"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" - Won't Get Fooled Again - The Who
USC and Auburn in 2004. Georgia in 2006. LSU in 2007. And now Alabama in 2009. These are measuring stick games when you go against the very best of the best. The elite in college football. These opponents are acknowledged as having the best recruits and the top coaches. They are perennial Top 10 programs.
The Hokies lost all 5 of these games so I think we can all agree that the Hokies are not at that level yet. From what I'm hearing out in Hokieland, there is not much disagreement as to why, but I have heard small pockets of fans throwing a few dissenting arguments out there. I'd like to use the Alabama game as a supporting argument for the one and only reason why the Hokies are not at that level - offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring.
Watching the game footage several times this weekend, I can assure you that the Hokies finally do have the talent across the board to compete with the very best teams in the country. Would you argue that any of these players didn't belong on the field with Alabama? First the easy ones - Ryan Williams, Dyrell Roberts, Jason Worilds, Nekos Brown, Stephan Virgil, Dorian Porch, Cody Grimm. Obviously they were at Bama's physical talent level. Less obvious? How about Ed Wang, Beau Warren (how many times was "Mount" Cody's name called Saturday night? He had one tackle), Sergio Render, Barquell Rivers and Jake Johnson. Tyrod Taylor didn't have a good night throwing the ball which we'll touch more on later. He certainly had the talent to be on that field the other night. The point is that these players went punch for punch with the Tide and didn't look physically outmatched to me until the end when the defense was exhausted having been on the field for 14 minutes longer than their Tide counterparts.
So if it's not the talent, did the Hokies lose due to turnovers? Well the two turnovers hurt, no doubt. When the Hokies turned the ball over it was on a punt and kickoff return which put Bama on the Hokie 16 and 20 yard lines respectively. Both times the defense held them to a FG. And keep in mind Bama did have two turnovers of their own which the Hokies converted into 3 points. It wasn't turnovers that cost them the game.
It certainly wasn't in the kicking game. Hokie kicker Matt Waldron hit his FG and XP's and punter Brent Bowden was astonishingly good averaging 45 yards/kick and only allowing Bama return specialist Javier Arenas three returns on eight punts while keeping all of them inbounds. That's SERIOUS hang time there on punts that long. Despite the turnovers on special teams, the Hokies had some great returns by Dyrell Roberts on kickoffs and Jayron Hosley showed some real promise on his shot at punts. Can't blame special teams for the loss.
I've heard a lot of arguments about the officiating being why the Hokies lost. Was the officiating good? Not really and AD Jim Weaver is right to insist on neutral conference refs in future neutral site games. But let's look more closely at the bad calls. That personal foul in the first half for roughing the passer on Jake Johnson was laughable - he hit the QB in bounds and the tackle ended out of bounds. Seriously if that's a personal foul, then it's time for the NCAA to just put a flag and a belt on QBs. But that drive ended in a Bama punt. The ridiculous interference call on Kam Chancellor when Julio Jones clearly ran right into him was bad at the time, but Roy Upchurch ended up fumbling the ball on that drive (amazing hustle from Cody Grimm). On the Hokies' first drive of the 4th quarter a lot has been made of the holding call on Greg Nosal on Ryan Williams' amazing effort run to convert a 3rd and 1. Here's the deal - if a guard is blocking a safety, the refs are going to call it a lot tighter than if he's blocking a lineman or linebacker. Nosal, with one big shove could have knocked the safety down or at least out of the play. By engaging the safety (and yes he did hold him a little but that happens on almost every running play) he gave the ref the opportunity to throw the flag. Nosal should have just mowed that kid over or shot his hands into the guys shoulders and knocked him off balance. With experience he will learn to do that. There was a bad call on that drive though because the subsequent 3rd down play was a 3rd and 9 and there was a non-call of pass interference by Bama on Danny Coale. That might have changed the game, but honestly with what the Hokie offense displayed up to that point, there's no assurance they would have gotten even one more first down. It was not the bad officiating that led to the Hokies' loss.
How about the argument that it was the defense, which I have actually seen by a few folks? Hmmmm. The defense that forced the Bama QB into 10 straight incompletions in the first half? The defense that held All-Universe WR Julio Jones to 4 catches for 46 yards and no scores??The defense that limited two turnovers DEEP in its own end to 2 FG's and caused two Alabama turnovers of their own??? Or maybe it was the defense that stopped Alabama on 3 straight drives in the 3rd quarter with the Hokies protecting a 17-16 lead and during that time the Hokie offense had a total of 2 first downs??????? Before the 9 minute mark in the 4th quarter, the Hokie defense gave up a total of 4 big plays (20+ yards). Two of them were situations where Kam Chancellor and other members of the secondary got their wires crossed on the coverage and I do put most of that on Chancellor. But this defensive performance was against an incredible power running attack and one of the top 5 receivers in the country and it was only when the defense did tire out that they couldn't prevent the Tide attack from scoring. I think the reason a few people have tried to blame the defense is because they are so used to the defense just being completely dominant over the opponent. Listen, at the very top echelon of college football you are not going to dominate the opposing offense. The best you can hope for with top talent and a great coordinator/gameplan, is to be able to line up and stop them when you have to (following a turnover or protecting a lead) and for most of the game, again until they were exhausted, the Hokies D did EXACTLY that.
Before I look at the main reason the Hokies can't compete at the top level of college football, let me give some credit to Alabama here. Their defense is fierce. Their offense is physical. Their QB is a warrior who kept getting pounded and had the aforementioned 10 straight misfires in the first half along with an interception. He showed admirable resiliency and made several great throws in the 2nd half despite his favorite receiver Jones being blanketed. Bama is tough and clearly showed that they do belong at the "grown-up table" of college football.
To that point, let me highlight one thing about the Alabama offense: this is an offense with an identity. They are a power running game which sets up play action into a vertical passing game. They were true to that offense the entire game. The reason Alabama lost to Utah in last year's Sugar Bowl is because with some early turnovers and quick stops, Utah got out to a 21-0 lead and Alabama had to abandon their offensive identity to try and claw their way back into the game and it was Bama that ran out of gas that time. But on Saturday night, even though it had led to a few three and outs, Alabama never gave up on their running game. Now Bama's offensive coordinator, Jim McElwain, was creative in that running game. Trap plays, sweeps, and runs out of the Wildcat formation highlighted how one can be creative yet committed to an identity on offense. The vertical passing game was shut down to Julio Jones, but McElwain called plays to give his other receivers shots at a deep ball. Eventually the running game wore down the Hokie defense and led to big running plays in the 4th quarter. But look at how the coordinator matched the gameplan to his players - don't ask the QB in his first start to do too much; use the running game to set-up the passing game; make adjustments to the defense (see the pass to the TE over the middle in the 4th quarter as a great example of this). McElwain deserves credit for implementing an offense with a clear philosophy and making adjustments within the confines of that offense.
What was the Hokie offensive identity? What was the gameplan? Can anyone tell me? I can tell you that whatever the gameplan was, it showed an INSANE level of mismanagement of the receivers which has now actually become a hallmark of a Stinespring-coached offense. The Hokies have Jarrett Boykin, who has proven ball skills and is a physical receiver who can jump and make plays. Xavier Boyce was supposedly even better than that, enough to overtake Boykin on the depth chart. These are the guys you want to throw a deep ball to. There were a total of three deep balls thrown by Taylor and so…….of course all three were to Dyrell Roberts and none were complete. In fact two of those were on one series of downs (a three and out, one of SIX three-and-outs on the night). Roberts was completely blanketed on the first deep ball on first down. So on third down, of course ol' Stiney went back to the same deep pass down the near sideline to Roberts. Roberts is the shortest receiver with the worst ball skills of the bunch!!! There were five passes to receivers in the flat or on crossing routes - three went to Danny Coale and two went to Jarrett Boykin. Why isn't Dyrell Roberts sent on THOSE routes utilizing his open-field skills with the ball in his hands? When the Hokies were in the red zone, Stinespring called a total of ZERO fade routes to Boykin, Boyce or Marcus Davis. The offense burned two timeouts in the first 8 minutes of the game because of different people on offense getting lined up incorrectly or too slowly. There were zero plays from the vaunted Wild Turkey formation. I mean the entire thing would be a comedy if it didn't just make me sick to my stomach.
Another hallmark of a Stinespring-led offense is an inability to beat the blitz. Here's something to chew on - Alabama blitzed (meaning brought six or more players on the pass rush) 10 times on Saturday night not counting goal line plays. Against those 10 blitzes the Hokies were sacked 4 times and attempted 6 passes with 1 complete for 4 yards and none of the plays against an Alabama blitz went for a first down. To defeat a blitz, you utilize a back in the flat or set-up a screen pass, or you hit a slant, or you roll the QB away from the pressure. There was a total of one called pass to a RB in the flat. The Hokies tried one screen pass to David Wilson (not against a blitz by the way) and Alabama read it so easily that one defensive lineman didn't even rush Taylor but instead immediately covered Wilson so Taylor had to throw the ball into the dirt. Three slants were attempted and none were complete, though one led to a pass-interference call on Alabama. There was a total of one QB roll-out called, which is amazing when you consider how athletic Taylor is and how effective that can be against a blitz. And for those of you wanting to lay the loss at Tyrod Taylor's feet, let me defer to QB coach Mike O'Cain here -
"He had only one mis-read on the goal line where I think he panicked a bit, thinking he could run it in when he had an open receiver and didn't get the ball to him."
That play was on 3rd and goal in the 2nd quarter after the Antoine Hopkins interception. Bama brought the blitz and sure enough Ryan Williams was wide open in the flat for a TD. A good play to beat the blitz and Taylor missed the read. The Hokies still got a FG out of it so it's not like that play was the difference in the ball game. But two things jump out at me here -
1) If that was Taylor's only mis-read during that game then that means the rest of the time, he made the right reads and if that's the case, my point above about the wrong receivers being in the wrong patterns for their skills is BY DESIGN.
2) This play with the RB in the flat against the blitz happened with 9:00 left in the 2nd quarter. It was wide open, SO WHY ON EARTH DIDN'T THE OFFENSE EVER GO BACK TO IT THE REST OF THE GAME?
Yes, Taylor could have certainly thrown the ball better but it doesn't belong on him either. No, the main reason the Hokies lost this game is because the offense had a grand total of two drives that lasted longer than 1:54 and that completely burned out a Hokie defense that showed it was indeed capable of stopping the Alabama offense. It was a miserable performance that was worse than any opponent the Crimson Tide played in all of 2008 - a list that includes such distinguished programs as Western Kentucky, Tulane and Arkansas STATE.
At the end of the day, the Hokies will have more talent than most of the teams they play the rest of this year. Because of that, the Hokies look like they will have another solid season, as long as they can shake off the psychological effects of this painful loss, which is something Coach Beamer is pretty damn good at after so much practice at doing it. When they do, they will be competitive in the ACC and as a Superfan, I admit to being happy about that. But what I am sick and tired of is getting patted on the head and being told collectively by the elite football programs -"Yes you play very hard and you can be good when you grow up but for now go eat your Cap'n Crunch at the kiddie table" because the offensive coordination and execution is not at the level it needs to be. I think it has been proven in this Alabama game, as it has so many times before, that if the program ever wants to sit at the "grown-up table", they will have to make a change at offensive coordinator.