it all.

Those of you who have read my ramblings the last couple of years know that I'm not in favor of calling a bunch of plays just to be calling a bunch of plays. I much prefer an offensive system that reads the defense, sets it up, and hits its weak spots … pretty much what Cal did in this game. But you have to give VT offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring credit. He didn’t mess around, using everything he had at his disposal, including Vick at wide receiver (4 catches, 82 yards, one touchdown).

When VT was done with those first five possessions, they were up 28-14 with 5:16 to go in the second quarter and appeared to have the game well in hand. But things went south.

Where the Game Was Lost

From the time it was 21-7, Cal scored six touchdowns on six straight possessions (more on that later), and VT was left with no recourse but to match them score for score. The problem was, they didn't.

The trouble started in Tech's fourth possession, when the Hokies ran Jones wide on 2nd and one from the Cal 22. The Bears stuffed him for a one-yard loss -- Jones ran up the middle unmolested all game, but Cal defended him well on the perimeter, for the most part -- setting up a 3rd and two. Randall missed Justin Hamilton with a pass to the end zone, one of several curious play calls throughout the second and third quarters.

Carter Warley was brought on for a 40 yard field goal, which he missed badly, yanking it left.

No big deal, right? VT got a TD on their next possession, and the VT offensive machine appeared to be back in gear, up 28-14.

On their next four possessions, however, the Hokies:

  • Missed a 45-yard field goal on the last play of the first half (28-21, Hokies, instead of 31-21).
  • Missed a 28-yard field goal on the first possession of the second half (Cal scores to tie it at 28).
  • Had a screen blown up by Cal for a six-yard loss on second down, then gave up a sack on third down and had to punt (Cal scores to go up 35-28).
  • Threw a 33-yard incompletion to Cedric Humes and a 35-yard incompletion to Shreve, then scrambled for 4 yards on third down and had to punt (Cal scores to go up 42-28).

By the time the Hokies snapped out of their funk and scored on a beautiful 22-yard dart from Randall to Willis -- again, wide open -- they had already surrendered their 28-14 lead and were down 42-28. The score to Willis made it 42-35.

The Hokie offense played well, but they made the mistake of failing to execute (and failing to make their field goals) on four straight drives, and it cost them. It's hard to believe it, but it resulted in a 28-0 streak by Cal and cost the Hokies the game.

Not that I'm blaming it on the offense. Again, 42 points is plenty.

The Defense

What can you say that hasn't been said? The Cal offensive statistics were gaudy. Here are the gaudiest ones:

  • 52 points, 530 yards (both records for VT bowl opponents).
  • QB Aaron Rodgers, 27-of-35 (including 12 in a row) for 394 yards, two TDs, and zero INTs.
  • 13-of-17 third down conversion rate (including an incredible 10 in a row).

There are others, but those stats are the biggies.

The Hokie defense experienced the same bugaboos in this game as they did all year:

Lack of a Pass Rush. VT had two sacks, one a coverage sack by Nathaniel Adibi, and another on a great bull rush up the middle by Kevin Lewis on Cal's last possession that almost won the game for Tech. Lewis charged up the middle, hit Rodgers, and knocked the ball loose on the Cal 29, with the score tied at 49. Cols Colas narrowly missed recovering the ball for Tech, and Cal went on to score the winning field goal.

But what really jumps out at you are the QB hurries by Virginia Tech, as recorded in the game stats on hokiesports.com: zero. Aaron Rodgers threw the ball 35 times, and Tech hurried him not once. Even in the nightmare game against WVU, when the Mountaineers threw the ball just 14 times, the Hokies had three QB hurries. They had 11 against Virginia, 7 against Pitt, 5 against Boston College, and a whopping 24 against Miami.

Zero QB hurries. If you felt like Rodgers had all day to throw, you were right. He did.

Poor Linebacker Play. Many people, me included, have wondered why Jordan Trott didn't play more instead of Mikal Baaqee this season. Trott had a solid game against Miami, for example. But in this game, he showed his weakness, namely lateral movement. A couple of times, Trott read running plays quickly and filled the hole perfectly, only to have the Cal running backs -- Adimchinobe Echimandu and J.J. Arrington -- put a little move on him and slip by untouched. Trott has had his moments, but he doesn't appear to be the answer to Tech's linebacker problems.

Another play stands out: Vincent Strang scored on a 13-yard end around for Cal's last touchdown. As Strang came from the right to the left and took the handoff, VT linebacker Aaron Rouse stood up a blocker and forced Strang back to the inside, where he's supposed to meet the cavalry in the form VT's middle linebacker. But Baaqee got absolutely planted in the turf by Cal's left tackle, and Strang scored easily (where the corner, rover, and free safety were, I have no idea. I didn't have the stomach to run the play back again).

Inability to Defend the Tight End and Running Backs in the Passing Game. Cal really killed VT with the back out of the backfield and passes to the tight end. TE Brandon Hall had three catches for 62 yards, and running backs Arrington (5 catches, 38 yards), Echemandu (3 catches 28 yards) and fullback Manderino (3 catches 23 yards) combined for 11 receptions for 89 yards and a TD, by Arrington.

VT repeatedly gets burned by the delayed release by the back or the tight end. Cal didn't really delay the tight end in this game (as UVa did with Heath Miller), but they hurt Tech with the back out of the backfield.

One example of this was Arrington's 13-yard reception for a touchdown at the end of the first half. Cal was facing 3rd and goal from the Hokie 13. They snapped the ball, and Hall, the tight end, released from the right side of the line and went downfield. The VT whip went with him (Manning), and for some reason, Baaqee went with him, too, providing double coverage on the TE and completely clearing out the middle of the field. Arrington released out of the backfield, caught a slant from Rodgers, and waltzed into the end zone untouched.

Even when VT did the right thing, they got burned. Early in the game, Cal dropped back to pass, and Vegas Robinson held his position in the middle of the field, waiting in case Hall released and went out. Hall never did, staying in to block. The problem was, Hall was lined up on the left side of Cal's offense, and Rodgers vacated the pocket and ran to the right, away from Robinson, for a long gain (24 yards) on third and five. That broke a string of three straight three-and-outs by the Cal offense and got them going again.

The Kicking Game

This was not a good way for Carter Warley to end his VT career. Despite perfect snaps and holds, Warley badly missed three field goals, and he even kicked two kickoffs out of bounds, before giving way to Brandon Pace, who also kicked a kickoff out of bounds.

Questions abound:

Why did Warley not work on his kicking motion on the sideline at any point in the game? He was yanking kicks all over the place, and his form looked so bad that at one point, my wife walked into the room, saw an isolation replay of Warley on one of his field goal misses, and said of his form, "Yuck! That looked terrible!" Exactly what I was thinking, and yet, Warley didn't work on his mechanics at all. Every time the TV cameras showed him, he was either standing up just watching the game, or taking a knee.

Why was he allowed to continue kicking? BeamerBall.com quoted Beamer as asking Warley at half time, "You need to let me know if you don't have it tonight … Do I need to go with (Brandon) Pace?" And when asked by a caller on the Hokie Hotline last Monday why he left Warley in, Beamer responded that he "wanted it to end better" for Carter.

It was pretty obvious after one kickoff out of bounds and a badly missed field goal that it wasn't Warley's night, and perhaps Brandon Pace should have been brought in sooner, or at least given a try, particularly after the second missed field goal.

I can see the other side of the argument. Warley is a senior, and Pace is a redshirt freshman, and if you sit Warley in this game, that's it, his career is done. But at the same time, you have to ask yourself, if Coach Beamer is making decisions about Carter Warley with Warley's feelings (there's no other way to put it) in mind, what other personnel decisions is he making based on feelings and not performance?

Frank Beamer is a nice guy, a very nice man who believes in loyalty to his players and a family atmosphere on his football team, but at the same time, he's got to make some tough decisions without worrying about people's feelings.

Next Up: Next Year

That's quite enough, I think. I could go on more, but I won't. I seem to be having a hard time saying anything positive (despite great performances by Jones, Willis, Vick, and Randall), and this thing of pointing out the shortcomings of players and questioning coaching decisions has gotten old in the last seven games, since the Meltdown in Mo-Town occurred. 8-5 is 8-5, and 2-5 down the stretch is 2-5. The Hokie coaches have pledged to take a look at things and right the ship.

Time will tell if that truly occurs, and if changes are really afoot, but one thing is clear: This game was a pivotal game. It started with a Tech team wanting to turn around a bad end to the season, and it ended with the opposing quarterback in the bowl game laughing at how easy it was to march down the field, execute his offense, and score.

For me, that pretty much sums it up. Maybe I should have just cut this analysis off after the first few paragraphs and just left it at that. Aaron Rodgers was laughing at Tech. That's my analysis.

Later on, I'll resume my "State of the Program" series and continue trying to figure out what has gone wrong, how the Hokies can fix it, and what's right that needs to be left alone.

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