It comes to this. Hoos vs Hokies. One game. Win or go home.
(OK, so both teams will go home after the game. But one team will play again, and one team will not.)
Can the Hoos manage to beat the hated Hokies for the first time in over a decade? Can they end the Hokies 21 year bowl streak? And most importantly, can they win for Mike London? A win almost certainly keeps him at Virginia for one more year. A loss...well that's still unknown, but this writer thinks London is gone with a loss. There is simply too much talent on this team for 5-7 to be acceptable.
The matchup is pretty even, and the Vegas line is pick-em. So, let's take a look.
Virginia Tech Offense
Players to Watch
#12 QB Michael Brewer - Started career at Texas Tech, playing sparingly for 2 seasons. Transferred as a grad student, so was not required to sit out and had 2 years of eligibility remaining. Undersized QB who fits best in the spread system. His strength is getting the ball out quickly. Has a very strong arm, and solid mechanics. Good athlete, but not a dual threat guy. Completing just over 60% of his passes for 2363 yards and 15 TDs versus 13 INTs.
#4 RB J.C. Coleman - Small RB with tremendous speed. Lack of size makes him not an ideal every down back, but is dangerous all over the field. Elusive in open-space, but also runs hard downhill. Tough to get a good hit on. Not much of a threat in the passing, despite having the look of a great 3rd down back. Primarily as a backup, has rushed for 258 yards and 2 TDs. Has just 4 catches for -1 yards.
#1 WR Isaiah Ford - Tall, very thin WR with below average speed, but tremendous agility. Runs fluidly, and plays quicker than his clocked times. Runs good routes, especially for a freshman. Has very good hands. A crafty player, who excels underneath but can also run deep routes. Dangerous in space. Leads team with 50 catches for 607 yards and 6 TDs.
#18 WR Cam Phillips - Similar to Ford, another tall, lanky WR with below average speed, but enough agility to make up for the lack of straight line speed. Best against zone coverages, has a good feel for finding soft spots in zones. Great hands. Good possession WR, but not a real deep threat.
#82 WR Willie Byrn - Originally a walk-on player at VT, although he had several I-AA offers. Quick, but not overly fast. Good hands, good route runner. Works hard. Led team with 51 receptions for 635 yards last year. Also scored twice. Second on team this year with 41 receptions. Has 347 yards receiving, but has not scored this year.
#88 TE Ryan Malleck - A bit undersized for an in-line TE, but tall enough to be a big target in the passing game. Missed all of last year to a shoulder injury and has also missed time this year to an ankle injury. Caught 17 passes for 174 yards in 2012 as a sophomore. Has 22 receptions for 191 yards and a TD this year. Can be a decent downfield blocker, but struggles when asked to pass block. Doesn't have great speed, but fast enough to run intermediate routes like a seam or post.
This offense is simply not very good. They are 100th in the nation in total offense. They are 96th in rushing offense and 66th in passing offense. They are 85th in passing efficiency. They are also 98th in scoring offense.
Amazingly, though, those numbers are an improvement on last year's numbers. A year ago, they were 101st in total offense, and 99th in scoring offense. The biggest change from last year to this year was turnovers. Last year, the Hokies were T-40th in the nation in fewest turnovers. This year, they're T-95th.
As a comparison, the Hoos struggling offense is 80th in the country in both total offense and scoring offense.
So what is been the problem? Is it the OL? No, you'd think not. Not with 3 seniors and a junior on the line. The Hokies have dealt with a couple of injuries in the line. Sophomore Jonathan McLaughlin is out for the season with an ankle injury. Sophomore Augie Conte was benched a couple of weeks ago. Otherwise, the Hokie OL has been fairly consistent.
There have been injury problems at RB, with Marshawn Williams missing time in several games because of lower body injuries. Williams is likely out for our game, after missing last week's game. Then again, don't be surprised to see him suit up. But Williams has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, so perhaps the Hokies would be better off without him.
Their WR corps isn't bad, but doesn't have a game breaker. Their longest pass play of the season is just 44 yards. Without a lot of big plays, Michael Brewer has to average more than 10 yards per completion for the passing game to be successful.
That may be the biggest problem the Hokies have. This offense is not tailored to Brewer's strengths. He's a spread QB from Texas Tech. Yeah, that Texas Tech that ran up huge passing numbers under Mike Leach. Brewer wants to play out of the shotgun, and wants to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. He wants to get the ball into the hands of WRs who can make plays once they get the ball. The Hokies don't really have that. Because defenses aren't really scared of the passing game, they can keep their safeties closer to the line, and concentrate on stopping the run game. And that has led to struggles on the ground, which has basically shut down the Hokies offense completely.
Against Ohio State, the Hokies put up 35 points, but much of that was aided by turnovers. They had just 324 total yards. They had just 291 and 256 against Pitt and Wake Forest (respectively), who both boast similarly ranked defenses to the Hoos. (Ohio State is much higher ranked, but that game was clearly an outlier.)
The Hoos will likely be in a similar defensive alignment to what we saw last week. We won't see near as much nickel as we'd seen earlier this season. The Hoos will focus on stopping the ground game, and will use a fair amount of single coverage on the Hokie WRs, with safety help over the top. Because of the play of Anthony Harris and Quin Blanding, the Hoos can rely on press coverage with safety help, while also using the safeties to help out in the run game. This scheme has given up some big pass plays this season, most notably against UNC. But the Hokies don't have the weapons at WR that UNC had, and Michael Brewer isn't the QB that Marquis Williams is.
Virginia Tech Defense
Players To Watch
#90 DE Dadi Nicolas - Came to college as a tweener DE/OLB, but has put on enough weight to fit as a 4-3 DE. Good initial quickness off the ball, but not really a fast DE. Best in passing situations, or when giving pursuit. Can hold the edge, but not really strong enough to fight off an OT block and make a play at the point of attack. Very active player, who gets the most out of his body and skills. Leads the Hokies with 8 sacks and 15.5 TFLs. Has also blocked 2 kicks. Played under the name Wedley Estime in HS.
#96 DT Corey Marshall - Like Nicolas, Marshall is a tad undersized, but not when compared to previous VT DTs. Could still put on some more weight and become a better overall DT. Inconsistent, at times, off the snap, but when he's on, he's incredibly quick for a DT. Can struggle to get off blocks from bigger interior OLs. Has become very adept at getting into the backfield, but struggles to finish off the pass rush. Second on team with 20 QB hurries, but just 1.5 sacks. 5th on team with 7.5 TFLs.
#40 LB Deon Clarke - Surprise, surprise. Another undersized VT defender. Clarke is small for a LB even in the Hokies' system. However, he runs very well and uses toughness and technique to play bigger than he is. Moves very well in traffic and is adept at avoiding blocks while making plays. Solid both in pass coverage and as a blitzer, especially on a delayed blitz. Third on team with 9 TFLs and 4th in tackles with 58.
#34 ROV Kyshoen Jarrett - Finally, a guy who isn't small. Jarrett has good size for a safety, which is basically what the Rover position is. He was recruited by most schools as a CB, and still has solid cover skills, despite a lack of top-end speed. But he's mostly an attacking guy. Against the pass, he's a zone guy who comes up on the ball very well. He's also very strong against the run, as he has good instincts and doesn't get out of position or get fooled by misdirection. Leads the Hokies with 78 tackles, and tied for the team lead in INTs with 2.
#8 FS Detrick Bonner - In his 4th year as a starting FS. Has good size and speed. Was recruited as a corner, and still possesses some of those cover skills, but has excelled at safety. Plays the zones very well, and covers a lot of ground in the deep secondary. Also capable of coming up on the run and laying a hit on a RB. Second on team in tackles with 63, plus 5.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT and 1 forced fumble.
#11 CB Kendall Fuller - The 4th of the Fuller brothers to play for the Hokies, Kendall was easily the highest rated recruit. Has good size for a CB, although he isn't the fleetest of CBs. His instincts set him apart. He's still building up his body, and can struggle when matched up against bigger WRs. Works very well in zone coverages. Breaks very quickly on the ball, and has great ball skills once he gets there. Started 12 games last year and was named to the Second team All-ACC and first team freshman All-American last year. Picked off 6 passes last year and finished with 58 tackles. Hasn't put up the numbers this year, because teams generally don't throw the ball in his direction very often. Has just 1 INT, which he returned for an INT against UNC. Has 43 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and 2 sacks. Has 15 passes defensed.
As we all know, the Hokies boast a very good defense. They essentially play a 4-2-5 defense that Bud Foster has become famous for. The 5th DB is called a Rover, and plays a bit of a hybrid OLB/S role. But, for all intents and purposes, he's a DB. That is especially true this year, as Kyshoen Jarrett's best skills are in coverage.
The Hokies have long used small, quick defenders, and this year is no option. The two DEs are great pass rushers, but aren't great at the point of attack against the run. Up the middle, the Hokies are stout with Corey Marshall and Nigel Williams. Williams, in particular, is very good against the run, and makes it tough to run up the middle against the Hokies. Perimeter runs are largely the responsibility of the LBs and DBs.
The 5 DBs are generally the best playmakers in the Hokies defense. They play a lot of cover-2 with press coverage underneath. The DBs are asked to do a lot, because they are responsibility for a lot of run support, because the DEs (and OLBs to a lesser extent) are intent on getting into the backfield and causing disruptions.
The Hokies defense is 22nd in the nation this year. They are just 50th against the run, but 12th against the pass (11th in passing efficiency defense). They are also 18th in scoring. Where they've excelled this year is on 3rd down (4th nationally) and in the red zone (7th).
That third down defense is going to be key. The Hoos are not really a big play offense, but have been pretty decent on 3rd downs this year. If they can stay on the field, they can win. The Hokies defense is good, but not as good as in years past. They haven't been as disruptive as they generally are, and they aren't as deep as they have been in past years.
The Hoos offense isn't all that good, but they do match up pretty well with the Hokies. The OL has done a solid job in run blocking, and that is where the Hoos can hurt the Hokies. If Kevin Parks is healthy, he could have some success with off-tackle and misdirection runs. If he can get into the second level, he can pick up extra yards by fighting through tackles.
In the passing game, the Hoos have big WRs with size advantages over the VT DBs. If the Hoos are successful running, they may be able to use play-action to hit a big play. Of course, that assumes the WRs will catch the ball. This the game for Keeon Johnson and Andre Levrone to step up, along with Canaan Severin. Their height and leaping ability will be useful in the red zone, where the Hoos have struggled so much.
The VT defense is all about speed, and pursuit. I don't expect us to be successful with the jet sweeps that we've seen so much this year, and screens generally don't work against the Hokies. Playing straight up with power runs and play-action is the way to be successful.
Special teams is one place where the Hokies have traditionally been strong. While that is still part of the narrative, it hasn't actually been the case for the past couple of years. The Hokies are ranked near the bottom in both KO returns and punt returns although their coverage teams are still solid. They will also still go after kicks and a blocked kick could turn this game.
As we all know, the Hoos haven't beaten the Hokies since 2003. This might be the best the Hoos have matched up with the Hokies since that time, in terms of talent. If this game was at home, I'd take the Hoos. But on the road, especially in the expected cold weather, I think the Hokies are likely to extend their winning streak.
Prediction: Hokies 17, Hoos 14