2004 Miami Game Analysis
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 12/6/04

Click here for TSL's game recap with stats

The wins over WVU, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Virginia were nice, but this win against Miami will be remembered as the signature win of the 2004 season – for the regular season, anyway – and for good reason. Not only was it a road win over a top 10 team to clinch the conference championship, but it was also a win that embodied the essence of the season: strong defense, opportunistic offense, and clutch play down the stretch. If anything, this win was the strongest example of those three traits, which have combined to send Virginia Tech to its third Sugar Bowl in ten seasons and its fourth major bowl during that same time frame.

The Hokies finished the season ranked fourth in the nation in total defense, and this effort was without a doubt their finest of the season. The Hokies held a potent Miami offense to just 190 total yards, 7 first downs, and 1 of 12 third-down conversions. Man oh man, that is big-time defense. More importantly, the game was played on VT's side of the field for three full quarters, including a couple of Hokie turnovers and a blocked punt, and yet Bud Foster's unit surrendered just 10 points. On the road. Against a top 10 team.

The offense, meanwhile, overcame the loss of two of its top players, Mike Imoh and Jimmy Martin, to injury. Leading touchdown-catcher Josh Hyman was also ineffective with a sprained knee, catching no passes. Those elements took their toll, but as is necessary in a championship season, other players stepped up and made plays, in droves. As they have done all during this eight-game winning streak, the offense hung around, hung around, looked for an opening … and then struck. The game-winner, a 39-yarder to Eddie Royal, came with the speed and destructive capability of a lightning strike, but the offense put together some impressive drives throughout the rest of the game, as well.

The only unit which let the Hokies down during this game was the special teams, with Vinnie Burns' blocked punt, but Burns and placekicker Brandon Pace and the punt and kickoff coverage teams played solid, otherwise. Brandon Pace's 45-yard field goal was a boomer.

The result was Frank Beamer's fifth-ever win over a top 10 team, including the second this season, and an outright ACC championship. The last guy to be invited to the ACC's party wound up staying until the end, taking up residence on the sofa, eating all the food, and finishing all the beer as midnight struck.

Congratulations, Virginia Tech Hokies. You're the ACC champions.

The Defense

This was a great performance by the Hokie defense, which in my mind boiled down to three key elements:

The statistics: As noted above, Miami had just 190 total yards: 51 rushing, 139 passing. The Canes had just 7 first downs, and they only converted 1 of 12 third downs. Brock Berlin was 16-of-31 with no TDs and an interception, the first pick he had thrown in 162 attempts, and Eric Green's first interception of the year.

Keeping the Hokies in the game: Backed up on their side of the field most of the game, turning it over twice on fumbles and getting a punt blocked, the Hokies still only gave up 10 points.

Slamming the door: As the game wore on, the Hokie defense got stronger and stronger, until finally, on Miami's last possession, the Hokies didn't even let the Canes get started, pulling off a rare feat: three straight batted passes.

Let's look at the statistics first. While limiting Miami to 190 yards and 7 first downs is impressive, what is more impressive is that Tech gave up 80 of those yards and 3 of those first downs in the Canes' first two possessions. In Miami's last 11 possessions, they averaged 10 yards per possession and one first down every three possessions. Those are "wow" numbers against anyone, much less the Canes at home.

Miami had just four plays of 10 yards or longer. Their longest gain was 24 yards, and that came on their very first play on offense. Other than that, they had gains of 17, 14, and 13 yards, with everything else coming in under 10 yards. The Canes didn't have a single run that went 10 yards.

And get a load of this statistic: Of Miami's 13 possessions, only two of them were three minutes long or longer. Their second possession, which ended in Eric Green's interception in the end zone, was 9 plays, 50 yards, and 4:08. Their 3rd-quarter possession that netted the field goal was 7 plays, 24 yards, and 3:52. Every other possession was less than three minutes long, and was five plays or fewer. Miami never had more than two first downs in the same possession.

We could go on and on and on, but you get the idea. The Hokies took a pretty good shot from the Canes offense on Miami's first two possessions, and then they slammed the door. Tech did it with the front four, which allowed them the luxury of keeping the linebackers and safeties back in coverage. While ABC analyst Gary Danielson spoke of gimmick coverages and the like, the truth is that VT played the Canes pretty much straight up – in his Keys to the Game follow-up, Raleigh Hokie will expand upon that further.

With regards to keeping the Hokies in the game, the VT defense kept things in control during a tough first three quarters that saw the Hurricanes average starting field position of the 50-yard line on their first 9 possessions. During quarters 1-3, the Canes started in VT territory three times, on two Bryan Randall fumbles (on the VT 18 and 30 yard lines) and a blocked punt (on the VT 14). Lesser teams would have surrendered 21 points, which would have lost the game for the Hokies, but VT only gave up 10 points in those three nightmare scenarios.

In Miami's other six possessions during quarters 1-3, they penetrated VT territory twice, and came away with no points. So Miami came over to VT's side of the field five times in the first three quarters, and they only got 10 points out of it.

Let's recap all five possessions on VT's side of the field:

1.) Miami's first possession started on the 50. They struck quickly, hitting fullback Talib Humphrey for 24 yards to the Hokie 26. Then they ran Gore for 10 yards down to the 16, but in a recurring theme, the Canes killed themselves with a penalty. Center Joel Rodriguez picked up a personal foul (which the crack ABC broadcast team made no effort to find on replay), pushing the ball back out to the Hokie 41-yard line, where they faced 1st and 25. They didn't pick it up, and had to punt.

2.) On their second possession, Miami penetrated to VT's 35, where they faced a 4th and 1. In a similar situation against Virginia, facing 4th and 4, the Canes had gone for the end zone and gotten the touchdown. When Miami sent just one receiver (Lance Leggett) to the end zone, the Hokies were ready for it, and Vince Fuller and Eric Green were all over it. Green made an athletic, one-handed, but ill-advised interception (just knock it down, Eric) to end the drive.

3.) The Canes got their touchdown after blocking a Vinnie Burns punt and covering it on the Hokie 14-yard line in the second quarter. Anthony Reddick came through more or less untouched and picked the punt right off of Burns' foot. Miami ran Tyrone Moss four straight times, the last a 2-yarder that got the TD.

4.) Bryan Randall, who suffered heavy pressure from a blitzing Miami defense most of the game, was sacked five times and fumbled twice. His fumbles were killers, on Tech's side of the field, and were covered on the Hokie 18-yard line (2nd quarter) and the VT 30-yard line (3rd quarter). On the 2nd quarter fumble, the defense saved Randall's bacon on the very next play. Miami bootlegged Berlin out to the right, where VT whip linebacker James Anderson closed on him like a panther and sacked him, swatting the ball away in the process. Noland Burchette recovered. It was from that point on that the Hokie defense really caught fire.

5.) After Randall's 3rd quarter fumble, Miami took possession on the VT 30 and moved quickly down inside the 15, on two running plays of 9 and 8 yards by Gore. On the next play, Gore ran 2 yards to the 11, but fullback Quadtrine Hill held on the play, moving Miami back to the Tech 21, where they faced 1st and 18. Miami managed to get the ball back down to the VT 6-yard line, but that wasn't good enough for a first down, and they had to settle for a 23-yard field goal.

Five entries into Tech's side of the field, 10 points. That's all. Those kind of defensive stops in the face of adversity win games.

Lastly, slamming the door. With Vinnie Burn's help and the help of an offense that quit turning the ball over, the Hokies turned the tables on the field-position battle in the fourth quarter. Miami's average starting field position on four fourth-quarter possessions was their own 11-yard line. Burns pinned the Canes at their 5-yard line with a sky-high punt that was caught by Noland Burchette; he punted another one to the 7-yard line that Roscoe Parrish returned 5 yards to the 12; he booted another one to the 15, where Parrish gave up ground down to the 12; and after Eddie Royal's TD, the Canes returned the ball to the 27 but … stop me if you've heard this one … committed a penalty that pushed them back to their own 17.

So the Canes started on their own 5, 12, 12, and 17. Not a good setup for Miami.

The Tech defense applied the screws to Miami's offense, giving up just two first downs on those four possessions. Miami got no farther than their 32-yard line in the fourth quarter. That's a case of complete shutdown, and it's demoralizing to a team to be buried deep in their own territory, when they haven't had a decent drive for almost the entire game.

The front four for the Hokies got stronger and stronger throughout the game, and this was no more evident than in Miami's last possession, when Jim Davis and Darryl Tapp batted down three straight passes. I loved Davis' second bat-down, when he drove his blocker deep into the backfield, leaped high into the air, slammed into the fullback help, and slapped Berlin's pass 20 yards backwards, into the end zone. What a phenomenal play. There's nothing like being the Canes and getting your comeback effort smacked back into your face, "with authority!"

Bud Foster was able to shut the Canes down at the end with a simple four-man rush, allowing him the luxury to use his full toolbox of coverages. During the fourth quarter, after the Hokies took the lead, Xavier Adibi hung around the middle of the field, serving as a spy for backs out of the backfield and scrambles by Brock Berlin. Miami can kill you by running their wide receivers deep and hitting the backs and tight ends in the middle of the field, but thanks to the effective four-man rush, Foster could dedicate Adibi to the running back/QB and his other linebackers and coverage guys to the tight end.

Davis and Tapp's efforts to bat down three straight passes harkened back to Corey Moore and John Engelberger shutting down the Canes in overtime in 1998. After VT scored to take a 27-20 lead, Moore sacked the Miami QB on first down, despite being tackled by an offensive lineman, and on second down, Engelberger and Moore collapsed the pocket for a second straight sack. The Orange Bowl was as quiet after those two plays as it was late in this game.

On the Tech radio broadcast, Bill Roth repeatedly called it one of the finest single-game performances he had seen from a VT defense, comparing it to the 1995 Sugar Bowl smackdown of Texas' famed BMW offense. That's not hyperbole. It was a great game from a very good defense.

The Offense

When the Hokie defense is rolling like it was in this game, offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring has spoken often of what his offensive philosophy is: keep the team in position to win the football game. Usually, this equates to "don't get in a hurry, and strike when presented with the opportunity."

Beamerball has become a euphemism for strong special teams play, but that's not really what Beamerball is. It's a whole team and game philosophy: Strong defense, big-play special teams that block kicks and score points, and ball-control, opportunistic offense, with the key word being "opportunistic."

"Opportunistic" puts pressure on the players, because it means that when the opportunity presents itself, they have to cash in on it. In the latter stages of this season, the Hokies have done exactly that. Tech had trouble in the red zone earlier in the year against good teams, but those problems have largely subsided.

In this game, the Hokie offense was ball-control, it was opportunistic, and it executed well in the red zone.

Lost in the overview of this game is the fact that the Hokie offense struggled quite a bit. Of their 13 possessions (not counting the game-ending kneeldowns), only three were longer than six plays. Like the Canes, VT had many possessions of three to five plays that netted very little yardage.

But unlike the Canes, the Hokies put together some great drives and great possessions, and they did it without Miami's help. VT had the following key drives/possessions:

1.) Third possession: 10 plays, 80 yards, 4:28, TOUCHDOWN. This drive came right after the Eric Green interception and put the Hokies up 7-0. After Green's pick, the Hokie offense caught fire. This was a masterful mix of plays from Stinespring, and Randall carried it out like a maestro, completing all three of his passes for 38 yards. The drive ended with a rarity, a Hokie pass to the middle of the field from inside the opponent's 5-yard line. On 3rd and goal from the 3, Randall stood up and fired a TD pass to a wide-open Jeff King. Stinespring obviously saw something on film and exploited it.

2.) Sixth possession: 13 plays, 44 yards, 7:19, FIELD GOAL. This was the best drive of the game by either team, I think, and time-wise, it was the longest possession by far (the next closest was the 4:28 possession just discussed). Like the one above, it came after a turnover, after Berlin had been sacked by Anderson and fumbled. This drive was a thing of beauty that burned the clock down to half time and made the score 10-7 heading into intermission. Again, the Hokies mixed the run and the pass. They utilized the clock well, and Brandon Pace made it pay off, absolutely crushing a 45-yard field goal as time expired in the half.

3.) 11th possession: 1 play, 39 yards, 0:09, TOUCHDOWN. The very definition of "opportunistic." After having bad field position for the entire game, the Hokies finally got to start on Miami's side of the field, after Eddie Royal returned a punt 18 yards to the Cane 39-yard line. After a full game of throwing almost nothing but hooks and out patterns to his wideouts, Stinespring pulled out a deep crossing pattern to Eddie Royal. Randall and Royal did what all coaches pray they will do: execute a good play call to perfection. Randall put it on Royal's fingertips, and Royal snagged it and left future NFL early-round draft pick Antrel Rolle in the dust for the go-ahead TD. The play was a play-action, deep drop pass that froze the linebackers and gave Randall the time to make the throw unmolested.

4.) 13th possession: 9 plays, 13 yards, 4:08, PUNT. The game-sealer. VT took possession on their own 40-yard line with 5:22 remaining, needing a good drive to burn clock and perhaps score points. The Hokies didn't get any points out of this possession, but they did force Miami to spend their last two timeouts, they left just 1:14 on the game clock, and they pinned Miami at the Hurricanes' 12-yard line when it was over. This drive is remarkable because it appeared to be sabotaged by a holding call on Josh Morgan that left VT facing 3rd and 10 at the 50, but Jeff King made a diving, fingertip, highlight-reel catch for 12 yards that gave the Hokies a first down and forced Miami to call two timeouts on following plays. This drive only netted 13 yards, but it was one of VT's most important possessions of the game.

With Mike Imoh and Jimmy Martin hobbled and out for most of the game, the offense shrugged off the loss of those key players and did what it took to win, anyway. Reggie Butler subbed for Martin, and Stinespring tinkered with line placements, managing to put together something that worked. The Hokies were shaky against Miami's blitz, giving up five sacks, but in the rushing game, the offensive line often blew open huge holes for Cedric Humes, allowing him to break through the line and punish Miami's defensive backs.

Now that he's back to full speed, Humes can be appreciated for what he is: a true power back with good speed. I got a big, big kick out of watching Humes slam his 231-pound body into Miami's defensive backs, the biggest of which is Rolle at just 202 pounds (Sean Taylor doesn't live here anymore). Miami's other starting DB's go 193, 184, and (gulp) 177, and watching Humes smash them into the turf was fun. It left me wondering at the end of the game if Humes was the better back for this game, as opposed to Imoh. Miami was fast enough to thwart even a healthy Imoh, but when Humes broke through and got into the second level of the defense, it was painful for the Canes. Literally.

The only way it could have been better is if Humes had gotten the opportunity to run over University of Miami President Donna Shalala. And yes, that comment begs for a Photoshop, doesn't it?

Josh Hyman was hobbled and ineffective in this game (zero catches), but David Clowney stepped up with a team-high 4 catches for 54 yards, including some key drive-extending catches on out patterns that set up Royal's crossing pattern later. And Royal had his best game since the UNC game, catching 2 for 44 yards, including the big TD.

All in all, a classic case of players stepping up and an offensive coordinator and quarterback being patient and taking advantage of what was presented. But the Hokies also did a lot on their own, with the 80-yard drive, the long field goal drive, and the 9-play drive that burned the clock at the end.

The only point at which the offense was shaky was the third quarter, when they didn't block Miami's blitz well, suffered two sacks, fumbled the ball, and only had one yard of offense in their first three possessions of the quarter. Randall appeared to be resorting to old habits, holding the ball too long in the pocket and not getting rid of it. But they fought their way through that, and when the short field came up in the fourth quarter -- zing! -- they cashed in on it.

Miami Penalties

One thing that stood out to me, and I hinted at this earlier, was how painful Miami's penalties were (for them). The Canes had 8 penalties for 75 yards, many of them momentum-killers:

  • First quarter: Gore rushes from the VT 26 to the 16, but Joel Rodriguez gets a personal foul called, pushing the Canes back to VT's 41-yard line, killing the drive.

  • Third quarter: Gore rushes from the VT 13 to the 11 on first down, but Quadtrine Hill holds on the play, pushing Miami back out to the 21 for a 1st and 18. Miami is held to a field goal.

  • Third quarter: Two plays later, Tony Tella false starts, bumping Miami from the VT 17 to the 22 yard line.

  • Third quarter: Berlin completes a 20-yard pass to Gore, moving the ball from the Miami 35 inside Tech territory, representing the second-longest gain of the day for the Canes. But Derrick Morse is flagged for holding a hard-charging Kevin Lewis on the play, bringing the ball back to Miami's 25-yard line and killing the drive.

  • Fourth quarter: After Royal's touchdown, Devin Hester brings the kickoff out of the end zone to the Miami 27-yard line, but Miami's Romeo Davis is called for an illegal block, bringing the ball back to the 17-yard line.

  • Fourth quarter: Miami moves from their 17-yard line to their 33-yard line, but then reserve tight end Buck Ortega is called for offensive pass interference (very questionable), bringing the ball back to the 18 and setting up 1st and 25, a drive killer.

Six of Miami's eight penalties were tough ones. The Hokies had seven of their own penalties for 50 yards, but only one of them hurt. In the fourth quarter, Randall completed a third-down pass to Jeff King for a first down on Miami's 24-yard line, but it was wiped out by an ineligible receiver call on the Hokies. VT was forced to punt on the possession.

Quick Hitters

  • The Hokies shut Miami fullback Talib Humphrey down quickly. Humphrey, who appeared to be the object of Brent Musberger's affections to an alarming degree, caught two passes in the first quarter for 41 yards, then caught one 1-yarder early in the second quarter. No more after that -- he finished with 3 for 42 yards. The punch line? He was Miami's leading receiver on the day.

  • Jeff King had a great day receiving, but if you watch the tape closely, you'll see that he had a very good day blocking, too. With the shaky situation at tackle, King and his tight end counterparts did a nice job blocking on the perimeter.

  • The Hokies made a defensive statement on Miami's first second-half possession when Tapp made a great rush around left end and sacked Berlin for a 6-yard loss, leading to a quick three-and-out.

  • Brock Berlin played poorly, I thought. He threw one interception and two more that should have been picked, but beyond that, he short-hopped some throws to wide open receivers on 3rd down. Berlin was on a roll coming in, but the Hokies made him move his feet, and his game decayed.

  • With Miami's 1-of-12 performance on 3rd down conversions, the Hokies finish the regular season holding opponents to 29% (49 of 171) on 3rd down. That's a vast, vast improvement over last season's 40% rate, which saw the Hokies coughing up 82 of 203 3rd–down conversions.

  • I don't think the Hokies played the backup DL as much as usual. I'm looking forward to seeing the Hokie Huddler depth chart on this, because Kevin Lewis (16 plays) and company weren't on the field much, despite the heat. But when they were there, they were crazy. Lewis dominated one third-quarter Miami possession, and Carlton Powell detonated a first-half running play for no gain at a time when Miami was executing well on offense.

Final Thoughts

In the hysterical aftermath of Saturday's game, I posted a one-line "I told you I believe" post on the message board, and someone responded with "So does Randy King, i.e., Mr. Bandwagon."

I beg to disagree. Never mind Randy King – I myself have probably looked like a bandwagoneer the last two months or so, as I went from morosely picking the Hokies to lose against WVU to picking them to win against Miami on blind faith.

But that's not a case of being a bandwagon fan. I can't speak for Randy King, but my pick of the Hokies to beat Miami was based on my close observation of this team for nearly 15 years. When the Hokies – when any team – has momentum and leadership and is on a roll, it's a tangible thing. You can see the confidence, and you just know they're going to make the plays needed to win. We saw it in 1995, 1996, 1999, and now this year.

At other times, it's been the opposite: 1994, 1997, 2002, and 2003.

Something, or perhaps some things, have obviously changed since the loss to NC State, which preceded VT's matchup with WVU. Since Brandon Pace's kick sailed wide right against the 'Pack, things that have been missing for years finally fell into place, and VT's got serious mojo right now. It doesn't take a bandwagon rider to say that, just someone who has watched VT for a few years and knows it when they see it.

What a pleasure it has been to watch and break down one of the great victories in the history of VT football. Miami, at Miami. ACC champions. Going to the Sugar Bowl.

Congrats to the players and coaches, and to the fans, who as always played a role in this, too. See you in New Orleans.

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