Virginia Tech junior cornerback Ike Charlton stood on the sideline at Pitt Stadium early in the third quarter last Saturday, his vision impaired from an inadvertent poke in the left eye and his left arm dragging from a severely bruised shoulder. After finding his way back to the bench--and his ice packs--Charlton took a peek out of his right eye at the field.
Pittsburgh quarterback David Priestley pass--wide receiver Latef Grim catch. Priestley pass--wide receiver Antonio Bryant catch. Priestley pass. Grim catch. Priestley pass. Bryant catch. Over and over again. The Panthers threw for 202 yards in the third quarter and a whopping 427 in the game, which Virginia Tech nevertheless won, 30-17, to remain undefeated and ranked third in the nation.
"It was killing me to watch . . . almost made me glad I couldn't see too well," said Charlton, who was injured after the Hokies' other starting cornerback, Anthony Midget, had to leave the game in the first quarter because of a pulled groin. "I was just standing there thinking that we couldn't lose this game. But their quarterback was so hot. Everything he threw up, he was completing. It was very frustrating."
After watching freshman Ronyell Whitaker and sophomore Larry Austin struggle in his and Midget's absence, Charlton decided he had to get back in. He approached defensive coordinator Bud Foster and pleaded with him to call up to the coaches' box and get the team's defensive backfield coach, Lorenzo Ward, on the line.
"I just told [Foster] he had to get Coach Ward to pick up the phone so I could get back in," Charlton said. "I was going to be going back with one eye and one arm, but I had to be out there with my teammates. I wasn't going to take no for an answer."
Charlton returned intermittently to spell Whitaker and Austin, but it didn't make much difference. If Virginia Tech had not recorded nine sacks, leaving Pittsburgh with minus-12 yards rushing on 29 attempts, the game's outcome easily could have been different.
Charlton's words to Austin and Whitaker after the game: "Welcome to college football--it's happened to us all."
"It" being a bad performance?
"No, 'it' was an embarrassing performance," Whitaker said. "That was the worst game I ever played in my life. I think I just got caught up in everything. I was trying to think so fast and then--boom--the ball was snapped and I tried to react, but I guess I reacted too slow too many times--and we paid for it."
The problem wasn't with the coverage schemes, coaches say, but with execution and leverage on the wide receivers. To correct the errors, Whitaker and Austin have been spending added time in the video room this week--Whitaker said he used to watch tape before meetings for about 15 minutes but this week has upped that time to an hour--and they are listening to advice from many, including Coach Frank Beamer, who played defensive back for the Hokies from 1966 to '68.
"I suggested a couple of things to them after watching the tapes on Sunday," Beamer said. "We don't need to change our coverage, don't need to add anything. We just need to play what we've got and play it well. We have great, great confidence in those two young corners. Both of them are really talented, and they're going to be good."
For Virginia Tech to stay in contention for the national championship, the improvements have to come sooner rather than later. Midget, a senior, is questionable for today's game against West Virginia. Charlton is expected to play, but his bruised shoulder is a concern. With or without them, the Hokies' secondary will now be targeted--especially since Virginia Tech has been so sturdy against the run this season (a nation-leading 60.4 yards rushing allowed per game).
Today's challenge comes from West Virginia senior quarterback Marc Bulger. He completed 32 of 48 passes for 346 yards last week in a 28-20 loss to Miami--much of that to wide receivers Khori Ivy and Jerry Porter. Miami, which visits Blacksburg next Saturday, has sophomore standout Kenny Kelly at quarterback and Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne, the Big East's most talented wide receiver duo.
Against Pittsburgh, "We got in there and a couple of balls get caught on us, and it's like, 'Okay, let's get it together,' " Whitaker said of himself and Austin. "And then it was a couple more, and a couple more, and we just let it get to us. Pittsburgh had a good game plan, but this is still the best defense in the country and one bad game can't change that. We'll be ready this week. We know what we need to do."