By Dave Glenn and Staff
November 15, 2004 BLACKSBURG Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer calls it "chemistry." His modest assertion doesn't begin to describe how his team has changed in less than a season. There's a reason Beamer is so fond of this year's team. He hasn't had to follow behind his players with a ruler in his hand, waiting to discipline them.
"I like the chemistry of this team," Beamer said. "I think we've got a lot of guys playing together and for each other."
Last season, Tech was a different animal. It struggled to hold late leads. It had little concept of how to overcome late deficits. There were few seniors on the roster with the leadership skills to inspire in the clutch. At times, it was a "me-first" team.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was driven by ego. Tailback Kevin Jones became so full of himself in his last few months in Blacksburg that his head would hardly fit in his helmet. It created a bad atmosphere for younger players.
Beamer wasn't going to have that kind of scene again this season. He wanted players to be accountable for their actions. He wanted more self-policing, on and off the field. That's why t-shirts were made at the start of the season, depicting a clenched fist with the words "Team United" under it.
It was a simple ploy, but it has worked. Tech has been poised late in games this season. Senior quarterback Bryan Randall, who has handled his career ups and downs with class and dignity, finally has had some late-game successes.
Randall's struggles in 2003 losses to West Virginia (three interceptions, no touchdowns), Pittsburgh (39 yards passing), Boston College (176 yards passing, no TDs) and Virginia (two interceptions, one TD) have faded from his memory. In the place of those disappointments this season, Randall has enjoyed wins against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, the first two victories of his career where he had to lead the team back from a deficit in the fourth quarter. He also made good decisions in the closing minutes to help Tech cling to late leads against West Virginia and North Carolina.
It hasn't been just Randall. It has been tailback Mike Imoh, putting the troubles of a contributing to the delinquency of a minor charge in the rear-view mirror. It has been linebacker Brandon Manning and tailback Justin Hamilton starters last season accepting reduced roles. It has been Beamer's efforts to cut off discipline problems before they became serious issues.
When cornerback Jimmy Williams made bulletin board-worthy comments prior to Tech's season opener against No. 1 Southern California, Beamer put the muzzle on Williams' mouth. Williams hasn't spoken to the media again this season. He is playing with more focus, was tied for the team lead in interceptions with three through nine games, and recently was named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation's top defensive back.
When Tech was penalized 10 times for personal fouls or unsportsmanlike infractions in its first eight games, Beamer put a stop to it. He threatened to make any player flagged for future violations of the same type sprint 100 yards for every yard of the infraction at 6 a.m. on Wednesday of the week following the game. Beamer said he would be sure to attend the sprints, too. In the game against UNC, immediately following Beamer's proclamation, Tech didn't have any personal foul or unsportsmanlike penalties.
Despite Beamer's efforts to eliminate the problems, there are challenges on the horizon. Speculation exists that Williams may bolt for the NFL draft after the season. Based on Williams' personality and the presence of some promising young cornerbacks on Tech's depth chart, Beamer isn't likely to try to make a huge effort to get Williams to stay.
Of course, that's an issue that can wait for another day. For now, even good team chemistry doesn't guarantee any wins down the stretch. But it doesn't hurt, either.
Miami: Lines Show Vulnerability
CORAL GABLES There are many reasons why Miami's much-anticipated ACC football debut has fallen from the dominance many expected to the possibility (certainly remote) of a 4-4 league record and a spot as low as sixth in the conference standings.
Even a fast finish, with victories over Wake Forest and Virginia Tech at the Orange Bowl, would leave the Hurricanes only 9-2, 6-2 in the ACC. At best, that would represent a tie for the conference championship, although UM would advance as the league's automatic BCS representative on tiebreakers. The BCS is always nice, but falling two full games short of national championship contention isn't acceptable in Coral Gables.
"It's been a lot of different things," Miami coach Larry Coker said. "It's not one person or one position. It's a mental (mistake) here, a missed opportunity there. It's a team effort. We're looking for answers, too."
Quarterback Brock Berlin, despite very solid 2004 numbers (153-of-274 passing, 55.8 percent, 17 touchdowns, four interceptions) that leave him a serious contender for first-team All-ACC honors, remains a far cry from the amazing QB tradition established at Miami by Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde and continued via Steve Walsh, Craig Erickson, Gino Torretta and Ken Dorsey. Berlin has remarkable composure, has maintained the respect of his coaches and teammates through difficult times, and sometimes delivers big plays (especially well-thrown long balls) at important moments, but his personal inconsistency continues to represent that of the Hurricanes as a whole.
Similarly, tailback Frank Gore has extraordinary talent but after multiple knee surgeries lacks the breakaway ability of predecessors Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee. The receiving corps, at times six-deep in reliable players over the years, has had a season with far more lows than highs. Junior Roscoe Parrish has had a strong campaign, and true freshman Lance Leggett looks like a superstar in the making, but sophomores Akieem Jolla and Ryan Moore have been enormous disappointments, and almost everyone has battled the dreaded "drops" disease. Even kicker Jon Peattie, outstanding as a redshirt freshman in 2003, has fallen off significantly this fall. The linebacker situation is a mess, and the Hurricanes haven't been able to find another cover corner to go with All-American senior Antrel Rolle.
But if you had to point to one place where Miami has struggled in uncharacteristic fashion this season, you would point directly to the place where so many games are won and lost on the gridiron: the line of scrimmage, the point of attack, the trenches. The Hurricanes aren't running the ball very well, and they're not stopping the run, either.
Miami's 31-28 loss at North Carolina served as the biggest example. The Hurricanes ran for only 77 yards but gave up 279 on the ground, badly losing the time of possession battle in the process. In their 24-17 overtime loss to Clemson, they managed only 101 yards on the ground. Even in their recent 31-21 victory at Virginia, when the Hurricanes finally got their ground game going (40 carries, 203 yards) again, they won despite allowing 221 rushing yards to the Cavaliers.
First-year offensive coordinator Dan Werner and veteran offensive line coach Art Kehoe have been dealing with the rare misfortune of losing two starting blockers to injury. All-American left tackle Eric Winston went down with a season-ending knee injury against Georgia Tech, and right guard Tyler McMeans missed three-plus games with a banged-up knee. They were the team's two best run blockers, and in their absence the patched-together starting unit repeatedly missed assignments and failed to create holes against UNC and Clemson.
Respected defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, who turned down job offers from several other schools (including N.C. State) after last season, has tried everything this fall: eight in the box, nine in the box, safety blitzes, you name it. He's turned ends into tackles, and he's even flip-flopped his ends (particularly smallish junior starter Thomas Carroll) when he's detected an opponent's desire to focus its rushing attack on one side of the field. He recently gave freshman linebackers Jon Beason and Romeo Davis their first career starts, against Virginia, with Tavares Gooden out because of a shoulder injury.
Considering the problems on offense and at linebacker, where only junior Roger McIntosh has been effective this fall, it's easy to see why the Hurricanes don't rank in the top 20 nationally in any major offensive or defensive category.
"We have to get off blocks better, and linebackers have to make tackles," Coker said. "When your secondary is making a lot of tackles, that's not what you want. We dropped the eighth man down in the front quite a bit (against Clemson and Virginia) to help with that. But the linebackers and the front people still have to be the main ones stopping the running game. Blocking and tackling. That's football."
FSU: Bowden Faces Tough Choice
TALLAHASSEE Florida State will unveil a stained glass tribute to football coach Bobby Bowden and name the field at Doak Campbell Stadium in his honor prior to the Seminoles' regular-season finale against Florida.
Contrary to growing public opinion, there will be no ceremony naming the rows of port-o-lets in the parking area after his son, offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden.
In a situation that stinks all around, the elder Bowden is under fire for the first time in his 29 seasons in Tallahassee. Never mind that the Seminoles carried an 8-2 record and a top-10 ranking into the Florida game. Or that they appear headed for no worse than a share of another ACC title and perhaps even a BCS berth.
Fans want Bowden blood preferably from Jeff, whose offense is statistically the worst since the 1981 FSU team that finished 6-5. A (Bobby) Bowden-era low 121 total yards in FSU's 17-10 win at N.C. State was merely another log on the raging fire. "Fire Jeff" and "Send Jeff To UF" banners were unfurled in the stands during the recent Duke game. The author of those banners was accorded celebrity status in the stands and on the message boards.
Signs of the time? Sure. The instant-gratification crowd is having a hard time coming to grips with the notion that FSU is just another outstanding program, that the Dynasty Years (1987-2000) of top-four poll finishes and 10-win seasons have ridden off into the sunset, just like the Four Horsemen. You can blame parity. You can blame spoiled fans and the internet for raising unreasonable expectations.
Somewhere along the line, however, Bobby Bowden is accountable. By circumventing the university's nepotism policy when he promoted Jeff to offensive coordinator before the 2001 season, the winningest coach in Division I-A football history put himself in a position to be ridiculed. Remember, nepotism policies exist not only to prevent the hiring of those who are not qualified for positions, but also to insulate companies and FSU football is clearly big business from being thrust into compromising positions.
With 20 years of coaching experience, including two stints with his brother Terry calling plays, Jeff Bowden is qualified to be a Division I-A offensive coordinator. Had his resume landed on the desk at any other school, it would bear that out. His work with the offense has become a problem only in part because the Seminoles are averaging just 25.9 points and 366.4 yards per game.
It's also a problem because there is no clear answer who is responsible for the offensive slide. Bobby Bowden admits he is a "meddler" on offense and has been throughout his career, save for the final few seasons with Mark Richt calling the shots. His old-school philosophy rears its head every time the Seminoles are breaking in a new quarterback.
Therein lies the rub. FSU's expectations were raised under the notion that fifth-year quarterback Chris Rix would be running the show, yet he's started only four of 10 games. In reality, inexperienced sophomore Wyatt Sexton is the man, and like Thad Busby, Chris Weinke and Rix before him, Sexton has had his neck snapped back as the elder Bowden pulls in the reins.
That was the case at N.C. State, when FSU leaned on its defense one of the best in the Bowden era and turned conservative, especially playing with its back to the goal line in the first half.
"The best way to get beat against (N.C. State) is to do something stupid on your end of the field, where the other team gets a short touchdown," Bobby said. "I'm not interested in numbers, I'm not interested in betting line. I'm into winning football games and trying to find a philosophy before the game starts. What is the best way to win that ballgame? Our offense carried that out as good as they could carry it out."
Here's the catch. Fans watch two runs and a third-down incomplete pass against a blitz, followed by a punt, and they assume the guy calling the plays doesn't have a clue. Truth is, no one has a clue who is responsible for the play-calling at FSU.
If it's Jeff actually calling the shots, they reasonably assume he doesn't know what he's doing. If he's merely carrying out his father's wishes, as Bobby claims, they assume the head coach is covering for his son's ineptitude. And should they buy into the elder Bowden's claim that he is the guy pulling the strings, they immediately jump to the conclusion that the game has passed him by as it has Penn State's Joe Paterno.
Under that kind of scrutiny, there are no winners unless you win them all, which the Seminoles have done just once in Bowden's career. That was in 1999, with Richt calling the shots.
The sad truth is that, eventually, Bobby will have to give his son the same latitude he gave Richt, remove him from play-calling responsibilities, or suffer the consequences. Public outrage is just the tip of the iceberg. Recruiting eventually will suffer, eroding a talent base that keeps FSU among the nation's best. Losses will follow.
It will be a tough call for a man with a statue, stained glass and playing field named in his honor.
UVa: Still Trailing Florida Powers
CHARLOTTESVILLE Still in position to get itself a share of the ACC football championship, Virginia has to avoid the thinking that a 31-21 home loss to Miami was the beginning of the end.
The Cavaliers are one-half game behind ACC leader Virginia Tech, but they finish the season with road games at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Outside of Tallahassee, the Cavaliers (7-2, 4-2) haven't played in a truly hostile venue all season. If their performance in a 36-3 loss at Florida State is any indication, they've still got a lot to prove as road warriors.
They still have a lot to prove, period, after losing to Miami in a game the Cavaliers entered as 3.5-point favorites. The Hurricanes, coming off back-to-back losses to North Carolina and Clemson, never trailed in the game, and it could have been ugly if Brock Berlin's receivers hadn't dropped six passes.
Virginia had receiving problems of its own and has for some time. After accounting for three receptions in a 16-0 victory over Maryland, UVa's wide receivers had a grand total of one catch, by Deyon Williams, against the Hurricanes. Williams must have known it was a major event, because he jumped into the air in glee after a four-yard gain.
UVa had to know after last spring that it was in trouble at wide receiver, and that was before returning starter Ottowa Anderson flunked off the team. UVa dressed five wideouts against Miami and played four, including walk-on Imhotep Durham, but these guys never could get much separation from opposing defenders and now they can't catch the ball.
Quarterback Marques Hagans, who passed for 200 yards or more in five of the first six games, now has failed to throw for as many as 200 in three straight and failed to reach the 100-yard mark against the Hurricanes, when he was 10-of-25. Any good passing yardage came off of bootlegs, "but you can't do all your passing off of bootlegs," he said.
The Miami game exposed many of Virginia's shortcomings, especially in the secondary, and added to the UVa injury list. With defensive end Chris Canty already on the sidelines following reconstructive knee surgery, the Cavaliers didn't survive the first series before the other two original members of their front three, nose tackle Andrew Hoffman and end Brennan Schmidt, had been injured.
Hoffman sustained a concussion and did not return. Schmidt played most of the game, but the way his left arm was dangling by his side on several occasions, he has some rehab to do before he can play against the Yellow Jackets. Nobody on the Virginia team has had a better year than Hoffman, Groh has said repeatedly, but Hoffman's availability for Georgia Tech has to be in question.
Virginia also has been using a true freshman tight end, Tom Santi, as its starting fullback. UVa had high hopes for sophomore fullback Jason Snelling, so promising before a redshirt year in 2003, but Snelling has been out with a foot injury since early October.
Snelling is a good receiver, and the Cavaliers have few of those. In fact, when Williams missed a game earlier this season, tailback Alvin Pearman started at wide receiver, a one-game assignment that prevented him from carrying the ball and may have cost him a shot at the ACC rushing title.
Pearman, the ACC leader in all-purpose yardage, accounted for five of Virginia's 10 receptions against Miami and also rushed for 106 yards, giving him 499 rushing yards in the last three games. If he's not the best UVa wide receiver, then maybe Hagans is. Of course, after catching 27 passes last year, Hagans has been occupied elsewhere this season.
Groh's recruiting successes have helped the Cavaliers reach a talent level that has enabled them to make two separate forays into the top 10 this season, but he has had a glaring inability to close the deal for a big-time wide receiver. In back-to-back seasons, Virginia thought it was in the lead before losing Maurice Stovall to Notre Dame in 2003 and Dwayne Jarrett to Southern Cal in 2004.
UVa already has commitments from three wide receivers for next year, but that doesn't do them any good now. It hasn't reached the point where Virginia is pointing toward 2005, but with freshmen Keenan Carter and Chris Long now getting a lot of playing time on the defensive line, it's hard not to have those thoughts.
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