by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/5/02
Saturday night, under the lights of Lane Stadium, a determined Hokie team playing in front of nearly 65,000 rabid fans still couldn't do what was necessary to beat Pittsburgh. Simply put, they couldn't block and tackle. While the three spectacular touchdown catches posted by Pitt freshman receiver Larry Fitzgerald were impressive, the real tale of this game was the way the Panthers thrashed the Hokies on the line of scrimmage.
While this loss is painful, most people aren't surprised by it. A few Hokies I talked to Saturday before the game "felt good" about it, but most were very nervous. Their memories of the last five games before this one, in which the two teams battled to a standstill, were too fresh. Heading into this matchup, the Hokies were 3-2 against Pittsburgh in the last five games, and Tech had been outscored by Pittsburgh in those five games, 126-124.
Add last year's 38-7 whipping, and any Hokie fan with a brain was worried. Night game aside, revenge factor aside, Pittsburgh knows how to beat the Hokies. In basic terms, Pittsburgh is Virginia Tech: physical and attacking, with less impressive special teams but a much more diverse offense.
Though the 28-21 loss in this game doesn't really come as a shocker, Pitt's complete domination along the line of scrimmage does … until you break down the tape and see what happened. Then it all clicks and makes sense.
Pitt has always been able to pass on Tech, and they did it again this time. Though the Panthers only had 208 yards passing, a far cry from the 427 they put up on Tech back in 1999, they made some spectacular plays through the air (as usual), most notably the three TD catches by true freshman Larry Fitzgerald.
You might as well accept, if you haven't already, that Pitt is going to put up some spectacular passing plays against VT. The Panther QB's and receivers routinely look like NFL Pro Bowl players against the Hokies, and Fitzgerald's three TD catches were no exception. I quit trying to figure out why Pittsburgh does it against Tech and not against anybody else a long time ago.
Pittsburgh knows the Hokies play man coverage, and they toss the ball up in the air, and their tall, talented receivers -- it's amazing who you can recruit when you're known as a passing team -- go up and get it.
But the real problem for the Hokies in this game was the Pittsburgh rushing game. Tech had only given up 326 rushing yards going into this game (40.8 yards per game), and Pittsburgh nearly matched that, with 275 rushing yards on 44 carries.
Pittsburgh had a whopping ten rushing plays of ten yards or more, including seven on first down alone. The Panthers broke off runs of 13, 16, 53, 52, 14, 14, 10, 22, and 10 yards, and the majority of them (seven) were right up the middle, often through gaping holes.
What happened? Primarily, Pittsburgh just knocked the snot out of Tech. Their O-line, tight end, and fullback dominated the Hokies.
But to get very specific, the Hokies had several players up the middle of their defense who were too light, too inexperienced, or both, to stand up to the rushing game.
Defensive tackle Jason Lallis, a converted defensive end, has been a pleasant surprise this season, and has produced some great plays. But in this game, his one weakness came home to roost. Lallis is listed at just 254 pounds, and that's a liability against a team that puts 300+ pound centers and guards on their offensive line -- and these days, that's most teams.
As usual, Lallis made a couple of good plays in this game, but for the most part, he was manhandled by Pitt's interior line and was a non-factor against the running game. Worse than that, he was often pushed out of the way, creating a big hole in the middle.
The rest of the Hokie defensive line was consistently neutralized in the running game, leaving the responsibility for making the tackle up to the linebackers, rover, and safety.
So, that happens sometimes. Why didn't the linebackers make the plays? Why was Pitt, of all teams, able to do what no other team had done this year?
For one, after looking at film, I don't think I've ever seen a more masterful job of blocking by a football team. In addition to the blocking along the line, Pitt fullback Lousaka Polite came through the hole and nailed the VT linebackers all game long. Polite just didn't miss his blocks, period, and his blocks routinely took out the first linebacker to arrive, be it James Anderson or Mikal Baaqee.
On top of that, as if it could get worse for Tech, Pitt's offensive linemen also got into the defensive backfield and hit the linebackers. It's one thing for a fullback to block your linebackers, but when guards and tackles are breaking through the line and taking out your linebackers, while still managing to block your DL … you've got a big, fat problem on your hands.
I broke down the Panthers' two longest running plays. They had a 52-yarder and a 53-yarder, both in the second half. Here's what I saw:
1.) Tim Murphy, 52 yards, off right guard: On this play, the Panthers blocked the Tech DL straight up, and the fullback took out James Anderson. But what really made the play go was Pitt's left tackle, who ignored Nathaniel Adibi, and instead blew right past him and went out and blocked Mikal Baaqee.
With the linebackers blocked, the responsibility for the tackle fell on the rover (Michael Crawford), whip (Brandon Manning), and safety (Willie Pile). The whip and rover were nowhere to be seen on the play. As the running back comes through the line, DeAngelo Hall arrives, but he had taken a slightly wrong angle and missed the tackle.
Willie Pile didn't even come into the picture until the play was 20-25 yards downfield, and at that point, he was backpedaling, trying to avoid blockers, and trying to make the play.
By wiping out the DL and linebackers, and by Pile not showing up until very late (I'm not sure where he was lined up on the play), Pitt ripped off a long run. Tech eventually tracked down Murphy on the VT 10 yard line, where Brandon Manning made the tackle. Pitt scored on the next play to make it 21-21.
2.) Brandon Miree, 53-yarder, up the middle (TD): Crawford and Manning blitzed from the corners, and Pitt handed off up the middle, meaning that Crawford and Manning were instantly out of the play. Baaqee was locked up by a Pitt offensive lineman, who proceeded to start pushing him downfield.
James Anderson went right and funneled Miree towards the inside, which is a good play. Anderson was even in position to make the tackle, but he couldn’t shake off the block of the fullback. Miree shrugged off Anderson's arm tackle and accelerated upfield.
Willie Pile arrived right after that, but he also missed an arm tackle, and Miree was gone, 53 yards, to the house. 28-21, Pittsburgh.
In the other plays I observed, much like this one, the Hokies simply got blocked. Prior to analyzing the tape, I thought redshirt freshman Anderson, with his inexperience, might be out of position, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was that the Pitt fullback just nailed him over and over and over. Anderson was credited with eight tackles for the game, but he was a non-factor against the run. He's a good athlete who is rapidly learning the position, but in this game, he got taken to school. As he gets older and bigger and stronger, he'll get better at shaking off the blocks and making the play.
You can point fingers at Lallis (too light) and Anderson (too young) all you want, but no one else stepped up, either. Pile was not quick to the hole, nor was he physical, and Crawford and Manning were ineffective unless they were blitzing and happened to shoot the right gap.
Pittsburgh mauled Tech's rush defense. They blocked the hell out of it. They executed like you'll probably never seen an OL and fullback execute again. You can't do any better than they did.
One defensive sidebar that I noticed in reviewing film was when the Hokies blitzed, and what happened.
By my count, the Hokies blitzed nine times in the first half, and only two in the second. There were some plays late in the game where it was hard to decide if the Hokie linebackers were shooting the gaps in an attempt to make a play, or truly blitzing, but when in doubt, I put it down as a non-blitz.
Tech's blitz was very effective in the first half. Of the nine blitzes, not one gave up a play longer than six yards, and most resulted in a positive play for the Hokies. They did the following, mostly on second and long and third and long:
In the second half, however, the Hokies only blitzed twice. The first blitz came on a third and 9 after Tech had taken a 21-7 lead. Billy Hardee blitzed, hit Rutherford clean … and was brushed off. Rutherford fired incomplete to Fitzgerald, but then Ronyell Whitaker committed The Penalty Heard Round the World, a late hit that gave Pittsburgh new life (more on that later).
The second blitz I noted came late in the game, when Crawford and Manning both blitzed from opposite corners on Miree's game-winning 53-yard TD. They were completely taken out of the play and left behind by that blitz, and that's why most defensive coordinators don't just blitz willy-nilly. It isolates the rest of your players, and if they don't make the play -- and Anderson and Pile didn't -- you could have an unpleasant situation on your hands, which is exactly what happened here.
There weren't as many long-yardage blitz opportunities in the second half as there were in the first. Pitt had a lot of second-and-short and third-and-short situations. But the Hokies did pass up some prime opportunities to blitz in the second half, foregoing it on third and ten, second and thirteen, and third and thirteen.
Overall, I thought the blitz was a positive thing for the Hokies, but I know Bud Foster is thinking that it would have been nice to have Manning and Crawford to help out on Miree's game-winner.
A Dumb Play
One play that will always be remembered is Ronyell Whitaker's personal foul in the third quarter. You know the one. The Hokies led 21-7, and Rutherford threw incomplete to the sidelines to Fitzgerald. Whitaker, trailing the play, shoved Lamar Slade to the ground, and the refs flagged him for a personal foul.
That gave the Panthers a first down and kick-started Pitt, who scored in two plays and proceeded to run the Hokies out of Lane Stadium. Tech had held Pitt to just nine yards of offense in the second quarter, but from the time Whitaker committed his penalty to the end of the game, they tacked on nearly 300 yards.
Hokie fans have said that Slade took a dive, the hit wasn't that bad, etc. The bottom line is, Whitaker made a play that was at best marginal, but which committed the cardinal sin of putting the decision in the referee's hands. The ref decided it was a cheap shot, and I agree.
Whitaker's five-year history at Tech is full of such stupid plays and decisions, from his late hit on Michael Vick in the 1999 spring game, to his interference call against Syracuse last season, to his one-game suspension last year, to his inexplicable, gross lapses in coverage that gave up 150 yards and two touchdowns to FSU in the fourth quarter of last year's Gator Bowl, to his two-game suspension this year, and now to this.
I've defended Whitaker from time to time. Not as a player -- it's hard to defend the mistakes he has made on the field -- but as a person. He is one of the most outgoing and personable players on Tech's team. I'll continue to say that about him, but it's awfully hard to defend him as a player anymore, now that he has made critical mistakes in three of Tech's last five losses.
Those who will take up Whitaker's cause in conversations about Hokie football have now dwindled down to a precious few, and I'm not one of them. If he hasn't learned by now, his redshirt senior season, he's not going to. It's time to give Vince Fuller 80-90% of the snaps and keep Whitaker off the field, less the ticking time bomb that is Ronyell Whitaker go off yet again in a close game.
Ah, yes, let's talk play-calling again.
I felt that in the fourth quarter, Tech's first-down play-calling was extremely conservative (Suggs up the middle) and was putting them in second-and-long situations. Faced with second and long, the way they were struggling with the Pittsburgh D, getting a first down was almost impossible.
When Suggs scored on a 59-yard run with 13:52 to go in the third quarter, that gave the Hokies 182 yards of offense (give or take a yard). With 13 seconds left to go in the game, the Hokies completed a 33-yard pass to Ernest Wilford.
In the 28 minutes and 39 seconds in between, Tech had 60 yards of offense and three first downs. Extrapolate that out to a whole game, and it equals about 125 yards of offense and 6-7 first downs. So the VT offense definitely went dormant after the Hokies took their 21-7 lead.
I broke down what the Hokies did on first down throughout the game, and what I found was very interesting.
From the beginning of the game to the point where Suggs scored to make it 21-7, the Hokies had, by my count, run 17 first down plays. They called 9 rushes and 8 passes, and they averaged 4.35 yards per first down.
After Suggs scored -- and Pitt responded with a score to make it 21-14 -- the Hokies called a flanker screen to Wilford on first down for 14 yards. 18 first down plays, 9 rushes, 9 passes, 4.89 yards per first down.
The next nine first downs were all called rushes, and the Hokies averaged 2.78 yards per play (I counted a first down fumble as zero yards gained).
Then Pitt took the 28-21 lead, and the Hokies threw on their last two first downs, with under a minute to go.
So yes, from the time VT went up 21-7, the first-down play-calling turned very conservative, and their average gain on first down plummeted. Faced with so many second-and-longs, the run-oriented VT offense couldn't convert, and the Hokies kept giving the ball back to Pitt to take another crack at it.
Add the conservative first-down offensive play-calling to the lack of blitzes by the Hokie defense, and the VT coaching staff in general was less aggressive in the second half.
To compound the problem, the Hokies did nothing to disguise their passes versus their runs. Prior to this game, Tech had been calling the QB draw with Randall lined up in the shotgun with a four-wide set. In this game, no QB draw was called, and no handoffs were made from the shotgun. Every time Tech ran the shotgun, they threw it, allowing Pitt to tee off on the Hokies.
Likewise, I didn't see a single play-action pass the entire game. For a run-oriented team like Tech, the play-action pass is a weapon that ought to be used several times a game, particularly on first down. It would freeze the linebackers and keep them from teeing off on the QB.
One thing that I did like was when the Hokies rolled Randall out to throw. He's a much better thrower on the run than he is from the pocket. I only recall about two rollout passes (there may have been more), but they invariably work, and Randall's passes have more velocity and accuracy when rolling out. Most QB's lose accuracy on the run, but it doesn't seem to affect Randall.
But that old buggaboo about the Hokie offense being predictable was true in this game. If it looked like they were going to run, they ran. And if they lined up in the shotgun, they threw.
There's a big debate going on as to whether poor offensive line play is leading to the Hokies mostly run-oriented, conservative play-calling, or if the play-calling is leading to poor offensive line play.
There is no question that the offensive line play is not up to snuff, but would it be masked somewhat by more creative play-calling and misdirection? That's hard to say, but I'm starting to think that the line play may be driving the play-calling.
What leads me to think that? Two plays. Two plays where five Virginia Tech linemen couldn't stop a three-man Pittsburgh rush. On one play, Pitt flushed Randall from the pocket, and on another, they actually sacked him a split-second after he set up in the pocket … with a three-man rush.
Those two plays, along with breaking down a tape (this one) that showed the Pitt offensive line putting on a clinic against a pretty good Tech defense, convinced me that the Hokies are limited by a young, thin offensive line. There is no silver bullet that will either turn them from an average offensive line into a great offensive line, or which will suddenly give Tech's young offensive coordinator the confidence to call what he wants, when he wants. But one thing's for sure: the two things feed off of each other in a negative way.
What Might Have Been
In a close loss like this, there's always a handful of plays that you wish the Hokies could have back, plays they didn't make that might have won the game. Here are a few:
1.) Early in the second quarter, on second and ten from the Tech 45, Randall ran the option left, kept it, and burst through the line. There was nothing but green grass in front of him, but Pitt linebacker Lewis Moore, who had been blocked to the ground, leaped after Randall, snagging his ankle and bringing him down. The tackle stopped a sure TD, and the drive later ended with a Randall interception.
2.) With six and a half minutes to go in the second quarter, Pitt was punting from their 47 yard line. The deep snapper snapped the ball high, and Pitt punter Andy Lee leaped, tipped it, pulled it down, and punted the ball 35 yards. Had he not caught it, Tech would have taken possession inside or around the Pitt 30 yard line, maybe deeper.
3.) On the play in which Whitaker committed his personal foul, the Hokies blitzed, and Billy Hardee had a clean shot at Rod Rutherford. He hit him high, hit him weak, and Rutherford shrugged it off and threw the pass. You know the rest. If Hardee hammers Rutherford to the turf, that drive is over, and the Hokies have the ball with a 21-7 lead.
4.) With 11:41 to go, DeAngelo Hall made an incredible play, cutting in front of a Pitt receiver on a flanker screen that he had read and timed perfectly. With a pick-6 opportunity right in front of him, Hall dropped the ball. Had he intercepted it and returned it for a TD, the Hokies would have led 28-21.
Good VT Plays
Let's finish up with some positive stuff. Things I liked:
1.) The fade route to Wilford right before Tech's second TD (finally!). Pitt committed interference, putting the ball inside the five, and Suggs scored shortly after that.
2.) An 8-yard screen pass to Suggs on first and 20. VT doesn't use the screen nearly enough.
3.) The unbalanced line formation that produced (if I recall correctly) Suggs' 59-yard TD. The Hokies tucked a wide receiver up close to the tight end, and the odd formation worked, springing Suggs for the TD.
4.) The double-screen to Cedric Humes (fake it one way, throw it the other) that gained 14 yards. Tough play for the QB to execute, but it usually works, and it did here. Love the misdirection, wish there was more of it.
5.) Ernest Wilford. Okay, so Wilford isn't a "play," but I have to shine the light on him. EW is having a heck of a year. Too bad the Hokies can't get it to him more. Wilford has 25 catches for 437 yards this year, and he might have twice that at a place like Pitt or Miami.
Gut Check Time
The key for the Hokies now is to not fold up like a cheap tent. In 1997, 1998 and 2001, promising starts and high rankings were derailed by losses, and the team slid to a .500 record (or worse) the remainder of the season.
This Tech team is what it is: young, conservative on offense, and fighting to keep its intensity up as it enters November. It's also very talented, and it plays very well when it has confidence.
They've got Syracuse (3-6, 1-3 Big East) coming up in the Carrier Dome, then they've got surging WVU (6-3, 3-1) and Virginia (6-3) at home. All three teams are no doubt licking their chops right now, and all three could beat the Hokies.
Tech could also beat all three. It's up to them what they do with their season before making that trip down to Miami on December 7th.
We'll return later this week with a Syracuse preview.