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Game Preview: #12 Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia
by Jeff Ouellet, 11/18/02

Wednesday, November 20th, 2002, 7:00 Eastern

TV: ESPN2

Wednesday night forecast (from WeatherUnderground.com):
(as of 4:30 pm, 11/18/02; see the link to the right for current forecast):
Partly cloudy. Lows in the lower 30s.

Click here for TechSideline.com's WVU/VT roster card


West Virginia Preview
by Jeff Ouellet

Don't forget, the WVU game is the annual "Hokies for the Hungry" canned food drive! For all the official details from Virginia Tech, click here.

It is safe to say that the Virginia Tech coaches, players and even fans were glad that the Hokies had a little extra time off after a heartbreaking 50-42 overtime loss to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. The game was filled with some promising moments courtesy of Bryan Randall, Ernest Wilford, and Bryan Stinespring, but ultimately a young and exhausted VT defense was dominated on the line of scrimmage by the Orangemen.

Next up for the twelfth-ranked Hokies (8-2 overall, 3-2 conference) in what is shaping up to be a brutal end to the season are the West Virginia Mountaineers (7-3, 4-1 in conference). West Virginia is a team most had pegged to finish sixth in conference, but WVU Head Coach Rich Rodriguez has capitalized on his teamís strengths and made the Mountaineers bowl-eligible already. WVU comes into Lane Stadium for an unprecedented Wednesday night contest after having physically whipped Boston College in their last game. West Virginia seems to be peaking.

Meanwhile, things in Blacksburg have been heading south recently, but VT has received some good injury news this week as it appears that both Vegas Robinson and Kevin Jones will be returning to the lineup. The return of Robinson, if he is close to healthy, is essential with WVUís smash-mouth attack.

The Avon Man

As everyone knows, Rodriguez installed a spread offense once he came to Morgantown, and it has been very effective this year. The Mountaineers average an impressive 32.7 points per game. WVU generates most of its offense by using an incredible running game that is averaging Ė averaging Ė 5.2 yards per rush and 294.7 yards per game overall (second in the nation). The Mountaineers are 17th overall in total offense nationally.

For the umpteenth consecutive year, the WVU ground game is led by 5-9, 190-pound Sr. dynamo Avon Cobourne. People do not appreciate what a great player Cobourne has been over the years, but he ranks 16th ALLTIME in college football in career rushing with 4,738 career yards and has broken 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons. For his career, Cobourne has the Big East records for yards, carries and 100-yard games. This season Cobourne averages 140.9 rushing yards per game, fourth in the nation, with a per-carry average of 5.3 yards. Cobourne is not a big runner, but he is extremely shifty and deceptively strong. Arm tackles wonít cut it in this game.

Cobourneís backup is 5-10, 215-pound Jr. Quincy Wilson, who adds a little pop to the backfield. After chasing Cobourne around for three quarters, Wilson can be a particularly great change of pace as a bruiser. He is averaging 6.2 yards per carry and has 671 total yards on the year, an extremely impressive total for a backup. That's just 37 yards short of Tech's Kevin Jones.

The surprising aspect of the running game is 6-0, 185-pound So. QB Rasheed Marshall. Marshall joins both Cobourne and Wilson among the Big Eastís top ten rushers with 545 yards on the year and an amazingly high 10 rushing TDs. Marshallís per-carry average is only 4.1, but that is somewhat of a skewed statistic because sacks count against a quarterbacks rushing yardage in college. So, WVU has a three-headed monster to deal with in their rushing game.

Obviously, the key to any running game is the offensive line. WVU returned four starters, and the two guys that will be on the spot are 6-6, 295-pound tackle Lance Nimmo and 6-5, 295-pound Jr. tackle Tim Brown. Both are very solid and have good footwork for big guys. WVUís line is small by todayís standards (no starters over 295), but that is by design. With the spread offense, WVU runs a lot of counters and traps where the linemen are required to move.

As for pass protection, WVU has been very good, as they have only allowed 15 sacks on the year. They havenít thrown it that much, but thatís still only a low number and the credit should be shared by Marshall and the line.

Marshall is a tremendous athlete at quarterback, and Iíve already discussed his running ability. Most importantly to WVU fans, however, is that Marshall has been very careful with the ball all season. He only completes slightly over 51% of his passes for a pedestrian 115 yards per game, but he has 8 TDs versus only 3 interceptions all year. Marshall has avoided making key mistakes.

At wide receiver, WVUís biggest threat is 6-2, 203 So. Miquelle Henderson, who has 38 catches for 421 yards and 2 touchdowns. West Virginiaís second leading receiver, 6-3, 200-pound Phil Braxton, has only 14 catches and one touchdown. Both have good size. Although WVU doesnít throw to the tight end much, they make the throws count as the tight ends have combined to catch four touchdowns on the season. Look for them in the red-zone passing game.

WVUís spread philosophy and their passing versus rushing stats would seem to be entirely antithetical; however, WVUís spread, at least this year, isnít designed to place wide receivers in advantageous mismatches. Rather, the hope of Rodriguez and his staff is to spread the entire defense and then let his athletes, particularly Cobourne and Marshall, take advantage of the space that is created. Cobourneís good enough to be effective in any system, but he is particularly effective when he has room to juke.

Historically, VT has eaten up spread offenses which tend to isolate offensive tackles against Tech's speedy defensive ends. Remember, though, that WVUís tackles move well and Tech's ends will have to stay home to honor the delay draw. This isnít your motherís spread offense Ė this is an effective running team that primarily uses the formation to help isolate its best players in space. The Hokie linebackers and Willie Pile will have to make a lot of tough open field tackles in this one.

A Wiley Bunch

West Virginia sans Elmo has two new defensive coordinators, Todd Graham and Jeff Casteel, that have installed a unique 3-3-5 alignment. You might think that the alignment would make WVU susceptible against good running teams, but that hasnít been the case. In fact, the Mountaineers are ranked 11th nationally against the run, yielding only 95.1 yards per game. Overall, WVUís defense is 19th in total yards surrendered.

Although there are some holes in this defense, WVU has a schematic advantage right now. No one else in the Big East plays anything similar, which means that coaches basically get one week (VT has had a little longer) to watch tape and figure out weaknesses. The scheme will get extra attention from the leagueís coaches in the offseason, but no such luxury exists in the middle of a long season.

I do not want to leave the impression that WVUís success is smoke and mirrors based on a new scheme. They have some good football players on that side of the football, and most have experience Ė WVU returned eight defense starters from last year.

In the trenches, the big name is 6-3, 285-pound Sr. David Upchurch. Upchurch has an impressive 14.5 tackles for loss and three sacks on the year. Remember that there are only three men on WVUís d-line, so in many cases Upchurch has to fight through two offensive linemen to get into the backfield. That makes his production all the more impressive. 6-4, 295-pound Jr. Fred Bluefield also has chipped in with four sacks.

WVUís best defensive player is hard nosed 6-1, 230-pound Jr. ILB Grant Wiley. Wiley is a tough kid that runs well and is instinctive. Heís a slower version of Miamiís former stud linebacker Dan Morgan. Wiley leads the team with 107 total tackles, but his versatility is best shown by the fact that he has 10.5 tackles for a loss, nine pass breakups (very high for an inside LB), two interceptions and nine quarterback hurries. WVU requires him to stay at home as a run-stopper, rush the passer, and play in space in coverage, and he has effectively done it all.

The emerging player at linebacker is 6-2, 225-pound Sr. OLB James Davis. Davis is second on the team in tackles with 98 overall and is effective at shooting gaps (12.5 tackles for losses). Of all the linebackers, heís the most likely to be used as a blitzer in passing situations, as he had 4 sacks and a team best 15 quarterback hurries. Davis is also a good enough athlete that he was the Big East Special Teams Player of the Week, when he blocked two field goals by Boston College in WVUís last game.

The big name in the secondary is 6-1, 200-pound Sr. SS Angel Estrada. Estrada has 93 tackles, third on the team, and he also has 4 sacks. WVU will move him around a lot close to the line of scrimmage. For you College Gameday fans, although you may not remember his name you probably remember the hit he laid on BC RB Derrick Knight a couple of weeks ago. It was a Wayne Ward type of blow that received a lot of air time.

Another key defender in the secondary is 5-11, 207-pound So. S Jahmile Addae who leads the team with four interceptions and 13 pass breakups. Addae was injured against BC, but all signs point to him starting this Wednesday. Although the rush defense is WVUís strength, the pass defense is also solid as they only surrender 216 yards passing per game.

WVUís defense thrives on two things: (1) turnovers - they have forced 28 and are second in the nation in turnover margin at plus 1.6 per game; and (2) confusion. Their scheme allows them to play eight guys in the box while only having 3 guys head-up on the offensive linemen. The versatility of their players enables them to drop or blitz from any number of positions, allowing players like Davis and Estrada to make plays in the backfield from positions that traditionally make plays downfield. The scheme also requires offensive linemen to work hard on making solid blocks on the move, which often times is tougher than hitting a defensive linemen staring you in the face. The VT offensive line will have to not only play well, but also very intelligently to fare well against this defense.

Bring back Andre Davis!

As for special teams, the Hokies traditionally have outplayed WVU. In fact, the Hokies have either a defensive or special teams score in every game played against WVU since 1998. WVUís punt return game is below average (primary returner has a 6.8 average), but is solid on kickoffs with Sr. WR Phil Braxton averaging 26.6 yards per return.

WVUís punting game is also below average, as they have a net of only 31.9 yards per punt on the season. Their placekicker, Todd James, is a solid 9-14 on the season, with 3 of those misses coming from 40-49 yards. However, he has missed three extra points (39-42).

The Lowdown

Injuries play a huge part in this prediction. Assuming Vegas Robinson and Kevin Jones play, and can play effectively, that should give VT a boost at two key positions. The Hokies have to stop the run better than they have the last two weeks, and Robinson is obviously a key to forcing WVU to throw some. VT also has to control the clock better than they did against Syracuse. Jones and the running game need to keep the defense off the field against Cobourne and company.

One look at the recent statistics of both teams suggests that the Hokies will have a very hard time winning this game. So, to make you feel a little better, Iíll throw out two trends: (1) the Hokies havenít lost three games in a row during the regular season since 1992, the dreaded 2-8-1 season; and (2) WVU hasnít won in Blacksburg since 1992. I am not a big believer in historical trends because ghosts donít play football games, but maybe there is something to having a home field hex over another team (see the Carrier Dome). VT has won the last four games of this series and seven of the last eight overall.

The Hokies wonít be able to stop WVUís rushing game, but I think the VT offense will also put up some points. I expect WVU to roll safety coverage to Wilford in a lot of cover three type looks after his big game last week, but he is still going to see a lot of one-on-one because WVU will cram the box. In this game I think other receivers, including the backs and the Wittten/Parham duo, will have to make some plays.

I am going to predict a VT win, but I donít feel particularly solid about the prediction. From a VT perspective, there are two things I am going to watch very closely. First, how does the team start the game and respond after Syracuse? At home at night, VT needs to come out breathing fire. The second key point is turnovers. The Hokies have been turning the ball over at a very high rate lately, and WVU is very good in that area. In the games in which WVU has won the turnover battle, they are 7-0. In the games where they havenít won the turnover battle, they are 0-3. VT cannot turn the ball over and win this game.

I have a feeling we are going to see a better team Wednesday than we have the last two weeks, but weíll see.

Prediction: VT 30, WVU 27

Will Stewart's Take: I don't feel any better than Jeff does (amazing what a few bad games will do to you), and I'm going to do something unprecedented: I'm going to pick the Hokies to lose this one.

Why? I first started picking games in 1999 (if memory serves correctly). Since then, I have correctly picked the Hokies to win 38 times. I have correctly picked them to lose twice (Miami 2000 and 2001). I have incorrectly picked them to win six times.

The only thing I have never done is incorrectly picked the Hokies to lose. Time to try that one out -- get my drift?

And how's that for a technical breakdown?

Will's Prediction: WVU 27, VT 20.

There it is, Hokies. Go get it.

          

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