Monday, September 28, 2009

Game Review - VT vs. Miami

The year was 2003 and the "U" was coming to Blacksburg, VA. The 'Canes were ranked #2 and the Hokies at #10 weren't being given a chance by anyone. During the tailgate and walking to the stadium I kept telling my friend Recruitnik D that I really felt confident about the team's chances. He indicated I had had FAR too much to drink, and while that was true, I also felt confident because whenever Tech is an underdog at Lane Stadium, it seems to bring out something otherworldly in the squad and the fans. Sure enough, that night lives in Hokie lore as being a time when the team and the fans rose to the moment and the Hokies destroyed Miami 31-7. In fact, including that game in 2003, and heading into Saturday's game against Miami, the Hokies had only been home 'dogs 5 times in those 6 years and they had only lost once (to BC in 2007, also in the pouring rain).

But the fog of time sometimes hides the warts of glorious moments like that one back in 2003. The Hokie offense was terrible that night, generating only 219 yards of total offense - 44 measly yards passing - and really only won because of DeAngelo Hall, 3 Brock Berlin interceptions (whenever that young man closes his eyes I GUARANTEE you he still hears chants of "BERRR-lin, BERRR-lin".) and a dropped fake FG pass that would have been a sure Miami TD. It was the first time at TSF that we began to question the offensive coordinator, because unlike 2001 and 2002, in 2003 there was some full-blown NFL-caliber offensive talent at more than one or two positions.

Anyway, thanks to our trusty friends at CFB Stats since the 2003 game against Miami (and including that game), the Hokies have played a ranked opponent 23 times. They are 12-11 in those games and the offense has only averaged 281 yards/game against those opponents. That is horribly bad. What's even worse is that the offense only had more than 350 yards in six of those games and four of those came in the 2005 season. Basically, outside of 2005, in big games, the Hokie offense simply hasn't shown up and for the Hokies to be 12-11 against ranked opponents playing with so little help from one entire phase of their football team is a tribute to Bud Foster and the Hokie special teams. This was even addressed in Sean McDonough's comment at the end of the 3rd quarter in last week's game against Nebraska.

All of which brings us to Saturday. Again the "U" came to Blacksburg, and they were BACK, at least according to college football analysts on every network who were pining for the return of a "big name" to ACC football. Nobody was giving the Hokies a chance and once more they were the home underdogs. The crowd and the team were in a frenzy and then BAMMO, just like in 2003, the Hokies whipped Miami 31-7. But this time, and for the first time since Superfans can remember, the Virginia Tech offense played at the level of the defense and special teams and the true potential of this team was revealed to College Football Nation as they walloped Miami in all three phases of the game.

So how on earth did this happen? When dealing with a problem as deeply rooted as the Hokie offensive struggles have been, there has to be a "perfect storm" of circumstances to bring about change. I think the combination of the Nebraska game the week before and the rainy weather in Blacksburg for the Miami game helped create this "perfect storm".

The Nebraska game forced, for the first time I believe, a genuine acceptance of responsibility by Coach Stinespring. Prior to that game, unlike his counterpart Coach Foster, in the aftermath of losses, Coach Stinespring never seemed to accept responsibility for the poor play of the offense. It was always players needed to execute better, someone took a wrong step here, missed a block there, etc. But after the Nebraska game, where the Hokies escaped with a win and the only offense was on the final drive thanks to miraculous broken plays by Tyrod Taylor (which is so symbolic of this offense since the beginning of 2007), Stiney couldn't sleep. He went to work that Sunday at 5 am reviewing the film in-depth and seemed to grasp the role that he had played in the poor showing by the offense. During film review Monday morning, he showed the team several plays and pointed out who messed up and how it hurt the offense. But on some of the plays (handing the ball off to Dyrell Roberts immediately after his big kick return, or not running the ball on the 2nd drive of the 3rd quarter), he asked who was to blame and no player could come up with the answer. Then Stiney stood up in front of the team and took responsibility for those plays himself.

This wasn't some watershed moment where the whole offense then got in a circle and had a good group cry and sang Kum-Ba-yah. But what it did do was force Stinespring to learn what he expects his players to learn during film review every week - namely look critically at himself and understand how he was being an obstacle to the success of the offense. Once that step was accomplished, that knowledge could be applied to making improvements, which in this case, meant designing and calling plays suited to the strengths of his players that they could practice religiously the rest of the week.

The second factor was the rainy weather that was predicted all week. The rain would limit Stiney's desire to air the ball out at strange times in the game. He also knew that there would have to be a serious commitment to the run in order to keep the potent Miami offense off the field. This matched up very well with the abilities the offense has - extremely talented running backs, an aggressive and athletic offensive line and a dual threat quarterback - and more importantly than that it simplified things for every player, making it easier for them to focus on their assignment and properly executing it.

From the beginning of the game, this commitment to the run was evident and was proving effective which I was pleased about. But the moment where I knew something radical had happened up in the press box where the VT offensive coaching staff sits, came at the 4:54 mark in the 1st quarter. Ahead 7-0 facing 3rd and 8 from the Miami 48 yard line, the Hokies faced a certain blitz. This has been the blight of the offensive existence for all of Stinespring's tenure. He has never effectively handled a blitzing defense, even when everyone in the stadium, from the ticket-takers to the turkey-leg makers, knew it was coming. Sure enough, the blitz came AND STINESPRING HAD CALLED A ROLL-OUT FOR TAYLOR!!!!!!! I almost fell over as soon as I saw it and that was before Taylor stopped and threw a perfect strike back across the field to Jarrett Boykin for a 48 yard touchdown. Even if that catch would have just been for a first down, or even a drop, I would have been beyond excited to finally see a properly designed play that counters a blitz.

Then in the 2nd quarter, up against a 2nd and 15 from the Hokies own 28 yard line, a perfectly executed middle screen to Ryan Williams went for 17 yards and a first down and I knew, I KNEW, that a sea change had occurred. A paradigm shift. A moment of clarity. Something in Coach Stinespring was different. After all, he's never called a screen play at the right time, at least that I can remember. That play was part of an 84-yard drive that ended with a missed Matt Waldron FG, but it was the greatest drive, not only of this season, but since last year on the road against UNC. There were misdirection runs, there were up-the-gut runs, Blake DeChristopher was FLATTENING people, Tyrod Taylor made some plays with his feet, it was in a word - spellbinding. Another Achilles' Heel of Stiney's tenure has been a desire to give up on the run, even when it is working, to try and pull some long-developing pass play that usually leads to a sack or a turnover. The Orange Bowl loss against Kansas is the shining example of this. But in Saturday's game, the commitment to keep running the ball until the other team stopped it (which Miami was not able to do) was evident, and oh, so refreshing.

Sorry to spill so much ink on the offense, but please consider how radical a departure this game was. The Hokies had more than 350 yards of offense against a ranked opponent for the 2nd time in 3 1/2 years!!! Now, lest you think I've gone completely to the Dark Side of the Force, the inane attempts to throw deep balls to Dyrell Roberts instead of one of the receivers with better ball skills and under-utilizing TE Greg Boone are still special features of this offense that get me so riled up and pissed off that I can't digest my food. But this was a Neil Armstrong-sized leap for the offense, so I will try and be patient and hope that continued improvements can be made.

That said, we would be remiss to ignore any longer the other two phases of the game. First, how 'bout that DEFENSE?! Much has been made of the drop-off in defense this season, in particular against the run. There was never doubt as to who was going to accept the responsibility for that this week, and Coach Foster had his fellas revved up. By the time kickoff hit, those guys were ready to kick ass and chew bubble gum and they were all out of Big League Chew. Barquell Rivers and Cody Grimm deserve special mention for being playmakers extraordinaire. They were almost always in the right position and kept making play after play. The 'Canes mustered only 59 yards of rushing and 20 of those yards came in the 4th quarter when Miami was just trying to run the clock out and get the heck out of Blacksburg. Jacory Harris was sacked 3 times after having only been sacked once the previous two games, but even when he wasn't getting sacked, he was hit, hurried and hassled all day.

Really what impressed me more than anything about the defense, was the level of play regardless of personnel. Lyndell Gibson got 10-15 snaps at Backer because of how well he practiced this week and some self-admitted tackling mistakes from starter Jake Johnson. All Gibson did was get two tackles, make one huge hit and he almost had an interception. Kwamaine Battle and Demetrius Taylor were bigtime disruptors in relief of John Graves who sat with an ankle injury. In fact Battle, nearly single-handedly blew up a Miami screen pass. Eddie Whitley got some snaps at cornerback and was flying around. To a man, whoever was in on defense had their ears pinned back and they were looking for someone to hit and wrap-up.

Special teams had two disastrous plays - a fumbled snap by P Brent Bowden that gave Miami the ball in VT territory and a missed FG by Matt Waldron. But both redeemed themselves in huge ways. Bowden averaged 40 yards a punt in a driving rain, pinned two kicks inside the Miami 20 and the 'Canes ended with -10 yards in punt returns for the day. Matt Waldron hit all of his XP's and also, in treacherous footing, nailed a key FG to make the game 24-7 and answer an earlier Miami score.

I don't think the pundits were that far off, talking about how talented this Miami team is. What made this win so impressive is, in fact, just how good Miami really is. And that's saying something for me, because I HATE Miami. Despite being pressured for the first time all season, QB Jacory Harris responded strongly. Down 21-0 he led the Canes on an efficient scoring drive to open the 2nd half and then delivered two phenomenal throws later in the 3rd quarter that were flat-out dropped by his TE Jimmy Graham. He won't face a rush that fierce the rest of the season, and I'm excited to watch him play in subsequent games because he's the real deal. Miami might not beat Oklahoma next weekend but now, having faced the Hokies they will be better prepared for that level of speed. They are going to show that they can play with the Sooners who have as much talent as anyone in the country. On defense the' Canes are extremely fast as well, but being so young, they weren't able to respond to being down 21-0 that early in the game. Make no mistake - this performance by the Hokies was stellar precisely because of how good of an opponent they beat.

Back in 2003, a poor offensive performance against Miami marked a turning point, a foreshadowing if you will of the collapse of Tech's offense. No, it didn't occur immediately, but the decline after that Miami game is indisputable, even allowing for the spike in offense during the 2005 season (QB coach Kevin Rogers' final year on staff). In 2009, does this Miami game mark the impending return of an offense that can elevate Virginia Tech up among the elite of college football? My gut tells me, no, not immediately. But this could mark the beginning of an upward trend and give Superfans hope that the days might be coming to an end where 50% of VT drives look like this: off-tackle, delayed handoff, incomplete pass, punt. If that's so, we can let some of the nightmares of the 2003-2009 Hokie offense fall victim to the fog of time and prepare for more triumphant days ahead.

1 comment:

MadJay said...

MadJay said...
Kyle (Tucker) and Darryl (Slater) break stories for you Superfans so more frequently than we do here at TSF that often we're like a dog chasing the mailman. Of course, unlike us, they do get paid to cover that beat and they both do one helluva job in my opinion.

But sometimes.....sometimes we get 'em. s/comments/bryan_stinesprings_mea_culpa/9279/