Two for the Show
Virginia Tech has leaped into the national championship picture on the strength of its dynamic tailback tandem
In a week of stellar individual performances and last-minute thrills, the most impressive result was Virginia Tech's 26-8 dismantling of much-hyped LSU in Blacksburg. The victory, which pushed the Hokies to No. 12, was vintage Frank Beamer: His team blocked two punts and played such physical defense that six Tigers receivers dropped passes. But Beamer Ball's newest wrinkle is what will keep the Hokies in the national title hunt: Take two of the country's best tailbacks and convince them not only to share the job but also to enjoy it.
If two years ago Beamer had told Kevin Jones, then the nations most sought-after recruit, that as a sophomore he'd have to split tailback duties with senior Lee Suggs, "I'd be at another school," says Jones. But as he proved against LSU, Jones is content to share the job. He even enjoys punt coverage. "Made four tackles [against Arkansas State]," he reported without being asked.
It's rare that a tailback with 14 rushes for 70 yards can leave an opposing coach agog, but that's what Jones did. "How many guys can run the ball like that and then go out and play gunner on the punt team?" said the Tigers' Nick Saban.
Jones can do it because sharing the tailback job keeps his legs fresh. On the second play of the fourth quarter he showed how much he had left in those legs when, bottled up at right end, he reversed field and ran 34 yards to the LSU 2. Suggs scored on the next play to give the Hokies a 24-0 lead. When running backs coach Billy Hite later ran Suggs in for Jones on a third-down play, Jones protested. "Once I explained that I pulled him so he would be fresh for punt coverage," Hite said, "he was O.K."
Suggs, fully recovered from last year's torn left ACL, finished with 22 carries for 91 yards and two touchdowns, looking a lot like the guy who led the nation in scoring in 2000 with 28 touchdowns. Shortly after Suggs's injury Hite asked Jones a question in a film session. "I didn't answer," Jones says. "I was asleep." Hite threw him out of the room and began referring to him by a multisyllabic profanity. Jones learned his lesson and finished the season with 957 yards and five touchdowns. The profanity evolved into a pet nickname.
The Hokies have been working on using their two backs together, shifting Suggs from the backfield to a slot position. They showed the formation a few times against LSU. "I like being out there running routes, getting mismatches against linebackers," Suggs said. Upcoming games against Marshall and at Texas A&M will provide more national exposure for Tech's tailback tandem—and, judging by the success of the job-sharing setup so far, more reason to believe that these Hokies are for real.
A New Day For the Irish
Moments after his team's resounding 22-0 victory over a depleted No. 21 Maryland in last Saturday's Kickoff Classic, first-year Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham was asked to compare the offensive style of last year's team with this year's. After a chuckle and a pause Willingham responded simply, "Night. Day."
Though there were instances of the same maddeningly conservative play that frustrated Fighting Irish fans throughout former coach Bob Davie's five-year tenure (twice in the first half Willingham opted for a field goal on fourth-and-one inside the 40-yard line), it was clear as Willingham unveiled his West Coast offense that this is indeed a new era for a program that has averaged 200 passing yards a game just five times in its 115-year history. Fleet-footed sophomore quarterback Carlyle Holiday looked surprisingly polished in his new role as a pocket passer, throwing for more yards in the first half (150) than last year's 5-6 Irish did in any entire game. The 6'3", 214-pound San Antonio native crammed all summer to master the team's new four-inch-thick, pass-happy playbook—and it paid off. Holiday connected with eight receivers and finished with career highs in completions (17) and yards (226).