by Jeff Ouellet, 11/27/02
Saturday, November 30th, 2002, 3:30 Eastern
Saturday forecast (from WeatherUnderground.com):
It is late in November, which means Ė except for an ill-conceived switcheroo by George Welsh in 1999 Ė itís time for the Hokies and Cavaliers to resume one of the nationís most underrated rivalries. VT comes into this game on a three game losing skid, but still carries the #19 ranking in the USA Today poll and an 8-3 overall record, 3-3 in conference, while our rivals from Charlottesville are 8-4, 6-2 in conference. The Cavaliers arenít ranked, but they deserve to be, based on their performance this year.
Itís been an interesting season for two teams that were diametrically opposed early in the year in terms of offensive philosophy and expectations. We all knew VT was young, but with a punishing running game and early season wins over LSU, Marshall and Texas A & M, expectations soared for the Hokie faithful. Conversely, UVa relied heavily on their passing game, and with tough early season losses to Colorado State and Florida State, along with an ugly win over South Carolina, many predicted the Cavaliers wouldnít finish over .500.
However, the Cavaliers have rallied behind ACC Coach of the Year Al Groh and are coming off recent wins over ranked ACC rivals NC State (14-9) and Maryland (48-13). UVa's win over Maryland last week was the biggest win ever for Virginia over a ranked team. VT has slumped, in no small part because of injuries, but the results still havenít been there for anxious Hokie fans.
It wouldnít be a rivalry game unless there was some chatter amongst the teams and fans. The players and coaches for both sides have been very low key coming into this game with little or no verbal banter, so I feel itís my affirmative duty to manufacture a little good natured-ribbing. When he was questioned about the lack of trash talking, Al Groh responded that "We try to have a no-jackass rule, no matter who they are playing." Reach for the stars, Al, reach for the stars.
And a Junior shall lead them
Virginiaís offense is young, and that has led the Cavaliers to concentrate on their strengths. Rather than try to ram the ball down your throat, they feature on offense a short passing game that focuses on isolating backs and tight ends against weaker coverage players, and allowing those skill position players to make yards after the catch.
The UVa offense is averaging an impressive 28.8 points per game. While the passing game has been an unqualified success, UVa has not been adept at run blocking as evidenced by their 3.5 yards per carry average on the season. Consequently, Groh has adapted his scheme to use the UVa short passing game in many respects as an extended running game.
6-5, 226-pound JR QB Matt Schaub went from a mistake-prone sophomore to a first team all-ACC player (over NC Stateís Philip Rivers), and he looks like a reasonable bet to be named the Player of the Year overall in the conference when the voting is announced later in the week. The numbers suggest he should get the award.
Schaub is second in the nation, behind only Toledoís Brian Jones, in completion percentage, as he has an astounding 69.7% rate coming into this game. He has 26 touchdowns versus only seven interceptions with 2,751 passing yards on the year. Heís fourth in the overall pass efficiency ratings nationwide. Perhaps even more impressive, Schaub has a 16-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in ACC play. Schaub is not particularly mobile and struggled some last year when pressured, but the numbers suggest his decision-making has greatly improved this season.
The Cavs use a tailback by committee system. The big numbers have been posted by 6-1, 212-pound FR Wali Lundy. Lundy is 11th in the ACC in rushing with 572 yards, 3.9 yards per carry, and he is 8th in the ACC and second on the team in pass receptions with 49 for 349 yards and 2 touchdowns. 5-11, 205-pound SO Marquis Weeks has actually started the last two games at tailback, and he is emerging rapidly, as he has 29 carries over that span. Weeks has a much higher average per carry than Lundy, 5.6 yards per rush, but he has limited carries.
The fullback is 6-1, 221-pound Jason Snelling, and he is also very involved in the offense. He has 30 catches on the year for 314 yards, a very high 10.5 yards per catch average for a fullback. He also had seven catches against Maryland, so his role may be expanding as the season progresses.
UVa alternates starting a fullback or two tight ends, and the Cavs actually have three viable options at TE. 6-5, 234-pound FR Heath Miller has 28 receptions on the year for 258 yards and (gasp) eight touchdowns. That touchdown number leads tight ends nationwide. The Cavs love the tight end in the red zone Ė 6-7, 250-pound backup TE Patrick Estes has four touchdowns among his 13 receptions, and even third string Case Luzar has a touchdown among his 12 catches. Thirteen touchdown catches from the position means that Bud Foster likely has spent a lot of time working the LBs in red zone coverage this week. However, as good as Foster is, Iím not sure he could coach our linebackers to grow in the past week and a half, so regardless of scheme it will be a tough matchup.
At wide receiver, 6-4, 205-pound SR Billy McMullen is back. It seems like McMullenís tenure at UVa predated Jeffersonís. Regardless, this year McMullen was first-team all-ACC, and he had 64 catches for 872 yards and 3 touchdowns. At the risk of repeating myself, heís the type of big receiver that has thrived against VT this year. However, assuming DeAngelo Hall can go, and all accounts are that he is going to play, I think heíll man up on McMullen all day, which should help the Hokie cause. UVaís other starting WR, 6-2, 196-pound JR Michael McGrew, may see more balls come his way this week with Hall focusing on McMullen.
UVa fans were ready to apply for disaster relief with respect to their offensive line in the preseason, but this group has held up remarkably well. They throw all the time, yet have given up only 19 sacks on the year. Part of that, of course, can be attributed to the quick passing game, but it is still impressive. The best players on the line are 6-8, 292-pound SR tackle Mike Mullins and 6-6, 324 SO guard Elton Brown. Brown has been injured, but heís a road grader inside and a terrific player. If heís anywhere close to 100% expect the Cavs to challenge VTís two new starting defensive tackles by running over Brown.
Overall, this is a very proficient offense. They throw the ball a lot, which means it will be imperative for Tech's defense to substitute on the line, as pass rushing takes a lot more out of the defensive line than the offensive line. Also, the coverage skills of Vegas Robinson and Mikal Baaqee will be put to the test against UVAís jumbo (6-5 and above) tight ends and quick backs. Although some zone would seem to help, recent games have suggested that Hokie defenders have problems running with receivers while playing zone in the middle of the field, and responding to delayed screens. UVa will look to go to both places early and often. I wouldnít be surprised to see a little more of VTís nickel package with the extra corner lining up on a flanked tight end or running back when the Cavs go with an empty backfield on third and long.
Fear the Muffin
UVaís defense was expected to be borderline awful this year, but the emergence of several players has made the Cavs pretty solid. UVa is surrendering 25.4 points per game, but the defense seems to be improving against the run as the year goes along (with the notable exception of PSUís Larry Johnson, but that guy could run over the Bengals). Opponents are averaging 4.5 yards per rush against the Cavs on the season, and it would surprise no one if VT tried to pound them this year, as they did last year when Kevin Jones had 37 carries.
UVaís 3-4 defense is unique in a lot of statistical respects, but the front line has done very well with their role. 6-7, 282-pound SO DE Chris Canty was second-team all-ACC despite missing the first two games of the year recovering from a leg injury. Canty leads all ACC defensive linemen with 76 tackles, very impressive in a 3-4, and he also has 2 sacks. Cantyís the leader up front, but 6-3, 255-pound FR Brennan Schmidt also has 73 tackles. Schmidt is undersized, but he plays tough and is improving every week. The final starter is 6-5, 292-pound SO Andrew Hoffman. Hoffman basically is a sacrificial lamb as the noseguard in a 3-4 scheme, but heís done a nice job keeping blockers off linebackers Angelo Crowell and Merrill Robertson and allowing them the statistical glory.
Crowell is the Cavs best defender, a 6-1, 234-pound SR that is averaging 10.8 tackles per game (130 total) with 3 sacks and 6 tackles for losses. He was their only defensive player named first-team all-ACC. Joining him in the linebacker corps are 6-1, 244-pound SR Merrill Robertson, second on the team with 113 tackles including 19 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. Robertson has been very active all year.
Freshman outside linebacker Darryl Blackstock is the big play guy on the outside, and heís going to be a force sooner rather than later. The 6-4, 230-pound Blackstock has nine of the Cavaliers' 25 sacks, which leads the team and is third in the ACC, 12 tackles for losses and 93 tackles overall (fourth on the team). He is their best pass rusher and will come from all angles. Heís not quite as physical at the point of attack as he will be, but heís an impact player as a true freshman.
The final LB, 6-2, 235-pound SO Rich Bedesom, has started the last two games and done a solid job statistically. As a group, the UVa linebackers run well and have made more plays as the season has progressed.
UVaís secondary is an eclectic group, in that there is a unique blend of experience and youth and statistically some of the better performers donít start. The lynchpin is 5-11, 200-pound SR S Jerton Evans, a second-team all ACC performer who is third on the team with 98 tackles and first with 5 passes defensed. Thatís a pretty low total at this point in the year.
An interesting statistical note about this game is that 5-8, 175-pound JR corner Almondo "Muffin" Curry has 55 tackles and 3 sacks. Three sacks seems like a lot, but try this on for size Ė Muffin Curry has more sacks than UVaís starting defensive linemen combined (they have only two on the year). Thatís not meant to be a slam on the UVa front three, as their job is to occupy blockers, but itís an astounding statistic for an 8-4 team and a tribute to Curryís toughness. It also suggests to me that Curry often lines up on the slot receiver on passing downs because it is very difficult to successfully blitz a corner when his man is lined up wide.
The other two starters in the secondary the past two games have been 6-2, 185-pound FR S Willie Davis and 5-10, 205-pound JR CB Jamaine Winborne. The interception leaders for the Cavs are 6-1, 210-pound SR S Shernard Newby (3 ints), 6-3, 208-pound SR S Chris Williams (2 ints), and 5-11, 202-pound SO CB Jermaine Hardy (2 ints). Lots of guys have gotten time here for UVa this season.
The Hokies have to make some breaks in the kicking game to win here, and they will have a chance. FR Tom Hagan is UVaís punter, and heís averaging a so-so 37.1 yard per kick, and the teamís net average is also mediocre Ė about 31 yards per punt. The Cavs can expect a heavy dose early from the Hokie punt block unit, with Beamerís crew settling in and focusing on returns later in the game. For VT to win, they need two big special teams plays. The return of DeAngelo Hall will clearly help the punt return unit, as will having Lee Suggs return kickoffs.
On field goals the Cavs have been slightly more proficient than VT, but Kurt Smith is still only 9 of 15 with two misses from 20-29 yards (3-5) and 3 misses from 30-39 yards (3-6).
The return game is okay for Virginia. Backup QB Maurice Hagans is the punt returner, and he is quick and shifty. He is averaging a solid 8.7 yards per return. On kickoffs, Lundy and Weeks handle the duties with Weeks having the higher average (32.6 versus 24.2) primarily because of a 100 yard return earlier in the season.
In the general catchall category, UVa has done an excellent job avoiding penalties for such a young team. The Cavs are only penalized an average of 37.5 yards per game thus far this season.
As far as strategy, expect the unexpected from UVa. Groh is more than willing to take chances, and I expect at least three plays, including a halfback or wide receiver pass, predicated on "trickeration" during the battle for the Commonwealth Cup.
Before wrapping up the preview, I would like to personally thank all of the seniors who have done such a great job of representing VT on and off the field. Lee Suggs and Willie Pile get most of the attention in this regard, deservedly so, but all of those young men have worked so hard to help the program get where it is today. They are all deserving of our thanks and applause on Saturday.
Back to the game - at the risk of sounding like a broken record, "mistakes" and injuries will both be key to the outcome of this game. Under the general ambit of mistakes are traditional turnovers, non-traditional turnovers (blocked punts, big returns, etc.) and penalties. Virginia has been much, much better in these areas of late than VT, who has the potential for big plays on returns with Suggs and Hall.
As for injuries, we all know VTís starting defensive tackles are out for the year, and Vegas Robinson, DeAngelo Hall and Kevin Jones are recovering from prior injuries. Itís hard to underestimate the importance of those three to what the Hokies will be trying to do against UVa, and letís all hope they are 100% by Saturday.
Another key to this game will be a fast start for VT. UVa has been outscored 192-111 in the first half this year, but they have waxed opponents in the second half to the tune of 234-113. In the seven games UVa has trailed at halftime, they have come back to win in five of them. VT, with the emotion of the home crowd and perhaps sagging confidence, needs to get up early in this one, preferably big. The home field advantage historically hasnít meant much in this series as the visiting team has won seven of the last ten played, but I think getting the crowd involved early could help maintain the teamís focus and energy.
If you think back to the recent history of this series, no single factor has been more predictive of the outcome than this: the team with the better quarterback wins. Although I am very, very happy with the job Bryan Randall has done this year as a true sophomore, right now Schaub is the more polished QB.
Although I hate to do it, Virginiaís just playing better football right now and has fewer injuries. Their passing game also matches up well with Tech's defense. I expect the game to be close and UVa has had more experience (6 of 12 games decided by eight points or less) and success in those situations.
VT is going to have their shots to win this game, but on paper the Hokies have a lot going against them. So, Iím going to pick against the good guys. However, given my prognosticative deficiencies, I canít think of a better endorsement for the Hokiesí chances.
Prediction: UVA 31, VT 27
Will Stewart's Take: Before talking about the game itself, I'd like to echo Jeff's comments about the seniors. The guys who will be honored on Saturday are: Ronyell Whitaker, Terrell Parham, Grant Noel, Lee Suggs, Shawn Witten, Billy Hardee, Lamar Cobb, Willie Pile, Alex Markogiannakis, Ken Keister, Anthony Davis, Luke Owens, and Jon Mollerup. I hope I didnít miss any, but I don't think I did. Give them all a round of applause, for the countless injuries, winter workouts, practices, blood, and sweat they have endured, just to play a few football games. I see at least nine guys out of those 12 who won't be playing on Sundays, so they did it all without an NFL future in sight.
Also, another note to the fans: Enjoy yourself Saturday. We all looked forward to this season with great anticipation: an 8-game home schedule, including LSU, Marshall, Pitt, WVU, and UVa; the opening of the South end zone expansion; the return of Lee Suggs; and the continued growth and evolution of the VT football program.
It seems like it has all gone by so fast. I never thought a 13-game schedule that included 8 home games could whisk by so fast, but it has. Before long, we'll be staring at the interminable 8-month offseason, with its endless discussions about schedule strength, QB controversies, painted end zones, and uniform colors. Ugh.
But Saturday, there's going to be a football game. So get to your tailgate early, and have a good time, before, during and after the game. For many of us, it's the last game we'll see in person this year.
Now to the game: I don't like Tech's chances. I donít like them at all. If you look at recent trends, UVa's playing well, and Tech's not. Defensively, the Hokies are struggling with attack angles, pursuit, tackling, and size. These problems don't go away overnight, and Virginia has fashioned an offensive attack that exploits all of these weaknesses.
I look for the Cavaliers to have a good game offensively. They'll nickel and dime Tech to death, and may even hit a big one here or there. The only way to avoid this is if Big Jimmy Williams, inspired by his first start, blows up the middle of the offensive line. And if Vegas Robinson has a better game than what he had against WVU. And if DeAngelo Hall is back to a hundred percent and can slow down their passing attack. And if the tackling improves greatly.
Offensively, I really like how the Hokies' playcalling and use of misdirection has improved. But just when it appears that they're getting it right, someone on the offensive line blows an assignment or commits a holding penalty, or a turnover happens to make things go awry.
I've watched Tech go into these late-season funks before: 1991, 1994, 1997, and 2001. I always find myself wishing they would come out of them, but they never do, not unless Temple or Rutgers comes along (or in the case of 2001, a pretty bad Virginia team).
The Hokies are very close to having a good team, but injuries and youth have taken their toll, resulting in a lack of confidence. Lack of confidence is a cancer on a team and is usually cured only by a long offseason and a rededication to the game.
I think in terms of outcome, this one will be very similar to Pitt, Syracuse, and WVU. I think the VT defense will have great difficulty holding down UVa's offensive attack, and I think the VT offense will play well, but will make too many mistakes and won't be able to overcome them.
Will's Prediction: UVa 30, Virginia Tech 17.