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Last Teams Standing: Bc, Virginia Tech, Uva Aim For Acc Title

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and Staff
ACCSports.com

November 20, 2007

EAGLES CRUSH "ONE WIN" WALL

CHESTNUT HILL – Just when it looked as if it all might go out the window, Matt Ryan found a wide-open Rich Gunnell for a 43-yard touchdown and Roderick Rollins produced what might have been the biggest sack in BC history.

So the Eagles, in their first season under Jeff Jagodzinski after Tom O'Brien left for N.C. State, have made it to the ACC championship game in their third year in the conference. In so doing, they erased what happened in each of the last three years – and almost happened in the fourth.

That was the theme of this season from the start: Use what happened in each of the last three years as a positive to keep it from happening again. It almost happened, but it didn't.

This is a team loaded with seniors who had suffered some painful "almosts" over the past three years. It was time for a change, and that change wasn't secured until Clemson's 54-yard field goal attempt fell way short of the mark to end a wild game.

"This is great," BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo said. "We haven't won a game we needed to win in a long, long time."

The not-so-veiled message was clear. O'Brien, whose relationship with DeFilippo was – for lack of a better word – strained, didn't get BC to this level, and that's really what this season was all about. It got hidden a bit with the 8-0 start and the No. 2 ranking, but the goal was to take it a step further under a new coach.

O'Brien did wonders in bringing this program back from the depths of the gambling scandal. His even-keeled approach allowed the Eagles to go on the road and win in some tough places, but it also may have kept the team from getting over the emotional hump and winning that one extra game.

Reviewing the pain suffered over the past three winning seasons, BC needed to beat lowly Syracuse in their final game in the Big East to advance to the Bowl Championship Series as that league's champion. Then, in the first year in the ACC, a loss at North Carolina prevented a shot at the ACC title game. Last year, O'Brien's last, the Eagles needed a win at Miami to overcome a terrible loss at N.C. State and lost that one, too.

That meant three straight years of disappointing endings, tainting a record of 28-9 and three bowl wins over that span. Then O'Brien left for a team in BC's division and made the comment that there's just so much you can get done in Chestnut Hill, and that "the sky's the limit" at N.C. State.

It almost got away from BC again.

The Eagles were 8-0 and, thanks to an incredible series of upsets around the country and that dream finish at Virginia Tech, No. 2 in the country. Then they lost to Florida State at home and at Maryland to drop to No. 17 in the nation. They were touchdown underdogs in Death Valley and had to come from behind in the second half, with their defense battered and bruised.

They pulled it out, making the regular-season finale against Miami meaningless – unless, of course, you consider trying for the program's first win over the Hurricanes since the Doug Flutie pass (1984) meaningful.

BC was set to close against stumbling Miami, while waiting to see who won the Virginia Tech-Virginia game that would determine the Coastal Division representative in Jacksonville.

Leading up to the Clemson game, Jagodzinski had made his message clear. Regardless of what had happened in the two previous games, the chance to get to the ACC title game was still there. Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said the BC players didn't feel down deep that they had to win at Maryland and would be different in this game.

Then the Eagles made some special plays, Clemson made some special mistakes, BC had its third dramatic win over the Tigers in three years in the ACC, and the Eagles were on their way to the greatest height the program had seen in a long time.

The man making many of the special plays was Ryan, who was sacked five times against Clemson but found a way to get it done.

"Matt's Matt," Gunnell said. "He's been a cool leader since I got here."

He's also the cool leader who just might take his team to the Orange Bowl.

This BC team isn't perfect. Never was. Not even when it was 8-0.

The initially unranked Eagles had moved up to No. 14 when, after opening the season with three conference wins (as the only team in the nation to open with three straight league games), they had a four-game run against Army, Division I-AA Massachusetts, Bowling Green and Notre Dame. They won all four games, didn't look great in any of them (Bowling Green was the best, but BC trailed Army in the third quarter), but vaulted all the way to No. 2 thanks to all the upsets in one of the craziest college football seasons in recent memory.

There were flaws. The offensive line was shaky and leaking all over the place. The running game, long the staple of the BC attack, had all but disappeared while Ryan put up Heisman-like numbers. The defense was hurt and, when star linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar went out during the FSU game and missed the Maryland matchup entirely, parted like the Red Sea. The kicking game was more than shaky. Yes, there were flaws, like those of so many of the top college teams this year.

But just when it looked as if the leaks would kill them, would send these Eagles to another bowl game no one really cared about (and this one really would have hurt because of what had been at stake), these guys found a way to win for the second straight time in Death Valley, found a way to beat the Bowden father-son team for the second straight year.

Now the "one win" that kept BC from taking the next step has been recorded, and a new "one win" takes its place.

TWO QUARTERBACKS LIFT HOKIES

BLACKSBURG – Bryan Stinespring sat in a darkened room deep inside Virginia Tech's football offices late on a Wednesday night, a few days before Tech's game against Florida State. It was time for the coach's version of the ultimate dry run.

If Tech was going to stay in good position to win the ACC's Coastal Division and remain in contention for a Bowl Championship Series at-large bid, it needed to beat FSU and Miami before its much-anticipated division-deciding matchup with Virginia.

Tech's offense had produced well against Georgia Tech, silencing some of the fans and critics who had questioned Stinespring's offensive coordinating abilities, but playing two quarterbacks against FSU was going to bring new challenges.

"In this profession, you better have selective hearing," said Stinespring, who is in his sixth season as Tech's coordinator. "My wife tries to attest that I do have selective hearing. I think all of us, in every profession, you have to have selective hearing in what you're doing. I think our offense and what we do here is proven over a period of time. It's not one game or two games or three games."

Stinespring swears he never listened to fans screaming at him and never read irate e-mails or message board postings after Tech's first eight games, in which the Hokies averaged just 295 yards and had one of the 10 worst yard-producing offenses in the nation. He took coach Frank Beamer's advice.

"He knows if I had a concern, I'd come tell him," Beamer said. "I told him to stay away from the internet because it doesn't make any difference. What makes a difference is what I think and what I know, and I deal in reality. I know what the talent level is and what we've got and if we're making progress."

Making progress with quarterbacks Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor rotating in and out of the game meant minimizing turnovers and shuffling players in and out of the game with precision. So Stinespring grabbed some game film that late night in the office and took a close look at Tech's formations. He spread out his entire FSU game plan in front of him – color-coordinated folders, each tagged with specific plays designed for either Glennon or Taylor.

When Stinespring was confronted with a new formation on film, he'd think about which play he'd call for either quarterback. Keep in mind there were limitations. Taylor, a freshman, still isn't comfortable with every detail of the playbook. Glennon can run everything but doesn't excel at everything.

Before deciding to go with two quarterbacks, Stinespring had taken his lumps this season from fans and critics. His offense is too bland, too predictable, just plain boring, according to the detractors. Why do they run so many screens? What's wrong with tailback Branden Ore and the offensive line?

The concept of playing two quarterbacks in the same game – even rotating them in the middle of possessions – wasn't a cure-all. Stinespring knew it. He'd done it before. He tried to rotate possessions with Bryan Randall and Marcus Vick in 2003 and wound up with so-so (2-2 in four games) results.

This time around, with Glennon and Taylor at quarterback, Stinespring was more prepared. He'd gathered notes from discussions, regarding how to organize the rotation, some of his staff had in the spring of 2005 with Florida coach Urban Meyer and his assistants.

Stinespring also learned some details about the decide-option game Meyer ran at Utah with former Utes quarterback Alex Smith. It was the kind of offense, including some read-option and speed-option decisions, Stinespring could see Taylor running.

Going to see coaches to gather information about tricks and wrinkles in offenses is nothing new for Stinespring and his staff. Stinespring did it this past offseason, when he went to visit Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow. Stinespring also has visited with the Indianapolis Colts' staff a few times. He went to see David Cutcliffe when Cutcliffe was coaching at Mississippi to talk about play-action passes. Some of those play-action situations Stinespring still uses today.

Though Stinespring was armed with all of this new information, one simple but often-overlooked thing had to happen for the two-quarterback approach to work. Everything had to be done lightning-fast on game day.

"I'm glad I did that preparation part of it, because I think it helped," said Stinespring, who added that he scripted about the first 30 plays of Tech's 40-21 win against FSU. "I wasn't hesitant. Obviously, (the quarterback rotation) didn't go as long as we all anticipated (only three series before Glennon got hurt), but there weren't any kinks in it early. It moved smoothly. It ran fine. It would've continued on that way the rest of the game."

In the three games before the Coastal Division title game at UVa, including two where Tech used the quarterback rotation, the Hokies averaged 411 yards. That was an improvement of 116 per game from the first eight contests.

Stinespring doesn't equate rotating quarterbacks with offensive success. Nor does he think the insertion of Ed Wang at right tackle, Nick Marshman's move from right tackle to left guard, or Ore's improved health has cured all the ills. It's all part of the big picture, in Stinespring's opinion.

Staying unpredictable will continue to be one of the biggest contributing factors to the success of using two quarterbacks. Stinespring said he plans to continue using the rotation against select opponents, and he might even think about using it next season. One or two weeks of consistent play-calling might not make a difference, but five or six consecutive weeks of the same plays run by the same quarterbacks at the same times in games could be disastrous.

Pressure to succeed? It never goes away.

"It definitely hasn't diminished," Glennon said. "I mean, it's a tradeoff. On the plus side, you've got an entire playbook to work with. He's got two quarterbacks that really kind of do different things well. I guess every offensive coordinator's dream is to have the ability to run anything.

"But at the same time, he's got to be able to not get predictable. He's got to be able to come up with the plays quicker, so we can trade it out. The pros and cons I guess even out in the long run."

CAVS ABOUT PLEASANT SURPRISES

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Since the ACC has mandated that the Virginia and Virginia Tech football teams never meet in the ACC championship game, their regular-season finale in Charlottesville will have to suffice.

At stake will be the Coastal Division title and the opportunity to play for the ACC championship one week later in Jacksonville. According to the voting at the ACC Football Kickoff in July, Virginia Tech was expected to be there. Virginia was not.

The Cavaliers were a preseason choice for fourth place in the Coastal but went into the Tech game with the same record (9-2, 6-1) as the Hokies. It is only the third time Virginia has won nine games in the regular season, and only one other UVa team, the 1989 outfit that tied Duke for the league title, has won 10.

That was before Florida State joined the ACC, not to mention Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College. Of course, the Cavaliers always have played the Hokies, except for a bizarre three-year hiatus in the late 1960s, but this year they didn't play Florida State, Clemson or BC.

Some would say that the schedule played into Virginia's favor this year, but there have been other years when it has not. Moreover, while many of the ACC heavyweights were playing seven home games, UVa had six. If the Cavs can beat Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium, there will be few questions asked.

Tech has won seven of the past eight games in the series, including five of six with Al Groh as the Cavaliers' head coach, and the Hokies trashed a 6-3 Virginia team two years ago in Charlottesville, 52-14.

It would appear that the Hokies are peaking, based on back-to-back home romps over Florida State and Miami, although the Cavaliers hit their high note with a rout of Miami in the final game at the Orange Bowl. That was followed by an open date, the latest for an ACC team this year.

Groh is 9-2 at Virginia after open dates, including 7-0 at home, but the Cavaliers are hardly the favorite over an opportunistic Tech team that frequently has victimized Virginia with "Beamer Ball," its ability to score non-offensive touchdowns.

Virginia had one of those at Miami, a 44-yard fumble return by cornerback Chris Cook that ended the scoring. The Cavaliers intercepted three passes, recovered two fumbles and blocked a kick against the Hurricanes. They previously had not caused as many as four turnovers in any of their first 10 games and had caused as many as three only once.

It was the first shutout posted by the Cavaliers, who dropped a 29-24 decision Oct. 20 at N.C. State and have not given up more than 23 points in any other game, winning three times when they failed to score 20. The last time Virginia went an entire season without giving up 30 points in a game was 1952.

The Cavaliers' defense has been led by senior end Chris Long, a lock to make first-team All-ACC for the first time in his career. Long probably is the frontrunner for ACC defensive player of the year and could win several national awards, but it's hard to say that any other UVa defensive player is a favorite to make All-ACC.

The same goes for the offense. Branden Albert might be the best offensive guard in the ACC, but how well is he known outside of Charlottesville? The Cavaliers have the best set of tight ends in the ACC, and Groh nominated two of them for all-conference, Tom Santi and Jonathan Stupar. Santi was the preseason choice of the voters in Pinehurst, N.C., but Stupar entered the regular-season finale with more receptions.

Any chance Virginia has of reaching the 10-win level or setting a school record with 11 wins hinges on the left arm of sophomore quarterback Jameel Sewell. He has passed for 200 yards or more in four consecutive games, a feat previously accomplished by only two other UVa quarterbacks, Scott Secules and Matt Schaub.

Maybe the key to the Cavaliers' season has been their ability to overcome the loss of tailback Cedric Peerman, who was coming off three consecutive 100-yard rushing games and was leading the ACC in rushing before he limped off the field at the end of the first quarter at Middle Tennessee on Oct. 6. Peerman's foot injury did not appear serious at the time, but he did not play again and eventually had to have season-ending surgery.

Andrew Pearman and Keith Payne filled in ably at Middle Tennessee, but the most unexpected development of the season was the emergence of third-year sophomore tailback Mikell Simpson, previously buried at wide receiver. Simpson basically has played in four games, but he stands second on the team in receptions with 32, and he had 271 all-purpose yards at Maryland and 147 at Miami.

Virginia is bidding to go 6-0 at home, but the real key to its season has been its ability to win on the road. A 23-3 loss at Wyoming in the opener dropped the Cavaliers to 1-10 in an 11-game road span, but they subsequently won four of five, three (at UNC, Maryland and Miami) as an underdog.

The showdown with Tech is important in several respects, not the least of which is the ability to advance to the championship game. In football, Virginia has a pair of co-championships, including the 1995 crown that it shared with Florida State, but no solo titles.

Also, the Cavaliers need to beat the Hokies at least occasionally to get the eye of in-state recruits. Of the 14 players who have committed to Virginia for 2008, only one, Norfolk Norview defensive lineman Buddy Ruff, is from Virginia. The Hokies have taken 25 commitments, including 19 from in-state players. At least a half-dozen of those had Virginia as their second choice.

The current season would indicate that it is possible for Virginia to field a winner without a heavy in-state influence on its roster, but when you look at some of the Cavaliers' greatest all-time players – even the best player, Long, off this year's team – improved relations are recommended.

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