Virginia Tech Preview: The Breakdown

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This one is big. Real big. And it’s for a lot of stuff. Individually, this game could decide the ACC Player of the Year, ACC Coach of the Year and Dudley Award winner. It also could determine the ACC champion. If Virginia triumphs, it will get a piece of the conference title. If Virginia Tech wins, it can claim the championship outright by also beating Miami next week. Even if they lose Saturday, the Hokies could share the title with a win over the Hurricanes. The ‘Hoos, however, are out of the picture entirely with a loss.

Then there is the Commonwealth Cup and the bragging rights that go with it. There is also very likely a Peach Bowl bid (or BCS berth) on the line as well. How’s that for high stakes?

The Hokies (8-2, 5-1 ACC) enter the game ranked 11th in the nation and in first place in the ACC standings. Virginia (8-2, 5-2 ACC) is ranked 16th and can still finish anywhere from tied for first to tied for fourth in the conference.

This will mark the first time since 1999 that both teams enter the game ranked and it will also be the first time since 1935 that the two teams will clash as members of the same conference. The two teams met 13 times as members of the Southern Conference from 1922-35.

Virginia Tech Offense vs. Virginia Defense

The Matchups

Virginia Tech Offense

LT 52, Jimmy Martin (6-5 299, Jr.)

LG 72, Jason Murphy (6-2 3-5, Jr.)

C 66, Will Montgomery (6-3 300, Jr.)

RG 76, James Miller (6-6 312, Sr.)

RT 79, Jon Dunn (6-7 331, Sr.)

TE 90, Jeff King (6-5 263, Jr.)

FB 37, Jesse Allen (6-0 235, So.)

TB 20, Mike Imoh (5-7 197, Jr.)

QB 3, Bryan Randall (6-0 228, Sr.)

SE 19, Josh Hyman (5-11 188, Fr.)

FL 4, Eddie Royal (5-10 172, Fr.)

Virginia Defense

DE 96 Brennan Schmidt (6-3 269, Jr.)

NT 60 Andrew Hoffman (6-4 284, Sr.)

DE 99 Chris Johnson (6-3 275, FR.)

ILB 44 Kai Parham (6-3 247, So.)

ILB 34 Ahmad Brooks (6-4 249, So.)

OLB 45 Dennis Haley (6-1 247, Sr.)

OLB 56 Darryl Blackstock (6-4 240, Jr.)

S 36 Jermaine Hardy (5-11 208, Sr.)

S 5 Marquis Weeks (5-10 214, Sr.)

CB 22 Philip Brown (5-11 188, fr.)

CB 23 Tony Franklin (5-10 185, So.)

Virginia Tech Offensive Stats

(ACC rankings in parentheses)

Total Offense – 373.3 (4) / UVA Total Defense – 295.0 (4)

Rushing Offense – 194.5 (3) / UVA Rushing Defense – 104.8 (2)

Passing Offense – 178.8 (9) / UVA Passing defense – 190.2 (6)

Scoring – 34.7 (1) / UVA Scoring Defense 15.1 (3)

First Downs – 206 (3) / UVA First Down Defense – 159 (3)

Third Down Conversions – 41.4% (3) / UVA Conversion Defense – 29.9 (4)

Sacks Against – 28 (10) / UVA Sacks For – 32 (3)

Time of Possession – 31:17 (3) / UVA Defense Time Without Possession – 28:21 (1)

Turnovers Lost – 14 / UVA Turnovers Gained – 15

ACC Player of the Year candidate Bryan Randall is clearly the heart and soul of the Virginia Tech offense. Randall has emerged from a tumultuous season a year ago with maturity and entered the 2004 season as the unquestioned leader of the team. He has not disappointed. Randall is 4th in the ACC in total offense and passing efficiency. He is Tech’s second-leading rusher, has passed for 1,480 yards and owns a solid 13/7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

The Tech rushing offense has been productive, especially lately. The Hokies have produced four 200-yard rushing efforts in the last five games. Justin Hamilton has been steady and Cedric Humes has returned from injury to add additional depth at the tailback position. The Hokies may need that depth as starting tailback Mike Imoh (651 yards, 4.8 ypc) is still questionable for Saturday’s game with a tight hamstring. The Virginia staff expects Imoh to be in action and the lingering questions of his availability may be more gamesmanship on the part of Tech coach Frank Beamer than anything else.

When the Hokies run effectively, they win. Tech’s two losses this season have coincided with its two least effective rush outings.

A mix of youth and experience is sprinkled throughout the two-deep of the offensive
line, led by returning starters Jon Dunn and Jimmy Martin at the tackle spots. At the right guard spot, senior James Miller has started all nine games. Jason Murphy , who got his first start against FAMU, has started the last three contests.

One of Saturday’s critical in-game battles will be between Tech center Will Montgomery and Virginia nose guard Andrew Hoffman. The Hokies require tremendous versatility from their center and demand a great deal of activity in the offense from the position with their traps and double teams. Hoffman dominated Tech All-American center Jake Grove a year ago and could have another huge game against Montgomery.

For the Hokies, one of the more pleasant surprises this season has been the play of a very highly-touted but young corps of wideouts.

Josh Hyman has moved over to the starting position at split end after starting at flanker in the opener. He currently is second on the team with 16 catches for 287 yards. Hyman leads the team with three receiving scores. Eddie Royal has made a rapid ascent up the depth chart and is listed at the top of the charts at flanker. He leads the team with 21 catches.

Richard Johnson became the first Tech player since 1981 to catch and throw a touchdown pass in the same game when he passed for a 34-yard score and then caught an 11-yard TD against Duke. Thus far, he has eight catches for 99 yards.
The number two man at flanker is David Clowney .

Tech will use all of its wide receivers and all have been productive. Four Hokies have double-digit receptions this season and five players have over 100 yards receiving. The tight ends also are a big part of the passing game as Jeff King , Jared Mazzetta and Duane Brown have combined for 24 catches. Of the last 94 receptions by Tech tight ends, 79 have resulted in first downs, including 17 of 24 this year.

On third down the Hokies like to do one of two things; run Randall or throw to the fullbacks or tight ends. Randall has been a critical playmaker for Tech this season, especially on third down. As a rusher, Randall has converted 15 first downs.

The Tech quarterback has completed only 48% of his passes on third down and the key for the ‘Hoos is to ensure he throws, not runs, on the money downs. Virginia must pinch the pocket, cover the running and cutback lanes, and force Randall to attempt a pass.

When the Hokies do pass, 11 of their 34 completions on third down have gone to a fullback or tight end, and those players have responded by converting nine of those receptions into first downs or touchdowns. That tendency makes it vital that Virginia do a good job with its short zone pass coverage, something it did poorly against FSU and Duke but well against Maryland and Miami.

Virginia has had success stopping the run this season with its base seven-man front and will attempt to contain the Tech running game the same way. If successful, the ‘Hoos will be able to leave safeties Marquis Weeks and Jermaine Hardy back to help the corners and limit Tech’s big-play capability with the talented group of young wide receivers. If not, that could open up Virginia’s corners to attack.

Virginia Tech Defense vs. Virginia Offense

The Matchups

Virginia Offense

LT 66 D’Brickashaw Ferguson (6-5 295 JR.)

LG 62 Brian Barthelmes (6-6 288 JR.)

C 75 Zac Yarbrough (6-4 276 SR.)

RG 61 Elton Brown (6-6 338 SR.)

RT 69 Brad Butler (6-8 296 JR.)

TE 89 Heath Miller (6-5 255 JR.)

FB 86 Tom Santi (6-5 225 FR.)

TB 21 Alvin Pearman (5-9 204 SR.)

QB 18 Marques Hagans (5-10 211 JR.)

WR 80 Michael McGrew (6-2 201 SR.)

WR 17 Imhotep Durham (6-3 188 SO.)

Virginia Tech Defense

DE 96, Noland Burchette (6-2 251, So.)

DT 95, Jim Davis (6-4 265, Sr.)

DT 56, Jonathan Lewis (6-1 289, Jr.)

DE 55, Darryl Tapp (6-1 265, Jr.)

ILB 9, Vince Hall (6-0 240, Fr.)

ILB 45, Mikal Baaqee (5-10 224, Sr.)

OLB 42, James Anderson (6-3 224, Jr.)

ROV 22, James Griffin (6-1 193, Sr.)

BC 2, Jimmy Williams (6-3 219, Jr.)

FS 8, Vincent Fuller (6-1 187, Sr.)

FC 1, Eric Green (6-0 198, Sr.)

Virginia Offensive Stats

(ACC rankings in parentheses)

Total Offense – 436 (1) / VT Total Defense – 269.6 (2)

Rushing Offense – 246.6 (1) / VT Rushing Defense – 114.9 (4)

Passing Offense – 189.4 (5) / VT Passing defense – 154.7 (2)

Scoring – 31.9 (3) / VT Scoring Defense 13.1 (1)

First Downs – 229 (1) / VT First Down Defense – 142 (2)

Third Down Conversions – 48.1 % (1) / VT Conversion Defense – 29.9 (5)

Sacks Against – 12 (1) / VT Sacks For – 26 (7)

Time of Possession – 31:39 / VT Defense Time Without Possession – 28:43 (3)

Turnovers Lost – 8 / VT Turnovers Gained – 26

The Hokies are playing defense much like the 1999-2000 version and that means trouble for opposing offenses. The numbers are impressive. Tech is 2nd in the conference in pass defense and total defense and 5th and 6th, respectively, in the two categories nationally. The Hokies are 4th in the ACC and 21st in country in run defense.

The unit is built on speed and agility and it starts up front. Defensive end Darryl Tapp is the most disruptive player on the Tech defense. Tapp leads the Hokies with eight sacks and is second on the team with 48 tackles. His counterpart on the other side is Noland Burchette , who has 10 quarterback hurries but just one sack.

The interior line features Jim Davis and Jonathan Lewis . The pair is adept at penetrating the offensive line, as evidenced by their 19 tackles for loss and seven sacks.

Saturday will be a battle of Virginia’s brute strength vs. Tech’s stealth attacking defenders. Pass protection for Marques Hagans will be at a premium and look for Virginia to move the pocket and make heavy use of the bootleg to counter the aggressive Tech line. If the ‘Hoos can run with the efficiency of the last three games, the Virginia line can overpower and wear down the rotating Hokie front eight.

Tech’s linebackers are completely the opposite of Virginia’s in that while the Cavalier backers make plays, the Hokie three clean up what the front line can’t stop. Mikal Baaqee , James Anderson and Vince Hall have tallied only 8.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. That said, their role is not necessarily to force the action, but to read the offense and make plays beyond the line of scrimmage. Baaqee and Hall are among Tech’s top tacklers with 50 and 44, respectively.

Tech’s big-play man among the linebackers comes off the bench in Xavier Adibi . The freshman has recorded 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception.

The Hokie secondary is composed of four good cover men. There are no weak links, no targets to pick on. The unit’s job is made easier by the presence of an effective pass rush, often accomplished with only four rushers. Tech is second in the ACC in pass defense and 5th in the nation, allowing just 154.7 yards passing per game.

Rover James Griffin is Tech’s 4th -leading tackler and is tied for second with five pass breakups. Free safety Vincent Fuller is second on the team with three picks.

Boundary corner Jimmy Williams leads the ACC in passes defended with 18 and is tied for the ACC lead in interceptions (4) with Virginia’s Marcus Hamilton. Corner Eric Green has posted 25 tackles on the season and is tied with Griffin with five pass breakups.

I look for the Hokies to flood the box with eight- and nine-man fronts to try and stop the run. Virginia’s wideouts have struggled this season and I would suspect the Tech coaching staff believes its corners can cover man to man. If Virginia can have some early success with the passing game, especially between the hashes, it will force Tech’s rover and free safety to take deeper drops that may open up the middle for the run game.

Special Teams

Punter Vinnie Burns is a two-time Ray Guy semifinalist. The left-footer started since his freshman year and excels at directional kicking. He is averaging 41.9 yards this year with a long of 60 yards and eight inside the 20.

Brandon Pace has emerged as the place-kicker for 2004. He is 17 for 22 on field goals and 31 for 31 on PATs. He was recently named a Lou Groza semifinalist.

Eddie Royal handles the punt return duties and is averaging 12.5 yards per return, good for 5th in the ACC. Royal and Mike Imoh combine on kickoff returns and have averaged 22.3 yards this season. The Hokies are 5th in the ACC in team punt return average and 3rd in the conference on kickoffs.

The Edge

Quarterbacks – Virginia Tech

Running Backs – Virginia

Offensive Line – Virginia

Wide Receivers – Virginia Tech

Tight Ends – Virginia

Defensive Line – Virginia Tech

Linebackers – Virginia

Secondary – Virginia Tech

Special Teams – Virginia Tech

Coaching – Even

Stone-Cold Lock Prediction

Here’s a shock, I like the ‘Hoos to win in a close one and here’s why.

With the exception of Florida State, no team has been able to contain the Virginia running game. Miami, Georgia Tech and Maryland have all faced Virginia with some of the top run defenses in the conference and have allowed over 200 yards rushing. I see no reason for that trend to stop against the league’s fourth-best run defense. Virginia will run, it will keep Randall and the Tech offense off the field and wear down the smaller Hokie defenders.

The ‘Hoos have allowed only four teams to exceed the 100-yard rushing mark this season. Two, Miami (203) and FSU (192), beat the Cavaliers. Virginia held its other eight opponents to no more than 135 rushing yards and won each game handily. I think the ‘Hoos will hold Tech below 140 yards on the ground and will get their 10th 200-yard rushing day of the year.

Under Coach Beamer, Tech is 118-27-2 when it outrushes its opponents. The Hokies are 14-49 when they do not. You do the math.

Virginia appears to have solved its punting woes and field position is a critical element in this contest. Tech simply cannot drive the ball down the field against Virginia as it did against the Western Michigans and Florida A&Ms of the world. If the ‘Hoos avoid turnovers (as they have done all season) and force the Hokies to score through long drives, Virginia will win.

Finally, Marques Hagans is ready for his breakout game of the second half of the season. We saw the accuracy and solid decision-making return a week ago in Atlanta and I look for more of the same from Hagans this weekend.

Looking at statistics and analysis is always fun, but Virginia Tech feeds off emotion as much as any team I’ve ever seen. As we noted in our Absolutes and Desirables column earlier in the week, when Tech forces multiple turnovers it is 4-0 and has defeated the opposition by an average margin of 47 points per game. When opponents protect the ball, the Hokies are 2-2 and have been outscored on average 18.8 to 18.3 points per game. When Tech smells blood, there may be no more effective team on the planet at going in for the kill.

Which is why Virginia must avoid turnovers, sacks, special team mistakes and big plays. The ‘Hoos have done an excellent job of minimizing turnovers, protecting Hagans and limiting big plays for most of the season. If the kicking operation stays on its recent track, if Chris Gould can provide an effort similar to that at Georgia Tech, and if the Cavs can limit the punt and kick return issues that plagued them against Miami and Georgia Tech, they will win.

Two years ago, the ‘Hoos came close to ending their long losing streak in Atlanta. A few plays here or there were the difference between winning and losing. But Virginia fans had a sense that the Cavs were getting closer. The same could be said of the game in Blacksburg back in 2002. Down five late in the third quarter, an interception led to a game-clinching, time-consuming touchdown drive by Tech. Again, Virginia fans had a sense that the ‘Hoos were closing the gap. I think the ‘Hoos get over the hump for the second consecutive week.

If this game were played anywhere but Lane Stadium, I’d give Virginia a 10-point edge. But it is, so we’ll call it four points.

Virginia 24, Virginia Tech 20

John’s take: It doesn’t take orange-and-blue glasses to envision many scenarios for a Virginia victory. The Cavaliers might go to Blacksburg and overpower the Hokies. They could run for 250 yards. They could sack Bryan Randall a half-dozen times. They could avoid turnovers, penalties and special-teams mistakes that kill opposing teams at Lane Stadium. They could shut up the crowd. And they could leave town with a share of the ACC championship.

All of that is possible. But is it probable?

That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out this week. In making a prediction, I try to use my head, not my heart. Just because I want Virginia to win doesn’t mean I should predict it, or expect it. Heck, if I pick the Cavs every time, I might as well grab some pom-poms and be a cheerleader, like Greg. (Just kidding, Greg!) And looking at this matchup as objectively as I can, it strikes me as slightly more likely that Virginia will lose Saturday.

Why? Because the Hokies are good. (Not as good as they think they are, but good.) Because they’re playing at home. And because the Cavaliers haven’t played well in big games this season. Let’s be honest. UVa’s eight wins have been nothing to sneeze at, especially last week’s road rout of Georgia Tech, but only two games have been preceded by a lot of hype and emotional buildup — FSU and Miami. And Virginia didn’t rise to the occasion either time. Maybe the third time will be the charm. Can the Cavs handle the emotion, the environment and the pressure? That’s the big question. In a game like this, you can break down the matchups and X’s and O’s all you want, but the outcome often gets decided on pure emotion.

For both teams, and for the fans, the emotions going into Saturday’s matchup couldn’t run much higher. There is so much at stake, more than in any of their previous 85 meetings, so how will the teams deal with it? The Hokies thrive off emotion, especially at home, and ride that wave of momentum as far as it takes them. I’m just not sure about the Cavaliers. Against FSU and Miami, I think emotion got in the way of their execution, rather than enhancing it. In their other games, they were efficient and businesslike on the field. That mindset worked well in those matchups, but they have to play with more passion in a highly-charged atmosphere. They need to use the emotion to their advantage, not fight it. They need to match or exceed Tech’s intensity, not shrink from it. In my opinion, losing Chris Canty, the emotional leader of the defense, has made that more difficult for this team. Other leaders will have to step up Saturday.

To me, it comes down to this: Do the Cavs have what it takes to win what, in my opinion, is the biggest game for the program since Al Groh became head coach? I hope so. I think they have the talent and toughness to do it. But they haven’t proven that they’re ready to take that next step. I predicted they would against FSU and Miami and ended up wrong and disappointed. This time I’ll predict that they won’t and hope I’m wrong and overjoyed.

John’s prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Virginia 20

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