by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 8/30/02
Sunday, September 1st, 2002, 2:30
Note: Look to the right for your handy-dandy roster card. Print out a zillion and drop them around the stadium!
Blacksburg, VA -- That rumble you hear on the horizon, that electricity that permeates the air and makes your hair stand on end, that swirly, vacant feeling you've got in your stomach, is simply the approach of something you've wanted for years. A big-time opponent from a power conference is headed to Blacksburg to clash with the Hokies in Lane Stadium.
The SEC-Champion LSU Tigers are coming to town.
But first, let's snack on the forgettable names of the recent past: Bowling Green. Arkansas State. Cincinnati. Akron. Southwest Louisiana. Miami of Ohio. UAB. James Madison. Connecticut. Western Michigan. Central Florida.
Since the Hokies started their bowl streak in 1993, Tech fans have been subjected to that agonizing slew of out-of-conference opponents at home -- some more than once. Only OOC home games against Clemson, ECU, and Virginia have kept VT fans from going insane over the last ten years … but just barely.
Now, here come the Tigers, with their swagger, their athletes, their thousands of fans, their SEC mystique, their storied history, and their SEC and Sugar Bowl championship rings from last season.
What's a Hokie to do? Treasure every moment, that's what. For Virginia Tech, games like this have become scarcer than Miami fans in the Orange Bowl when the Canes play Rutgers. From Sunday morning until about 5:30 or 6:00, you're going to experience something very rare. You get to see the Hokies take the measure of themselves against one of the top teams in the country, a team Tech has never played before.
Last year, LSU made an unexpected run to the SEC West championship and then knocked off Tennessee in the SEC Championship game, despite losing their record-setting QB and their top rusher to injuries early in the game. They just plugged in the backups, kept chugging, and won the game, 31-20, derailing the Vols' shot at Miami for the national championship.
Then the Tigers went on to the Sugar Bowl and walloped Illinois, 47-34. LSU averaged 451.4 yards and 31 points a game last season.
This season, preseason magazines and polls have LSU ranked anywhere from #7 (Athlon) to #17 (Sporting News), with most rankings landing between #13 and #17.
Why so low? After all, this is a team that returns 12-15 starters, depending upon whom you talk to and whether or not the kicking specialists are included in your list. They bring back almost their entire offensive line, two of three linebackers, most of their defensive backs, and both kicking specialists.
The reason is three-fold. Number one, the preseason prognosticators are hung up on who didn't come back this year for LSU. Number two, the Tigers have an unknown quantity at QB. And number three, they weren't world-beaters on defense last year, giving up 396 yards and 22.3 points per game. The Tigers were 75th in the country in total defense last year, and an eye-opening 105th in pass efficiency defense.
Gone are QB Rohan Davey (217-of-367, 59.1%, 3,347 yards, 18 TD's, 10 INT's), WR Josh Reed (94 catches, 1,740 yards, and 7 TD's), and LB Trev Faulk (119 tackles). Davey's passing yards were a school single-season record, Reed's 94 catches were a school record and his 1740 yards were an SEC record, and Faulk led the team in tackles.
Throw in leading rusher LaBrandon Toefield's knee injury in the Sugar Bowl, and the Tigers took a lot of hits on a lot of fronts. So it's understandable that anyone looking at LSU this season is thinking not about what's there, but what isn't there.
Toefield (230 carries, 992 yards, and an SEC-record-tying 19 TD's) will be there, but it's not sure how much he'll be able to contribute. Unlike Lee Suggs, who tore his ACL in early September last year and was nearly 100% by the time spring football rolled around, Toefield is in the latter stages of rehab. It's the junior's second knee injury in four years. He suffered one in the other knee as a senior in high school.
Toefield's knee is strong. He has participated in contact drills this fall. The only thing in question is his conditioning, and the LSU game notes list him as a co-starter with senior Domanick Davis (75 carries, 406 yards, 5 TD's last season).
Matt Mauck, who stepped in for the injured Davey in the SEC Championship game and led LSU to victory, is an excellent athlete and a good runner, with very little experience as a QB. He went 18-of-41 (44%) for 224 yards, 0 TD's and 2 INT's last year, and that included a 5-of-15, 67-yard performance in the SEC Championship (Davey played in the Sugar Bowl, not Mauck).
Mauck followed that up with 241 yards passing on 20-of-41 in the LSU spring game, but he also registered a whopping five interceptions that day. Bottom line is, no one knows what's going to happen when Mauck starts putting the ball in the air against the Hokies.
One thing is sure: Mauck probably won't lose his cool. At 22 years of age, Mauck is not your usual redshirt sophomore. He knocked around in baseball's minor leagues for three years before deciding to go to LSU, so he's got years of experience playing as a professional athlete and competing at high levels of competition. The minors, he told the Baton Rouge Advocate, "help you deal with failure," so the thought of failing against the Hokies will not make Mauck quake with fear.
Mauck is backed up by Marcus Randall, a name that will send Hokie fans' heads into vertigo, because he combines the first and last names of two of VT's backup QB's, Marcus Vick and Bryan Randall. Marcus Randall (2-of-2 for 9 yards last year) was pushing Mauck for the starting job in spring football when he tore the ACL in his knee. He remains somewhat less than a hundred percent after rehabbing quickly.
At wide receiver, it wasn't like Reed was the only thing LSU had going. They return two outstanding receivers from last year, Michael Clayton (47 catches, 754 yards, 6 TD's) and Jerel Myers (39 catches, 461 yards, 1 TD). By comparison, VT's leading receiver last year was Andre Davis with 39 catches for 623 yards and 7 TD's. So don't cry for the Tigers at receiver. Clayton in particular could give Tech problems.
On defense, Faulk's 119 tackles were just six ahead of Bradie James, who is now the big dog at linebacker for LSU. James has moved inside from his old outside linebacker position, and as a preseason All-American, All-SEC first-teamer, and a Nagurski and Lombardi Award candidate, James should be more than ready to replace Faulk.
The Rest of the Guys
LSU has a solid offensive line, particularly on the left side, with four returning starters, including sophomore center Ben Wilkinson, who was named second-team Freshman All-American by the Sporting News last year. The LSU OL runs 320, 325, 300, 315, and 280 pounds from left to right.
The LSU defensive line is anchored by junior tackle Chad Lavalais, whose quotes about Lee Suggs and Grant Noel earned some attention and bulletin board space earlier this week ("Maybe we can injure them again, and knock them out of the game," Lavalais was quoted as saying by The Advocate).
Lavalais (53 tackles, 2 sacks in 2001) is 6-3, 289, and he is flanked by three big horses with good size, good speed, and limited experience: senior tackle Byron Dawson (6-2, 296, 21 tackles, 1 sack), sophomore end Marcus Spears (6-4, 295, 8 tackles, 1 sack), and sophomore end Marquise Hill (6-7, 294, 10 tackles, 1 sack).
Run the numbers, and you'll find that the LSU front four on defense averages 6-4, 294. They're not small. The size factor continues into the linebacking corps, where the three starting linebackers are 242, 248, and 255 pounds.
LSU got smoked for 279.4 passing yards per game and 25 passing TD's last year (the Hokies, by contrast, gave up 166.3 yards and just 8 TD's). They did pretty well in the interception department, picking off 18 passes, but then again, their opponents threw 457 times against them. Comparable numbers for VT are 19 interceptions off of 354 attempts.
The Tigers return three of four starters in the defensive backfield, all three of whom are seniors, so they should be stronger in the pass defense department.
In the kicking game, LSU has two good ones. Senior John Corbello was a modest 14-23 on field goals last year, but he proved clutch, hitting FG's of 45, 47, and 45 yards in the SEC Championship. Junior punter Donnie Jones will be a third-year starter, and last year, he was 19th in the country at 43.9 yards per punt. The Tigers had one FG and one punt blocked last year, and did not block a single kick themselves.
Tailback Domanick Davis, a versatile player, led the SEC on punt returns last year with a 13.8-yard average, but LSU was mediocre in kickoff returns, averaging just 19.9 yards per return (10th in the SEC).
What to Watch, and a Prediction
This game is a regular Forrest Gump box of chocolates. It's hard to know what you're going to get when they kick off and start playing.
Trouble spots for VT:
Bright spots for VT:
Some LSU fans are in for a shock. Based on some of the message board banter this week, many LSU fans don’t think that the Hokies can stand up to the Tigers' speed and size. They are wrong. Virginia Tech has reached the point where, athletically, they can hang with almost any team in the country.
The LSU defense will not shut down the Hokie offense. If they had an experienced defensive line, maybe, but VT will have some success running and passing against the Tigers. How much is hard to say, particularly depending upon what new passing schemes Tech will install. If their passing offense was identical to last year's, the Hokies might struggle, but all indications are that some new wrinkles have been put into place. We'll see how successful they are.
Defensively, it's possible but not likely that VT will shut down LSU's running game. The Tigers are too big and experienced on the offensive line, and they should be able to run the ball at least moderately well. The young Hokie defense is quick, but they may find themselves out of position from time to time and giving up plays.
It's impossible to tell how LSU will do passing the ball. They have great receivers but an unproven QB.
I see this game as a draw on paper, so Tech will have to get help from its special teams to gain a significant advantage. Since this is a Hokie web site, we're going to assume that VT's strengths will take advantage of LSU's weaknesses, the Hokies will get the breaks, and Tech can hang a quality out of conference win in its trophy case.
Prediction: VT 26, LSU 20.