Virginia Tech at West Virginia
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 10/4/01
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Virginia Tech at WVU
In 1999, the Miracle in Morgantown propelled the Virginia Tech Hokies to the national championship game and quarterback Michael Vick to national prominence. Tech didn't think they would need a miracle that year to win, and they don't think they'll need one this year, either. As if that matters much.
New WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez is trying to rebuild a Mountaineer program that many WVU followers perceive as broken. The Mountaineers, who finished undefeated in the 1993 regular season, could only manage a 6-5 record and a #6 finish in the Big East last year. Attendance has fallen off, with "only" an average of 50,000 fans coming to WVU's two home games against Boston College and Kent State so far this season. That's 13,500 empty seats at Mountaineer Field.
But this game, with the "Black Diamond" trophy as the prize, is expected to bring out the WVU fans in full force. They'll be there, among other things, to hound starting Tech QB Grant Noel, a West Virginia native who was razzed two years ago in Morgantown, when he was just a third-string bench warmer.
West Virginia Fast Facts: WVU is 2-2 overall, 0-1 in the Big East. They have wins over Ohio (20-3) and Kent State (34-14), but they lost in conference to Boston College (34-10) and out of conference to Maryland (32-20).
The Mountaineers were 7-5 last year, including a 3-4 mark in the Big East. That in-conference record was only good enough for 6th in the Big East, but the 'Eers were picked for the Music City Bowl over a 4-3 Syracuse team that finished 4th in the league. WVU responded by winning their first bowl game in a loooong time, whipping Ole Miss 49-38. WVU was preseason ranked #59 this year by Athlon Magazine.
Head Coach: Rich Rodriguez takes over the reigns from legendary Don Nehlen. Rodriguez was the offensive coordinator under Tommy Bowden at Clemson in 1999 and 2000, and he had the same position under Bowden at Tulane in 1997 and 1998. Rodriguez was a three-year letterman at defensive back for the Mountaineers from 1982-84. From 1990-96, Rodriguez was head coach at Glenville State College, where he resurrected the Pioneer football program. He earned four WVIAC championships (from 1993-96) and played in the 1993 NAIA national championship game. The Glenville offense led the West Virginia Conference in total offense and scoring in six of Rodriguez' seven years. His teams led the nation in both categories in 1993 and 1994.
WVU's Last Game: The Mountaineers lost on the road to Maryland, 32-20. In that game, WVU ran an amazing 95 offensive plays but were victimized by 6 turnovers. WVU outgained Maryland 430-373 (Maryland ran 85 plays of their own), but the Mountaineers were defeated by a resurgent Terrapins team, now 4-0, that pulled away in the second half.
Depth Chart: WVU brought back just four starters on offense this season, and their offensive line in particular was gutted by graduation. On defense, the 'Eers brought back 9 starters, led by the Big East Rookie of the Year, linebacker Grant Wiley.
Best Offensive Players: QB Brad Lewis (#14) is finally a senior (it only seems as if he has been there 8 years). He averages 220 yards passing a game, but he has 6 INT's against 3 TD's. Tailback Avon Cobourne (#22), who finished #3 in the Big East in rushing last year, averages 136 yards a game and has 4 TD's. Leading receivers are Antonio Brown (#5), with 19 catches for 228 yards and 1 TD, and Phil Braxton (#21), with 18 receptions for 181 yards and 2 TD's.
Best Defensive Players: WVU's top two tacklers are FS Rich Sherrod (#27, with 62 tackles) and LB Kyle Kayden (#45, with 60 tackles). In the sack department, DE James Davis leads with 3, and the Mountaineers have 7 as a team. Three Mountaineers have one interception each.
Special Teams: Junior punter Mark Fazzolari averages 41.7 yards per punt, and senior placekicker Brendan Rauh is an impressive 7-9 on field goals.
Tickle Me Elmo: Well-traveled assistant coach Phil Elmassian is the defensive coordinator at WVU now, and he has installed the attacking 8-man front that the Hokies use. "Elmo," known for his intensity, is not happy with the results so far, as the 'Eers have given up 361.8 yards per game, including 4.5 yards per rush and 226.3 rushing yards per game.
Pass Happy: Characteristic of the kind of offense Rodriguez likes, the Mountaineers have thrown 152 passes in their first four games, for an average of 38 passes per contest. WVU averages just under 400 yards per game, with 236 of it coming from passing. WVU is only averaging 10.0 yards per catch, though, and the Mountaineers in general have not struck for the big play this year.
Tweet, Tweet: WVU linebacker Kyle Kayden better keep his eyes and ears open. It was Kayden who was annihilated by Hokie special teams artist Wayne Ward last year on a bone-crushing block during an Andre Davis punt return for a touchdown. After the play, very few Hokies congratulated Davis on his TD -- they were all too busy slapping Ward's shoulder pads for the great block.
The Mountaineers have fallen far from their 11-0 season in 1993 and are now routinely picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East. It was Don Nehlen's failure to win bowl games, and his inability to go better than 8-3 with a senior-laden 1998 squad, that proved to be his undoing. As VT and Pitt have risen in the Big East, WVU has fallen.
The proud WVU faithful hope that alumnus Rich Rodriguez can turn around the slide that started under Nehlen, but for the time being, Rodriguez is busy jamming square pegs (his players) into round holes (his offensive and defensive schemes). WVU has some talent, just not enough of it, and it wasn't recruited to play the schemes Rodriguez is running.
For example, QB Brad Lewis running a Rodriguez offense is akin to former Clemson QB Brandon Streeter trying to run that same offense, and the Hokies, led by Corey Moore, pounded Streeter relentlessly in 1998 and 1999.
That isn't to say the Hokies will drive Lewis into Mountaineer Field's artificial turf. The 'Eers, despite passing almost 40 times a game, have only given up 6 sacks on the season. Still, they haven't faced anything like the Hokie defense.
On defense, WVU's liability will be their porous run defense (4.5 yards per carry, 226 yards per game). Even perennial doormat Kent State averaged over 4 yards per carry in their game last month against WVU. West Virginia's lack of run defense is a mystery, because their front seven is generally talented and experienced.
The cliches abound in rivalry games, with the biggest one being, "Throw out the records, they don't matter." Whether that cliche is true or not depends -- it wasn't true in VT/UVa 1999 or 2000, when the Hokies thrashed the Cavaliers, but it was most definitely true in 1999 in Morgantown, when a WVU team that would finish 4-7 very nearly derailed an awesome Virginia Tech team.
We're going to find out a lot about Grant Noel in this game. He's heading into a hostile environment where they're going to take aim not just at the opposing team, but at him in particular. Former Hokies such as Jeff Schneider and Bimbo Coles can tell Noel what that's like. Noel has been wearing the mantle of starting quarterback very well for the Hokies. It will be interesting to see if WVU is able to rattle him.
Looking back over the history of the games in Morgantown, it's worth noting that the Hokies have never scored over 28 points at WVU. Heck, in the 80's the Hokies didn't score over 16 points in Morgantown, and even the offensive powerhouse Hokie teams of 1993 and 1999 only scored 13 and 22 points, respectively. The closest thing to a blowout Tech win over WVU in Morgantown came in 1995, when the Hokies spanked the 'Eers 27-0, and even that game featured a defensive touchdown by Tech.
So don't be surprised if the Hokies struggle offensively. That's normal in Morgantown. And for that reason, I refuse to predict a blowout. I look at the WVU roster, and statistics aside, I see a lot of good football players.
VT 23, West Virginia 10.