2004 North Carolina Game Analysis
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/10/04

Click here for TSL's game recap with stats

Sometimes when you analyze a game you find hidden gems or little insights that cast a different light on what you think you saw. Other times, as with this game, you uncover stats, trends, or plays that serve only to strengthen your original perception. A detailed analysis of this game reveals it to be what it was: a classic game of run-oriented, ball-control, time-of-possession football orchestrated by the VT coaching staff and carried out by the players.

Oh, there were a few things that made this game more dramatic than it should have been. The Hokies coughed up scoring plays of 48 and 49 yards early, then gave up a blocked punt for a TD late to keep things interesting. But surely you've heard the phrase "This game wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated," and this is a case where you can dust off that phrase and use it with confidence. The final tally was 27-24, Hokies, and Connor Barth missed a field goal that would have tied it with about a minute to go, but the truth is that the Tar Heels were fortunate to have that opportunity.

I read a headline in the Raleigh News and Observer Sunday morning that aggravated me a bit. It said, "Tar Heels Deserved a Victory." Uh, no, they didn't. They almost made enough plays to pull it out, but any team that gives up 243 yards rushing to one tailback doesn't "deserve" to win it.

It turns out that the author meant that the Heels deserved to win it in a sentimental sense, not because they had outplayed VT (which they certainly didn't). What the columnist was really saying was that UNC QB Darian Durant, for one, didn't deserve to go out this way, with the last play of his career on his home turf ending in a game-turning sack by VT defensive end Jim Davis.

But based on what took place on the field, UNC didn't "deserve" to win.

Four Big Plays

Let's paint things with a broad brush first, then look at some of the details. Like most football games, this one turned on just a few plays, and for the most part those plays ended in scores for the Tar Heels. They were:

1.) UNC's first score, a 48 yard run by tailback Chad Scott. What started out as a routine sweep to the right turned into disaster for VT. UNC's O-line, which is a good one, did a good job blocking VT's front seven. The problem for VT came when free safety Vinnie Fuller took a bad attack angle and got caught up in traffic, and rover James Griffin came in from the side and missed the tackle. They were VT's last hopes for a stop, and when they missed, Scott was gone.

2.) UNC's second score, a 49-yard reception by Wallace Wright. The Hokies blitzed, leaving man coverage across the board, and Wright just blew right by backup free safety Mike Daniels, who was in due to a shoulder injury suffered by Vinnie Fuller. Durant delivered a strike, and Wright put the Heels up 14-7.

3.) A dropped pass by Josh Hyman. On the first play of the fourth quarter, with VT up 27-17 and on their own 28-yard line, VT offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring shocked UNC with a deep crossing pattern to Hyman. It was a shock because the Hokies had only thrown one pass in the second half to that point. The play call worked like a charm. Hyman got behind the defense, Bryan Randall hit him with a sure TD pass Ö and the usually reliable Hyman dropped it, his second drop of the game.

4.) A blocked punt for a TD by UNC. It was just the Hokies' second punt of the game, but to say the least, it didn't go well. By Frank Beamer's admission, the Hokies just miscounted along the line, and UNC had one more rusher than VT had blockers. The result was a blocked punt by Tom O'Leary that was covered by D.J. Walker for a TD.

Other than those four plays, which represent a 28-point swing in UNC's direction, the Hokies thrashed the Heels. Details to follow.

The Game Plan

When you're the VT coaching staff, and your team historically has a run-oriented offense, a strong defense, and plays ball control football, and you're going up against a team like UNC that has a poor defense but a potent offense, the course of action is clear: run the football on them, control the clock, and keep their offense off the field. Grind it out, score on them, wear them down, and don't give them a chance to get in a rhythm. Lastly, don't commit penalties, and don't change the field-position battle with turnovers. Like all game plans, that's great in theory, and there are certain statistical measures you can examine afterwards to see if it worked.

Time of Possession: This is the biggest. By definition, ball control offense means that you control the ball more than the other guy. The Hokies had the ball for 36:03, versus just 23:57 for the Heels. That's a per-quarter average of 9 minutes to 6 minutes. VT held the ball longer than UNC in every quarter, and in the second and third quarters, when the Hokies were turning a 7-7 tie into a 27-14 lead, they kept the ball for 19:54, letting UNC have it just 10:06.

Number of Plays: Remember the 2002 Syracuse game, when the Orangemen had the ball for 100 offensive plays, to just 60 for the Hokies? Or 1998, when they ran 88 plays to VT's 38? (That is not a typo.) The Hokies didn't do that to UNC, but they did run 69 offensive plays to UNC's 47. And in a stat that run-oriented guys like Frank Beamer love, the Hokies had more rushing plays than UNC had total offensive plays, 51 to 47.

Run/Pass Distribution: All it takes is a little math from the above point to see that the Hokies ran the ball 51 times and passed it 18. Four of those "runs" were sacks, and that shifts the play call distribution to 47/22 in favor or the pass, still a 68% run/pass ratio. Going into this game (and compensating for sacks), the Hokies run/pass distribution was 318 to 232, or 58%. (Take out the stat-bending FAMU game, and that ratio drops to 55.5%).

The 68% percent run/pass ratio in this game indicates that the running game was working. In the third quarter alone, the Hokies ran it 12 times and called just three passing plays, one of which resulted in Randall tripping over Jim Miller and falling down, and another of which resulted in a sack. So the third quarter went into the books as 14 rushing plays for VT against 1 pass.

Run Distribution by Down: If you've been reading my recent game analysis articles, you know that lately I've gotten into examining what VT does on various down and distance situations. In this game, on 2nd and long (7 or more yards to go) and 3rd and long, the Hokies called 10 runs and 13 passes. On all other down and distance situations, VT tried to run it 37 times and pass it just 9 times, over 75% run/pass distribution. (If you do the math, thatís 22 passing attempts, but 4 of those ended in sacks, hence Randall's 7-of-18 passing numbers). So in everything other than obvious passing downs, the Hokies tended to the run.

Turnovers: The Hokies fumbled twice, but they didn't lose either of them, and they didn't throw an interception. UNC didn't fumble and threw one interception, which the Hokies turned into 3 points, so VT narrowly won the turnover battle.

Penalties: The Hokies came in averaging over 8 penalties, and UNC came in averaging just 4.6 per game. That situation reversed itself in this game. VT had 4 penalties for just 35 yards, and UNC had 7 for 56. As usual, there's a story within the stats, and for UNC, it was this: in a 3-point game, they kept a VT drive alive with a defensive penalty, and VT went on to score a touchdown. On the Hokies' first possession, Hyman dropped a pass on 3rd and 13, apparently ending the drive. But UNC's Gerald Sensabaugh, one of their better defensive players, committed a stupid late hit that kept the chains moving, and VT cashed their second chance in on a touchdown. As noted, in a 3-point game, that's a killer.

You can see from the few stats here that the Hokies came out with running the football and controlling the clock on their minds, and they were successful. It resulted in a huge time of possession advantage and a big advantage in number of plays.

The Hokies wound up with 270 yards rushing on their 51 carries, a 5.3 yards per carry average. Imoh had 243 yards on 32 carries, yielding a 7.6 ypc average that was nearly double his 4.0 average coming in. If you take out Randall's four sacks for a total of 22 yards in losses, the Hokies ran it 47 times, gained 300 yards, and lost just 8, for a total of 292 yards rushing (6.2 ypc).

Bryan Stinespring has noted on a number of occasions that his job as offensive coordinator is not to call a certain ratio of plays, or mix things up in a certain way, but to put his team in position to win. The best way to put the Hokies in a position to win this game was to control the football. Yes, that's always a key, but against UNC, it's not just a key, it's the entire game plan.

Defensive Lapses

The offensive game plan obviously worked. The only thing that kept the Tar Heels in this game were the defensive lapses and special teams lapses the Hokies suffered.

It was noted by the North Carolina press that UNC "held" the Hokies to 370 yards, Carolina's best defensive performance of the season. For their part, the Hokie defense held UNC to a respectable 296 yards. That's UNC's lowest yardage total outside of two head-scratching performances against Louisville (222 yards) and Utah (221) in huge losses (34-0 and 46-16, respectively.)

Remember, VT gave up 95 of those yards on two plays, the 48- and 47-yard touchdowns. Other than that, the Hokies held UNC to 201 yards. In the critical third quarter, as the Hokies stretched their thin 17-14 half time lead to 27-17, the Hokie D gave up just one first down to the Heels. Unfortunately, that was a 30-yard completion to Mike Mason that put the Heels on the VT 13-yard line and led to a Barth field goal.

Not only did the Hokies clamp down on UNC in the third quarter, they did it for the entire second half. UNC only had 87 yards of offense after intermission.

Despite all the drama and big plays by UNC and the close final score, the VT defense played a very, very solid game. They gave up just three plays over 20 yards, the two TDs and the Mason reception listed above. Other than that, VT really made the Heels work for their yardage and first downs.

(Side note: VT only had three plays over 20 yards: runs of 24 and 47 yards by Imoh, and a 43-yard catch by Eddie Royal. But the VT offense isn't known for its explosiveness, and their game plan was to grind it out, not hit it big. Tech only completed 7 passes.)

The Hokies didn't get a lot of penetration or pressure against UNC's O-line, one of the best. But they did play a steady game, except for the few breakdowns, and remember, this was with field general Vinnie Fuller leaving with a shoulder injury late in the first quarter. UNC only had one drive over 4 minutes long -- their last one, which went 4:56 and was also the one with the most plays in it, 9.

Special Teams Performance

There was some concern over VT special teams play, other than the blocked punt. Specifically, Hokie fans expressed alarm at UNC's ability to return kickoffs and punts. Take a look:

Stat

VT

UNC

Punt returns

2-9 (4.5 ypr)

2-45 (22.5 ypr)

KO returns

5-82 (16.4 ypr)

3-81 (27.0 ypr)

The kickoff return stat is an interesting one. Although VT gave up almost 11 yards more per return, Tech's Jared Develli kicked 3 of his 6 kickoffs for touchbacks, whereas the UNC kicker didn't kick any of his 5 into the end zone. As a matter of fact, of Connor Barth's 5 kickoffs, most or all of them were squib kicks that gave VT no real chance for a return.

Once you take all the touchbacks into account and the short kickoffs due to Barth's squib-kicking, the average UNC starting point after kickoffs was their 26.7 yard line, versus 24.4 for VT. So that was a wash, and not as bad as the kickoff return stats appear.

But within those stats lies a 46-yard kickoff return by UNC's Trimane Goddard, a play in which Develli had to make the tackle. That's indicative of very poor kickoff coverage.

The punt return stat is equally interesting. UNC actually returned just one of Vinnie Burns' three punts: they took his first one back 28 yards. His second was blocked, and his third was out of bounds for no return. Where the other 17 yards of "punt returns" come from is the fact that the line of scrimmage was the VT 17-yard line on the blocked punt.

So the real stat is this: UNC had one legit punt return, and that went for 28 yards. Again, that's a breakdown in punt coverage.

UNC's 46-yard KO return and 28-yard punt return were each the longest they have recorded all season. The Hokies' longest KO and punt returns in this game were 25 yards and 9 yards, respectively. The Hokies got outplayed in the return game, giving up valuable "hidden" yardage. For a coach and a team that pride themselves on special teams, they were outplayed across the board in this one, and it was one of the factors that kept the game close when it shouldn't have been.

Players Making Plays

Game plans aside, the outcome of a football game usually comes down to players making plays, and no play was bigger than the one Jim Davis made when he sacked Darian Durant and turned a 43-yard field goal attempt into a 54-yard field goal attempt that Connor Barth missed. Davis was being blocked one on one, and he shed his blocker and made a great play, taking down Durant when Durant had an open man in the flat. Durant never saw the sack coming, as Davis closed quickly from the blind side, and Darian Durant's final play as a senior in his home stadium ended with him on the turf in a heap.

Davis's season hasn't been very productive from a pure tackles standpoint. He has tallied just 19 stops in 9 games, barely two tackles a game and good enough for just 14th on the team. But if you dig a little deeper, you find that he's second in tackles for loss with 7.5 (Darryl Tapp has 12.5), second in sacks with 4 (Tapp has 7.5), and tied for fourth in QB hurries with 8. He hasn't been racking up a lot of tackles, but he's been making them count, and none counted more than this one.

It's the kind of play the Hokie defense was incapable of making at the end of the 2002 and 2003 seasons. It's the kind of play that is the difference between winning and losing, and donít look now, but the Hokies are making those plays every week now. Ever since Brandon Pace's kick sailed wide right against NC State on September 25th, late game situations have turned to the better for VT. They scored late against Wake and then turned the Demon Deacons away on the five yard line; they exploded for 25 fourth quarter points on the road at Georgia Tech; and they shook off a blocked punt against UNC and got a great play from a senior leader when they needed it to seal the deal.

All during the offseason, the Hokie coaches emphasized team chemistry. It's not something you can force, but their efforts -- the T-shirts, the orange "Team United" wrist bands, and the focus on team over self -- set the stage for good chemistry. What has made that chemistry ignite like a flash fire are the senior leaders and players making plays late in games, even on the road. If you've got a good environment for chemistry, good leadership and victories will make it take off.

These Hokies aren't going to lose to you now; you're going to have to beat them. Bring your best, or forget it. VT is set up nicely for their last three games. They believe, and Maryland, Virginia, and Miami are going to have to bring their A-games if they want to win.

Quick Hitters

As noted above, this game wasn't terribly complicated. The Hokies planned a good game and executed it, but a few big plays kept it close. So I won't babble on or dig up more stats, but here are some brief notes that I logged along the way.

  • On Chad Scott's long TD run early in the game, watch VT defensive end Chris Ellis. Ellis never quit on the play, chasing Scott all the way into the end zone, and as a matter of fact, he closed the gap on Scott. Ellis, a redshirt freshman, is developing into a good one. He plays with a lot of energy and effort, and he's third on the team in tackles for loss with 7 and second in QB hurries with 13.

  • The Hokies gave up four sacks in this game, and three of them came in the first quarter.

  • As good a game as Mike Imoh had, the bulk of it came from breaking tackles (he got 97 of his 243 yards after first contact, according to Stinespring) and exploiting huge holes up the middle with cutback moves. When Imoh ran to the perimeter, I thought UNC did a pretty good job, relatively speaking, of matching his speed and not letting him get around the corner, with a couple of exceptions.

  • Carolina had 80 rushing yards in the first 10 minutes, but only 51 in the remaining 50 minutes. They only had five yards of total offense in the third quarter.

  • For a 60,000-seat stadium, Kenan was eerily quiet. At one point, for example, the Hokies had a third down inside UNC's 15-yard line, but only about half the crowd was half-heartedly making noise. ESPN2 did a good job of making the UNC crowd sound louder than it was. Let's just say that Kenan Stadium is not a tough road venue, by any stretch of the imagination. Many observers estimated 10,000-12,000 Hokie fans were there, and TV shots showed large pockets of orange and maroon in the stands.

  • I thought Randall's first-quarter 43-yard completion to Eddie Royal was the prettiest long ball Randall has thrown all year. Speaking of Royal, he had 4 catches for 84 yards midway through the second quarter and didn't make another catch.

  • After UNC went up 14-7 with 12:32 to go in the second quarter, the Hokies held the Heels offense to just 3 points the rest of the way, over 42 minutes. This is very similar to what they did against Georgia Tech, holding the Yellow Jackets to 6 points in the last 39 minutes of the game.

  • Need evidence of how dominating VT's run game was? On Imoh's 32 rushes, he had just one play where he lost yardage, and that was only a 1-yard loss. Thatís right -- he had 244 positive yards and 1 negative yard. To put that in perspective, Imoh has 51 negative rushing yards in his other 5 games. By the way, if Imoh gains 297 yards in his last three games, which is very doable, he'll be a 1,000 yard rusher, Tech's fifth in the last six years. Not bad for a guy who missed three games due to suspension.

  • Chad Scott's 122 yards rushing on 15 carries are the first time a back has gone over a hundred on the Hokies this year. Three players did it last year: WVU's Quincy Wilson (33 carries, 178 yards), Temple's Walter Washington (26-151), and BC's Derrick Knight (38-197).

  • Durant really telegraphed his interception to Jimmy Williams. The Hokies blitzed and left Williams to cover two players, but Durant stared down his receiver, then threw a bad pass that Williams stepped in front of and picked off. It had the potential to be a big play for the Heels, but it was a big play for VT instead.

Conclusion

Conference road wins are to be treasured, and the Hokies already have three of them this year, over Wake, GT, and UNC. VT's ability to make plays late in the game on the road gives this team the confidence to head down to Miami on December 4th and be competitive, which they haven't done since 1998.

But of course, that's three games from now. First the Hokies have to take on Maryland at home on November 18th, and if they can win that, it's a mini-tourney with Virginia and Miami for the ACC championship.

The Hokies are used to being in the conference championship hunt in early November, but no one expected them to be in that position this year, in this conference. The Hokies are tied for first place in the ACC at 4-1 with Virginia, and if you say you saw that coming in August, then you're fibbing.

I like this team's chances, given that they have shown a knack for winning games late, and they have two of their last three games in Lane Stadium. I counseled against hurrying the season along in a recent article, but it's tough waiting on those last three games, isn't it?

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