After giving USC a stiff challenge in the opener
and playing nearly flawless football in game 2 against Western Michigan, the
Hokies got off to a slow start against Duke Saturday. Tech ran up 13 penalties
and couldn't establish a dominating running game, but the Hokies played stifling
defense and took advantage of their superior athleticism to notch an easy win.
It was billed as an historic game, being Tech's
first ACC conference game ever, but you can't help but escape the feeling that
the opponent (Duke), the start time (noon) and the threat of a hurricane (Ivan)
that never materialized threw the Hokies into a bit of a lull. Duke jumped out
to a 7-0 lead, but then Hokies flexed their muscle, reeling off 34 straight
points, and this game was never in doubt.
At times, though, the Hokies weren't mentally
sharp, and their running game needs work. They'll sit down and figure out how
they amassed 13 penalties for 101 yards, and they'll continue to work on a
rushing game that has seen their quarterback outrush both tailbacks through
VT wasn't sharp early in this one. Things got off
to a bad start when Eddie Royal returned the opening kickoff to the 27, but
reserve TE Duane Brown was flagged for an illegal block, putting the ball back
at the 6.
Bryan Randall later threw the first of two
interceptions on the day, a terrible throw that went straight to Duke defensive
end Justin Kitchen. Kitchen had dropped back into coverage, and Randall tried to
throw it over him to tight end Jeff King, who had run a short out pattern.
Randall said after the game that he saw Kitchen but simply shortarmed the pass,
leaving it way short and hitting Kitchen in the chest. Randall likened it to
airballing a three-pointer.
Duke faced a 4th and 8 on their first possession
and lined up in a strange punt formation, with punter Trey McDonald lined up
just 9 yards behind the line of scrimmage. McDonald took the snap and lofted a
9-yard completion to tight end Andy Rowland for a first down. Two plays later,
wide receiver Deon Adams took the ball on an end-around and scored from 28 yards
out, as VT defensive end Darryl Tapp, who otherwise had a great day, totally
lost containment by biting on a play fake up the middle and vacating his side of
the field. That sprung Adams, who outran a Hokie defense that wasn't pursuing
with their usual abandon.
The entire sequence, from Randall's terrible
interception to the fake punt conversion to the end-around TD, was sloppy
football by the Hokies. The sloppy football continued on Tech's next possession,
when left guard Reggie Butler false-started one of two false starts by
Butler on the day to turn a 3rd and 2 into a 3rd and 7. Randall threw an
incompletion under heavy pressure on the next play more on that later
and the Hokies punted the ball back to Duke.
After that, VT righted the ship. They stuffed
Duke's second possession and then embarked on a 10-play, 72-yard drive that
culminated in a 1-yard TD run by Justin Hamilton that was the very essence of
the term "second effort."
Duke's second possession featured a bizarre
personal foul on the Hokies. After James Anderson and Darryl Tapp sacked Duke QB
Mike Schneider on 2nd and 11, the Hokies were flagged for a dead-ball personal
foul. The TV production showed cornerback Jimmy Williams flinging a Duke
receiver into the ground, and then jumping up and pushing him, but that wasn't
the penalty call. First, it wasn't during a dead ball, and second, the referee
standing right there didn't call anything.
The umpire who made the penalty call said it was
on #22 for the Hokies (James Griffin), not #2. The problem with that? Griffin
didn't do anything. Shortly after the sack, Griffin pumped his fist in a punching
the air" motion, and I think the refs thought he was taking a swing at a
Duke lineman standing nearby. I've watched the play several times, and I don't
think Griffin was swinging at anyone
though I do think Williams could have
earned a flag, and it would have been justified.
Four Plays that Blew it Open
Back to the game: the TD by Hamilton was the
start of a 34-point outburst by the Hokies over the second and third quarters
that was characterized by two things: no offense by Duke and athletic plays by
the Hokies. VT made a number of plays that Duke either couldn't stop or couldn't
1.) With the score 10-7, Vinnie Burns uncorked
the perfect punt from Tech's 39-yard line. The punt spiraled tightly up into the
air, nose down, bounced on Duke's 4-yard line that's a 57-yard punt in the
air, for those scoring at home and landed out of bounds at the Duke 1-yard
line. The distance, spiral, and angle of the punt were textbook.
On Tech's next possession, on the first play from the Duke 34-yard line, wide
receiver Richard Johnson, a former high school QB, rifled a perfect end-around
option pass to Josh Hyman, who skied in the end zone between two Duke defenders
and snatched the ball out of the air. 17-7, VT.
3.) Two possessions later, VT safety Vince Fuller
snagged an interception by knifing in front of the receiver and meeting the ball
at its highest point, catching it cleanly, and keeping his feet in bounds.
Fuller is underrated as an athlete, but this pick was nothing but sheer
athleticism on his part.
4.) After VT picked up a first down, Randall
tucked the ball on a planned shovel pass and rumbled, bumbled, and stumbled his
way to a Steve Young-like run in which he broke six tackles over the course of
30 yards, finally diving into the end zone at the end.
Randall's TD run made it 24-7, Hokies, and you
knew Duke wasn't going to come back after that. The Hokie defense continued to
bury the Blue Devils with fierce defensive line play, something Duke would
recognize from the last time they played in Lane Stadium, in 1984 against a
Bruce Smith-led Hokie defense. Nobody in the Duke program was around back then,
and many of the players on the field Saturday weren't even born, but the result
was very similar. Smith had two sacks, Duke only spent four plays on Tech's side
of the field, and the Blue Devils had (-4) yards rushing and 72 yards passing in
a 27-0 whipping.
Duke QB Pressure
Randall had 93 yards rushing on 12 carries, with the large majority of it coming
on scrambles away from Duke pressure. As is Randall's custom, he bailed out of
the pocket early sometimes. Other times the blocking was poor, but a number of
times, Duke blitzed to bring pressure.
A couple of times early, the Blue Devils took
advantage of Tech's 4-wide, 1-back set. That's a set with four wide receivers
split wide, no tight end, and one running back. That leaves the five offensive
linemen alone with just one back to protect the QB. Duke pressured Randall a
couple of times by bringing three rushers against two blockers (the guard and
tackle) on the side of the line opposite where the tailback was lined up. So
there were only two blockers between three rushers and Randall. Early in the
game, Duke got good pressure twice with this simple approach.
The Hokies historically haven't had a good answer
against the blitz. Michael Vick spent the entire 2000 season running from heavy
blitzes by VT opponents, and on Saturday, the Hokies were a little slow to burn
Duke when they blitzed. Duke alternates back and forth from a 4-3 alignment to a
3-4 with blitzers.
The Hokies tried the quick toss to the flanker
and had it knocked down once. They also called a screen against the blitz
described above and completed a nice flareout pass to Cedric Humes, but for the
most part, Randall just ran away from the blitz and beat it with his feet, not
with the passing game or protection schemes. That's not sophisticated and
doesn't involve a lot of strategizing, but it worked. The Hokies also kept the
running back in a few times, but that takes away that passing route.
If you're going to run a 4-wide set with no tight
ends, you better have hot reads to wideouts, and you need to be able to dump it
off to the running back. Other teams think Virginia, with their 3-4 will
see the Duke blitzes against Tech's 4-wide set and will note that for the most
part, the Hokies didn't beat those blitzes by passing the ball to the wideouts.
They beat it either by scrambling, rolling the pocket out, or dumping the ball
off to a running back. There was one instance where the Hokies kept the tailback
into block, and Randall hit Hyman for a short gain.
Duke never did get what I would call a
"pure" sack from the blitz. Their first sack came when defensive end
Eli Nichols just flat beat Reggie Butler on a rush up the middle, and their
second sack came when they flushed Randall out of the pocket and Kitchen
escorted him out of bounds for a 4-yard loss.
Tapp, on the other hand, got some sacks.
Noland Burchette started out strong in this game,
and Chris Ellis had a tackle for loss, but Tapp was the DE who played the best
wire to wire. Tapp got some old fashioned off-the-corner speed rush sacks, and
he posted one absolutely silly sack in which he juked Duke running back Aaron
Fryer out of his shoes, blew past him, and planted Chris Dapolito. (Where the
tackle and tight end were, I don't know.)
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. A
player's third year in the program is a critical one. That's when the light
either goes on, or it doesn't. This is Tapp's third year in the VT program, and
he's playing at a high level right now. Last year, he made a lot of plays but
also gave up a lot of plays. This year, he's making even more plays, but has cut
out many of the mistakes and poor plays, though the end-around TD is an example
where he should have kept containment, and his failure to do so cost a TD.
Tapp has 3.5 sacks so far this year, including
2.5 for 16 yards in losses in this game, and on Fuller's interception, he
blasted the Duke QB just as he released the ball. Tapp is second on the team in
tackles this season, with 19. (Vince Hall leads with 22, and Mikal Baaqee is
third with 14.)
The sacks are nice, but the second statistic
might be more important. The last time a defensive end finished first or second
on the team in tackles was 1990, when Jimmy Whitten was second on the team with
80 tackles, behind Archie Hopkins with 89.
Cornell Brown never did it, though he did finish
one measly tackle behind #2 J.C. Price in 1995. Corey Moore never did it.
Several defensive tackles have finished #2 since 1990 (Jerome Preston, 1991;
Price, 1995; and Nathaniel Williams, 1998), but a defensive end hasn't done it
in 13 seasons.
So keep an eye on Tapp's tackle totals, and know
that if he's being that productive, he's having a hell of a season. Three games
doesn't make a season, but at this point, Tapp is producing at a great rate for
a defensive end.
13 penalties for 101 yards is a lot, the most
since the Hokies melted down against WVU last season and drew 13 penalties for
116 yards, including five personal fouls.
In this game, the penalty breakdown was:
Illegal block on kickoff, Duane Brown, 5 yards.
False start, Reggie Butler, 5 yards.
Unsportsmanlike conduct, James Griffin, 15 yards.
Offside, Darryl Tapp, 5 yards.
False start, Reggie Butler, 5 yards.
Illegal block on punt return, Carlton Powell, 15 yards.
False start, Jimmy Martin, 5 yards.
Offside, Jason Lallis, 5 yards.
Holding, Josh Hyman, 10 yards
Roughing the kicker, Cory Price, 15 yards.
False start, Duane Brown, 5 yards.
Face mask, Kory Robertson, 5 yards.
Offside on kickoff, 5 yards
Of those 13 penalties, 1 was bogus the
personal foul on James Griffin so we'll ignore it. Of the other 12, only 5
are "action" penalties, which are penalties that occur after the snap
and before the whistle. The other 7 are "mental" penalties, which
occur before the snap: 4 false starts and 3 offsides, including one on a
It's the "mental" penalties that kill
coaches, and those are the ones they really want to eliminate. When the mental
penalties outnumber the action penalties, that's when coaches and fans sprout a
few more gray hairs.
- At this point, the Hokie rushing attack isn't
what Hokie fans are used to. The offensive line is run-blocking about as
well as they have in recent years, but VT lacks the explosive tailback like
Lee Suggs or Kevin Jones. Several times Saturday, the OL gave Humes and
Hamilton seams that Suggs and Jones might have turned into long gainers, but
Humes and Hamilton weren't able to. The pair of tailbacks produced just one
run over 15 yards, an 18-yarder by Humes. It will be interesting to see what
the addition of Mike Imoh, back from his three-game suspension, will bring
to the running game.
- Memo to Jefferson Pilot productions: That
little spinning ACC logo that you use when you cut from a replay to live
action and back is out of date. Get a copy of the one with diamonds over
Blacksburg and Miami. Contact TheACC.com. (And another thing: tell your
announcers it's "Bryan Randall," not "Marcus Randall.")
- Kickoff artist (yes, artist) Jared Develli is
fast becoming a Hokie cult hero. Develli kicked 6 of 9 kickoffs for
touchbacks, and the last of those two touchbacks went through the uprights.
Let's hear it for white football cleats!
- Duke had 28 yards on the Deon Adams TD. The
rest of the first half, they ran 25 plays for 34 yards.
- Noted: Eddie Royal had a 22-yard punt return
with about 6:00 to go in the third quarter, and on the play, he lost his
shoe and his jersey got stuck under his shoulder pads. Right after he was
down, no less than five veterans descended upon him to help him find his
shoe, get his jersey straight, etc. I think they like the guy.
- The Hokie defense did its job in very vanilla
fashion. They ran their straight 4-3 and blitzed very little throughout the
course of the game. Of Tech's 8 tackles for loss, the DL had 7 of them.
(James Anderson had the other.)
The Hokies weren't super-sharp in this game. They
struggled with penalties, and the running game isn't what they'd like it to be.
But they overwhelmed Duke with a strong defensive effort and sheer athleticism,
making plays that the Blue Devils couldn't.
The real test for VT, and a critical game in the
ACC, comes next when NC State visits Lane Stadium Saturday for a noon kickoff
(ESPN). A win over the Wolfpack gives the Hokies the inside track, in my
opinion, on finishing in the top four in the ACC, or maybe higher. A loss will
make it mighty tough to finish higher than fifth or sixth, with pivotal swing
games against Maryland, UVa, and Georgia Tech remaining, and a land mine game at
Wake Forest on Oct. 9th.