by Jeff Ouellet, 9/26/02
Saturday, September 28th, 2002, noon Eastern
Saturday forecast: (as of 4:00 pm, 9/26/02):
(Note: TSL thanks Jeff Ouellet for filling in on this week's game preview. Nice work, Jeff!)
After a 4-0 start that includes wins over three consecutive top 20 teams, the fifth-rated Virginia Tech Hokies are traveling to Kalamazoo, Michigan to take on a member of the Mid-American Conference, Western Michigan. The Broncos are 1-2 on the season, with a 35-12 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor and a tough 28-24 loss to Purdue at West Lafayette. Although no one seems to know for sure, VT is believed to be the highest-ranked team to ever play in a MAC stadium, and WMU’s athletic department has called on the students to all wear black to the game for "Blackout Saturday" (insert random joke about your undergraduate Saturday evenings here).
The Broncos are coached by Gary Darnell, hired at Western Michigan by none other than present Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver. Darnell is a solid coach – not retired jersey good, but solid – and has a career record of 37-23 in five plus years as the coach at Western Michigan.
The Sporting News rated WMU as the 75th best team in the country in the preseason, and picked them third in the Mid-American West behind Bowling Green and Toledo. Athlon had them at 91st in the country.
The Hokies played Western Michigan last year and won in convincing fashion, 31-0. However, Darnell, while generally being very complimentary of VT, said in his press conference that he hoped his team would deliver the following message to the Hokies: "Don’t mess with the MAC."
After hearing chatter from LSU, Marshall and A&M (either fans, coaches or players), I am probably a little sensitive, but this is getting old. I know Jim Weaver is a busy guy, but we need to get South Carolina on our schedule. I would love to hear Lou Holtz stand up at media day and tell everyone that the Hokies should be 17 point favorites over the ’85 Bears (by the way, if Weaver got the ’85 Bears on next year’s slate, would that appease everyone? – think of the storylines: the modern day personification of the Hokies, Frank Beamer, versus the modern day personification of Da Bears, Iron Mike Ditka; The Untouchables versus the best all around running back in my lifetime, the late Walter Payton; Bud Foster versus Buddy Ryan in a blitz-off; and, most importantly, the Hokie Pokie versus the Super Bowl Shuffle. That’s good stuff!).
But I digress . . .
And Now for Something Entirely New
With respect to their philosophy against VT, Darnell and WMU offensive coordinator Brian Rock (now there’s a football name) have been very open this week about their intent to throw the ball. Darnell said in his press conference, among other things, that "We’re going to have guys open, we’re going to get the ball launched – but we have to get it caught" and "If we can get it caught ‘x’ number of times we can have a good day."
In theory, that sounds like a good plan, as VT is currently allowing 224 yards per game through the air, ranking 74th nationally, while WMU is 11th in the nation in passing offense with 298.3 yards per game. The statistics against VT are deceptive because of Byron Leftwich’s monster quarter after the Marshall game was decided, but the numbers still suggest passing is the way to attack the Hokies.
As you might expect, WMU’s usual offensive set includes three wide receivers and a single running back. The Broncos won’t be straying from their philosophy when they throw against VT.
As for personnel, WMU has two quarterbacks that split time. Junior college transfer Chad Munson has the better numbers with 509 yards and six TDs, but Jon Drach, last year’s backup to Jeff Welsh, also has 365 yards and two TDs.
The primary targets are 6-4, 200-pound Jermaine Lewis, who leads the team in receptions (15), receiving yards (232) and has 3 TD's. Lewis was athletic enough to be a second-team All-MAC pick at safety last year, so he is a guy to watch. Tight end Mobolaji Afariogun is a terrific player, first-team All-MAC, and he is second on the team in catches with 13 for 134 yards and 3 TD's. WR Chris Chesnut should also see the ball, as he has 13 catches for 125 yards and 2 TD's going into this game.
In the backfield, Philip Reed is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and has 199 rushing yards. Reed’s biggest role in this game likely will not be as a rusher, but rather as a guy who catches short passes and picks up pass rushers that come free. The Broncos will run some to try to keep VT honest, but I think a pass run ratio of 3-1 can be expected.
Three things indicate that the Broncos’ offensive line may have some serious issues against VT: (1) they only have two returning starters, so they are relatively inexperienced; (2) they have a new offensive line coach, Mike Cummings, and any time you get a new coach there is typically a period of adjustment; and (3) most importantly, these guys have given up sacks like they are going out of style. Indiana State had 5 sacks, Michigan 7 sacks, and Purdue 7 sacks. So, 19 sacks for a total loss of 95 yards in the first three weeks. Ouch.
And Now for Something Entirely New, Part II
Although he won’t get points for originality, Darnell does get a commendation for candor: "There’s no secrets in this one, you get as many as you can close to the line of scrimmage. Stop the run as much as you possibly can, and when the play-action pass hits or a guy gets out there, don’t miss the tackle."
The Broncos play a 4-2-5 defense, with two of their safeties essentially moving up on every play and making it a 4-4 front. Tech's receivers will see a lot of man-to-man in this game by necessity.
Western Michigan returns five starters on defense, but they have struggled some against the runb where they are giving up 172 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry. The pass defense has allowed only 161 yards per game, so that has been solid. As we all know, though, against the Hokies you have to be prepared to stop the run first.
Unfortunately for WMU, their best defensive player, DE Anthony Allsbury, on the watch list for the Lombardi Award, hurt his knee in the preseason and is likely out for the year. His replacement, Jason Babin, has done well with five sacks, six tackles for loss and 18 overall tackles. The other DE, Chris Browning, is a returning starter and had 18 tackles and has chipped in with two sacks.
Linebacker Jason Malloy, a returning starter, is their blitzing pass rush specialist, and he has three sacks on the year. Bryan Lape is the stay-at-home tough guy in the middle, as he led the team in tackles last year and recorded a MAC–high six forced fumbles. This year Lape has 20 tackles on the season. The WMU defense generally does a nice job of pressuring opposing QBs with 11 sacks through 3 games.
The secondary has three of WMU’s four leading tacklers, which probably is not a good sign going into a game against the Hokies. Free safety Carlos Smith leads the charge with 25 tackles, followed by wide safety Jason Feldpausch with 23 and corner Sam Reynolds with 19. It is imperative for these guys to tackle well for the Broncos to have any hope of containing VT’s rushing game.
While I think Kalamazoo will be excited for this game, it is safe to say that last week's trip to Kyle Field should prepare the VT youngsters for this road trip. Of course, focus is an issue with a young team coming off three big wins in a row, but thus far the Hokies have been impeccable in that regard. Although there are not a lot of seniors on this team, guys like Willie Pile and Lee Suggs remember the Temple game in 1998, and I think they will pass along the message.
Western Michigan has some good players, but this is not a good match up for them, despite the story the passing statistics seem to tell.
On offense, I believe that VT will be able to run consistently on Western Michigan. Although they will load up guys in the box, and WMU should be better than Marshall, the Broncos still do not appear to have the horses up front to deal with the VT offensive line and the Untouchables. My guess is that Suggs and Jones will together combine for 250 rushing yards or more. This also may be the game that Bryan Stinespring feels comfortable letting Bryan Randall make some plays in the passing game. It would seem the Hokies have more margin for error offensively in this game than they have had since Arkansas State, so the offense may experiment a little.
For a team to beat the Hokie defense, they have to be able to protect their quarterback. Teams like Miami and Florida State have the line to do it. Other teams, like Pitt, have done it by using maximum protection and relying on their receivers to beat Hokie DBs. While WMU has some nice wide receivers, they don’t have Antonio Bryant, RJ English or Latef Grim.
Further complicating things for Western Michigan is the fact that its tight end is its second leading receiver. If you are going to send out the tight end, that means you are relying on your front five, plus perhaps your 200 lb. tailback Reed, to hold off the Hokie pass rush of Davis, Adibi, Colas, Lewis and company. If you keep the tight end in to block, Western Michigan loses a valuable threat in the passing game. That would seem to be a dilemma for the Broncos.
My guess is that Western Michigan will run a lot of passing plays that are essentially glorified runs to slow down the pass rush – like shovel passes and screens – and otherwise take three step drops. Too many seven-step drops for the Broncos may lead to "Blackout Saturday" being the theme for the Bronco quarterbacks rather than their fans.
Prediction: VT 41, Western Michigan 10.