Virginia Tech (8-4) vs. California (7-6)
Dec. 26, 8:30 p.m., ESPN
Despite Another Example Of Late-Season Collapse, Beamer Remains Attached To Well-Tested Systems December 15, 2003 BLACKSBURG Frank Beamer keeps his office door open. The Virginia Tech coach encourages his players to cruise in and out and speak their minds. After his team's 35-21 loss to Virginia on Nov. 29, he tried something different. One by one, Beamer dragged his players in for extended skull sessions. He hadn't done it in years, but he felt it was brain-pickin' time. The idea was to gain some clue as to why the Hokies had collapsed in the second half of the season for the second straight year.
The jury is still out on whether the meetings will bring about a change in philosophy heading into 2004. But on one point most agree: After Tech lost four of its last six regular-season games this season, and four of five in 2002, something needs to change.
As I talked with our players, you can say a lot of things like this, this and this thing happened here and there, Beamer said. But in the end I think it's important that each of us, coaches and players, take responsibility for what we do on the football field. We've got a proven offense. We've got a proven defense. We've got a proven special teams. If everybody carries out their assignment, and does it every time in a consistent fashion, then we're going to have success here at Virginia Tech.
Bud Foster, Tech's defensive coordinator, took Beamer's initiative one step further. He sat his defensive players down in front of a screen, rolled film and made them explain what they were thinking when they blew assignments and missed tackles.
I didn't pull any punches, Foster said. It wasn't a pointing-fingers session. It wasn't that whatsoever. But the bottom line of the meeting was, we've got a formula for success. We've done it here before. You don't earn anything without going out and working for it and deserving it. That's what we've got to get back to. Our kids can't assume things. You've got to earn it. Just because it's your time maybe on the depth chart, that doesn't guarantee it's your time.
Those were the words of a man who felt more heat at the end of this regular season than he had since the lean years in the early 1990s, and for good reason. Fans were calling for Foster's head in November, and their cries weren't totally unwarranted.
Nevertheless, Beamer and Foster remain convinced that the aggressive, eight-men-in-the-box style of defense they have used for nearly a decade doesn't need much tweaking.
The numbers suggest a different story. In 1999, the dream season in which Tech played for the national championship, the Hokies gave up 76 yards rushing and 10.5 points per game. This fall they surrendered 136 yards rushing and 20.6 points per game. Yet, both Beamer and Foster point to the success of 1999 as the reason why the defense doesn't need to be changed.
If the Hokies want to improve on the defensive side, they may need to find a new approach. Linebackers Mikal Baaqee and Vegas Robinson seemingly missed more tackles than they made in the final six games, and many were a result of being out of position. Foster can't afford to have rising stars such as linebackers Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall fall into the same trap.
We did the same thing two years in a row, defensive tackle Jonathan Lewis said. We kind of sputtered in November and whatever. We're not going to let this happen three years in a row.
Despite all of their defensive troubles, the Hokies weren't as far from being an offensive juggernaut as many think. Tech averaged a Big East-leading 34.2 points and ran for 214 yards per game, thanks in large part to All-American center Jake Grove and All-American tailback Kevin Jones.
What kept the Hokies from truly excelling on offense was a product of the dreaded second half of the season. Beamer, coordinator Bryan Stinespring and quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers decided that quarterbacks Bryan Randall and Marcus Vick needed to split time for four games. The end result was a passing offense that lacked confidence and wound up averaging just 175 yards per game.
The toughest thing about watching Tech's passing game is that while it often has the potential to be great with speedy but underachieving receivers such as Richard Johnson it hasn't been given the opportunity to thrive under Stinespring. In his two seasons as coordinator, Stinespring's passing offense has averaged just 167 yards per game.
One of the reasons for the passing deficiency may be Stinespring's reluctance to use the tight ends, who were staples of former coordinator Rickey Bustle's offenses. If no receiver other than Ernest Wilford can get open, why not utilize the tight end on short and middle routes more often? That philosophy worked with fullback Doug Easlick, who finished as the Hokies' third-leading receiver this season.
Then there's the little chore of replacing Jones, a junior who recently announced his decision to enter the 2004 NFL draft. It may not seem so daunting if sophomore Cedric Humes continues to develop as he did this season, when he averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Though Humes had one-fourth the number of carries, Humes still averaged more on his 64 rushes than Jones did on his 265 (5.6 yards average).
Humes may get a chance to show fans the future of Tech's running game if he gets more than his average of five carries per game in the Insight.com Bowl against California on Dec. 26. Cal gave up an average of 132 yards rushing per game this season. What better springboard into 2004 for Humes than to get 10-12 carries against the Bears and rip off a big run or two?
Hopefully, I'll get a few more carries, but that's up to the coaches, Humes said. When I do get in there, it's going to be like an audition for next season.
The fortunes of Tech's special teams could be predicated on whether DeAngelo Hall decides to return for his senior season. (Signs point to no.) Hall, one of the nation's top punt returners, would provide a nice complement to returning punter Vinnie Burns and placekicker Nic Schmitt, who should develop into a solid replacement for the graduating Carter Warley.
Beamer will demand improvements in his usually intimidating punt coverage team, the one he refers to as Pride & Joy. When the Hokies blocked only one punt in the 2003 regular season, it marked just the second time since 1992 they blocked less than two.
It could be a restless offseason for Beamer and Co. The Hokies may not even crack the top 25 in next year's preseason poll. Some tweaking of philosophies might cure some of the ills, but everyone's wondering whether or not Beamer will actually do it.