Before I get into the hows and whys of the game, let me just punctuate my point about how close this game was because I got so sick of reading today about how the Hokies didn't belong on the same field at the Cardinal. The coaching staff was outclassed to be sure, but the players were not. They battled their hearts out and the game was a lot closer than the score. Consider two sequences that swung the outcome of the entire game. They are so important that there will not be a 3 Key Plays for this game, because these were the two turning points. Both occurred in the first 9 minutes of the 2nd half.
At exactly the 12 minute mark of the 3rd quarter, with Stanford facing 1st and 10 from the Hokie 46 yd line, DE Chris Drager blew through the line on a stunt and wrapped up QB Andrew Luck. Luck tried to get rid of the ball before being sacked and threw it right to DB Jayron Hosley who already had one pick on a much more amazing, difficult play in the first half. I now know how William Wallace felt in the final act of torture he experienced at the end of Braveheart, as Hosley dropped the ball and what would have been an absolutely certain pick-6, (as well as the record for Hokie interceptions in one season by a player). Stanford went on to score on that drive and instead of a 19-13 lead for VT it was a 19-12 lead for the Cardinal. Amazingly, this was Luck's only incompletion of the 2nd half.
The second sequence occured at the 6:18 mark of the third quarter. Tyrod Taylor having made miracle play after miracle play, stepped up to avoid a rush and fired a deep ball to WR Jarrett Boykin who had BADLY beaten his man. In fact, if you listen to the broadcast closely, you'll hear, as Taylor uncorks the ball, analyst Jon Gruden say "got him" because Gruden knows it's a TD. If Taylor led the ball straight over Boykin into the end zone it would have been. Unfortunately, Taylor led him to the middle of the field away from the d-back in coverage, but right into where the safety was playing. The safety was able to leap up and make the pick. I felt the shivers on this play, like I was watching the game slip away. Sure enough, on Stanford's first offensive play from scrimmage at their own 3 yd line, FS Eddie Whitley was fooled by the extensive pre-snap motion (more on this later) and was on the wrong side of the field as the Stanford back busted a 56 yd run. Luck then executed a beautiful play action pass for a TD on their next snap. In just 3 snaps, the game had gone from what should have been a 19-19 tie to a 26-12 Stanford lead.
Make no mistake, Stanford is a tremendous foe and they deserved to win. They made the adjustments and the plays, and Tech did not, and the examples I give above illustrate how mistakes by two of the Hokies' very best players (Taylor and Hosley) helped turn what could have been a very exciting finish into a big win for the Cardinal. Nine times out of ten, both Taylor and Hosley would make those plays as they did all season, but they didn't in this game and it turned the tide, I'll give you that. But don't give me this crap about how the players for VT were outmatched or outclassed by Stanford. I quit thinking that the day I watched Tech play Alabama at the beginning of the '09 season. The horses are in the stable and if you want to debate that, well as Rock Carmichael put it so eloquently in his post-JMU rant to the team - "just meet me at my locker" and we can have that "discussion".
I give you credit, my Calm and Beloved Reader. I think you know where this is headed. The case has been made here at TSF all season that the offensive coaching was getting too much credit for a very stout performance by the offense, when that credit really belonged to a surreal player by the name of Tyrod Taylor. Also here at TSF we are disciples in the faith of Foster-ism, which makes it hurt even worse to acknowledge that he was also outcoached in this game. Foster doesn't get a free-pass, although he does get the benefit of the doubt considering the magic he has worked throughout his career.
It may hurt to do this, but recall if you will the offensive plays of Stanford and those of the Hokies. How many Stanford plays were just wide open big plays? Running backs getting gaping holes to dash through. Tight ends and receivers running completely free in the secondary. I know on four of the Cardinal's six touchdowns the plays were absolutely wide open with no Hokie laying a hand on their opponent.
Now think about Tech. How many offensive plays were like that? Were any? I found a quick hitter to Marcus Davis in the first quarter that was wide open when Stanford blitzed and Tech got 14 yds on it. But every other play seemed like a literal miracle was being performed by Tyrod Taylor. Yes, his capstone was that impossible play he made on the touchdown pass to Wilson (well it was to Boykin, but Wilson dove in front and made the catch). But even the roll-out-to-one-side-throw-to-Danny Coale-back-across-the-field that was so wide open against Miami and Florida State required an insanely good throw by Taylor which just barely made it over the outstretched fingertips of a Stanford linebacker. EVERY SINGLE offensive play by the Hokies was contested. It was a struggle.
Why is that? When I went back and watched the game a second time and finished retching, I realized there were two reasons - one for each half. In the first half, the reason was that Stanford seemed so prepared for every single play. That 4th and 1 play in the middle of the 2nd quarter there were FOUR (count 'em FOUR) Stanford players that ran for the hole that Darren Evans was supposed to hit. He tried to move to the right but there was just no chance. More on this in a bit, as well. The second half, however, was a different story. Stanford's defensive coordinator Vic Fangio realized that just knowing what play Tech was going to run might not be enough to win the game because Taylor was just so magnificent at improvising (four years of being forced to do it helps, right Ty?).
So he made a brilliant adjustment once the Cardinal got ahead 19-12 and began calling what they call their chaos blitz on two out of every three downs. Basically, different linemen and/or linebackers would be standing or getting in a stance so that the Hokie offensive line wouldn't know, once the ball was snapped, who was coming and who was dropping off to read the play. In most cases the Cardinal weren't bringing more than 5 or 6 defenders which the Hokies had enough men to protect, but they just weren't able to pick up the right defender. The results were undeniable. Taylor still made a few miracle plays in the 2nd half, but there were more sacks and missed passes. And remember that interception Taylor threw that was so critical? At the end of the first half, he threw that ball the same way to Boykin with no safety there and it was a huge play that got the Hokies within FG range with just seconds left. In the second half, the safety was there to make the play. Fangio made the adjustments.
When Stanford was on offense, in the 2nd half, they also made some well-conceived changes that caught the Hokie defense out of sorts. They began using more of their 6 offensive linemen, 2 tight end sets. And then they started doing a great deal of pre-snap motion to force Tech into moving all over on defense before the snap. Recall that Foster's defensive preparation for the game relied on the defensive players communicating changes based on the formation the Cardinal was in, not the personnel in the game. So the Cardinal just began changing up their formations before the snap. And it worked. The Cardinal began ripping off 6-8 yd runs, and eventually popped a few big ones, including the 56 yarder from their own 3 yd line that helped turn the tide of the game. With the running game that effective, it suddenly opened up the play-action (which Luck excels at) and the touchdown passes in the 2nd half were just totally wide open pitch-and-catch type plays for the Cardinal.
So just to summarize that for a minute - in the first half it was a close dogfight with Stanford leading 13-12. In the second half, Stanford's coaching staff made the adjustments to what Tech had brought to the Orange Bowl and the Hokies' coaching staff was unable to respond likewise.
In a game of this magnitude against an opponent like this, where you have this long to prepare, the teams shouldn't be able to prepare for everything their opponent is going to do. You have to be able to deal with the battle "on the ground". All that preparation as players is so that when the game comes you know how to do what you're expected to. But all that preparation as coaches is so that when the game comes you know when to make that unexpected call or adjustment.
A perfect example of this was the aforementioned 4th and 1 call from the Stanford 30 yd line in the first half. All season, hell, all CAREER long for Stinespring, this has been a run out of the power formation. In this one instance, with this much on the line, a playaction play would have caught Stanford COMPLETELY flat-footed. Sure enough, in well-coached style, Stanford's weakside linebacker stayed home on the play to protect against Taylor faking the handoff and running a bootleg. But giving Taylor a run/pass option with Andre Smith out in the flat would have been unstoppable - the LB couldn't have eliminated both options. Even more obvious, on that play after coming to the line of scrimmage, Taylor had run around looking like it was possible he was audibling. On 4th AND ONE, the defensive back on Jarrett Boykin dropped 10 yds off the ball before the snap. I know it sounds insane, but go watch it yourself if you can stand it, the DB literally goes off the !@&*#^!@$ TV SCREEN. How Stinespring doesn't have a hot read installed that says "if their back drops off 10 yds in coverage on 4th and 1, just stand up from center and throw it out to Boykin to get the yard."
I don't mean to harp on one play because it was so much bigger than that. In response to all the crazy blitzes by the Cardinal, how many slants or screens did the Hokies run to try and slow that blitz down? I think you know the answer. In fairness, Taylor's deep ball was not accurate all night, other than the one throw to Boykin at the end of the first half, so why not make the adjustment and give him more quick hitting routes? The answer is that the Hokies have very few short routes in the arsenal (no slants or crosses apparently) and Stanford defended the few that they had very well. The Hokie offensive passing game is much like Stanford's in that it is based off establishing a good ground game and then a vertical passing game off of play action. But while Stanford was creative in establishing the run Monday night, the Hokies were never really able to. And as stated above, the only play to beat the blitz in the Hokie passing game is the deep route which is a lower percentage play (though one that Taylor did throw very well at times this year). No creativity here, no effective adjustments. Just the same old story against a top opponent.
And while I'm at it, let me elaborate about that whole "top opponent" thing. This Cardinal team really was an elite opponent. I hate with a passion the team that the Hokies are playing. It is my outlet for that little shadow inside human nature and all of us. I vehemently want the Hokies to destroy whoever they are playing. I never feel bad for the opponent no matter how bad the score is. But during the course of the Orange Bowl, a strange feeling developed, especially as I realized how hard those kids were playing. I actually began respecting Stanford. I think Andrew Luck is one helluva QB and there was a moment when he was being interviewed on the field by Michele Tafoya just after the game ended that gave me pause.
Here is this 21 year old kid, finished 2nd in the Heisman voting, everyone is saying a sure thing overall number 1 pick in the NFL draft, his coach says he is the only other perfect person he knows besides his wife, I mean this Luck kid is carrying a lot on his shoulders. A lot more than any 21 year old should be in this completely twisted society of ours. And in that white hot spotlight, he stepped up and played a phenomenal game displaying a dazzling combination of ball fakes, athleticism and pure throwing mechanics. And at the end of it all, when his team won you could see the genuine joy in his face, but more than that, the relief he felt. He didn't let his team down, his family down, his coach down, his reputation down. I couldn't hate him, I could only hate the fact that once again the same old story had played out again on the national stage for Virginia Tech.
Coach Beamer himself said leading up to this game that he had the players to finally compete with an elite opponent. And I agree with him. So in light of what happened, what can Beamer do? I think this guy has some great suggestions. At the end of the day, the mantra persists - even now that the Hokies have the players, they will not be able to beat the top competition until they upgrade the offensive coaching.
Speaking of coaching, how about the staff that Jim Harbaugh put together? How can you do anything but respect those guys? Their players play - for lack of a better term - Virginia Tech football. They are extremely physical, but play clean. They don't commit penalties and they are where they are supposed to be. The staff runs a tight ship and was top shelf in their bowl preparation and then halftime adjustments. Was anyone really surprised to see the Hokie offense get outcoached? The only surprise for me is that despite seeing the deficiencies in VT's offensive coaching and calling them out time and time again, I still allow myself to get so hurt when the "expected" actually happens. I guess, this time I let myself be inspired by the possibilities that Tyrod Taylor brought to the table, and despite losing this game, he will always be remembered as a legend of the VT gridiron which does give me some solace.
But not much.