Western Michigan at Virginia Tech
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 9/6/01
Click here for Blacksburg Weather
Western Michigan at Virginia Tech
The Western Michigan Broncos figure to give the Hokies a much tougher challenge than the Connecticut Huskies did last week. Grant Noel and the Hokie offense get to test themselves against a tougher defense, without the benefit of Lee Suggs, leaving Keith Burnell and Kevin Jones to pick up the slack at tailback.
Offensively, the Broncos will present the Hokies with a challenge and a different look. WMU runs a spread offense with multiple-receiver sets. The depth chart released for the game by the Bronco athletic department is unusual in that it lists three wide receiver positions and just one running back position.
Western Michigan Coach Gary Darnell is closely tied with Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver. Darnell was defensive coordinator and interim head coach at Florida in 1988-89, when Weaver was the Gators' Associate AD. That connection led to Weaver hiring Darnell to be the head coach at WMU during Weaver's stint as Western Michigan's Athletic Director from January of 1996 to September of 1997.
In an interesting twist, it was also widely rumored that if Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer had left for North Carolina last November, Weaver would have tabbed Darnell to coach the Hokies. For that reason, many people would gladly pay money to be there for the post-game handshake between Beamer and Darnell.
All cloak-and-dagger intrigue aside, each of these teams will find out a lot about itself this Saturday. Virginia Tech will get to take the measure of itself against a tougher team than Connecticut, and Western Michigan will find out if it has what it takes to play on the road against the big boys.
WMU Fast Facts: The Broncos were 9-3 last season in the Mid American Conference (MAC). They won the MAC's Western Division Title for the second year in a row but lost to Marshall in the MAC championship game. Going into the 2001 season, they were preseason ranked #46 by Athlon magazine.
Head Coach: Gary Darnell is in his fifth season coaching at Western Michigan, with a record of 32-15 at WMU and 35-20 overall. Darnell was the MAC Coach of the Year last season.
Last Week: Western Michigan romped over Illinois State, a Top-25 1-AA team, 48-7. The Broncos, just like the Hokies did against UConn, notched their fifth-highest yardage total in school history with 613 yards and set a school passing yardage record with 462 yards. The wide-open Bronco attack registered 6 touchdown passes.
Depth Chart: Western Michigan starts nothing but juniors and seniors on offense and defense, with both kickers being redshirt freshmen. The Broncos return 5 starters on offense and 7 on defense.
Best Offensive Players: Senior QB Jeff Welsh (#12) threw for 330 yards and 5 TD's on 19-26 passing against Illinois State. Senior WR Josh Bush (#4), who only caught one of WMU's 6 TD passes, led the Broncos with 5 catches for 122 yards and is generally regarded as their top receiver. The diminutive Bush (5-9, 151 pounds) is also WMU's punt returner.
Best Defensive Players: Western Michigan returned nearly all of its defensive line and defensive backfield starters from last year's Top-10 defense, but had to retool the linebacking corps. DE Anthony Allsbury (#37) is their top returning sacker from 2000 (he had 8 last year), and defensive backs Ronald Rogers (#2) and Jermaine Lewis (#11) were All-MAC second team choices last year. Despite the strength in the D-line and D-backs, new starting linebackers Bryan Lape (#46) and Jason Malloy (#55) led the Broncos in tackles last week with 11 and 10, respectively.
Special Teams: WMU's kickers are both redshirt freshmen. Punter Adam Anderson is a walk-on, and placekicker Robert Menchinger was 6-of-7 on extra point attempts in his first start last weekend.
Side Note: Saturday's game will be the fourth meeting between Beamer and Darnell. They went head-to-head when Beamer was coach at Murray State and Darnell was at Tennessee Tech. Beamer's teams won all three previous meetings from 1983-1985.
Western Michigan is a wild card. The MAC likes to do a lot of chest-thumping over road victories notched by Toledo over Penn State (last season) and Minnesota (this season). But that's just one team, and meanwhile, Marshall was hammered at Florida in week 1, 49-14, in a game that (repeat after me) wasn't even that close.
And sure, Illinois State is a ranked 1-AA team, and Western Michigan pasted them, 48-7. But does that mean anything?
Hokie fans will get to find out for themselves this weekend when they see Western Michigan up close. Sometimes, teams that are talked up by the media and/or fans come into Lane Stadium, and it all falls apart when they jog out of the tunnel, and they're a bunch of short, slow wimps. But then sometimes, those teams come into Lane Stadium, baffle the Hokies for a full 60 minutes, and pull out a win (Cincinnati 1995, Miami of Ohio 1997).
Here's my guess as to how it will go: Western Michigan will move the ball sporadically, having most of their success between the 20's. But when the ball gets into the red zone, they'll struggle, as most passing teams do against Tech (WMU is most certainly a pass-oriented offense. Darnell was quoted as saying, "Our running game comes as a result of our throwing game" in the WMU game notes).
Virginia Tech may have another quiet week rushing the passer, because Welsh operates often from a three-step drop and is experienced enough to know when to get rid of the ball.
Offensively, Lee Suggs will be missed. Keith Burnell will do a decent job filling in, but at this point in his career, he's no Lee Suggs. Burnell isn't as powerful as Suggs, and he spends too much time spinning and juking to match Suggs's straight ahead burst of speed and to break free as quickly as Suggs does. Having said that, the Hokies will probably open up some holes for Burnell and allow him roll up some good rushing numbers. The experience will be great for Burnell.
More pressure will be put on Grant Noel and Andre Davis to produce (that's no slight to Burnell, who will also be under pressure). Grant Noel will show just as much composure as he did against UConn, and he'll use the short passing game to his benefit, just as he did against the Huskies. He'll throw a few deep passes, which he did not do against UConn, in order to stretch out the WMU defense.
The Hokies will be run-first, as always, particularly because Western Michigan's defensive strength is defending the pass. Overall, the Hokie offense will have good success, but they'll misfire more often than they did against Connecticut, a natural result of the level of competition going up.
Lastly, the Hokies will look to gut Western Michigan on special teams, much as Tech did against East Carolina last year. Tech took it easy on Connecticut last week, but look for the Hokies to turn up the volume on Western Michigan and their two freshman kickers in the rowdy confines of Lane Stadium. Beamer will try to take the game out of the hands of his offense and defense and put it in the hands of his special teams, where the contest can be decided quickly.
Prediction: VT 31, Western Michigan 13. The Hokies might score as few as 28 points, and WMU might score as much as 17, but it won't be closer than 11 at the final gun. The actual game will be closer than the final score, but Virginia Tech will make a couple of plays that will increase the final margin.