In taking a look at the Virginia Tech team that Virginia will take on Saturday, it is hard to tell which unit is the best. Is it the offense, the defense, or their special teams? Needless to say, all aspects of Frank Beamer’s team have been strong at times this season, and they will all present a tough challenge for Virginia head coach Al Groh and his Cavaliers this weekend.
Last year, every phase of the Hokie team was working as they beat Virginia 21-9 in blustery conditions at Lane Stadium. With a good number of those players returning for Virginia Tech, the Cavalier players expect a tough test on Saturday, but with four straight losses on their mind, they are planning on a different outcome.
“This is a real big game,” Muffin Curry said this week. “The seniors haven’t gotten a win against these guys since we have been here. We are going to work extremely hard this week so we can pull out a win against those guys.”
While Curry and his partners on defense will have their hands full against the Tech offense, it is the Hokie defense that has been very strong at times this season. Except for one game against West Virginia in which they struggled in every phase of the game, and the most recent game in which they gave up 461 yards to Boston College, the Hokie defense has been strong all season, though not nearly as good as they have been in the past under Beamer.
Virginia Tech is ranked second in the Big East in scoring defense, giving up only 19.3 points per game, second only to Miami. Impressively, the Hokies have only given up 205 yards through the air this season, and much of that is because they have a terrific secondary.
While they have been known to talk a little bit on the field, the Hokies have an excellent group of players at the corner positions. Junior DeAngelo Hall has only one interception and five passes defended this season, but he has the ability to be a shutdown cornerback. He has the speed and strength to make things happen on defense, and will often line up against the opposition’s best receiver on Saturdays. Hall has also played extremely well on special teams, as he is second in the Big East in punt returns, averaging over 16 yards per return. He has the ability to break a game open both on defense and special teams.
On the other side of Hall, redshirt junior Eric Green and redshirt sophomore Vincent Fuller have battled for the starting cornerback spot. Both players have put up big numbers this season, as Green has three interceptions for 166 yards, while Fuller has an interception, seven passes broken up, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. Both players are equally adept and playing cover corner and the two figure to fight for the starting position this week in practice.
While the Tech corners have played well this season, the safeties have both been excellent for Beamer this season, starting every game of the year. Michael Crawford , who is the secondary’s lone senior, leads the team in tackles with 105, and is second on the team in tackles for loss at 10. Crawford likes to work his way up to the line of scrimmage to help against the run, and he often finds his way to the ball on most plays.
Joining him at safety is sophomore Jimmy Williams , who has played well in his second year. Williams is second on the team in interceptions with two and fourth on the team in tackles with 90 this season. While he has made some mistakes that young players often make, Williams has played well alongside Crawford this season.
“They have a good group back there,” Schaub said of Tech’s secondary this week. “We’ve seen that for the last couple of seasons. We are going to have to prepare ourselves to go up against a solid group.”
Redshirt senior Vegas Robinson leads a solid group of linebackers for the Hokies. Robinson is a redshirt senior, and his leadership has been critical for Bud Foster’s defense this season. His numbers do most of the talking, as he leads the linebacking corps in tackles for loss with eight, and forced fumbles with two. The Virginia backfield will have to watch out for Robinson as he likes to come on a lot of blitzes.
On the outside of Robinson, sophomores Brandon Manning and Mikal Baaqee are two relatively new names for Cavalier fans that have not followed Virginia Tech football this season. While both are still green at times, they have fit into their starting roles nicely this season. Manning ranks second on the team with 92 tackles, while Baaqee is one behind him with 91. The two young men have combined for seven tackles for loss and two sacks this season.
The Hokies are also dominant up front, as they have a knack for forcing turnovers and wreaking havoc against opposing quarterbacks. On the whole, the entire defense has forced 17 fumbles this season, eight more than their opponents. The defensive line has been a solid front against the run, as they lead a rush defense that has given up only 3.5 yards per carry this season.
They are led by two senior defensive ends who have helped Tech beat the Cavaliers in four straight contests. Nathaniel Adibi , who is doubtful for this week’s game after undergoing thumb surgery recently, is an important piece of the puzzle for Beamer’s defense. Adibi has seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this season. In addition, he leads the team in quarterback hurries with 18. If he is unable to go, it is likely Darryl Tapp will take his place. Tapp, a true sophomore, is no downgrade, however, as he has nine tackles for loss and three sacks this season.
On the other side of the line it is possible to find Tech’s best defensive player. Senior Cols Colas has dominated opposing offensive linemen this season, though he is often double-teamed. In only 10 games this season Colas has racked up 12 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks, both of which lead the team. Colas has also created four turnovers this season, forcing four fumbles all year. The preseason Lombardi award candidate has made it tough for opposing running backs to find holes on his side of the line.
Like Adibi, one of the Hokies’ interior linemen is doubtful for Saturday’s game, as Kevin Lewis has had problems with a left MCL injury. Sophomore Tim Sandidge is at the front of the depth chart as of Monday, and he is a solid replacement putting up good numbers in the time he has been on the field. Sophomore Jonathan Lewis is not injured, and he will certainly be ready to go against Virginia. Lewis has five tackles for loss and three sacks so far this season, 2.5 of which came against Miami. The Hokies lead the Big East with 28 sacks per game.
The defense has struggled at times this season, but on the whole they have played as well as their record indicates. When the defense has had its problems the offense has often been there to bail them out more times than not this season. Though there has been plenty of controversy as of late.
In the second half of Virginia Tech’s season Frank Beamer has used a two-pronged attack at quarterback, playing both starter Bryan Randall and backup Marcus Vick throughout the game. It is not going out on a big limb to say that Randall has played better this season, putting up solid numbers all season. Randall has completed 61 percent of his passes for 1,384 yards this season, throwing 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. When the Hokies have needed to go to Randall on third down he has delivered, as Tech is second in the Big East in third down conversions, converting 44 percent of the time.
His counterpart has certainly not put up better numbers, completing only 54 percent of his passes while throwing for 475 yards. Vick has only thrown two touchdowns this season, but has tossed up five picks, leading many people to wonder why Beamer keeps playing the redshirt freshman.
One of the biggest reasons would have to be the fact that Vick has shown the ability to create big plays on offense, and his coaches hope he will show some of the magic displayed by his brother. In the end, however, the passing game is not where the Hokies hope to get most of their offense, as they combine to throw for only 179 yards per game.
So who provides all of the offense? That would Kevin Jones, who is one of the nation’s top players, considered by most as a finalist for the Heisman award. While it appears that a Heisman is not likely in this, his junior season, he is by far the best running back that Virginia will face this year.
Jones is seventh in the nation in rushing yardage per game, as he has run for 129 yards per game so far this season. More impressive than his 1,419 total yards might be the fact that he averages 5.9 yards per carry, which will be tough for the Cavaliers to stop on Saturday. Virginia Tech will rely on his offense, considering the fact that he has scored 18 touchdowns so far this season.
The offensive line has been very good this season while blocking for Jones. The line is a big group, with all five hovering around 300 pounds, while right tackle Jon Dunn checks in at 343 pounds. They are also a tall group, as none of the starters stands shorter than 6’3”. They have all created some big holes for Jones to run through this season, but the slick running back has the ability to create something out of nothing when there isn’t a hole in sight. Groh says that Jones is one of the best running backs he has seen in the country this season.
“Whatever he is, he’s fast,” Groh said this week. “[He is] head and shoulder the most elusive back that we have faced this year. He’s got great lateral quickness, great burst.”
While the Cavaliers try to shut down Jones with a likely extra man in the box, redshirt senior wide receiver Ernest Wilford will look to have a big game against the Cavalier secondary. Wilford has doubled the production of any other wide receiver this season, catching 41 balls for 680 yards and three touchdowns. His 16.6 yards per catch average attests to the fact that Wilford is a big play receiver. It will be critical for Tech to find Wilford all day, and just as critical for the Cavaliers that they stop him.
On the opposite side of Wilford, redshirt sophomore flanker Justin Hamilton has played very well in the five games in which he has started this year. Hamilton has 20 catches for 254 yards this season, including one touchdown. Chris Shreve is listed as the backup behind Wilford and Hamilton, and while he has only caught six balls this season, they have gone for 133 yards and two touchdowns.
While the offense and defense have both struggled in spurts this season, the special teams have been as great as ever. The Hokies lead the Big East in punt returns and are fourth in the league in kickoff returns this season. They have also come up with four blocks this season, three on field goals and one on a punt. The Cavaliers will have to be wary of the Tech special teams once again, as they are often the group to step up in a big game.
“We have to be ready to match [Virginia Tech’s] intensity,” Canty said. “It’s definitely [a game] for the seniors. We haven’t beaten those guys yet. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
The Low Down
It’s hard to predict who will make out well this weekend, because both teams have been so inconsistent of late. Virginia Tech lost to Boston College at home a week after struggling to beat Temple in overtime. The Cavaliers played very well on Saturday, but that is after two bad performances on the road in the ACC. There is no question that home field advantage will play an important role in the game on Saturday, as Al Groh has only lost five contests at home, while struggling on the road in the ACC and out of conference.
Like last year’s game, look for special teams to play an important role in the game. This would seem to favor the Hokies, but Virginia has a great group of special teams, save for their punter, who has struggled for most of the season. Connor Hughes has been a tremendous asset for the Virginia this season, as he is the nation’s best percentage placekicker. Last season Virginia Tech came up with a blocked punt that ended up as a big play in their win over the Cavaliers. A similar game changing play could likely come on special teams this year as well.
While the Tech defense will have to shut down Matt Schaub in his final attempt to triumph over the Cavaliers’ rival, Virginia will also have their hands full against Kevin Jones. Besides P.J. Daniels, who the defense was able to corral last week, ACC running backs have had a lot of success against Al Golden’s defense this season. If Virginia hopes to win they must try to at least keep Jones in check.
When it comes down to it, however, all the previous records and stats can basically be thrown out the window when the teams matchup on Saturday. Though its cliché to say, it will be all about heart and willpower in the latest battle for the Commonwealth Cup. No question about it, Saturday’s game will be a battle.
Editors Note: Be sure to check out the links below for game notes, weather info, internet radio broadcast link, roster card, depth chart and more!