Virginia Tech 62, Syracuse 0
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 10/16/99
1 2 3 4 F
In the opener to my game reports, I always try to capture the essence of what a game means to me, either through a little story or a few catchy quotes. This one is tough. How I want to start this one out depends upon what mode I want to be in, or frame of mind I want to take as I embark on this:
I find it's hard to categorize this one, hard to sum it up. With all due respect to the 1995 Sugar Bowl experience, this past Saturday was arguably the biggest day in Virginia Tech's football history. With ESPN's College GameDay in attendance, and the ESPN hype machine opened up to full throttle, the Hokies were under the national microscope.
Repeatedly, the talking heads said that it was Virginia Tech's chance to show that they weren't overrated, and to demonstrate to the country that when people talk of Tech having a shot at the national championship, it's not just idle talk. It was the Hokies' time to prove that they belong with the college football elite, at least for this season.
I predicted a 34-7 win in my pre-game analysis, causing more than a few people that I conversed with in person and via email to cluck their tongues and worry that everyone was a little too confident about this game. I actually wanted to say 41-7, but that sounded a little ludicrous, given that Syracuse was supposed to have a good defense, so I backed off. Of course, I never dreamed -- no one did -- that 34-7 would be way too conservative.
Ah, well, sometimes it's good to be wrong.
The Early Going
Both defenses were in control through the first four offensive series. Syracuse had two three-and-outs, and although the Hokies managed to pick up a first down in their first series, they went backwards in their second series, to the point where the total offensive output for Tech after two sets of offensive downs was only about three yards.
Vick was finding very little time to throw, and the one pass I do remember in the first two sets of downs was off the mark. It was the first inaccurate pass he had thrown since, oh, the Clemson game.
I wasn't ready to push the panic button just yet, because it was early, but one thing was rapidly becoming clear: Syracuse wasn't going to be able to move on Tech's defense. While it was possible that Tech's offense was just taking the measure of Syracuse's defense before getting cranked up (which would turn out to be true), Syracuse looked out of synch and overmatched on offense.
On the third possession by the Orangemen, Anthony Midget corralled a Syracuse receiver in the flat on a short gain, and while I was busy worrying if Anthony was facemasking him, Anthony was busy popping the ball loose. Cory Bird was on the spot to pick it out of the air (which is why you should always fly to the ball and gang-tackle), and he took in easily for the score.
In the Hokies' next offensive possession, they started moving the ball. It wasn't a dominating drive, but it did feature a sharp 30-yard pass on a crossing pattern to the tight end, Browning Wynn. It was Vick's first dart of the night after two unimpressive tosses, and I got a sense that Vick was starting to settle down.
The drive was later aided by a Syracuse holding penalty inside the ten yard line, and from there, the Hokies simply pounded the ball in for a score. Along the way, on third and long inside the ten, Vick showed incredible presence of mind and audibled to a play that enabled Shyrone Stith to pick up the first down. Stith would later score on a one-yard run. It had not been an overly impressive drive, consisting of one big play and a first down from a penalty, but the Tech offense was coming to life.
Once again, Syracuse went three-and-out, and looked limp doing it. It was 14-0, their offense was anemic, and the smell of blood was in the air.
On Tech's next drive, the Hokies scored once again with relative ease. They started running the ball well, but the highlight of the drive was a 23-yard pass from Vick, who was being pressured, to Andre Davis inside the Syracuse ten-yard line.
On the play, Vick threw what looked to be a horrible pass destined for interception, but Davis saved Vick's cheese by running back from the end zone and beating the Syracuse players to the ball. I smiled to myself. The question remains: did Vick throw a great pass to the only spot Davis could get to first, or did Davis pull Mike's fat out of the fire? We'll never know, and frankly, I don't care, because no matter how you look at it, at least one Hokie made a great play.
The drive ended in a beautiful pass from Vick, who was rolling out left, across the field to Ricky Hall, who was running across the back of the end zone.
That made it 21-0, and although last year taught us that anything can happen, I was getting the feeling that Syracuse was not going to be able to come back. It was deep in the second quarter, and the Hokie offensive line was started to get cranked up, while Syracuse was flailing on offense and taking vicious hit after vicious hit from the Tech defense.
Syracuse got their initial first down of the game on their next drive, on a nicely executed option. The reason I mention it is that the tackle was made a good 15-20 yards downfield, on the sideline, by Tech defensive end Derrius Monroe, which I thought was impressive and earned a note. It was also Syracuse's only bright offensive spot of the first half.
Tech's next drive had several notable moments, for reasons both good and bad. The first moment came when a Syracuse defender, growing increasingly frustrated, hit Vick late around the ankles as Vick ran out of bounds. The ESPN broadcast clearly showed Vick rolling over and grabbing his gimpy left ankle after the tackle … even though the defender had tackled him on the right ankle.
Vick would favor the ankle the rest of the evening, but only slightly, and only between plays. My stomach wouldn't fare much better than Vick's ankle, tying itself into a knot every time a defender got close to Vick and that fragile left ankle.
In three of the last four games -- Clemson, UVa, and Syracuse -- we have seen Vick take hits and clutch that ankle before getting up slowly. And then, for the rest of the game, he moves slowly between plays, but the ankle never seems to slow him down when the ball is snapped. I for one, am glad the Hokies have a bye week coming up, because I'm running out of Tums thinking about Vick and that ankle.
The next memorable moment in the drive came on a forth and short, when the Hokies called a quarterback sneak right over third-string walk-on center Steve DeMasi. DeMasi delivered the snap and the block, and Vick picked up the first down easily. I've got more to say about DeMasi later, because I watched him closely in this game.
The last memorable moment of this drive came when Vick ran the option, decided to keep the ball, and was isolated one-on-one with star Syracuse linebacker Keith Bulluck. Bulluck had been quoted heavily earlier in the week as pooh-poohing Vick, saying that Vick hadn't seen a defense like Syracuse's.
Finally, the two were face to face. Vick threw a fake, Bulluck dropped his jock and clutched air, and Michael slipped past him unmolested. How appropriate. That single play summarizes the whole game for me: Syracuse talked all week, but when the ball was kicked off, their best was no match for Tech's best.
Stith finished that drive off with a short TD run, and the rout was on, 28-0.
I could go on and on about the rest of the game, which would feature four more touchdowns and two more field goals, but I would be here all night writing this report, and you would be here all day reading it. Suffice to say that the Tech defense never let up, and as they are wont to do in Lane Stadium, Syracuse did give up, surrendering to the Hokies. Hours later, the carnage would finally end in a 62-0 win for Tech.
Here are some of the more notable stats from the game. I'm doing some of these on memory, so forgive me if they're a little off, but they're not off by much:
Everyone was laying the praise on DeMasi after the game, including the team, who gave him the game ball. Please allow me to pile on.
DeMasi's performance wasn't dominating by any stretch, but it was very solid and very competent for a little-used walk-on going up against a (supposedly) good defense. I watched Steve very closely for most of the first half, and he did very well. The Syracuse nose guard lined up on one side of him instead of directly heads-up, and whichever side he lined up on, Tech used that guard to help DeMasi out.
When he was left on his own, DeMasi rarely smashed his man off the ball, but he also didn't get pushed back into the backfield or beaten for a sack. He followed the Syracuse stunts well and positioned himself well, he moved well, and he generally held his own.
The Hokies didn't need to hold DeMasi's hand, he didn't snap the shotgun snaps into the dirt, and he didn't miss any snap calls. The offensive line played without skipping a beat, and to gauge the success of DeMasi's performance, you need only watch the tape and see the gaping holes that the offensive line was able to open right up the middle of the Syracuse defense.
All in all, a very impressive -- and much needed -- performance from a guy who has hardly ever stepped on the field.
I can't remember exactly what year it was, but I remember a season back in the early 90's (1991 perhaps?) where time after time, opposing players went down and out with injuries, whereas the Hokies just kept going, play after play.
This game reminded me of that season. At least six times, Syracuse players went down with injuries, rolled around the field, and had to be helped off. Lane Stadium was littered with injured Syracuse players, but the Hokies had almost no problems with injuries.
Tech completely dominated the Orangemen physically, as they seem to do every time Syracuse comes to Lane Stadium. I'm not sure what the problem is with the Carrier Dome, but every time SU shows up here, they get blown off the ball.
Vick's Value to the Program
Never mind Michael Vick's sheer ability to play football. If we had a healthy Al Clark playing quarterback for us right now, we would still be 6-0, just like we are now. So when you get right down to it, Vick has not made a difference yet this year with regards to wins and losses.
But the difference he has made in the PR department is phenomenal. Sitting in the stands and watching ESPN's College GameDay on Saturday made me aware that in just five games, one of which he didn't even play in, Michael Vick had filled up a highlight reel of plays. Sure, his leap against JMU led to an injury that I think still lingers, but the play certainly got his career off to the right start in terms of exposure. That highlight was played all over the country, multiple times.
You know the drill: defense wins championships. But offense sells tickets and gets TV ratings. The Hokies have had a great defense for a while now, but what Vick and his big-play ability add to Tech's team is enough panache to get ESPN to show up and hype the game into orbit.
I know it's cheap and popular to lavish praise on Michael Vick. It's an easy way to fill space and make Tech fans feel good. But the simple fact is that I never imagined he would pay off this quickly, or this well, for the Tech program. To this point, he has proven to be the missing ingredient that can send this Tech team into an area they've never been in before. Namely, not only are we a good team, but we're a media friendly team. Having a marquee name, which Vick is rapidly becoming, at quarterback is a sure-fire way to get the talking heads around the country to repeat your team's name over and over.
I sure am glad that he was on our side in this one, and not Syracuse's. In all honesty, if he played for the Orangemen, we probably could have stopped him, with our fierce, veteran defense. But we've played "stymie the big-name quarterback" for years now. I'm happy to finally be playing the "kill 'em with the big-name quarterback" game, instead of being on the other side of the fence.
It's hard to imagine a more picture-perfect day. Tech fans broke the GameDay attendance record of 10,000 with a reported turnout of 13,000 fans, thoroughly impressing ESPN hosts Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Lee Corso. The week-long ESPN hype leading up to the game was almost embarrassing, and as one Hokie fan told me, "Surreal. We've complained so long about not getting coverage from ESPN, now that we've got it, I don't know what to do."
Agreed. It leaves me speechless. I guess the best way to put it is to say that I'm proud of Virginia Tech, its players, its coaches, and its fans. Opportunities like this only come once in a lifetime, and we all nailed it.
You only get one chance to make a first impression, and although at this point we shouldn't be making our "first" impression, in many ways, we are anyway. With most of the country looking on skeptically, the Hokies produced a jaw-dropper, leading CBS SportsLine columnist Anthony Gimino to gush, "… the No. 4 Hokies, facing their biggest test of the season on their biggest stage, delivered a Blacksburg beauty, completely legitimizing their candidacy by dismantling the No. 16 Orangemen."
It was Gimino, I believe, who ranked the Hokies #3 in his preseason poll for CBS SportsLine. People laughed. No one's laughing now. And that's a really weird feeling.
There's a lot of danger in feeling satisfied, though. It can make you lazy and susceptible to defeat. That's why the upcoming off week couldn't come at a better time. Never mind Keith Short and Tim Schnecker's injuries and Michael Vick's tender ankle -- the week off is necessary for this team and its fan base to get its head out of the clouds.
I think it's great that we (the fans) have a week off to bask in the glow of this incredible college football weekend before we have to worry about beating Pitt in Pittsburgh. Anything less would be a shame, and for the team, anything less would be dangerous. This way, they get a few days to read the papers, surf the web, watch TV, and enjoy it.
Then it's back to business.
Next Up: Pitt
Doing what I do, I hear a lot of things second-hand. You know: "My friend has a friend who is Coach So-and-so's maid, and she heard him say …"
What I'm hearing about the Pitt game is that the coaches are worried about it. It's a "sandwich" game, coming on the heels of an emotional win, and coming before a road trip to rival WVU, followed by a Big East championship clash against Miami.
It would be very easy to lose this game in the shuffle, or so the coaches think. But coaches are paid to worry.
I have a simple solution: it's called the 1997 Pitt game tape.
Yes sir, just pop that baby in the projector, and remind the players about how Pete Gonzalez lit them up for 314 yards passing and three touchdowns in Tech's 30-23 loss, and how Pitt tailback Billy West ran 21 times for 130 yards. Remind them that when they lost to Pitt, it cost them the Big East championship.
Then, if that's not enough, grab Tech AD Jim Weaver, whisper in his ear, "The 1997 Pitt loss cost us an Alliance Bowl bid and $4 million." Then push him into the meeting room with the football team and let him yell at, uh, talk to them for a while.
Need any more motivation? I didn't think so.
This game against Syracuse was a fine victory, folks, and a very satisfying one, but it was only one battle. The rest of the war still awaits.