By Dave Glenn
September 13, 2005
The much-anticipated 2005 ACC football season already is shaping up as one in which -- with only a few exceptions -- anyone can beat anyone. If Hollywood made a movie about it after just two weeks, the title might have been, "On Any Given Saturday."
"You look around this league now, and you can see you're going to be walking a fine line every week," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "One play can mean the difference between winning and losing. One play."
You want a fine line? Clemson punter Cole Chason handles a low snap against Texas A&M on the opening weekend, and Jad Dean kicks the winning field goal for the Tigers. Miami punter Brian Monroe mishandles a low snap against Florida State two days later, and Jon Peattie is denied the opportunity to kick a game-tying field goal for the Hurricanes.
The results: The Tigers win a game (25-24) in which they fail to score an offensive touchdown, and the Hurricanes lose a game (10-7) in which they move the ball well on offense and mostly dominate on defense.
Gridiron coaches have been preaching for decades the importance of limiting mistakes and playing smart, disciplined football, and this year more than ever the lesson should be taken to heart. In short, the so-called little things mean everything. Especially in a league where the overall talent disparity between the top seven or eight teams appears to be more of a crack than a canyon, these words are worth writing down.
Disciplined teams usually win. Undisciplined teams usually lose. If that's too big for the T-shirt, try this one on for size: Smart Teams Win. Dumb Teams Lose.
Even if every ACC football team played on every day of the week for the next 10 years, there may never be a better example of this concept than Virginia Tech's season-opening victory at N.C. State.
In his 18-plus years at Tech, coach Frank Beamer's teams have become famous for their aggressive, smart, fundamentally sound play. In his five-plus years at State, coach Chuck Amato's teams have become infamous for their aggressive, dumb, reckless play. It would be easy to cast aside those views as oversimplified generalizations, if not for the large amount of evidence that continues to amass on the field.
Most recently, the Wolfpack had 12 penalties for 105 yards against the Hokies, giving up an entire football field's worth of field position in a very close game. But "penalties" is too broad a term to explain this situation. Most coaches can live with a few mistakes of aggression, including the occasional personal foul that's the accidental result of a strong tackle made at 100 miles an hour. But those same coaches can't live with personal fouls that occur away from the action, or large numbers of illegal-formation penalties, delay-of-game infractions and other mental mistakes.
"We want to be aggressive. We don't want to take that away," Amato said. "It's the silly stuff that's been killing us."
In many ways, this year's Tech-State game was as even as it gets. Both teams had well-conceived game plans. Both had productive quarterbacks, decent offensive lines, powerful defensive lines, active linebackers, solid kickers and plenty of playmakers. There was no significant talent advantage on either side, and neither staff outwitted the other in terms of pure Xs and Os. The Wolfpack had the home-field advantage, but the Hokies took their typically strong contingent with them on the road.
When the dust settled on Tech's 20-16 win, just about everyone on both sides understood that the difference in the game came down to two words: discipline and intelligence. That would be bad news for any losing team, but it was particularly alarming for the Wolfpack, which was one of the five most penalized teams in the nation last year and hasn't seemed to learn its lesson.
"None of us would want to be judged by one game, because crazy things happen in this game, and everybody has a bad day at the office once in a while," a former Division I-A head coach told the Sports Journal. "When you see a trend -- the same things, good or bad, happening over and over -- that's when we as coaches usually deserve some credit or deserve some blame. And there's no doubt that the discipline problem at N.C. State has become a trend."
"Silly penalties," Amato said, "really cost us big."
With the benefit of film review, here's a closer look at how the little things -- especially N.C. State's mental mistakes and, in some cases, outrageous penalties -- added up to another loss for the Wolfpack and another win for the Hokies.
Less than three minutes into the game, NCSU senior Tramain Hall was back to receive a punt. Tech's Nic Schmitt knocked one almost 60 yards in the air from the line of scrimmage -- a fantastic kick, but in the middle of the field, leaving open the possibility of a big return -- but Hall's shallow drop made it impossible for him to field the punt. The Hokies downed the ball at State's 17-yard line, rather than Hall catching it at the 17 with 10-15 yards of open field in front of him and only one man to beat. Probable field-position loss: 10-20 yards.
After an outstanding TD run that gave State a 7-0 first-quarter lead, sophomore tailback Darrell Blackman accidentally lost his helmet in the ensuing end zone celebration when he was tackled by quarterback Jay Davis. Rather than putting his helmet back on, Blackman continued to gyrate and ran the 30-plus yards back to the sidelines while still on the playing field, with his helmet in one hand. NCSU running backs coach Dick Portee screamed at Blackman when he saw a flag for excessive celebration. After the officials huddled, the flag was waived off, but Blackman could've avoided even the possibility of a 15-yard penalty simply by putting his helmet back on after it got knocked off.
On the ensuing possession, Tech threw an incomplete pass on a second-and-four play from its own 26. Far away from the action, State cornerback A.J. Davis drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty for yanking the facemask of Tech receiver David Clowney. Instead of third down at the 26, it was an automatic first down at the 41. Davis, a redshirt junior whose toughness has been challenged by the Wolfpack coaches ever since he arrived as a prep All-American speedster from nearby Durham, stayed on the field. The Hokies quickly polished off their 80-yard drive with a touchdown to tie the score at 7-7.
"We had some foolish penalties," Amato said, "and some guys got one who hadn't had one in two years."
On the next possession, State put together a nice drive into Tech territory. On a first-down running play from the Hokies' 35-yard line, far away from the action, junior right tackle Derek Morris got locked up with Tech linebacker Vince Hall. When the whistle blew, instead of stopping, Morris followed through with both hands on Hall's shoulder pads and twirled him to the ground in something resembling a WWE move. The two players were so far away from the pile that it was an easy call for the officials. That made it second-and-23 instead of second-and-seven. Amato berated an official on the sidelines, and Morris stayed in the game. Next play: In an obvious passing situation, All-ACC defensive end Darryl Tapp raced around left tackle James Newby and pressured Davis, who threw an interception.
"We moved the ball effectively," Davis said, "but we shot ourselves in the foot."
On the interception return, NCSU tight end T.J. Williams got a firm hold on Tech rover Aaron Rouse just inside the Hokies' sideline. Instead of simply pushing Rouse a few more inches out of bounds, Williams continued with a spinning takedown about five yards off the playing field into a mass of players standing in front of the Tech bench. Flag, personal foul, 15 more yards. A melee almost ensued, but quick work by several Tech coaches and other personnel calmed the situation, and Wolfpack tailback Reggie Davis physically removed an agitated Williams from the area. The Hokies took over at State's 42-yard line, quickly were forced to punt, and downed the ball at the Pack's three-yard line.
On the first play of the second quarter, with the score still 7-7 and the Wolfpack driving near midfield, an eight-yard pass to Williams was nullified by an illegal formation penalty. Senior receiver LaMart Barrett failed to line up on the line of scrimmage, and Morris' position at tackle also may have been too far off the line. The result: first-and-15 instead of second-and-two. Three plays later, the Pack punted. Tech return man Josh Morgan, standing on the 10-yard line, correctly let the ball go over his head and vacated the area. The punt bounced at the three-yard line and went into the end zone. Hokies' ball at the 20.
Midway through the second quarter, with NCSU facing a second-and-eight play at the Tech 10-yard line, senior guard Dwayne Herndon committed a false start. Back-to-back incompletions in obvious passing situations forced the Wolfpack to settle for a field goal. The two teams later exchanged three-pointers, leading to a 13-10 State lead at the break.
"We've got to stop the silly penalties," Amato told the TV audience at the half. "The penalties have given them everything. The defensive penalties gave them field position, and the offensive penalties put us out of it."
Early in the third quarter, with N.C. State on a long drive into Tech territory, Morris got caught holding end Noland Burchette on a third-and-eight play from the 45-yard line. One play later, the Wolfpack punted.
With Tech pinned inside its own 10-yard line, State committed one of its two biggest blunders on the day. On a third-and-three play from the eight, the Hokies threw an incompletion, but Davis again was called for a crucial personal foul. Far away from the play, a Tech receiver slipped and fell at Davis' feet, and whatever the smallish corner did in return (it was out of the frame on film) drew a 15-yard penalty and no objections from the sidelines. The painful result: a possible fourth down became an automatic first down. Backup Jimmie Sutton replaced Davis for one play, then Davis returned. The Hokies continued down the field for a game-tying (13-13) field goal, with 2:19 left in the third quarter.
"Talk about North Carolina State being undisciplined," ESPN2 announcer Rod Gilmore said. "That penalty is a huge one. If they don't commit that penalty, they get the ball back in good field position. But they had this problem last season, and they're having it again now."
Then came the doozy. At the start of the fourth quarter, Tech punted from the Wolfpack's 42-yard line. Blackman, back as the return man, stood at the 10-yard line. He had been coached 1,000 times to abandon any ball that flies over his head. But this time he made a fair-catch signal while standing on the nine-yard line, then he backpedaled and backpedaled and backpedaled, finally fair-catching the ball inside his own one-yard line.
"There were some crazy plays," Amato said, "that really hurt us in field position."
It's impossible to fully explain such bizarre events, as evidenced by the ensuing discussion between Blackman and Amato on the sidelines. (A calm, smiling Amato put his arm around Blackman's neck, and the player listened intently, maintained eye contact and repeatedly nodded his head, occasionally offering some feedback.) But it's worth noting that earlier in the game, Blackman let another punt land at the five-yard line, and it was downed at the three. Also, about eight minutes (in real time) before his bone-headed play, Blackman had to be helped off the field after getting sandwiched by Rouse and All-ACC cornerback Jimmy Williams and coughing up a fumble.
When the Wolfpack went three-and-out after Blackman's miscue, barely avoiding a safety on one play, punter John Deraney had very little room to work with as he stood in the end zone. When Tech return man Eddie Royal fielded the ensuing line-drive kick at the NCSU 41-yard line, no Pack player was within 15 yards of him, likely because of a tight punt-protection scheme back at the line of scrimmage. Three plays later, Tech QB Marcus Vick found Clowney behind Sutton with a soft throw in the corner of the end zone to make it 20-13 in favor of the Hokies.
State made a huge play on its next drive when rover DaJuan Morgan, a high school wideout, picked up 44 yards on a well-executed fake punt. But on the next play, Barrett again failed to line up on the line of scrimmage in a bunched-receiver set, and the Wolfpack was flagged for an illegal formation after a five-yard running play. Amato grimaced on the sidelines, and Barrett stayed on the field. Instead of second-and-five from the Hokies' 20, it was first-and-15 from the 30. Three plays later, facing a fourth-and-two from the 17, the Pack had to settle for a field goal, making it 20-16 with 8:19 remaining.
After Tech gobbled up more than 50 yards and almost six minutes of clock on the ensuing drive, aided by a five-yard facemask penalty against NCSU linebacker LeRue Rumph, the Wolfpack's frustrating saga ended in appropriate fashion -- on another crucial penalty. It wasn't nearly as unforgivable as several of the others, and it easily could have been a non-call from the officials, but the end result was the same.
With 2:24 left to play, on fourth-and-five, Tech lined up for a 46-yard field goal and missed it wide right. But State cornerback Marcus Hudson, rushing from the outside, bumped into kicker Brandon Pace. Flag, five yards (not a personal foul) for running into the kicker, first down. With a new set of downs, the Hokies were able to run the clock down to less than a minute. In effect, the game was over.
Hudson, who realized his mistake as soon as it happened and quickly pleaded his case to the officials, had taken only a brief, one-arm block from Tech protector Jordan Trott as he came around the end. Hudson couldn't claim he was blocked into Pace, but his momentum carried him into the backfield. Hudson was smart enough to attempt to stop himself well short of the danger zone in front of the holder, but a patch of Carter-Finley Stadium turf gave way under Hudson's planted foot, causing him to lose his balance. He stumbled forward delicately, coming into slight contact with Pace's knees only after the kicker was in a safe position, with both feet on the ground. After the play, Pace grabbed his knee while on his back and dramatically limped away from the play, but the flag already had been thrown.
"(Hudson) just lost his footing," Gilmore said on the TV broadcast, after seeing the slow-motion replay. "That's a very, very cheap call."
On the sidelines, caught by the TV cameras while speaking into the microphone on his headset, Amato said, "Do you (expletive) believe that?"
After the game, State fans answered that question with a resounding no. Some didn't like the call against Hudson, which technically was correct but could have gone either way. But most simply couldn't believe that the Wolfpack continued to struggle with so many of the same problems that plagued it throughout an extremely disappointing 5-6 season in 2004.
"Penalties like that, that's why we're not a championship team," All-ACC defensive end Mario Williams said. "In order for us to be where we want to be and where we're capable of going, we have to stop doing this dumb stuff. We have to stop doing these dumb penalties and get our act together."
The Pack had spent much of spring and fall practice focusing on the elimination of penalties. For the first time, Amato brought in officiating crews and told them to call everything closely. The coach later joked that all offending players had a potato taken away from them at dinner, with multiple offenders losing two potatoes.
"What more can I say, other than the fact that (the Virginia Tech game) is almost déjà vu?" Amato said. "We have stressed penalties and turnovers more than anybody in the country could."
After the Tech game, State had an open week. If the team wanted to forget its problems, nobody on the outside was willing to cooperate. Most questions from fans and media to the players and coaches revolved around penalties and mental mistakes. The same topics dominated news articles and sports-radio talk for the full 13-day span that led up to the Wolfpack's Sept. 17 game against Eastern Kentucky.
Meanwhile, Amato joked that he was willing to turn anywhere for additional advice.
"Give me a suggestion," Amato told media members, in a repeat of a plea he made last year. "E-mail me. I don't have e-mail, but give me a suggestion. I'm open. I don't have all the answers. My eraser wears out before my pencil does, just like yours.
"There's a lot of stuff that's correctable (at NCSU). We're doing everything we're capable of to eliminate mistakes. It's time these kids are accountable."
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