Sunday, November 08, 2009

Game Review - VT vs. ECU

The Hokies went down and handled their business in Greenville, NC on Thursday night, coming away with a 16-3 win over the ECU Pirates. I have heard of lot of hemming and hawing about this game and by any account it was an ugly win. But there are two points that need to be made, one that isn't controversial and the other which apparently is. The point we can all agree on is that the Hokies needed this win. To keep the season on track for 10 wins and to keep the season from spiraling into a 7-5 or worse campaign, they needed to turn the 2 game losing streak around and they got it done on the road. The other point is apparently more controversial - all the blame for this one seems to be placed at the feet of Bryan Stinespring and I disagree as I will outline below.

Before I do, please don't think I am going to defend Bryan Stinespring. I think he needs to be removed as the offensive coordinator, and I have thought that for a long time. The reasons are legion and don't need to be re-hashed here. Suffice it to say, it is an affront to the fan base to have both an empty national title trophy case in Merriman Center and Coach Stinespring as the offensive coordinator. But face the facts my fellow Superfans - 70th best in offense (where VT is this year) is a major improvement from where the team has been. Granted it's about as good as one can expect from Coach Stinespring but if the defense were playing at the level we have become accustomed, a 70th place offense would have the Hokies sitting better than 6-3 right now. If you think that Thursday night's game was a terrible display of offense you may have forgotten last year's debacle to open the season against ECU when the Hokie offense only put up 13 points and had 243 yards of offense.

Consider that the score on Thursday night should have been 27-3 (sounds better doesn't it?) instead of 16-3 and the reason it wasn't has nothing to do with Stinespring. First of all, in the first quarter, Greg Boone stumbled as he made his cut running a slant on a 3rd and goal pass play (pass in the red zone??? GASP!?!) and when QB Tyrod Taylor came off of Boone and tried to throw to a wide open Danny Coale at the back of the end zone, Boone reached his hand out and knocked down the ball. The Hokies had to settle for a FG instead of a TD making the score 6-0 instead of 10-0. Then, early in the 2nd quarter, Taylor fumbled crossing the goal line and the ball went out the back of the end zone resulting in ECU's ball at their own 20-yd line and no points for VT instead of a 17-0 score favoring Tech. Those extra 11 points left on the field had nothing to do with Coach Stinespring, they were simply plays that were not made by VT and sometimes that is going to happen in a football game.

Recognize also that the offense had 379 yards in this game which, as I mentioned earlier, is a far cry from the offensive ineptitude from previous seasons. Ryan Williams completely obliterated any bad memories from his last game against UNC by rushing for 179 yards on only 26 carries with no fumbles. That's nearly 7 yards a carry and the truth of the matter is that one has to credit Stinespring for sticking with Williams. Early in the game, ECU was stuffing the run and packing the middle. Stinespring began throwing the vaunted WR screens and out routes but in this case it was the right time to do it. And then when ECU spread a little wider to cover those, Stiney came back to the running back they call 'Lil Sweetness (in honor of his hero Walter Payton) who began gashing the Pirate defense for huge chunks of yardage.

One area where this offense does break down is on third down. And that is definitely an area I hold Stinespring accountable. His third down playcalling and the execution by the players on that down is a joke. Third and long, third and short, third and anything means that 63% of the time there is going to be a punt. This is absolutely unacceptable. And it was the same on Thursday where VT went 4-14 on third down.

My diagnosis as to why the team struggles on third down is that on most of the passing plays that involve a player having to run more than 4 yards downfield, Taylor has a very hard time getting in a rhythm. In these situations he is very hesitant to let that ball go to his first read. There are two possibilities - a) the defense has a very good idea what route/play is coming and they cover the first read very well or b) Taylor wants that first read to be WIDE OPEN before he'll let go of the ball. I think it's a combination of these two things. Taylor wants to be safe with the ball so if his first read is at all covered, he'll try and make the progression to his 2nd read. He also wants to demonstrate to the NFL that he can do this. But too often, Taylor holds the ball too long and has to scramble around to make either a miracle play or lose yardage on a sack. This is not the formula for an effective, consistent offense and I'd love for the triumvirate of Stiney/O'Cain/Taylor to come up with a remedy for this unease on third down plays but I am unconvinced they can.

By the way, before I move to the defense, I have read all of the Ed Wang bashing and let's just cover that head-on here. First of all, Ed Wang is not an All-ACC left tackle. He never made the complete transition from tight end and I think his fundamentals are lacking. But he is a good left tackle, good enough to protect Tyrod Taylor's blind side more times than not. The two penalties on Ed Wang in this game were a complete and total joke. The first penalty was a "leg whip/tripping" call on a Ryan Williams 8 yd run that moved VT out of FG territory early in the 4th quarter. Wang moved to outside on the play and then came back to cut block one of the linebackers rushing in. Wang dove at him and missed and the defender tripped over his leg. Now it is a fact that Wang left his leg out there on purpose. Linemen do that on nearly every play where they block low because there is a chance that the defender will trip on their outstretched leg. It is also a fact that it was a weak block attempt by Wang. But what this was NOT was a "leg whip penalty" because Wang did not swing or kick his leg out into a defender or that defender's path. What Wang did happens on 75% of the run plays in football and it was ludicrous to pick it out here. Offensive linemen's legs are called the "trash" that linebackers are supposed to have to pick through. Terrible call.

That said I will nominate the leg whip for Best Officiated Call of the game compared to the PREPOSTEROUS call later in the 4th quarter on Wang for an illegal chop block. If you want to learn what an illegal chop block looks like just watch any Georgia Tech game. They were called for a few against Wake Forest on Saturday. This is when a defensive player is engaged or being blocked by an offensive player and another offensive player comes in below the waist to block the defender. The play often results in knee and ankle injuries and I wish the penalties for it for stiffer than 15 yards (1 game suspension is my suggestion) because it can end football careers. The play Wang was flagged for came at the 6:13 mark of the 4th quarter (I tell you this in case you want to watch the footage yourself on The play was a run to the right and Ed Wang's job was to cut the safety coming from the other side of the field to prevent him from getting in on the tackle. Ed did exactly that - he ran in on the safety and went low and got the safety down. Blake DeChristopher blocked the wrong man and actually was there to fall down on the safety to keep him from getting up (you missed the linebacker BDC). There was nothing resembling a chop block on this play. I say this to those of you wanting to hate on Ed Wang - he is a good left tackle, not elite by any stretch, but solid.

Now on to the defense. This was a unit that played with some pride. Minus one drive to end the first half, the defense was relentless. Coach Foster dialed up blitzes and Cody Grimm (my MVP of the season for this team) had just another completely lights out ball game. Grimm caused a fumble when ECU was deep in Hokie territory at a time when the Hokies were only protecting a 6 point lead. Grimm makes plays and effects the outcome of ballgames and if he isn't on All-ACC and All-American teams this year, something is way out of whack (to turn a phrase).
I was also a huge fan of another adjustment Foster made on defense - he started Lyndell Gibson over Jake Johnson at backer. Look, linebacker is just one of those positions where you can have all the physical attributes and look the part, but just not be productive enough. You have to have an innate feel for the game and a will to make tackles. I'm not saying Jake Johnson doesn't have those things, because he is just a sophomore, but I know that Lyndell Gibson does have them. Gibson has that nose for the football and was in on six tackles against ECU along with a fumble recovery. That fumble recovery is exactly the sort of thing Coach Foster was alluding to this week when he outlined why Gibson was going to start. Foster said "my linebackers have been solid but I need playmaking out of that position". Recovering fumbles is making a play that can affect the outcome of a game, and the Hokies have been getting that out of the linebackers for many years. I think Jake Johnson is going to continue to hit the weight room, continue to study film and he may still yet regain his starting position either this year or next. If he does it's a good thing for VT because he will have to have his game at a very high level to beat out a playmaker in Lyndell Gibson.
Overall, the Hokies just wore down the Pirates and by the 4th quarter, Virginia Tech was protecting their 13-3 lead. Rock Carmichael stepped up and made his 5th interception of the season on a tipped ball drill (good for 2nd in the conference) and the Hokies tacked on a FG for the final score of the game. This game was more of an exertion of will on both sides of the ball and it was good to see that for 60 minutes. Sure, I'd like more production out of the offense in the first half, but at this point in the season, the offense is what it is and they are led by a guy in Stinespring who I think is coaching at his absolute best right now. Of course, that's not really good enough for me, but as the defense plays back up to its high standards, it will probably be enough the rest of the way to notch some more wins.

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