Don't let the peripheral stuff fool you: Vinnie Fuller's
return of a blocked field goal, WVU's John Pennington dropping a pass on the
Hokie 2-yard line, Bryan Randall missing three receivers open deep and throwing
a horrible pick for a TD, Brandon Pace kicking four field goals, two teams
combining for 25 penalties … that's all just window dressing. This game was
decided in the trenches, pure and simple. VT manhandled WVU up front, just like
WVU had done to VT in 2002 and 2003, and that's why the Hokies won this ball
This game analysis won't be quite so intensive as the last
one (primarily because the last one darn near killed me). When the Hokies lose,
I search for answers in the details, and when they win, I tend to paint with a
broad brush. I'll throw a few stats at you, but for the most part, we'll take a
look at the larger trends that settled this game.
Speaking of large things, let's start with Tech's
defensive play, particularly that of Jonathan Lewis.
One of the things I loved about former Hokie defensive
tackle David Pugh (1998-2001) was the way Pugh would make a statement early in
the game. The opposing offense would line up for their first series, and Pugh
would bust up the middle and take down a running back, or flush the opposing QB
out of the pocket and into the arms of a waiting defensive end. Pugh loved an
early how-do-you-do play to set the tone.
Jonathan Lewis, shown swallowing a WVU running back whole
in the intro picture above, had such a game on Saturday against WVU, including
the introductions on WVU's first possession. After WVU backed themselves up on
first down with an illegal block, Lewis tackled Rasheed Marshall on a QB draw
that gained 3 yards (though it was James Griffin who came up and rocked Marshall
with the first hit).
On 2nd and 16, Marshall handed off to Kay-Jay Harris. It
is the exact kind of play that WVU has killed the Hokies with the last two
years: Marshall hands off to the running back, who gets to survey the line, get
a good running start, and pick his hole on his way to a 5-8 yard gain, or more.
Except this time, Lewis blew it up, pushing his blocker
back into the backfield and forcing Harris to break the run outside. James
Anderson was waiting for Harris there, and Lewis pursued like a demon, sloughing
off his blocker and running Harris down from behind as he tried to put a move on
Anderson. No gain, setting up 3rd and 16, one of 13 third-downs WVU wouldn't
For the day, Lewis had 7 tackles, including one and a half
for loss and two more for no gain (DL coach Charley Wiles said he had three
tackles for loss on Beamerball.com; the hokiesports.com box score says 1.5). He
was a demon on short yardage, where he had a hand in stopping three
3rd-and-short and 4th-and-short situations, either by making the tackle himself
or stonewalling the line of scrimmage so a linebacker could make the tackle.
Lewis and James Anderson combined for two stops where Lewis disrupted the play
and Anderson feasted on the leftovers.
Lewis was strong all day long. Wiles called it his best
game since arriving at Virginia Tech, and that's not hyperbole. I've said it
before and I'll say it again: the light usually goes on for a player in his
third year in the program, and this is Lewis' third year at VT. He has made
great plays at times – for instance, last year he had 7 TFL's and 4 sacks,
decent totals for a DT – but he has not been able to bring the heat
consistently throughout a ball game, and many times he hasn't even been able to
string together three good plays.
In the last two weeks, Lewis has shown more push through
the line and more pursuit down the line than he has in his first two seasons.
He's not alone among the defensive tackles. Converted DE
Jim Davis accomplishes pressure through a combination of speed and strength. He
only had one tackle in this game, but he was very active. Carlton Powell knocked
Kay-Jay Harris out of this game with a first-quarter tackle for a 1-yard loss,
then he finished him off on the opening play of the second quarter when he burst
up the middle and tackled him for a 3-yard loss.
The defensive line in general continued their strong play.
After Vinnie Burns shanked a horrible 11-yard punt on his first kick, spotting
the ball at the WVU 37-yard line, Darryl Tapp (5 tackles, 1 TFL) made an
athletic stop on wideout Ed Jackson on an end-around, throwing him for a 9-yard
loss and turning the momentum back to VT. It's the kind of play that Tapp might
have lost containment on last year, when he was active but less disciplined.
In all, the Hokie DL had 5 of Tech's 7 tackles for loss,
and on the season, the DL has 24.5 of Tech's 37 tackles for loss (66%). Last
season, they had 49 of 99 TFLs (50%). They averaged 3.77 TFLs per game last year
in 13 games, and this year, they're averaging 4.9.
And in the stat I'm watching the most this year, Tapp is
still second on the team in total tackles with 28 (Vince Hall leads with 30, and
Vinnie Fuller is third with 25). Remember, no defensive end has finished higher
than #3 on the team in tackles since Jimmy Whitten in 1990.
The point is, the difference in this game, and perhaps
this season, for the defense has been the play of the defensive line,
particularly the tackles. The Hokies are getting a good push with the line, and
the tackles, led by Lewis, really disrupted the WVU rushing game. With the
spread offense WVU runs, if you don't get a push with the DL and you allow their
running backs and QB to get a good look at the holes, you're in big trouble.
That's what happened the last two years, but it didn't happen this year, and
that was the difference in this game.
After giving up 263 and 264 yards rushing in 2002 and
2003, VT gave up just 134 yards on 36 carries in this game, and 46 of that came
on one play, the touchdown run by Marshall in the fourth quarter. Outside of
that, WVU only averaged 2.5 yards per carry, after averaging 5.0 yards per carry
against VT in 2002 and 2003.
Stopping the run sets up everything else for the defense.
To dig a little deeper, stopping a team on first down, the majority of which are
runs, sets everything else up.
WVU ran 15 times on first down and passed 8 times, and
they averaged a mere 3 yards on first down. That set the table for a lot of 2nd
and long and 3rd and long situations, which are relatively easy to defend.
"Long" is defined as 7 yards or more to go for a first down, and WVU
faced the following:
- On 2nd down, the Mountaineers ran 19 plays, 13 of which
were 2nd and long. Of those 13 long plays, 9 were 10 yards or further. This
means that 50% of the time, WVU faced 2nd and 10 or longer. Only one 2nd
down was less than 5 yards to go.
- On 3rd down, WVU ran 13 plays, and 9 of them were 3rd
and long, hence their 0-for-13 third-down conversion rate. Of the four
3rd-and-short situations, one was a 3rd and 4 that resulted in an incomplete
pass, and the other three were 3rd and 1 or 3rd and 2, all of which were
WVU was 1-for-2 on 4th and short. Here's the breakdown of
all 3rd and short and 4th and short situations:
- 1st quarter, 3:11 to go, 3rd and 1: Marshall is under
center, and he hands off to Kay-Jay Harris. The VT defensive tackles dig in
under the WVU OL and hold the line, and Chris Ellis and Aaron Rouse pinch
down the line to tackle Harris for no gain.
- 1st quarter, 2:30 to go, 4th and 1: Harris up the
middle again. Vince Hall meets the fullback in the hole and stands him up.
Harris bumps into him and breaks to the right, where Vinnie Fuller meets him
head-on, forcing a fumble. The Hokies recover.
- 2nd quarter, 9:15 to go, 3rd and 2: WVU runs a sweep
right, and Jonathan Lewis blows up the middle. James Anderson pinches down
from the outside to combine with Lewis for the tackle, for a 2-yard loss.
- 2nd quarter, 3:02 to go, 3rd and 1: WVU runs Jason
Colson up the middle. Jonathan Lewis caves in the middle of the line and
tackles Colson for no gain.
- 2nd quarter, 2:30 to go, 4th and 1: WVU finally gets
one when Colson goes up the middle for 5 yards.
I notice two things: (1) WVU got no 3rd and short or 4th
and short situations in the entire second half, and (2) WVU bullheadedly went up
the middle on every short-yardage situation on 3rd and 4th down.
Defensively, the Hokie plan was to stop the run and make
Rasheed Marshall beat them with the pass. WVU played right into it by trying to
play power football on short-yardage downs, and by running 65% of the time on
first down. VT stacked the line on short yardage, and WVU stubbornly went right
at it, only to fail.
You might wonder if WVU's penalties contributed to their
lack of short-yardage situations. After reviewing all of their penalties, I can
report that not once did WVU turn a short-yardage situation into long-yardage
because of a penalty. They did wipe out their one 3rd-down conversion with a
penalty, though. (Statistical oddity: of the 25 penalties in the game, only 7
came when WVU was on offense.)
One statistic of note going into the game was that WVU's
leading receiver was Chris Henry (23 catches in 4 games), and their
second-leading receiver was the backup tailback, Colson (6 receptions – that's
right, 6). WVU was very much a one-trick pony in the passing game, and their
weakness showed up against VT. Henry had 5 catches, but his longest reception
was only 12 yards, and as Raleigh Hokie pointed out in his post-game follow-up,
Henry appeared "disinterested," not putting forth much effort. Jack
Bogaczyk wrote in the Charleston
Daily Mail on Monday:
"And speaking of misses and WVU receivers, when are
they going to start running correct routes? Does Chris Henry think all contact
is illegal? Will the wideouts block anyone downfield this season?"
Bud Foster's game plan was sound, and WVU coach Rich
Rodriguez, knowing his team's strengths (power running) and weaknesses
(passing), played right into it.
The only time the Hokies ran into trouble, as far as I
could tell, came when the backups were in the game on defense. WVU put together
a 4-play, 76-yard drive to make it 19-13 in the fourth quarter, and it came
against the backup DL, plus whip linebacker Aaron Rouse. On Marshall's 46-yard
run, DE Chris Ellis pinched down and failed to keep containment, and the
tailback blocked Rouse out of the play, opening up the running lanes for
Marshall. Marshall juked Fuller and ran by Eric Green on his way to paydirt.
It was the exact kind of play that Jonathan Lewis, Darryl
Tapp, and James Anderson had been squelching all day long, but WVU sprung it
that one time on the backups.
One week after roasting offensive coordinator Bryan
Stinespring, I will sing his praises. I came away from this game thinking that
it was one of his best games ever, and several Tech fans I spoke with after the
game agreed. One fan brought up the failure of VT to score a single TD on four
trips inside the red zone, and I'll address that in a minute.
First, some reflection. After the 2002 Pittsburgh game, a
28-21 loss by the Hokies, I noted that Tech's offensive game plan was incredibly
vanilla. The Hokies threw every time they were in the shotgun, rushed almost
every time they were under center, didn't use a single play-action pass, and
incorporated zero misdirection in the running game. I thought it was one of the
worst performances I had ever seen by an offensive coordinator.
In this game, play-action passing and misdirection in the
blocking schemes were everywhere. WVU never knew where the play was coming from,
and this allowed 5-7 Mike Imoh (post-game quote: "I'm short, but I'm not
small") to find holes and exploit them.
The Hokies ran the counter, they ran misdirection, they
boot-legged, and every 7-step drop was preceded by play-action. This is what
I've been waiting for. In one delicious twist, they even ran tight end Jeff King
in motion and then had him cut back as a lead blocker on running plays. Vicious.
On one rushing play, King absolutely annihilated a WVU linebacker.
WVU runs a 3-3-5 defense that allows them to bring six
guys to the line, and they'll plug you up in the running game if you don't
freeze them a little bit. Stinespring ran a lot of two-tight-end sets to get
enough blockers on the line to outnumber WVU, and then he ran counters and
misdirection to keep WVU's linebackers in place. This plan, along with Imoh's
lack of height, made it very difficult for the WVU linebackers to just crash
into the holes.
Not that the Hokies dominated the game offensively. They
ran 34 first-down plays and averaged 4.0 yards per first down. That sounds
impressive, but that includes a 32-yard pass to Josh Hyman. Outside of that, VT
only averaged 3.2 yards on first down.
But after first down, the Hokies did more with it than WVU
did. Seven times the Hokies ran it for a first down on second down (compared to
two for WVU), and they converted 7 of 19 third-down conversions, compared to
The VT offense killed itself in two areas: red-zone
conversion and deep passes.
Red-Zone Conversion: Four
times the Hokies made it into the red zone (inside the WVU 20), and they didn't
score a single touchdown:
1st quarter: Mike Imoh runs from the 9-yard line to the
5-yard line on first down, but a questionable personal foul on Jimmy Martin
pushes the Hokies back out to the 20, where they eventually settle for a 30-yard
2nd quarter: From the WVU 26-yard line, Randall completes
a pass to Imoh down to the WVU 1, but a holding call on Martin wipes out the
gain. The Hokies kick a 46-yard field goal by Pace, a career long.
3rd quarter: Facing 2nd and 6 from the WVU 7-yard line,
Randall throws the ball off of Jared Mazzett's fingertips. VT commits delay of
game to push it out to the WVU 12, and on the next play, a rushed VT offense
results in a bad shotgun snap over Randall's head and an incomplete pass. The
Hokies kick a 29-yard field goal.
4th quarter: On 2nd and 7 from the WVU 18, Randall hits
Mazzetta in the hands at the 5-yard line, but he drops it. After a 3rd and 7
incompletion, Pace kicks a 35-yard field goal.
You can't blame any of that on the game plan or
play-calling. Those failures were penalties and execution.
Deep Passes: Randall missed
three deep passes in this game:
- 1st quarter, 4:21 to go: On 1st and 10 from the VT 13,
Randall underthrows a wide-open David Clowney, and the ball is intercepted.
- 2nd quarter, 13:45 to go: On 1st and 10 from the Tech 45,
Randall overthrows Clowney, who has again broken open behind the defense. The
Hokies eventually punt.
- 3rd quarter, 3:06 to go: On 2nd and 6 from the Tech 35,
Randall scrambles right, motions Eddie Royal downfield, and then misses the open
Royal. (Royal bumped the defender on the play, which contributed to the miss.)
On the next play, Randall throws an interception to WVU DB Eric Wicks, who runs
it in for a touchdown.
Let's Play What-If: I love
this game. Let's assume that the Hokies would have scored TDs on all four
penetrations into the red zone. And let's also assume that if Randall had put
the ball on the money on those three deep balls, they would have all gone for
TDs. Let's see … convert four field goals to touchdowns … (calculator
clicking) … add three deep touchdown passes … (calculator whirring) … take
away the WVU interception for a TD … (calculator ticking and dinging) …
Great googly-moogly, this game was eight plays away from
being a 56-6 blowout by the Hokies. And I didn't even point out that Pace missed
a 34-yard field goal in the third quarter.
Think about that for a minute. That explains the gray hair
on Frank Beamer, doesn't it? Well, that and 57 years of living.
Anyway, that little game of what-if illustrates how much
the Hokies controlled this game from start to finish, only to make it close with
mental errors and poor execution. You can't find eight plays that would cause
that kind of swing in the outcome for WVU. The only thing you can find is the
drop on the VT 2-yard line by John Pennington, which might have led to a WVU
touchdown and would have negated the blocked field goal for a touchdown by VT.
That would have made it 20-12, WVU, a narrow win for the Mountaineers, but
certainly no 56-6 blowout.
Speaking of missed passes by Randall (and that terrible
interception where he threw back across the field and gift-wrapped a touchdown
for WVU), let's face it: what you see is what you get with Bryan Randall. He's a
great kid, good team leader, and he runs well with the football. But he also
misses open receivers and makes one or two bonehead plays a game. That's BR,
folks, and given that he's a senior, it's not going to change. I like the guy,
but I also understand that his propensity for mistakes and his general
inaccuracy on the long ball are characteristics that he's not likely to
magically shed between this week and next. And that's the way it is.
One more comment on the offense: one thing that WVU did
exceptionally well was manage the play clock. On nearly every play, the
Mountaineer offense was on the line of scrimmage with 20 or 21 seconds left on
the play clock. That enabled Marshall to survey the defense and make changes or
play calls. In the case of an audible, Marshall was literally able to walk from
one player to the next and shout it in their ear, negating the effect of the VT
VT could use a little of that medicine. The snap over
Randall's head really stood out, because the VT offense was rushing to get the
snap in right after they had already been flagged for delay of game.
Putting it in Context
Beamer was quick to point out, rightly so, that this win
only means something if you do something positive afterwards. Last year's 31-7
victory over Miami serves little purpose at this point, other than a really cool
replay of the "Enter Sandman" bounce and the right to say that yes, VT
has beaten a top-5 team under Beamer.
Oh, and that picture of the Miami tight end lying on the
goal line after dropping the fake punt is pretty funny, too.
But in the grand scheme of things, the big Miami win last
year was just a rest stop on VT's total 2003 season collapse.
As for this WVU game, it gives Beamer another win over a
top-10 program, but it doesn't add any more W's to that all-important ACC win
column. Tech's still right where they were after the NC State loss, still facing
an uphill climb to make a bowl game this year.
On a personal note, the win is a great one, and not
because I dislike WVU, hate to see VT fall to 2-3, etc. But I will tell you that
it's Tuesday after the win, and I have gotten much less email than I
received in the days after the NCSU loss. I tell you, the team starts losing,
and people go nuts. If they win, everything's cool, and I can actually get to
bed at a decent hour.
Anyway, enough about me. The Hokies follow up this win
with games at Wake Forest, Florida A&M, at Georgia Tech, and at UNC. The
potential is there to win all of those and be 7-2, 4-1 in the ACC, heading into
the home stretch of Maryland, Virginia, and at Miami. The team might also lose a
couple of those and be 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the league. In either case, the
win over WVU is for bragging rights and literally nothing else, unless being
ranked or unranked matters to you. This game has no bearing on VT's finish in
the league and what bowl game they'll be going to. That will all be settled in
the coming weeks by games that will be played in the future, not the one the
Hokies just won.
There's a lot more I could say about this game, but as I
noted in the opening, it's what happened in the trenches, dictated by the
players and the game plans, that decided this game. The rest of it was just
details. Great job this go-round by the players and coaches.