Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Game Review vs. UNC

On Saturday 9/20, the Virginia Tech Hokies took to the field against a fired up UNC Tarheel squad. While Frank Beamer is perfect against the 'Heels since Virginia Tech's joining the ACC, he didn't head back to Blacksburg with a win quite as easily as times past. After North Carolina jumped out to an early lead, the Hokies squeaked out a three point victory by the score of 20-17. Before I unload on the ranting, raving, and usual TSF commentary, I'll give a brief recap of each quarter's highlights.

First Quarter: The Hokie defense holds UNC's first drive to inside Tarheel territory, resulting in a punt. After the Hokies take over, the offense move the ball 23 yards in 5 plays only to end the drive with an interception. The 'Heels take over at roughly the 35 yard line and bring the ball inside the 15. Again, the defense holds. UNC blows a scoring opportunity with a missed field goal. The Hokie offense subsequently goes three and out. Then, to repay the favor, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster's squad holds the UNC offense to a three and out series of their own. And yet gain, the Hokie offense goes three and out. UNC takes possesion in Hokie territory, and they finally drove in a field goal.

So what can I say about our defense? Spectacular! And what can I say about our offense? Atrocious! Now being a Hokie fan for more than a decade, I've become quite accustom to saying this, thinking this, and just accepting this. But I mean really??? In this case, we're talking a whopping net gain of 9 yards by the offense against...UNC! The defense did exactly what anyone could have expected of them and more. During every opposing possession, they contained, contained, and contained. The offense looked sloppy, non-fluid, and chaotic. Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor was so disoriented at one point, he called timeout twice in a row. Folks, I can't remember the first or the last time I ever saw a football team call time out twice in a row, save for trying to ice a kicker.

Second Quarter: UNC opens the quarter with a drive to inside the Virginia Tech 10 yard line, and they close it out with another field goal. After the ensuing kickoff, the Hokie offense musters a healthy drive into Tarheel territory, but has to kick it away after 39 yards. Seeing UNC's offense with their backs up against their own endzone, Foster's squad gets hungry and causes a fumble turnover inside the UNC 10 yard line. Then, Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring's squad takes over and moves the ball six yards in three plays. Hokies settle for a field goal. One mediocre UNC drive and another Virginia Tech three and out later, UNC moves the ball 68 yards into the end zone to close out the scoring for the half.

So revisiting the offense, the Hokies moved the ball 58 yards this quarter and managed to get on the the board, albeit with the help of a UNC fumble. The Virginia Tech passing game was virtually nil. Any and all completions were low single digit gains with exception to one 28 yard pass from quarterback Tyrod Taylor to receiver Danny Coale.

Third Quarter: Virginia Tech opens the half with an offensive drive that moves the ball 25 yards in three plays, but ends with a second interception thrown by Tyrod Taylor. The Hokie defense holds the ensuing UNC drive to nine yards in nine plays. After another Hokie three and out, UNC orchestrates a one play drive resulting in a 50 yard rushing touchdown, the only breakdown in the Hokie defense during the contest. Tyrod Taylor and the rest of the Hokie offense, however, had an answer to that with an 89 yard drive resulting in a rushing touchdown by Darren Evans. Also, in this quarter, UNC quarterback TJ Yates sustains a twisted ankle, and he doesn't return for the rest of the game.

Taylor's interception was reminiscent of the second half of Sean Gleannon's first bowl game against Georgia at the end of the 2006 season. It was essentially a, "jump ball," as the announcers put it. We can talk about the inexperience of the Hokie wide receiver core, but that type of interception can't happen. It looked like a throw of desperation. On the other side of the ball, the defense broke down in a way that we don't observe too often. UNC running back Greg Little cut through the Virginia Tech defense with some shake and bake while making good use of his blockers. It was a rarity in Bud Foster's track record, and I can guarantee you that all eleven of them wanted to have a change to defend that play gain.

Fourth Quarter: Virginia Tech moves the ball 35 yards in 6 plays to tie the game with a rushing touchdown. UNC's offense doesn't convert on third down and punts. The Hokie offense moves the ball a pitiful 1 yard in 3 downs, but capitalizes on a field goal. UNC's offense, with backup quarterback Mike Paulus at the helm, moves the ball 38 yards down the field in eight plays. Paulus in panic throws an interception caught deep in Hokie territory caught by Victor Harris. Virginia Tech's offense burns 4:23 during their following possession, leaving the 'Heels with 3 minutes to march down the field. Tyrod Taylor exits the game not to return with a twisted ankle. The Orange and Maroon defense hold 'em, and game ends.

So, watching this game, I began having the sudden physical ailments that Mad Jay often describes of himself when he can't believe what he's watching. First and foremost, on that note, we were trailing UNC (That's North Carolina of the ACC for crying out loud!!!!) for most of this game. Our entire offense slept walked through the entire first half. Folks, I know it's a rebuilding year, but rebuilding means steady, albeit maybe slow, improvement. It doesn't mean zero progress in a critical facet of the game. Waiting until late in the third quarter to turn on the jets just isn't going to cut it against our opponents in inter-conference and bowl play. (And yea, the ACC has some serious PR headway to make in its out of conference performance. I'll have more on this further down in this post.) After watching Tyrod Taylor during last season and the last two games, I'm starting to loose faith in this hybrid running back/quarterback approach to offense. When Taylor's taking the snaps, the passing game is reduced to too great of an extent.

If we can't design a playbook that develops Tyrod's ability to throw the ball now, Stienspring might as well play with 10 linemen to block and have Taylor run every play. Maybe every so often he could only play nine linemen and send out Kenny Lewis Jr. That way, we could keep the opposing defense guessing...as to which will run the ball. [sarcasm, in case you couldn't tell]

All kidding aside, I have to admit that it's a fun style of play to watch, especially when I think back to days of Michael Vick and Bryan Randall. However, what's happened to Taylor this season and last? He's had to exit the game early due to an ankle injury, last year's more serious than Saturday's. When your quarterback is rushing almost as much as your number one running back, that's a risk, and that's a problem. Look at the Michigan's, the Ohio State's, the USC's (the one in California), and the Florida's around the NCAA. They've developed programs that can boast inter-conference and post-season success year after year, and the approach they take at quarterback is very different from Virginia Tech: quarterback first, athlete second. Repeat after me: "quarterback first, athlete second." Taylor or course has the posture, the judgment, and the all around ability to be that type of quarterback, but I think we're leaning on his running back skills too much. Now let's be fair. If he wasn't running the way he was against UNC, Virginia Tech wouldn't have stood a chance. But that's a different problem that we need to address at the, ahemmmm, offensive coordinator role. And I know this next statement is going to evoke some groans, but the Hokie offense is not making enough use of quarterback Sean Glennon. He's one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the ACC. He has a great arm, and he's very accurate when executes properly. He'd probably still be the starter if (a) he didn't make one to two completely bone-headed plays a game and (b) if ECU hadn't blocked Virginia Tech's punt at the end of the Hokie's season opener. Between Taylor and Glennon at this point, Glennon has better demonstrated the ability throw the long ball, and that's an important part of every offense that succeeds at the highest level of the NCAA. By the time Taylor's in his Senior year, he'll likely have all the same, or probably better, throwing talent of Glennon. But for now, the Hokies need that element in their offense, even it's just 30-40% of the snaps.

On to another topic, let's not forget that the Hokies have had some major help in their last two victories. Against UNC alone a number of fortunate things happened.
1. First Quarter: UNC missed a field goal
2. First Quarter: UNC delay of game penalty on 4th and 1 at the VT 5 yard line
3. Third Quarter: UNC personal found during VT 68 yard touchdown drive
4. Third Quarter: UNC pass interference deep in Tarheel territory
5. Third Quarter: UNC starting quarterback injured, does not return to the game
6. Fourth Quarter: UNC late hit penalty during VT punt return

All of the above items contributed towards decomposing the momentum UNC had established for itself and giving the Hokies much needed opportunities to get themselves back in the game and finally to pull ahead. If I coached UNC, I would tell my squad THEY lost that game, not that Virginia Tech won. In comparison to what the Hokies have ahead of them, UNC is small potatoes, and other opponents aren't going to make those kinds of mistakes or likely sustain an injury to such a key player.

So looking onward past UNC, Virginia Tech needs to seriously think about how its inter-conference play doesn't just reflect on Virginia Tech, but the whole of the ACC as well. Given the ACC's out of conference and bowls records, other conferences that don't have an automatic BCS bid may start to make a case for why they deserve one and the ACC doesn't. As I utter the infamous words, "I hate to say I told you so," I have to tell you that I did. My very first post to TSF made the argument that leaving the Big East would weaken the Virginia Tech football program, and after the hype of the new ACC has now worn away, by the numbers, the move to the ACC has weakened the program. Now, I'm not stating that Virginia Tech should have stayed in the Big East and forgone that ACC's invitation, given the circumstances. Besides, it's nice being in a conference that doesn't tell you that they carry you the way a pedestrian's tennis shoe carries stepped on chewing gum. But I am saying that the ACC isn't a football conference. The Carolinas have never been a region that prioritizes football over basketball, and that's half of the ACC's make-up. (Yes, the Big East is a basketball conference at the level of those who run the Big East, but the Big East football schools are very football oriented.) So if Virginia Tech wants to shake some of the funk of the ACC, it's football program better start looking at how it performs outside of the ACC. Next up is Nebraska. This is the most important game of Virginia Tech's 2008 season, and post-season.

Let's Go Hokies!

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