by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 9/10/02
Thursday, September 12th, 2002, 7:30
Note: Look to the right for your handy-dandy roster card. Print out a zillion and drop them around the stadium!
Blacksburg, VA -- Eleven days after one of the biggest out of conference games in the history of their program, the Hokies get to lock horns with another ranked team, in the spotlight that is Thursday night college football on ESPN.
Virginia Tech has had well over a week to enjoy their 26-8 victory over the SEC-Champion LSU Tigers, and next in line is the #17 Marshall Thundering Herd, and their Heisman Trophy candidate, quarterback Byron Leftwich. For a Hokie team that just enjoyed the national attention of a big win, the opportunity to shine yet again on national TV and to keep the momentum going has Virginia Tech and their fans jacked up.
Virginia Tech welcomes ESPN's Thursday night college football broadcasting team of Mike Tirico, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, and Dr. Jerry Punch to Lane Stadium for what should be a barn-burner. Marshall will pit their high-scoring machine of Leftwich and his receivers against the grind-it-out rushing attack of Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs.
The Hokies have appeared on ESPN's Thursday night college football broadcasts six previous times, and with the exception of a season-opening 20-14 loss to Boston College in 1995, have dominated their opposition, going 5-1. In their five Thursday night victories, the Hokies have outscored their opponents 175-65 (an average score of 35-13).
Now comes the chance to do it again, against a Marshall team that has proven it can put points on the board, but which has struggled on defense, particularly against the run. Lane Stadium should be full-throat on Thursday, as the Hokies play their last home game for 37 days.
Marshall Star Power Resides on Offense
Led by Leftwich, Marshall has a slew of national-caliber players, the large majority of which reside on offense. All of the talk about Marshall's pass-happy offense centers around Leftwich, who last year put together a season that would be a great career for a three-year starter at VT: 315-for-470 (67%) for 4,132 yards, 38 TD's, and just 7 INT's. He capped his season with a 41-for-70, 576-yard, 4-TD, 2-INT performance against East Carolina in the GMAC bowl last year, an overtime slugfest that Marshall won 64-61 after trailing 38-8 at half time.
Leftwich is big (6-6, 240), strong, and accurate, but not incredibly mobile. He isn't glued to the ground, but he won't run away from linebackers, either, never mind defensive backs. Being so big, he's a tough guy to bring down. Think of him as a slightly bigger Donovan McNabb, without the speed McNabb has.
Leftwich is able to crank out those passing yards because he is pitching to a receiving corps that is rated as one of the top groups in the country. The Sporting News and Lindy's rated Marshall's wide receiving corps as #2 in the nation, and Athlon, a publication we respect here at TSL, pegged Marshall's WR/TE group as #1.
Marshall's top three receivers from a year ago are all back this year, and they all caught more passes for more yardage than Andre Davis had a year ago for Tech. They are Darius Watts (91 catches, 1,417 yards, 18 TD's), Josh Davis (79 catches, 961 yards, 5 TD's), and Denero Marriott (56 catches, 800 yards, 9 TD's).
By contrast, VT's Davis had 39 catches for 623 yards and 7 TD's. Yes, he would have been Marshall's fourth-leading receiver.
At tight end, the Herd will look to Jason Rader, a transfer from Georgia who sat out last season.
The Marshall offensive line is big, with every starting Herd O-lineman running 295 or more (no 280-pound "lightweights" like LSU tackle Rodney Reed for VT's Jim Davis to push around this week). They're headlined by their tackles, senior Steve Sciullo (6-6, 325) and senior Nate McPeek (6-5, 321), both of whom are on the preseason watch list for the Lombardi Award. Marshall's line returns 9 of its top ten players from last year, so they're experienced and deep.
At running back, the Herd start Franklin "Butchie" Wallace, a 6-0, 190-pounder who ran for 796 yards and 9 TD's last year.
Marshall runs a single-back set with three wide receivers or four wide receivers, and they'll run a no-huddle offense -- generally not a hurry up, just a no-huddle. Leftwich will make a lot of calls right at the line of scrimmage, and the Hokie coaches have made their wishes known for the VT faithful to make noise when the Herd is at the line, to try to disrupt the Marshall offense.
Marshall will pass the ball more than half the time. Last year, their play selection was 477 pass, 403 run. This isn't anything you didn't know, because Byron Leftwich didn't get his Heisman reputation handing the ball off.
Is Marshall the real deal offensively, or has their reputation been built by smoking MAC teams and coming back on an ECU team that perfected the art of the choke last year, and has lost to Duke and Wake already this year? The nation gets to find out Thursday night.
A Defense That Struggles
Last year, Marshall's run defense gave up 217.8 yards per game and ranked 106th out of 115 teams in Division 1-A.
And only one starter from their front seven returns this season.
Looking at the Marshall defense is like looking in a mirror, in some ways. They emphasize speed and employ the same terminology as the Hokies -- they have whip and mike linebackers, like VT, and a rover, instead of a strong safety. Like VT's attack defense, the idea is that the defense has four down linemen, two "true" linebackers, two linebacker/safety hybrids (whip and rover), and three defensive backs (a free safety and two cornerbacks).
And like the Hokies, they're smallish. Marshall's starting defensive line, from end to end, runs 250 pounds, 265, 268, and 235. Their linebackers are 210, 224, and 225, similar to Tech's linebackers.
But Marshall's rover (185), free safety (190) and cornerbacks (178 and 175) are small and light when compared to Virginia Tech's. By comparison, VT's four defensive backs run 206, 211, 192, and 194. At 192 pounds, Ronyell Whitaker weighs more than every one of Marshall's defensive backs, including the rover and safety.
And whereas VT's lack of pure size leads to a speed advantage, Marshall's lack of size apparently just leads to them getting pummeled by their opponents' running games. And we're not talking Big Ten-quality running games here. In 2001, the Herd gave up over 200 yards rushing to UMass (211), Central Michigan (261), Akron (251), Kent State (256), Ohio (318), and Youngstown State (372).
In all, Marshall surrendered 2,613 rushing yards on 559 carries, or 4.7 yards per carry in 2001.
Their pass defense gave up 198.6 yards per game last season, but the good news for Marshall is that they return three of their four defensive backs, led by safety Chris Crocker, one of the fastest players in the MAC and Marshall's leading returning tackler with 88.
Marshall finished 87th in total defense (416.4 yards per game) and 61st in scoring defense (25.7 points per game) in 2001. With the losses in their front seven, it could be another rough year defensively for the Herd.
This game has the potential to be a shootout, but Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer won't let it turn into that. All spring and all fall, the Hokie coaches have hinted at an improved, expanded passing game, but they held their cards closely against Arkansas State and then were too conservative to show anything against LSU, running the ball 51 times against just 14 passes. Same old VT, and with Marshall's porous run defense, the Hokies will run it again this week.
That will keep Leftwich off the field as long as possible. Marshall literally hasn't seen a running game the caliber of Virginia Tech's. Not to denigrate the MAC, which has some good teams, most notably Toledo, who hung 288 rushing yards on Marshall last year. But the MAC teams, who shredded Marshall's run defense a year ago, are all at least a step below Virginia Tech's 2002 running game.
So look for the Hokies to pound, pound, pound the ball offensively.
Defensively, the key for the Hokies is to disrupt Marshall's no-huddle offensive playcalling with crowd noise (something that is out of the hands of the players and coaches) and to pressure Leftwich with a fierce pass rush. Leftwich is an extremely accurate thrower, probably the most accurate passer the Hokies will see all year (including Miami's Ken Dorsey), so VT needs to make sure he doesn't sit comfortably in the pocket and progress through his reads. The idea will be to pressure him, forcing him to make the quick read and the quick throw, and then tackle the receiver as soon as he catches it.
Classic VT defense: stuff the running game, and pressure the QB into having to make short throws. In the time it takes him to work his way down the field, he'll probably make too many mistakes to put together a drive that's long enough to score.
Pound, pound, pound with the running game. If their offense starts clicking, slow the game down with ball control offense and stay at least one score ahead. Wait for them to screw up.
And lastly, turn the tide with special teams. Marshall's special teams have a reputation for being terrible, and the Hokies will exploit this to their advantage, particularly knowing that a loud Thursday night crowd will be in the house. It won't be a hot, sleepy noon crowd baking under a 90-degree sun. They'll be cool, refreshed, and boisterous.
Prediction: VT 38, Marshall 14.