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Game Preview: #7 Virginia Tech at #21 Texas A&M
by Will Stewart,, 9/19/02

Saturday, September 21st, 2002, 3:30 Eastern

TV: ABC Regional, ESPN+
(click here for an ABC coverage map in PDF format)

Saturday forecast: (as of 10:00 pm, 9/19/02):
Sunny, (0% chance of rain), High of 88°, low of 65°

Click here for TSL's TAMU/VT roster card in PDF format

If you quizzed Hokie fans, and they answered honestly, most would have told you prior to the season that LSU would be Virginia Tech's stiffest out of conference test. Four games in, the daunting task of beating Texas A&M at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, is now the biggest hill the Hokies have to climb.

The young Hokies have done quite well at home so far this year, but now they go on the road, in one of the toughest venues in college football. By the time this one is over, Hokie fans will know all they need to know about their football team, having seen them play tough games at home, and now on the road.

This one promises to be old-fashioned, smash-mouth football, with the outcome hinging on turnovers, special teams, and one or two big plays that may -- or may not -- happen along the way. The tough smack-talk has been flying in both directions, and this one promises to be an all-out war.

And get ready, because if the Hokies win, the talk of being undefeated for the December 7th showdown against Miami will start in earnest.

But before that speculation can begin, Virginia Tech has to take on the daunting task of winning in College Station, Texas. How hard is that? Read on.

Kyle Field

Texas A&M doesn't get much press coverage, either in the state of Virginia or nationally, so it may come as a shock to you to find out how good they are at Kyle Field (capacity 82,600). Here are the details:

  • In R.C. Slocum's 14 seasons as head coach at Texas A&M, the Aggies are 70-8-1 at Kyle Field.
  • That 70-8-1 record includes an 11-6 record against opponents ranked in the Top 25 and a 5-3 record against teams ranked in the top 10.
  • Texas A&M is 29-0 against non-conference opposition at home during Slocum's tenure as head coach. It all started with a 28-16 upset of #7 LSU in 1989, in Slocum's first game as head coach.
  • The last non-conference team to beat Texas A&M at Kyle Field was Alabama, in the last home game of the 1988 season, when Jackie Sherrill was A&M's head coach.

Currently ranked #7, VT will match being the highest-ranked non-conference team to come to Kyle Field during Slocum’s tenure, along with #7 LSU in 1989.

You can see that, regardless of the perceived strengths and rankings of the two teams (your team and Texas A&M), a win at Kyle Field is quite an accomplishment. It has only been done eight times since 1989 -- eight. By comparison, VT has lost eight home games during the Beamer Bowl era, from 1993 onward.

The Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object

Last week's game against Marshall was strength (the VT running game) against weakness (Marshall's run defense). This week, it's strength against strength, as Virginia Tech's #3 rushing offense (283 yards per game) meets A&M's #1 rushing defense (33.5 yards allowed per game).

The Aggies have a proud tradition of stout defense, and they haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 14 straight regular-season games. They haven't allowed a 150-yard rusher in the last 40 games, dating back to Texas' Ricky Williams gaining 259 yards in 1998.

Texas A&M's first two opponents this season, Louisiana-Lafayette and Pittsburgh, netted only 67 yards on 62 carries. That rushing total includes 66 yards lost on 10 sacks by A&M, so Aggie opponents have actually netted 133 yards on 52 rushes, which is still an outstanding 2.55 yards-per-carry average.

You can mash the stats all you want to, and the point still stands: Texas A&M is pretty good at stopping the run. Last year, they were 19th in the nation, giving up 113.4 yards per game and 2.91 yards per carry. And in front of 85,000 or so Aggie faithful, they'll be even better.

The Hokies, meanwhile, have piled up 849 yards on 158 carries, for a 5.4 yards-per-carry average. Lee Suggs (53 carries, 331 yards, 6.2 ypc) and Kevin Jones (42 carries, 276 yards, 6.7 ypc) both average over six yards a carry, and they each have five touchdowns, in just three games.

If you multiply what they've done through three games over the course of a 13-game season, the Untouchables are projected to roll up 1,434 yards and 21 TD's (Suggs) and 1,196 yards and 21 TD's (Jones).

That's just stat-smithing, but again, the point is made. What we have here is a big-time, knockdown, drag-out battle between one team that's great at defending its turf and another that is one of the best at gobbling it up in huge chunks. This should be fun to watch.

The Aggies have four players on the watch lists for national awards, and they're all defensive players: CB Sammy Davis (#22) for the Thorpe Award and Nagurski Trophy; ILB Brian Gamble (#17) for the Butkus Award; OLB Jarrod Penright (#43)for the Nagurski and Butkus; and DE Ty Warren (#94) for the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy.

One item of note: the Aggies run a 3-4 defensive alignment, which is somewhat rare in college football.

The Unmoving Object and Irresistible Force #2

Okay, so it's unfair to call Texas A&M's offense "the unmoving object," but they're not very potent in either aspect of offensive football.

Last season, Texas A&M finished 106th in the nation in total offense (305.7 yards per game) and 98th in scoring offense, at 20 points per game. From that offense, they lost All-American center Seth McKinney to graduation, and last year's starting quarterback, Mark Farris, has developed tendonitis that has weakened his passing ability and has thrown their QB situation into uncertainty. The Aggies have also suffered injuries on the offensive line that have required them to shuffle one player out of position for the first two games.

So far this season, the Aggies are averaging 22.5 points per game in beating ULL 31-7 and Pittsburgh 14-12. A&M's scoring totals include a defensive touchdown. While they can be forgiven for only scoring 14 points on the road against a tough Pitt defense, their lack of punch against ULL is alarming.

31 points doesn't sound bad, but only 24 of that came from the offense, and ULL had a whopping ten turnovers. A&M's average starting position was their own 40-yard line, a stat that is usually good for an avalanche of points. A&M had an astounding 17 possessions, and only scored on four of them. Of the 13 non-scoring possessions, 10 of them were five plays or less. On the positive side, the Aggies did have 423 yards of offense, including 244 passing yards.

The numbers that raise concern for Aggie fans are the following:

  • 3.3 yards per carry: A&M is averaging a mediocre 3.3 ypc from their rushing game, and leading rusher Derek Farmer has just 130 yards on 39 carries. A&M had 3.8 yards per carry against ULL (47 carries, 179 yards) and just 2.6 ypc (32 carries, 88 yards) against Pitt.
  • 41% pass completion rate: Texas A&M's QB's have completed just 32 of 78 passes, for 2 interceptions and zero touchdowns. To the plus side, they're averaging 221 passing yards per game, compared to a tepid 88 yards per game by Tech. But to get that 221 yards, A&M has been throwing nearly 40 times a game. The Hokies have only thrown the ball 44 times in three entire games.
  • 31% third-down conversion rate: A&M is 11/36 on third downs this season. That's not horrible, but it's not very good, and with a low yards-per-carry average and a low pass completion percentage, that number may drop drastically against the Hokies.

Part of A&M's problem on offense (this year, at least) is an unsettled QB situation. 27-year-old senior Mark Farris has nearly 5,000 passing yards in his A&M career, and he has a chance to be A&M's all-time leader in yardage and completions. He has started 26 consecutive games since the start of the 2000 season, but he was replaced by sophomore Dustin Long in the first half of both of A&M's games this year. Farris returned for the second half against Louisiana-Lafayette, but Long played the entire second half of the win over Pitt.

The steam has been taken out of Farris' once-lively arm (he's a former minor-league baseball player) by tendonitis in his elbow. He suffered from it in fall practice and missed the final two weeks of two-a-days.

In addition to Farris and Long, A&M also has an athletic true freshman in highly-touted Reggie McNeal. A&M has already pulled the redshirt off of McNeal, having played him against ULL.

Slocum has been coy, not naming a starter for the VT game, but his comments to the press indicate that he's thinking of benching Farris and going with Long or McNeal. It's not likely that he'll throw McNeal into the fire against Tech, so look for Long to start against the Hokies.

So far this year, Farris is 18-of-45 for 251 yards, Long is 12-of-30 for 164 yards, and McNeal is 2-of-2 for 28 yards. Long has thrown both of A&M's interceptions.

Along the line, A&M averages 6-4, 301. The Aggies' offensive line is experienced but not overpowering, particularly now that McKinney is gone. A&M will probably be playing without injured starting right tackle Andre Brooks, who is questionable. If he can't go, he'll be replaced by junior Alan Reuber.

Brooks had been filling in at left guard for injured senior Billy Yates, who has been out of commission for five weeks with a broken arm. Yates will return to the starting lineup Saturday, just in time for VT.

Special Teams

A&M punter Cody Scates had to punt and placekick last year, but this year, he is concentrating solely on punting. He averaged over 40 yards a kick in his first two seasons punting, and this year, he's averaging 41.5 yards on 15 punts.

The Aggies are struggling in placekicking, where true freshman Todd Pegram is just 1-of-5. He has made a 21-yarder and has missed from 37, 39, 45, and 47 yards.

Scates kicks off for A&M and does a great job. Of his 9 kicks this year, 7 have gone to the opponents' goal line or into the end zone, with five being touchbacks. His other kickoffs have gone to the four-yard-line and five-yard-line.

Talkin' Smack

For the LSU and Marshall games, the players and coaching staffs for both the Herd and Tigers pretty much kept their mouths shut, but their fans were insufferable on the message boards.

For this game, it's the exact opposite. Texas A&M fans so far have been polite, welcome guests, without a single one getting booted … but, boy do their players talk.

Culled from various Texas newspapers this week are the following chest-thumping quotes from Aggie defenders:

  • Strong Safety Terrence Kiel: "They're [VT] going to try to run on us, and that won't happen. They're not going to pass on us, either. They're not going to do much of anything."
  • Kiel again: "They've got two good backs, and that's something we haven't seen in a while. But from what I saw – they were giving Marshall these moves and those guys were falling for those moves. Our defensive guys are not going to fall for those moves."
  • Kiel a third time: "Some of our guys may have been impressed watching them. But myself, I'm tired of hearing about their two running backs. I've heard all I want to hear."
  • Free safety Jaxson Appel: "It doesn't make a difference if they run or throw the ball. We're going to stop them no matter what they do."
  • Inside linebacker Jared Morris: "They're going to try to pound on us, and they're going to bring those two running backs straight at us. Nobody's stopped them so far, but we're going to show them what the Wrecking Crew is all about."
  • Inside linebacker Jarrod Penright: "I must say that they are the best team I have seen run the ball. They are talented running backs, but they bleed just like we do."
  • Penright again: "Their running the ball is not going to be a problem for us. Their running the ball is going to be a problem for them, because they're going to have to do something else."

The funny thing -- and I do mean funny, not ironic or interesting -- is that Slocum muzzled linebacker Brian Gamble and didn't allow him to attend the weekly media session. Okay, it was because Gamble was refusing to shave and cut his hair, not because he was talking too much. But the thought of Slocum quieting down one player while the others go on a smack-a-thon is pretty humorous.

The best the Hokies could manage in reply was when the normally reserved Lee Suggs, of all people, said, "Who have they [A&M] played? That speaks for itself. They haven't had to shut anybody down, really. They might be prepared, but I know we're going to get more than 33 yards on them."

I'll say it again: this one is going to be fun. These teams are serious, and it's going to be a war.

The Lowdown

Points are going to be very hard to come by for both offenses in this game. That goes without saying. So this one's going to hinge on turnovers and special teams.

I don't anticipate that either team will be able to mount anything resembling a medium- to long-range drive in this game, at least not more than once. Offensive scores will either come from short fields via the turnover, or long plays that either team happens to bust.

If this is a pure offensive battle, with defense and special teams not contributing any scores or key turnovers, I like Virginia Tech's chances. While I don't think either team will have much offensive success, I think Tech has a little better chance to put something together than A&M does. I could see a 13-7 or 13-6 VT victory, if turnovers and blocked kicks don't get into play.

But I have a funny feeling they will. It's very possible that A&M could score off a turnover, and it's also very possible that VT could score off a turnover. A defensive score is always a big play, but in this game, spotting one team seven non-offensive points is huge.

Given the equal footing of both teams in most areas, it's important that Virginia Tech press their advantage in special teams, and not just in blocking kicks. If both offenses struggle getting the ball into the end zone, this could turn out to be a kicking duel between Tech's Carter Warley and A&M's Pegram. If that happens, it's advantage, Hokies.

One advantage Virginia Tech has is depth. The Hokies have two running backs they can use against A&M's defense; A&M only has one. The Aggies are a little thin on the defensive line, with a true freshman and a redshirt-freshman as second-stringers; the Hokies, meanwhile, have two crews of DL that they will run in and out.

Don't be surprised if you see the Hokies start to wear the Aggies down a little bit as the game goes on. I'm not saying that Tech will bulldoze A&M, but the tide may turn slightly in VT's direction as their offense works on the A&M defense throughout the course of the game. But the reverse -- Texas A&M wearing down VT -- is not likely.

A totally unpredictable intangible is how the young Hokies, 22 of whom are going on their first road trip, will react to playing at Kyle Field.

I'm going to predict a score based on special teams and defense not being major scoring factors and throwing things out of whack. If that starts to happen, start adding points to this prediction, on either side.

Each team gets a TD, and Warley out-FG's Pegram three to one.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 16, Texas A&M 10.


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