Saturday, January 03, 2009

Game Review - VT vs. Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl

With 8:25 left in the Orange Bowl, Virginia Tech held a 20-7 lead but the Cincinnati Bearcats had just marched down the field from their own 48 yard line to the Hokie 4 yard line and had converted on a key 4th down. A touchdown here would close the gap to 20-14 with a lot of time left and it appeared that the Bearcats had found a chink in the Hokie defense's armor -  their first since the opening drive where Cincinnati glided downfield for their only score of the game to that point. The momentum of the game hung in the balance and it was the strength of both teams on the field. 

First down - Bearcat QB Tony Pike ran for his life from Hokie DE Orion Martin (playing one of the finest games of his career) and had to fling the ball to WR Mardy Gilyard who was blanketed by Kam Chancellor but just barely missed dragging a toe for the completion in the end zone. Pike impressed me with his elusiveness all game.

Second down - Pike tried to beat whip Cody Grimm with a fade pass to WR Marcus Barnett but Grimm played Barnett facing the ball and forced the throw to the back of the end zone where it sailed out of bounds.

Third down - Cincinnati RB John Goebel took a draw play down to the 1 yard line where he was stopped by tackles John Graves and Taco Thompson.

Fourth down and the game - All week, Cincinnati had worked on this play. It was a bootleg that started out as a fake to the left and then Pike would wheel around and run to the pylon at the sideline on the right. Pike is 6'6" tall but by no means slow, as he had avoided and outrun Hokie defenders all game. As Pike wheeled, Hokie CB Stephan Virgil charged upfield, maintaining outside leverage and forcing Pike to cut back in towards the end zone instead of running to the pylon like he wanted. Redshirt freshman LB Barquell Rivers was starting his first game and had gotten nice drops in his pass coverage and shown good instincts all game, but was being blocked pretty easily. Here at the goal line he charged down the line of scrimmage, reading the play. As Pike made his cut, Rivers squared up and made a picture-perfect hit - head up, arms wrapping and driving with his legs - at the 1 yard line. Instead of his momentum carrying him into the end zone, Pike was stopped cold and it allowed the rest of the swarm to arrive and bury him for no gain. 

At this point my Calm and Beloved Reader, despite having watched noble and phenomenal goal line stands from this defense for years (most notably against Auburn in the 2004 Sugar Bowl), a tear ran down my cheek. For people who hadn't watched the Hokies much, there encapsulated in four downs was the essence of Virginia Tech. When the game is on the line, no matter who is out there (in this case replacements for Brett Warren and All-ACC DE Jason Worilds), the Hokie defense always is going to put on their hard hats and go to work. That is the Lunchpail. They will defend that end zone with a ferocity that takes other teams by surprise. And in this case, they stopped the Bearcats and sealed the game for the Hokies.

And just as exciting - look at the group of defenders involved in that sequence - Martin, Chancellor, Grimm, Graves, Thompson, Virgil and Rivers. All but Martin are returning for 2009. Wow.

Now I would be remiss if I didn't give some credit to the Hokie offense in this game as well. In the opening sequence, after the Bearcats cruised in for the opening score on their first drive, the defense needed time for Coach Foster to make his adjustments. In steps the Hokie offense, which marched right back down the field to the Cincinnati 9 yard line. Unfortunately, Dustin Keys, who battled the flu leading up to the game missed a 26 yarder which blew a real opportunity for Tech. 

But Coach Foster had time to make his adjustments and the Bearcat offense was slowed down for much of the rest of the first half. Meanwhile, Hokie QB Tyrod Taylor worked his usual magic and dazzled the crowd with an amazing mix of runs and passes. He was able to scramble on third down for a 17 yard TD run to tie the game at 7. And then came the first crucial sequence in the game.

With first and 10 at midfield, Taylor dropped back and looked to his right. The deep safety screwed up and didn't get as deep as Dyrell Roberts who streaked down the right seam completely open for a TD. Miraculously, Taylor decided to toss a jump ball to Jarrett Boykin on the right sideline, who can win those battles one-on-one, but the safety that screwed up on Roberts, was easily able to get over and make the pick. Taylor had several incompletions on the night, but this throw to Boykin was only the 2nd misread I saw him make the entire game.

Following the pick, the Bearcats were able to dink and dunk their way down to the Hokie 8 yard line when Tony Pike rolled out to his left and saw what he thought was a wide-open Dominick Goodman who had slipped behind the Hokie zone in the LEFT corner of the end zone. Stephan Virgil who was playing corner on the RIGHT, followed his man all the way across the field and then left him behind to dash in and jump in front of the ball intended for Goodman. Virgil got his foot in bounds to intercept the ball and end the Cincinnati threat. 

Taylor showed his poise by coming back from the pick to lead the team 54 yards in 2:23 and set-up a Dustin Keys FG who bounced back himself from his earlier miss. The only issue I saw here was a repeated use of the Greg Boone TE hitch route. It worked great twice in a row and then Stinespring called it again and it was totally covered, forcing Taylor to throw the ball away. I will give Stinespring great credit for not only calling his best game of the season (breaking tendency and throwing on 1st down in the first half was fantastic), but also having the offense execute better than it had for most of the year. However, he still demonstrates a true lack of game "sense". A perfect play after running two successful TE hitch routes in that situation would have been a pump fake to Boone and then hit a WR in the zone behind him for a big play. Also, the only catches Boone had in the game were on this drive. With a weapon like Greg Boone at 280 lbs, the Hokies should utilize him in the passing game at various times throughout a contest.

But I don't want to take away from the execution point here. The offensive line stood up and owned the Bearcats from the second quarter on. Recognize that this Bearcat defense entered the game 26th in total defense, 28th in scoring defense and 13th in rushing defense! And the Hokies went for 398 yards including 258 on the ground. That took execution and what made it even more impressive was the insertion of yet another first time starter. If the question headed into the game was Jaymes Brooks at RG, the answer is "Yes". He lined up across from 2007 All-America DT Terrill Byrd most of the night and only got beat twice. That is just sick. Most of Darren Evans big runs were cuts behind Brooks either back to the middle or to the right. The future is very bright for Brooks who wasn't always getting the biggest push off the ball, but he was better at controlling his man than Marshman ever was.

The execution continued in the third quarter as the Hokies added a FG on their opening drive (which gave the Hokie record for FG's in a season to Dustin Keys with 23 of them) and the defense contained the Bearcats to a total of 39 yards. 

Then at the beginning of the 4th quarter, Orion Martin showed why he has gone from a walk-on to a likely NFL Draft choice. Martin read the misdirection screen pass and dove in front of the RB to grab the ball inches above the turf. This is a 260 lb defensive end, laying out and making an interception. That sort of thing gets noticed in the league. And in this case it led to a short field for the offense, which converted it into a touchdown on a brilliant 6 yard run by Evans, where he beat two guys by himself to score and make it 20-7 Hokies.

Of course you've read above what happened on the goal line stand later in the quarter, and the score held-up for the big Hokie win. Tony Pike entered the game having thrown 7 interceptions all season, and the Hokies took him for 5 picks (4 if you look at the box score, but how they took that interception away from Kam after the replay will forever boggle my mind). The offense held an almost 2:1 advantage in time of possession. It was in all aspects the greatest performance of the season for Virginia Tech.

Now before we run off and start screaming about national titles in 2009 and all sorts of other silliness, let's get a reality check. This Bearcat team came out of the weakest BCS conference - the Big East. They were crushed by a true national power in Oklahoma and this was their first bowl game on a huge stage like the Orange Bowl. There are a lot of guys that Ohio State didn't want playing on that Cincinnati team, so let that balance our excitement a little.

That said, the Bearcats were a very well-coached and athletic team with 10 seniors on the defense. But what's even more impressive about this win is that the Hokies were missing three starters from their ACC Championship game victory and still won this one decisively. In fact, between the 2008 Orange Bowl and 2009 Orange Bowl a total of 8 STARTERS were kicked off the team, were declared ineligible or got injured and ended their season - Branden Ore, Brandon Dillard, Zach Luckett, Kenny Lewis, Davon Morgan, Nick Marshman, Brett Warren and Jason Worilds. 

Despite those losses, these Hokies won the ACC Coastal Division, the ACC Championship and the 2009 Orange Bowl. I have bashed the offense repeatedly all year, but in their final game they rose to the occasion to match an impressive performance from the defense. This is a victory and a season to truly savor and we can't wait to see how the 2009 recruiting class shakes up following this win. Until then, we will shift our focus to Tech basketball which begins its ACC season today against Duke. As always,

GO HOKIES!!!!!!!!!!!


Anonymous said...

You guys got lucky. Cincinnati shot itself in the foot time and time again. If they would have tackled or substituted for Pike after his 2nd INT, Cincy wins that game going away. Anyone watching the game thought Cincy beat itself.

MadJay said...

Okayyyyyyyy. Let's let Cincy QB Tony Pike have a word on this discussion. And I quote -

"They made plays tonight I’ve never seen made before.”

He might know a little bit more about the Hokies than you. But then you think he's an idiot right? Let's see what Cincy defensive end Connor Barwin had to say -

“They definitely weren’t intimidated at all. They did what they wanted to do: they ran the ball. They blocked better than we got off blocks. The running back did a good job shaking tackles.”

Thanks for a good game. Better luck next time Bearcats.

ebj said...

you make your own luck, maybe the big east should send a better team .... oops, there isn't one.