Blockbusters

A focus on special teams and ball-stripping drills helped East Carolina and Bowling Green score two for the little guys
September 07, 2008

IN HIS 21 seasons as Virginia Tech's coach, Frank Beamer had witnessed a scene like this so many times. Tight game, fourth down, snap to the punter. Defenders hurtle through the line's gaps. One of them gets a paw on the punt, scoops it up and streaks the other way. Game-changing result.

Last Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, though, the punt blocker wasn't wearing Virginia Tech's maroon and the ball-hawking special teams for which Beamer has become famous didn't belong to the Hokies. Instead it was East Carolina reserve wideout T.J. Lee who returned the punt he had blocked with 1:52 left to give his team a 27--22 win over the No. 17 Hokies. Coach Skip Holtz's Pirates had just Beamerballed Beamer.

The roots of that block reach back to East Carolina's preseason camp, at which Holtz had every skill-position player audition for the punt-return team. "We wanted to be more aggressive, and we found the guys who were going to go get it," says Holtz. On Saturday, Lee did just that, and the Pirates had their second straight win against a ranked team. (They beat No. 22 Boise State 41--38 in the Hawaii Bowl last December.)

Against the Hokies, East Carolina had stormed back from a 14--0 deficit, the same score by which Bowling Green trailed early in its upset of No. 25 Pittsburgh. The Panthers, led by running back LeSean McCoy, had a 142--6 edge in total yards in the first quarter, but Falcons coach Gregg Brandon didn't panic. He simply implored his defenders, who he says were missing tackles because they were "a little geeked," to take a few deep breaths and execute the game plan—"to crowd the line, to put as many guys in the gaps as we could and to make [McCoy] run sideways," Brandon says. He also reminded his players to work on stripping the ball, a skill the Falcons practice three times a week in five-minute "turnover-and-ball-security" drills.

The result was that Pittsburgh scored three more points and turned the ball over four times (three on fumbles). Bowling Green came away with a 27--17 victory, its second consecutive opening win over a BCS conference team. (The Falcons won at Minnesota last year.) "You hear so much about how you're going to get your butt kicked—it's all fuel," says Brandon. "Our guys really get fired up to play the big boys." Perhaps the lesson for BCS conference teams, and in particular for Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, is that they should get a little more fired up to play the little guys.

PHOTOSTREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGESBREAKTHROUGH Lee got all ball as the Pirates beat the Hokies at their own game.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)