Game Preview: #7 Virginia Tech at Virginia

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No kidding. The Hokies have played seven road games since joining the ACC last season and have yet to taste defeat, winning those contests by an average margin of 27-10. In fact, Georgia Tech is the only team to score more than 16 points (the Jackets scored 20) against the Hokies in those outings. Of the 28 team categories the ACC ranks each week, Tech is in the top two in eight of those areas, including the four most important: total offense, total defense, scoring offense and scoring defense. The Cavaliers have an average rank of 7.75 in those four meaningful categories.


This is David and Goliath, folks. Fight it all you want, but the Hokies are one of the big dogs in the ACC and right now, along with Miami, there are only two (sorry, Seminole fans). But the ‘Hoos have slain their share of giants in Scott Stadium and they will have a chance again Saturday at high noon to fire up the sling and see if they can take out the seventh-ranked team in the land.

Virginia Tech Offense vs. Virginia Defense

The Tech offense is similar to that of Maryland in that it’s driven by the running game but will attack opponents with deep passes to soften the run defense. The Hokies are primarily a drive-blocking unit and their backs hit the edge from cuts out of the inside running lanes. They are not a big sweep team but they will trap opponents and like to attack the force with the option.

Tech’s receivers are fast and have above-average ball skills, and quarterback Marcus Vick does a nice job throwing the long routes and spreading the ball around. Over the last several years, the tight end has gone from being an extra blocker to an offensive weapon in the Hokie offense. I like to call tight end Jeff King “Big Money Lite” because of his uncanny ability to find the creases in the defense like former Cavalier Heath Miller. The Hokies rely on King on third down. They like to criss-cross receivers with skinny-flag and crossing routes to try and force confusion in zone coverages and have been known to pick off a defender in the process.

Georgia Tech’s Reggie Ball had some success running the football against Virginia and I’m sure that was noticed by the Hokie offensive staff. The Jackets had success in part because Virginia was forced to take deeper drops with its linebackers to assist the safeties in pass coverage. With the likely return of safety Tony Franklin, that should not be a necessity. The other aspect of Georgia Tech’s game that certainly caught the eye of Frank Beamer and company was the Jackets’ success running the option.

There is a perception that Marcus Vick is not as proficient a runner as his older brother Mike, but Groh quickly dispelled that suggestion.

“[Vick’s] got 450 yards rushing, which, other than Vince Young, is probably right up there among the top quarterbacks this year,” Groh said. “[The Hokies] certainly do take advantage of [Vick’s] running skills in the red area, and certainly not out of frustration. A lot of them are first-down plays. So it becomes like single-wing football. You’ve got an additional runner in the backfield with an additional blocker for him, and perhaps the fastest runner in the game.”

Look for Tech to try and get Vick involved with some designed running plays as well as in the option game. The key for the ‘Hoos is to take better angles than they did against Ball and not over-pursue the option.

The Hokies like to work outside the numbers with quick screens to the receivers, so tackling is at a premium. After the display cornerback Marcus Hamilton put on against Georgia Tech stud wideout Calvin Johnson, it’ll be interesting to see if the Hokies put big-play receiver David Clowney opposite Hamilton or try him on the other side. The Cavaliers need to try and take away the underneath options/routes and force Vick to throw deep. Miami was very successful at doing this but the Hurricanes have two exceptional corners and experienced safeties while Virginia does not.

Don’t be surprised if Tech starts taking shots downfield right away. Virginia has had problems with the middle zones and if a vertical attack forces Virginia to use the safeties to help in deep zone coverage, that will open up the middle for the conference’s third-leading rushing attack.

Beamer has been a coach who believes in physically pounding his opponents with the running game, and Virginia is next to last in the ACC against the run. That’s where I think the Hokies will want to attack.

As it was against Georgia Tech, stopping the run is Virginia’s first concern. So much of the Virginia gameplan depends on the return of Vince Redd and Kwakou Robinson. Redd apparently won’t be back, but Robinson will. So look for the ‘Hoos to play more four-down linemen sets on typical running downs and a lot of nickel on passing downs. Keenan Carter and Robinson must be more than space-eaters. They do need to hold their ground and protect the linebackers but they also need to get penetration and disrupt the running game, especially the traps and inside power runs. If the Cavaliers can get pressure and penetration with their down linemen, the passing defense gets a huge break.

The inside linebackers need to do a good job of quickly recognizing run or pass and filling the correct run gaps when the Hokies go with the ground attack. Look for Virginia to blitz Vick from the inside with Kai Parham or the safeties, leaving Ahmad Brooks to use his tremendous lateral speed to cover the field. When Virginia blitzes from the outside, look for the rush to come primarily from the corners, depending on the offensive set. Also expect Virginia to run delayed blitzes, especially with the safeties, as it did against the Yellow Jackets.

This is the type of game where Groh and the staff’s NFL background can play big dividends. The Hokies like to audible based on Vicks pre-snap reads, so look for Virginia to give Vick a different look every time with different coverages, line shifts, and showing blitz but then falling back into coverage. The thought here is to force Vick to make a second or third read based on changing formations.

Tech’s offense is not daunting. The running game is average by Tech standards and the Hokies have not had the breakaway threats like Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs this season. The Hokies are third in the league in rushing but the passing offense is 10th and the total offense is ranked seventh. But Tech can create matchup problems, especially in the secondary. Virginia needs to play sound, fundamental, assignment football and force the Hokies to drive down the field and settle for a stop in the red zone. Virginia doesn’t need to be aggressive, it needs to be patient.

Virginia Offense vs. Virginia Tech Defense

The Hokies have traditionally been a multiple-front, man-to-man coverage team that relied on shutdown corners and attacking with seven or eight men. Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster has modified his scheme over the last few years and is playing fewer multiple fronts, relying more on the front four to shut down opposing running games and rush the passer. The Hokies have gone to more zone coverages in recent years, giving opponents the short-to-medium plays and waiting for them to make mistakes against an opportunistic defense.


Tech thrives on scoring with its defense. The Hokies lead the conference with six defensive or special teams touchdowns. They remind me of a college basketball team that thrives on aggressive defense and turnovers. They can shoot 38% and win because they get 20 more shots than your team. The better the defense plays, the more turnovers they force and the more confident the entire team becomes. The Hokies have run 64 more offensive plays this season than their opponents. Compare that to other ACC leaders and the Hokies have run at least 23% more plays against their opposition than BC (37), Miami (22) or FSU (47).


In the six games this season where Tech has run more plays than its opponent, the Hokies are 6-0 and have outscored the opposition by an average of 32 points. In the three contests where Tech has run fewer plays than the opposition (N.C. State, Marshall, Miami), the Hokies are 2-1 and have outscored those opponents by an average of three points.


With more cohesive play by the Virginia offensive line and the return to action of a healthy Wali Lundy and Jason Snelling, the Cavaliers may try and test the league’s top rushing defense (81.5 YPG). If so, don’t expect Virginia to test Tech’s lateral speed often. Tech’s linebackers cover a lot of ground and the corners and safeties are excellent in run support. Virginia will look to run inside as it did against Georgia Tech, with Lundy especially trying to take advantage of cutback lanes to the opposite side of the movement. The Hokies will initially try and stop the run with their front four and linebackers and keep the safeties in their cover zones. If Virginia has success, Tech will counter with bringing the safeties up, closer to the line, opening the way to attack the seam and middle zones with the tight ends. This is where the speed of Tom Santi would be helpful if he is able to play on Saturday.


But I look for Virginia to focus more on what has worked of late and that is the possession, chain-moving passing game with the run/pass option for quarterback Marques Hagans. If this is the scheme the Cavaliers deploy, the chess match will begin as to how Foster decides to defend the mobile Hagans.

Virginia Tech likes to blitz up the middle with its linebackers and play a 3-deep zone. That worked fine last season against a wounded Hagans. With the off week, look for Foster to scheme away from that strategy somewhat and possibly come into Charlottesville with a plan to spy Hagans with the very fast and capable linebacker Xavier Adibi . If that doesn’t work, the Hokies may look to play a more containment-oriented game against a healthy Hagans.

Because of his height, the book says pinch the pocket on Hagans and force him to make throws from inside the pocket where his passing lane vision can be limited. But that strategy takes away the natural aggressiveness of Tech’s playmaking defensive ends.

If Foster decides to stick with the base attack of middle blitzes and 3-deep zones, I believe that plays into Hagans’ strength to get outside the tackle box and make plays with his arm or legs, running away from the rush and hitting the pass plays in front of the zone defenders.

Tech may also try and confuse Hagans with multiple fronts and by mixing coverages. The Hokies will drop defensive ends into coverage and can morph to six or seven pass defenders from the base defense set. Hagans has seen it all before and coverage changes have generally not confused the Virginia quarterback.

The Hokies have tremendous athletes on defense and are probably confident that they can play man-to-man with Virginia’s receivers and shut down the run game with the front seven. I liked the attack against the Jackets that included a lot of hitch, comeback and quick-hitting, out-cut routes as well as a good blend of three-, five- and seven-step drops with the shotgun frequently in the mix. This served to minimize the speed of the Georgia Tech defense and allowed the receivers to shield the play with their bodies and avoid grab-and-go interceptions.

The unbalanced line with the two tight ends to the same side also forced the Jackets to show their coverages sooner and allowed for an additional blocker for the run game. Also look for more departures in down-and-distance tendencies as well as some new formation wrinkles.

Virginia should also test the middle of the Hokies’ defense where the weakness of the defense appears to be at safety. Tech likes to keep opponents off the edges of the field and force plays inside. The Hokies will often delay blitzes to try and disrupt quarterbacks as they proceed through their progressions. Blitz pickup by the backs is critical against Tech and the ability of Hagans to recognize where the blitz is coming from and for the receivers to migrate to the spots vacated by the linebackers is essential to success. Again, a healthy Santi would be nice this week, but Virginia can attack the middle with Jonathan Stupar and its slot receivers as well.

The way to contain an aggressive blitz defense is with the draw play or screen, neither of which Virginia has done effectively this season. So the next-best option might be to go vertical with Virginia’s big receivers and tight ends in man coverage. That said, the Cavaliers did not take any vertical shots against the Yellow Jackets and may not do so again against Tech unless the running game has some early success.

Against the Hokie speed, I like the short passing attack off boots and waggles with some vertical attempts mixed in. The key for Hagans and the offense is to be patient, something they did very well against the aggressive Georgia Tech defense, moving the chains and taking what the defense gives. The Cavaliers need to control the tempo of the game and dictate field position by sustaining drives with multiple first downs. When pressured, Hagans needs to unload the ball and wait for his next opportunity.

Special Teams

This game features two of the better special teams units in the ACC. Tech’s Josh Morgan is third in the ACC in punt returns (13.8) as are the Hokies as a team with a 10.8 YPR. Virginia is 10th, averaging just 4.3 YPR. Tech punter Nic Schmitt averages just under 42 yards while Virginia’s Chris Gould averages 40.4. Both teams are mediocre in net punting with the Hokies coming in at sixth (34.4) and Virginia 10th at 33.9) but keep in mind that only nine punts have been returned against the Hokies in 2005.


Virginia’s Cedric Peerman is second in the conference in kickoff returns with a 26.5 yards per return average, while the Cavaliers are third in the league with a 25 YPR. Virginia Tech is 11th. Both teams excel at covering kickoffs with the Cavaliers leading the conference in coverage and Tech not far behind at third. UVa’s Kurt Smith leads the conference with 20 touchbacks.


The placekicking operations for Virginia and Virginia Tech feature two of the nation’s top kickers. Neither Tech’s Brandon Pace nor Virginia’s Connor Hughes has missed a PAT this season and Pace has connected on 75% of his field-goal attempts while Hughes has nailed 87% of his tries. Hughes leads the conference in scoring among kickers (9 PPG) and Pace is a close second at 8.2 PPG.

Who has The Edge?

Quarterbacks – Even

Running Backs – Virginia

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends – Virginia Tech

Offensive Line – Even

Defensive Line – Virginia Tech

Linebackers – Even

Secondary – Virginia Tech

Special Teams – Even

Coaching – Virginia Tech

Absolutes and Desirables

Absolutes are things UVa must do in the game. Desirables are things we’d like to see from the Cavaliers.

Absolutes

1) Win the first quarter – There’s always the question about who has the most riding on this game. The Cavs are bowl eligible in a season where expectations have dwindled. The Hokies will certainly come into Scott Stadium jacked, feeling they have something to prove after being pasted by Miami. Is this the Hokies squad that finished last season undefeated in November, or the Hokies of 2001-2003 who started fast and faded faster? Virginia did exactly what it needed to do by grabbing the early lead against Georgia Tech and the same type of start would be a huge step toward winning if it happens again this week. If that happens, the lingering doubts brought on by the Miami loss will resurface. That’s when teams press and lose focus. Numbers don’t lie. Under Beamer, the Hokies are 96-30 when leading after the first quarter and 106-29-1 when scoring first. When trailing after the first quarter, Tech is 23-35-2 and 37-49-1 when the opponent scores first. You do the math.

2) Break even in the run game – Under Beamer, Tech is 126-27-2 when it outrushes its opponents. The Hokies are 16-51 when they do not. Again, you do the math. As it was against the Yellow Jackets, Virginia doesn’t have to rush for a lot of yards, but it does have to run the ball effectively to slow the pass rush and to sustain drives with short-yardage success. Defensively, the Cavaliers need to bottle up the VT running game and avoid the big running plays that have eluded the Tech offense this season. Make the Hokies one-dimensional or at the very least force third-and-long situations, allowing Virginia to play its highly effective nickel package. I like the Cavaliers’ chances if they’re playing a lot of nickel on Saturday.

3) Tempo, tempo, tempo – The Hokies are a momentum-driven squad. The defense likes to get off the field. Forty-three percent of the time this season Tech has forced opponents off the field in three plays or less. The offense likes to get down the field and score. Twenty of Tech’s 45 scoring drives this season have taken six plays or less. The Hokies are a fast-break team and I believe can be frustrated if the game slows down. Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring has a tendency to get very aggressive in his play-calling with an early lead and becomes more conservative and predictable when playing close or from behind. I believe Vick and Stinespring seem to press when they’re behind or challenged. They seem to have a “get it back now” mentality and that’s seems to be when Vick gets careless. As they did a week ago, the Cavaliers need to be patient and pull out the old four corners.

Desirables

1) Third-down superiority – Virginia leads the ACC in third-down conversions (42%) while the Hokies are 10th. Tech is holding opponents to a 31% conversion rate with the Cavaliers coming in dead last at 46%. The best way to win the battle on third downs is to stay out of third downs. One of the inherent weaknesses of the Cover 2 defense is that with no short zone defenders, unbalanced offensive formations can cause wide lanes for scrambling quarterbacks. Vick has more rushing attempts on third down than any other Tech player. For UVa’s offense, the biggest concern with third downs is that is when the Hokie defense is most dangerous. When the Tech front can attack, that’s when it forces fumbles on sacks and forces errant throws by quarterbacks scrambling for their lives. Those throws often end up in the hands of Hokie defenders and go the other way. Get good production on first and second down, keep third and long to a minimum and don’t force things that aren’t there.

2) Play smart, disciplined, assignment football – Offensively, Tech can attack opponents with a mobile quarterback, the option, power running, screens, traps and speed on the outside. The Hokies thrive on pressuring the opponent with offense, defense and special teams. Virginia cannot turn the ball over. It cannot obliterate drives or help sustain Tech drives with penalties, especially stupid ones that lead to personal fouls. Tech has shown a more diverse offense than in years past and maintaining containment on Vick and playing good assignment football is a must. The defense cannot get rattled by the movement and shifting Tech does on offense. Finally, Virginia must avoid the special teams breakdowns and turnovers that have driven Beamer’s teams for years. A short field is the Hokies’ friend and a recipe for getting beat.

3) Take Away Marcus Vick – Sounds simple doesn’t it? Just take him away. Lacking the dominant running game of previous Tech teams, this Hokie edition relies on the play of Marcus Vick offensively. Virginia must find a way to frustrate Vick in the passing game and contain his play-making ability. The Cavaliers must attempt to pressure him with various blitzes, but even more important, pressure him to change his reads and try and confuse Vick with shifts on the line and in coverage. He is Tech’s fourth-leading rusher and is the main man on third down and in the red zone. He has thrown on first down 30% of the time, so don’t be shocked if the Cavaliers play some nickel early in a series. Contain Vick, contain the Hokies.

Predictions

Greg: My heart says the ‘Hoos win 20-17. The analyst in me says something else. Don’t get me wrong, I will not be surprised if Virginia wins, but from an objective perspective, the Hokies give Virginia a load of matchup problems. Darryl Tapp against Brad Butler concerns me. Virginia’s safeties and corners Mike Brown and Chris Gorham against Tech’s tall, speedy receivers is a huge mismatch. Can the Cavaliers’ young offensive line handle the Tech pass rush and give Hagans time? Can Virginia win the special teams battle? Virginia has to do too many things that it hasn’t done this season consistently to win this game. There are too many questions to pick against the road favorites from Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech 29, Virginia 20

John: A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have given Virginia much of a chance in this game. The Hokies were playing great football and the Cavs were banged up and demoralized after the loss to UNC. But things have changed. Miami exposed some of VT’s weaknesses, while the Wahoos got healthier and played much better against Temple and Georgia Tech. Now, especially given UVa’s home-field advantage, it’s not hard to envision a Virginia victory. But I still don’t expect it.

Fact is, Virginia Tech has played at a high level eight times this season. Virginia’s done so two or three times, and never for a full game. The Hokies are the better team. Their record shows it. The stats show it. They are more complete, more talented, more experienced and deeper than the Cavaliers. So they ought to be favored.

The Scott Stadium crowd certainly evens things up a little bit, but I’m not quite sold on the notion that UVa is unbeatable at home. Yes, the ‘Hoos are 25-6 at home under Al Groh, but I’d throw out games against the likes of Richmond, Akron, Western Michigan and Temple. Against ranked opponents, Virginia is 4-3 at home under Groh. Last year the Cavs lost their only home game against a ranked team (#18 Miami). This year they beat Florida State, but Virginia Tech is better than the Seminoles, plus the home-field advantage is somewhat negated by the considerable VT presence in the stands.

In other words, the fans won’t win this game. The players will have to do it, with seniors like Marques Hagans and Wali Lundy and D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Brennan Schmidt leading the way in their final home game. They can do it. They might do it. I hope they do it, but I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it happens.

Virginia Tech 27, Virginia 16

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