After back to back road
losses blowouts, the 2-2 Hoos return home to finish off the non-conference portion of this year's schedule. Their opponent this week is the 3-0 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (their first game, against Texas A&M, was postponed due to Hurricane Isaac). Interestingly, while the men's teams at LT are called the Bulldogs, the women's teams are called the Lady Techsters. I believe all the other Bulldogs (Georgia, Fresno State, Butler, Gonzaga and some others) use the same name for men's and women's teams. I don't know why, but I find that fascinating.
When former Bulldog head coach and Virginia WR Derek Dooley took the head coaching job at Tennessee in 2009, Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes was hired as his replacement. Dykes mentored at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, so he run a version of the "air raid" offense that Mike Leach currently runs at Washington State. Virginia fans may remember this offense from the 2008 Gator Bowl. Then again, Virginia fans may not remember much of the 2008 Gator Bowl because we killed those brain cells immediately following the game.
Louisiana Tech is the defending WAC champion, and lost to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl last season. Next season, the Bulldogs will move to Conference USA, which might or might not be a step up. This season, the Bulldogs have already won twice on the road, but have yet to play a WAC conference game. They have, however, beaten two of their future C-USA opponents. They aren't ranked, but they are getting votes in both polls. This is a very good team we are facing.
Virginia on Offense
Louisiana Tech is yet another school that plays a base 4-2-5 defense. Unlike TCU, though, their defense isn't that good. Or at least, hasn't been that good this year. Last year, they were 57th in total defense. This year, they are currently 115th. Part of the problem with their defense is their offense. They score very quickly, so the defense ends up on the field a lot. Despite winning their 3 games by an average score of 55-37, they average just 25 minutes of possession per game. Last year they averaged 28 minutes of possession. (All ranks are courtesy ncaa.org)
The front 4 for the Bulldogs returns 3 starters, but none of them were really all that productive. They actually lost their top 2 most productive DEs to graduation, but junior I.K. Enemkpali also started 10 games a year ago when he had 7.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks. This year, he already has 2 sacks and 3.5 TFLs. Starting opposite him is redshirt freshman Vontarrius Dora. Both Enemkpali (6'2" 250) and Dora (6'4" 250) are somewhat undersized, but use quickness to get into the backfield. They both want to attack upfield, which may open up some holes behind them for the counter runs that we like to run with Perry Jones and Kevin Parks.
The DTs are both big, stout, run stopping DTs. Juniors Shakeil Lucas (6'2" 285)and Justin Ellis (6'2" 330) are tasked with shutting down the run game. The two played in every game last year, combining for 19 starts and finished with 1 sack each and 5.5 TFLs combined. They make it difficult to run the ball between the tackles, but provide little in terms of real playmaking. Considering that we are a stronger perimeter rushing team, this bodes well for us. We will also see senior Jo'nal White and true freshman Vernon Butler at DT. Both are a big more disruptive in the passing game, but not as steady against the rush.
A year ago, the top two tacklers for the Bulldogs were their LBs, and they combined for 230 tackles. Both of those players are gone, but their replacements again lead the team in tackles. Those replacements are senior Solomon Randle (5'11" 230) in the middle and junior Rufus Porter (6'1" 225) at Sam. Again, they usually only have 2 LBs on the field, but they will use senior Antonio Mitchum (6'1" 245) as a 3rd LB in certain situations (goalline, short yardage) or if they are getting shredded on the ground. Like the DEs, both starting LBs are undersized but pretty quick. If we can get our OLs to the second level and get bodies on these two, we'll be able to run the ball. Mitchum is a bigger guy, who has very good speed and excels on special teams, but hasn't really ever put it together as a defensive player.
The strength of this defensive unit is in the secondary, specifically at Safety. The FS is senior Chad Boyd, who has been starting since his freshman year and is a Thorpe Award nominee. Boyd is on the small side, at 5'11" 200, but he is a big hitter. Last year he had 76 tackles, including 3 for loss, plus 3 interceptions and 9 passes broken up. Opposite Boyd is senior Jamel Johnson, who started every game last year and was 3rd on the team in tackles, with 80. We may also see seniors Javontay Crowe or Quinn Giles play alongside Boyd. Not a lot of teams have 4 senior safeties who can play like these guys.
The CBs aren't nearly as experienced, especially with senior Dave Clark on the bench. Clark was the team's most productive CB last year, but finds himself second on the depth chart this week behind some underclassmen. I'm not sure why that is, especially since Clark started last week. The two guys who do start are sophomore L'Vander Liggins and redshirt freshman Bryson Abraham. Both are in the 5'11" 180-190 range and both are fast. Liggins actually returned KOs last year, and scored a TD on a return. Although he isn't starting, Clark will see the field, and he is still a playmaker.
The extra DB that Louisiana Tech uses is called simply "Nickel", and the starter there is senior Craig Johnson. Just 5'8" 185, Johnson is a big playmaker all over the field. While the Nickel role is a hybrid LB/DB, Johnson is really just a DB. That said, he will be used as an in-the-box defender on early downs, especially against a team that likes to run the ball, like Virgnia. Johnson will also be used as a blitzer, on both passing downs and running downs. Johnson leads the team with 4.5 TFLs this year. Johnson is so athletic, he returns punts and scored on a PR last year. Crowe will also see time at the Nickel position.
The Bulldogs defense thrives on creating turnovers. They were 25th in the nation in sacks last year, and they are 19th currently this year. They will send pressure from LBs and from the Nickel on most passing downs. Because of that, they are prone to giving up big plays. A quick pass and a broken tackle can lead to a big play. Because most of the Tech defense is undersized, we should be able to run the ball. However, running between the tackles might be difficult because of the strength of the interior of the Bulldogs DL. Our OL looked a lot better last week, against a better DL, so I am somewhat confident that we'll be able to move the ball. Cutting down on the turnovers is a big key, because Tech's offense is too explosive to give them extra possessions.
Virginia on Defense
That explosive Louisiana Tech offense is currently ranked 11th in the nation. In scoring offense, they are 3rd. They are 22nd in both rushing and passing offense. The offense is a spread, with 4 WRs on almost every play. It is also a no-huddle, high tempo offense. Unlike the Mike Leach version, this is a more balanced version of the spread offense. The numbers are skewed because of some blowout wins, but they actually ran the ball more than they threw it last year, and so far this year.
Louisiana Tech runs a lot of quick passes, such as slants and hitches. They also run screens and flares to the RBs out of the backfield. Don't get caught cheating on the short passes, because they can and will beat you deep as well. Rushing plays tend to be a lot of draws and read-options. They will often line up in a pistol formation, with the QB a few yards behind the line and a RB behind him. They also use H-backs a lot, often as lead blockers on the rushing plays, or on quick passing plays.
Running the offense for the Bulldogs is senior QB Colby Cameron. Cameron won the starting job midway through last season, and finished with nearly 1700 yards passing and 13 TDs versus only 3 INTs. He completed just 54% of his passes, but still averaged 7.8 yard per attempt. Cameron is also a capable runner, finishing 3rd on the team last year with 180 yards rushing. This year, he's completing nearly 70% of his passes for over 9 yards per attempt. He also has 11 TDs and not a single INT thus far.
The Bulldogs leading rusher is redshirt freshman Tevin King, but he tore his ACL and is out for the season. Their second leading rusher is true freshman Kenneth Dixon. Dixon is a power back, listed at 6'0" 215 pounds. Their leading returning rusher from last year is sophomore Hunter Lee, who is listed as the H-back. He has only 8 carries this year, but that figures to go up with the injury to King. At 5'10" 200 pounds, Lee is also more of a power back. As you'd expect from an H-back, Lee is a good receiver as well as runner. Dixon doesn't have s ingle reception this year. Again, that may change with the injury to King.
The real strength of this offense is their WRs. Teams that run these spread offense often have multiple talented WRs and Louisiana Tech is no different. Their leading receiver is senior Quintin Patton, who they call "The General". Patton (6'2" 195) is a Biletnikoff nominee and has 17 catches for 319 yards and 4 TDs already. Last year he had 79 catches for 1202 yards and 11 TDs. Quintin starts at the Z spot, which is usually on the strong side of the field. Starting at the X spot (on the weak side) is either redshirt freshman D.J. Banks (5'9" 185) or senior Myles White (6'1" 185). Both will see time there. The two are tied for second on the team with 9 receptions this year. White was 3rd on the team last year with 30 catches for 414 yards and 3 TDs.
Starting at the Y, or slot position is senior Ray Holley. Holley (5'9" 200) is actually listed as a RB and rushed the ball 36 times last year before a back injury ended his season. Holley may also see time at H-back. Behind Holley is junior Jon Greenwalt (6'3" 200). Another guy we will see at Y and/or H is senior David Gru (6'0" 185), last year's 4th leading receiver. As you can see, there is a lot of talent and depth for the Bulldogs offensive skill positions. The H and Y positions are fairly interchangeable in terms of personnel. The X position will rotate, but Patton will be on the field for just about every offensive snap. He is, by far, the best player on this offense, and the one our defense most needs to keep an eye on.
The OL for this offensive is a very big, very good, very experienced group. Four senior starters return, although Oscar Johnson (6'7" 330) is moving from RG to LT this year. LG is Kevin Saia (6'2" 305), while C is Stephen Warner (6'0" 295) and RT is Jordan Mills (6'6" 315). The newcomer is junior RG Matt Sheppard (6'3" 305). As is the case most spread offenses, the linemen line up a bit further apart than a typical offense. This helps open up passing lanes for the quick passes, and also running lanes for the RBs. It also means that the linemen are very often in one-on-one matchups with no help. This bodes well for some of our quicker linemen, like Ausar Walcott, Eli Harold and Bill Schautz. On the inside, guys like Chris Brathwaite and Will Hill may have some success with their quickness.
The problem, of course, is that Tech will often get rid of the ball before the pass rush has had a chance to get into the backfield. This means that coverage is usually more important than pressure, but it also means the DBs don't usually have to cover for very long. I do not think that we will see Jim Reid send as blitzes this week as he did last week, because leaving our DBs alone could spell danger.
I like press coverage against the WRs, with safety help over the top. I know that our secondary is very young, but press coverage is the way to stop the spread offense. Everything in this offense is based on timing, and if you can upset that timing, you can frustrate them. Demetrious Nicholson should be on Patton as much as possible, because he is our best cover guy. That is the one spot where I would play off the line. Patton is very good on fade routes, and his height gives him a big advantage. Giving him a few short catches is preferable to getting beat deep. The other receivers are all good, but I think press coverage, and upsetting their timing is key.
Coming into the season, I think a lot of Virginia fans looked at this game as a win. Little is known about Louisiana Tech, since they play in a non-BCS conference, so people just expect a win. This team is very good, and could well win the WAC again this year. While Virginia fans may be expecting a win, the oddsmakers have the Hoos as a 2.5 point underdog.
Louisiana Tech scored 21 points in the first quarter last week, and just about had the game won by that point. We simply cannot let that happen. If we turn the ball over, and let their offense get going early, we're done. If we are able to use our power rushing game to control the clock, keep our defense off the field and score some points, we've got a shot.
Our defense, especially without senior captian LaRoy Reynolds, is unlikely to shut down the Bulldogs. That means we're going to need to score. Our defense is the best one they've seen this year, so I'm confident we'll hold them much lower than their 55 ppg average. However, even holding them to 30 would mean our offense will have to be a lot better than it has been the past 3 weeks. I'm not confident that's going to happen.
Prediction: Bulldogs 38, Hoos 28