Before the season started, if you had told me that Virginia Tech would need a win against us to clinch the ACC Coastal division crown, I would've believed you. If you had told that the team they were fighting for that crown, I would have thought you were deluded. With road games in Miami and Tallahassee, and with a young quarterback and with so many true freshmen in key positions, this was not foreseeable.
But this team has surprised all season long. They are playing as well as I can remember a Virginia team playing this late in the season. Even in our most successful years, it seemed that we fell apart a bit towards the end of the season, for one reason or another. Not this year, as the team has gotten better and better. The youngsters are becoming more confident game in and game out. Guys like Michael Rocco and Tra Nicholson, who looked a bit overmatched at times this year, have begun playing like veterans. Also, the actual veterans have seriously stepped up their games. Matt Conrath, Cam Johnson, Kris Burd and Chase Minnifield have been fantastic over the past month.
This week, the 8-3 (5-2) Hoos face their in-state rival Virginia Tech in Charlottesville. The Hokies are 10-1, 6-1. They have also beaten the Hoos 7 straight times. Can the Hoos continue their winning ways? Can they end the losing streak?
Virginia on Offense
The past two weeks, the Hoos offense has struggled somewhat, at least in comparison to the rest of the season. The 500 yard outputs have been replaced by 350 yard outputs, although the offense has been more efficient at turning those yards into points. Obviously, Florida State has a tremendous defense, so 316 yards is a solid effort and well above their season average. Against Duke, there were some problems in execution, and the 356 yards was well below their season average.
Virginia Tech's defense is much closer to FSU's than it is to Duke's, although not quite as good as FSU's. The fact that we were able to move the ball as we did against the Seminoles, under the lights in Tallahassee, bodes very well for our matchup with the Hokies.
The Hokie's defense is basically a 4-3, but one of their safeties is called a Rover, giving them a little bit of a hybrid look almost like the famed 46 defense. They are fast everywhere, and they play aggressive. They are good, and balanced. They rank 12th in total defense, 13th in rushing defense and 8th in pass efficiency defense. They are also 10th in scoring defense. Contrast that with our offense, which ranks 40th in rushing offense, 60th in passing offense, 42nd in total offense and 76th in scoring offense, and you can see how much of a battle we are going to be in for. (All ranks courtesy ncaa.org)
The DL is an interesting mix. On the outside, they have DEs who are on the smaller side, but are very fast. On the inside, they play a couple of big maulers. This combination makes it very difficult to run inside on them, but allows them to attack the offensive backfield as well. The starting DT duo at the beginning of the season was brothers Derrick and Antoine Hopkins. Derrick, a sophomore will be out there, but older brother Antoine (a junior) is out for the season. In his place, true freshman Luther Maddy will start. Also out for the season is senior Kwamaine Battle, meaning there is little behind the starters. Hopkins is the one to watch, because he is a playmaker. He is stout against the run but can also work inside to collapse the pocket. Muddy has been up and down, and he can be pushed around some.
The DEs are a pair of sophomores who look just like the DEs Virginia Tech has played throughout the past few years. J.R. Collins and James Gayle are both around 250 pounds and fast. They like to get upfield and pressure the QB. Our proficiency at running the counter plays and trap plays should help slow down their penetration, especially if we can hit on a few of them early. Needing to keep contain on the edge will have to be part of their game plan. Collins and Gayle have combined for 11 sacks and 16.5 TFLs, so when we are forced to throw, OTs Morgan Moses and Oday Aboushi will have their hands full.
The Hokies do some weird things with the LBs. They have a MLB, a "Backer" and a "Whip" who is also sort of a hyrid LB/S along with the Rover. The names are weird, but basically the Backer is a SLB and the Whip is a WLB. All their LBs are fast, but also undersized. The size issue became even more of a problem with the loss of MLB Bruce Taylor, 2nd team All-ACC and the team's leading tackler last year. In his stead, sophomore Jack Tyler starts, but he's giving up a good 20 pounds to Taylor. We will also likely see senior Barquell Rivers in the middle, and he is a lot bigger. The starting Backer is sophomore Tariq Edwards, and he is having a great season. He has 9.5 TFLs, 2 picks, 3 passes defender and 3 QB hurries. He can literally do it all, and he will be all over the field.
The starter at Whip at the season's outset was Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, but he is also out for the season. Since then, the starter has normally been junior Alonzo Tweedy, but he has missed the last 3 games, and is a gametime decision. If he can't go, sophomore Kyle Fuller will play there. Fuller's normal position is CB, so that tells you a little bit about how they utilize the position. This is the spot that is often going to be matched up with Perry Jones on pass routes. Both Tweedy and Fuller have excellent cover skills, so they may be able to negate an important part of our offense.
The Rover is manned by sophomore Antone Exum, who is actually bigger than most of the Hokie LBs. He is their leading tackler and also has 2 FFs, an interception and a sack. As I said, he will move up to play in a LB role at times, and will be back in a more traditional safety role at times. Exum is somebody who needs to be accounted for on every play. The other safety is senior Eddie Whitley, who is the team's 2nd leading tackler, and was 3rd last year. Exum and Whitley are good, and they need to be because there isn't much behind them.
As I mentioned above, Kyle Fuller will start at Whip if Tweedy can't go. If Tweedy plays, Fuller starts at CB, opposite junior Jayron Hosley. Hosley led the nation in interceptions last year with 9, and he leads the team this year with 3. Hosley is also a dynamic punt returner. If Fuller ends up at Whip, senior Cris Hill start at the second CB spot, with little drop off.
While both of the safeties are big guys, who can matchup with TEs and bigger WRs, their CBs are all on the smaller side, which means we will miss Matt Snyder and the big target he provides. Kris Burd has been providing some of the same production without Snyder's size, and I expect Burd to be a big part of this game. The Hokies DBs are all aggressive going after the ball. We need to be very careful with out routes and seam routes, because the Hokies tend to jump those plays. However, if we can protect Rocco, we may be able to beat them with some double moves.
As always, the key to our offense is the ground game. While we weren't all that successful on the ground last week, we were still able to stick with it, keeping FSU's defense off balance. The Hokies will not change up their defensive style as much as some other teams have, and they aren't as physical as the Seminoles. We should be able to run on them, and the misdirection plays we have been so successful with all season could be a big part of it. Getting our big OLs into a hole in front of the RBs can be very successful against VT's undersized defense. Of course, VT's defense is very fast, so that means the OLs have to hold their blocks on those slow developing plays. The vision of our RBs, particularly Jones and Kevin Parks will be key, because the running lanes tend to close up quickly against a defense with as much speed as the Hokies.
Virginia on Defense
While the Hokies defense is elite, their offense isn't. It isn't bad, but it also doesn't really scare anybody. They rank 36th overall and 51st in scoring offense. Their ground game is 26th. Their passing offense is 71st, although it is 36th in efficiency. The numbers are good. But, for some reason, it just isn't a very scary offense. Maybe it is because Clemson's mediocre defense completely shut them down. Or maybe it is simply because the defense is so good that nobody pays any attention to the offense.
That offense is led by a sophomore signal caller, Logan Thomas. Thomas is a beast at 6'4" 250, and he can run. He is, in style, a lot like FSU QBQ E.J. Manuel. Thomas is a very good runner, and has a strong arm, but he isn't all that advanced as a passer yet. He may get there, he is very young. But right now, he isn't there. That is probably why VT has about 50% more rushing attempts than pass attempts.
That run/pass ratio may also be due to junior RB David Wilson, who is seen by some as a possible first round pick. Wilson has rushed for nearly 1500 yards already this season, along with 7 TDs. He is big, fast and explosive. Wilson's backup is Josh Oglesby, who is really a FB, and will get some short yardage carries. Oglesby has 6 TDs on the year, but averages just 3.9 ypc (Wilson, on the other hand, averages over 6 ypc). The FB is junior Joey Phillips, but he has just 3 carries on the season. He is a good blocker though. All of this means that we are in for a heavy dose of David Wilson.
Part of why Wilson has been so good is the Hokie's offensive line. Simply put, they are good. Four seniors start, and three of them are multiple year starters. The OTs are Blake DeChristopher and Andrew Lanier. Each is 6'5" and over 300 pounds, and both are maulers. They are solid pass blockers, but they really excel in run blocking. The OGs are Jaymes Brooks and Greg Nosal, again both are well over 300 pounds, and excel as run blockers. The only non-senior is at center, and that will be either sophomore Andrew Miller or junior Michael Via. Miller is the starter, but he is questionable with some leg injuries. It is likely that Via will start. Honestly, there isn't a whole lot of dropoff with Via, as the biggest knock on him has been his inability to stay healthy. Interestingly, Via is about 6'7", which is very tall for a C.
If we can get the Hokies into 3rd and long situations, our pass rushers should be able to have success. VT's OL is very good, but they are built to run block, not to pass block. The loss of Bill Schautz will be felt in these situations, but quicker guys like Cam Johnson, Will Hill and Thompson Brown should still have success. Of course, getting to those 3rd and long situations means stopping Wilson on 1st and 2nd down, a task that, while a total team effort, with rely largely on Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins being able to get penetration into the backfield. We will also see some run blitzes in early down situations.
When the Hokies do throw the ball, they have some talent at WR. Both starters return from a year ago, and they are the team's leading receivers for the 2nd year in a row. Seniors Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale have combined for about 1400 yards and 7 TDs, after combining for about 1600 yards and 9 TDs last year. With senior playmaker Dyrell Roberts out for the year, the only other WRs we will likely see are juniors D.J. Coles and Marcus Davis. VT will mix and match all 4 of them, because they are all pretty similar. All are over 6 feet tall, and all are pretty fast. Our DBs may end up without much help because of the focus on the ground, so they will need to be solid.
Senior TE Chris Drager is a solid receiving threat, and Wilson is a pretty decent receiver out of the backfield, although he rarely runs much more than a flare route.
The main thing, as I have mentioned, is going to be bottling up Wilson. Also key will be keeping Logan Thomas from making big plays with his feet. If Thomas beats us with his arm, so be it. But we want to make him throw. Thomas' size is a big advantage, especially on short yardage. If there is a 3rd or 4th and inches, you can bet on a QB sneak. The big guys up front will have to be ready for that. When Wilson is able to get beyond the line of scrimmage, and he will, our LBs and DBs have to be sure in their tackles. Wilson breaks a lot of tackles, and we simply can't allow him to make big plays when we have him bottled up.
These two teams are more even than they have been in some time. There are still advantages for the Hokies, but the Hoos also have advantages. Both teams have strong, veteran OLs and want to run the ball with talented TBs. Both teams also have sophomore QBs who are growing into the position. Rocco is more advanced as a pocket passer than Thomas, but does not have his explosiveness running with the ball.
The Hoos defense shut down a very good FSU offense last week, but did give up nearly 200 yards rushing. Of course, they had FSUs dynamic WR corps to deal with. While the Hokies have some talent outside, their passing game isn't near the threat that FSUs is, and therefore we can focus on the ground game. If the Hokies can run for 200 yards, they will likely come out on top.
As always, turnovers are a big part of the contest. The Hoos have been stingy with the ball over the past month, and that will have to continue. The Hokies have long relied on turnovers and special teams for big plays, and that is no different today. If we can limit our mistakes, play strong in the red zone, and not give up big plays to David Wilson or Logan Thomas, the Hoos will be right in this one til the end. Considering how this season has gone, I expect nothing less than a close, exciting game. I will be sure to keep my defibrillator nearby.
Prediction: Hoos 20, Hokies 17