Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Game Review - VT vs. Georgia Tech

The Virginia Tech Hokies took a huge step forward as a football team on Saturday, defeating the scrappy Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 20-17. There are a litany of things that need improvement with this Hokies team, but one aspect that isn't missing is heart. These players are playing hard and there isn't a lot of 'me-first' showboating. Those are two signs that a team is truly a TEAM and we must give Coach Beamer some credit for that.

Before reviewing the Hokies performance, let me congratulate GT coach Paul Johnson on getting his players to buy into his option style of football. Many people, (yours truly included) figured Johnson would be a minimum of a year or two away before his triple option offense would be competitive but they are very competitive already. When Johnson gets some of his recruits into this program, the Yellow Jackets are going to be an extremely difficult out on the schedule. 

As expected, the Yellow Jackets ran early and often and dominated the first quarter of play, taking a lead of 3-0. But the Virginia Tech coaches, who we have bashed continually for fumbling on the QB decision, appear to have finally seen the light. After dabbling with the redshirt, and then faking us into thinking they were going to use the dreaded two-QB system, Messrs. Beamer, Stinespring and O'Cain finally made the right choice and named Tyrod Taylor starting QB. He did not disappoint.

Following the Jackets opening FG, Taylor led the team on an 80-yard drive capped off by a beauty of a run by Darren Evans to give VT the lead, 7-3. Taylor used his arm and legs effectively on the drive, including a magical conversion on 3rd and 7 that really put an exclamation point on the decision to make him the starter. We've said it for two seasons and we'll say it again - Tyrod Taylor has uncanny poise. He just plays the game so calmly that it is hard to believe he is only a true sophomore, and it leads to him being able to make big plays on big downs. His arm and elusiveness are impressive, but his knack for the game and ability to remain calm (announcers always call these the "intangibles") are what have separated Taylor from Glennon.

Unfortunately, the defense is not what it has been in years past and a huge breakdown in the secondary led to a big 41 yard pass play from Georgia Tech QB Josh Nesbitt to A-back Roddy Jones and put the Jackets back on top. Big John Graves got a paw on the extra point attempt and the score remained 9-7 (Graves is the first Hokie to block 3 kicks in 3 games in the history of Beamerball). 

But to go back to the defense for a second, this defense is very fast and just as green. They played about 50% of the Yellow Jacket snaps with discipline and stuffed the plays, and the other 50% of the snaps were just free-for-alls, some of which led to big plays by the Jackets. I still don't see what I want out of Brett Warren, despite his high tackle count and since I told you how smart I was about Tyrod Taylor it's only fair that I tell you I was wrong about how dominant Kam Chancellor would be at free safety this year. He still has the tools to get there, but right now he is missing tackles and assignments and the Hokies even gave Dorrian Porch some snaps at free safety. The UNC game will involve a great deal more passing and the most talented receivers the Hokies will see all year, so Chancellor needs to improve in a hurry.

A huge play occurred with 1:10 left in the half and Georgia Tech at midfield, still leading 9-7. A missed handoff between Nesbitt and B-back Jonathan Dwyer (a stud of a football player who the Hokies stuffed all day) put the ball on the ground and the Hokies were back in action. This time, Taylor took them down to the 2 yard line and on 3rd and goal at the 2 with 10 seconds left, Stinespring did NOT pull him for Glennon and Taylor did what he does and pranced into the end zone to put the Hokies back up 14-9.

The third quarter was a lot of back and forth, field position battling. Brent Bowden is still in contention for team MVP three games into the season and his work in the third quarter was huge, out-footing the Jackets punter in this quarter and protecting the Hokie field position. And Darren Evans showed that he should be the starter at RB without question. In fact allow me to release a demon here that's been torturing me for a while now, and maybe some of you, too.

What is Coach Billy Hite DOING?!?!?! I ranted about his misuse of Branden Ore last year and not playing Cheeseman more. This season, it is even more evident why Hite didn't give more carries to Kenny Lewis, Jr last year. Despite having good speed, KLJr is not a starting tailback. I'd love to see Josh Oglesby get some more carries and find out if he's a better threat than Lewis, but in the meantime, the blatant, obvious decision that just stares you in the face is that Evans should be the starter over Lewis. Evans has been nothing but impressive in every game. I was worried about Coach Hite's ability to manage this backfield in the pre-season and while one headache has been dealt with (Jahre Cheeseman has been moved to fullback) and one has been postponed (Ryan Williams is headed for a redshirt), there are still 4 backs fighting for carries and for some reason Josh Oglesby is odd man out. More than ANYTHING, the Hokie offense needs its best players on the field and until I see Oglesby being given a chance to see what he's got (I don't care that he expressed some frustration to the media lately, the kid is right) I disagree with Lewis being 2nd string much less the damn starter.

Ok that feels better, now back to the game. So one thing we know for certain is that Josh Nesbitt is a whale of an athlete at QB for the Jackets and he did most of the heavy lifting for that offense on Saturday, especially in the third quarter. Fortunately he threw a pick to Cody Grimm on the Jackets' most threatening drive of that quarter. Meanwhile, the Hokies were well contained due to zero effective passing game by Taylor and the young receivers.

I've heard comments from several Superfans in how disappointed they are in the Hokie receivers this season and how they thought the recruiting class was better than this. To use the words of the hated Lee Corso "Not so fast my friends". The real culprits here are inexperience, QB Coach Mike O'Cain and of course Bryan Stinespring (he actually isn't mainly to blame here, but damn he is so terrible it can't help but have some negative effect). Despite what it looks like, receiver is not just about running down the field on a particular route and catching the ball when it gets thrown to you. There is a lot of reading the defense and the QB and WR need to both read the defense and read it correctly to connect on passes consistently.

What is happening here is that the receivers just don't have the snaps to do this on a snap-by-snap basis. However, they have enormous physical talent and they are blocking effectively. And on a few occasions they do still run the route correctly but Coach Mike O'Cain has coached Taylor to pull it down unless he feels comfortable with the throw and Taylor just has more confidence in his feet right now. The one receiver he seems to have developed a repoire with is Dyrell Roberts and Roberts is probably the only guy Taylor will throw a 50/50 ball to.

That needs to change in a hurry because, unfortunately, the QB scramble can't be the most effective offensive play for a season for two reasons: a) the QB will get hurt eventually and b) teams will be spying the snot out of Taylor starting with UNC. Just watching what USC did to Ohio State whenever QB phenom Terrell Pryor came into the game gives you the blueprint for how to stop a scrambling QB. Put two spies on him. That can be overcome if the passing game can take a step forward but with Coach Stinespring running this offense, how much confidence do you really have in that happening?

Anyway, back to the game (and before I start getting too nauseous) the 4th quarter saw a Hokies FG and then the defense showed their youth and gave up an 81 yard drive to the Jackets. Coach Johnson demonstrated a real gunslinger mentality in going for two to tie the game (or maybe he was afraid of Mr. Graves) and the Jackets were successful. I was particularly furious at LB Purnell Sturdivant who, while he may be starting for the first time this season, is still a 5th year senior. He was out of position twice on the drive and gave up the 18 yard TD run to Nesbitt, taking a bad angle. At least as furious as me, Coach Foster basically gnawed Sturdivant's facemask off when he came off the field after that drive. More on that later.

All good teams answer scores and the Hokies were able to do the same - helped by a terrible call from the refs. On 3rd and 7 from the VT 23, Taylor ran for 2 yards and went out of bounds. He was hit by GT safety Cooper Taylor (no relation) and the ref flagged it as a personal foul "helmet-to-helmet" contact. This was the type of penalty that happens too often in the college football - on the home team sideline and against the QB. If that's on the GT sideline or it's a player other than the QB the ref very likely keeps the hanky in his pocket. Sometimes fortune smiles upon you and that's what happened to the Hokies. Of course, they also still had to earn their way down the field to get into FG range and they did, making it 20-17. 

The play of the game occurred on the next drive. First let me take you back to the Hokies 27-3 victory in Atlanta last year. Midway through the game, Josh Nesbitt came in (then as a freshman playing in a completely different offense) and after faking the run, threw a deep ball to a wide open James Johnson who had gotten behind Kam Chancellor by 10 yards. The score was only 17-3 at the time and a TD there would have changed the whole complexion of the game. Fortunately the ball fell JUST beyond Johnson's outstretched hands and the Hokies went on to a big victory. 

Fast forward to 2008, the Yellow Jackets faced 3rd and 7 from their own 34 with 2:30 left in the game. Yet another miscommunication in the Hokie secondary led to GT receiver Roddy Jones running free behind Kam Chancellor. Again the ball fell just a yard beyond Roddy Jones and incomplete. I know Nesbitt was thinking the exact same thing I was (how did I miss that throw two years in a row???) Purnell Sturdivant obviously got the message from Coach Foster and made a play on 4th down to seal the game by sacking Nesbitt. 

So the Hokies closed out a 20-17 win despite being outgained by 140 yards. They won the turnover battle 3-0 and had 5 fewer penalties and made a few more plays. It was a hard fought battle and a total team victory. It also exposed the enormous weaknesses in the Hokie passing game and the chinks in the defensive armor due to inexperience. This season is going to take a lot out of me, I can feel it already.

P.S. I don't if any of you fans saw the huge billboard on the way into the stadium or saw the message on the Jumbotron in the pregame that said "Hi I'm Bryan Stinespring and I'm going to call a WR Screen to Macho Harris on the very first offensive play of the game against Georgia Tech." Ok so there was no message but there may as well have been. The Hokies haven't had him on offense all season but they've threatened it all pre-season and then Stiney puts him out wide on the very first play of the game and throws a WR screen to him. Gee, do you think that just maybe perhaps GT MIGHT suspect something there? Why not decoy that play? I want to just give up but I can't. 

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