There's a distinct chill in the air. Tomorrow there's turkey on the table and pie in the bellies. Which means only one thing: It's Virginia-Virginia Tech week.
While you shouldn't forget that Tech stinks, or that they make the most questionable fashion choices, you probably also want to know about the team on the field. For that purpose, we bring you this Q&A with The Key Play, purveyors of all things Hokie. Be sure to check out our answers to their questions as well!
STL: You're going into the last game of the 358-game Frank Beamer era. As Tech looks to replace the coach who lifted them to national prominence, what will be the attributes they most miss from Coach Beamer? On the flip side, which are the things that Tech needs to focus on improving?
TKP: In the current world of major college football, character is one of the most scrutinized attributes of coaches and their programs. Whether it's the involvement of boosters, a proper focus on academics (as true student-athletes), the culture of the program or the coach's commitment to the university, success in college football tends to bring out the cynic in all of us. When it comes to Coach Beamer, most of us can agree that the man has done things the right way throughout his career. He was able to build the program from essentially nothing and generate sustained success using primarily 2 and 3-star recruits, with a unique focus on special teams and a blue-collar approach to the game. Most of all, he has created a true family atmosphere in Blacksburg, evidenced by the 25 sets of brothers to play under him (along with countless sons of alumni).
With regard to the next era of VT football, it will be important for the next coach to buy into a similar philosophy to create a smooth transition with boosters and the fan base. Most importantly - and UVa fans can appreciate this more than anyone - it will be imperative the next coaching staff win back the Commonwealth of Virginia on the recruiting trail. When Tech was at it's best, it was regularly reeling in Virginia's premier talent. Now that the word is out and recruiting has exploded across the nation, every top program in America is going up against VT and UVa for the Commonwealth's best prospects. Though it's certainly not a panacea, being able to regain their footing with local kids will go a long way towards building a strong foundation for sustained success in Blacksburg.
STL: The Hokies' offense has been a bit of a shambles this year. They haven't scored more than 28 points in regulation since the Week 3 win over Purdue. What's been holding them back? Have the problems been schematic? Performance? Injuries? All of the above?
TKP: D. All of the Above.
Michael Brewer's broken collarbone shortly after halftime against Ohio State was devastating. After a full off-season working with the offense and what appeared to be a strong rapport, the Hokies were forced to turn to back-up Brenden Motley for an up-and-down stretch. While Motley is a dual-threat QB with a strong arm, his inconsistency throwing the ball actually limited the offense in ways.
During that same stretch our much publicized stable of running backs turned out to be an absolute cluster f---. It took RB coach Shane Beamer until Week 6 to give talented redshirt-freshman tailback Travon McMillian the bulk of the carries. Since then, all McMillian has done is average 109.5 yards per game on the ground and provide much needed consistency to the backfield.
In Year Three, OC Scot Loeffler continues to make strange play calls in key situations. The offensive line has been wildly inconsistent, looking physically dominant one week and then completely overmatched the next. But then again, this all just seems par-for-the-course when discussing a 5-6 team, right?
STL: We Virginia fans have felt the effectiveness of Bud Foster's defense for many years. Give us a quick primer on the philosophy behind the 4-2-5. What makes it tick? Which positions are the most important for what Foster asks his unit to do?
TKP: The college football world was buzzing a year ago after Bud's defense dragged the Bear Front out of the attic and dominated the eventual national champion Buckeyes in Columbus. You can read a fantastic summary of Bud's version of the Bear here, courtesy of my colleague Mason Naumann. In short, the Bear lines up three down lineman directly over the center and both guards. A defensive end and linebacker stand up across from the tackles, creating a 5-on-5 matchup at the line of scrimmage. The mismatch comes from the mike linebacker - who typically aligns behind the nose tackle, splitting the field 50/50 to attack the football - and the free safety - who can drop into the box and defend the run. This puts a huge burden on the secondary, which is forces them onto an island in man-to-man coverage. While it worked against Ohio State early in the season, teams like East Carolina and Boston College used different ways to exploit the Bear's weaknesses.
This season, we've seen Bud use the Bear in some situations, but he has generally gone back to various looks out of his base defense. In the past, Foster used a whip linebacker (Ronny Van Dyke) - which is essentially a hybrid safety/linebacker - against balanced offensive attacks, giving him an athletic backer that could disrupt the line of scrimmage and drop into coverage. As the game has shifted more to the spread, we've seen Foster substitute the whip for a nickel back to defend the pass. Tech has historically played their most talented corner at the boundary (short side of the field), rather than strictly matching up their best corner on the opposition's strongest receiver. In the back end, you'll see Foster play a variety of coverages, including an inverted Cover 2 where his safeties come up toward the line of scrimmage while the corners drop back into deep zones. Rover Chuck Clark will play closer to the line of scrimmage, switching between coverage responsibilities and attacking the football.
This season, the defense has played it's best when the uber-talented front four has been disruptive and linebackers Andrew Motuapuaka and Deon Clarke have made the correct reads and avoided traffic near the line of scrimmage. While the defense is far from perfect and linebacker play has been inconsistent, teams have looked to attack the younger secondary. That includes the free safety (Desmond Frye or Adonis Alexander) and the corners opposite Brandon Facyson (Terrell Edmunds and either Greg Stroman or Mook Reynolds).
STL: One of the great things about rivalry games is that teams often get breakout performances from surprise players, role guys who find an extra gear when they're suiting up against the rival. Who is the one unheralded guy on each side of the ball who is most likely to cause Virginia headaches on Saturday?
TKP: On offense, I wouldn't be surprised if tight end Ryan Malleck makes a big impact on Saturday afternoon. Fellow tight end (if we want to call him that) Bucky Hodges gets more of the attention because of his freakish athleticism, but Malleck is a talented tight end in the traditional mold. He is a solid blocker and is sure handed in the passing game, providing Michael Brewer with a dangerous weapon simply because the defense tends to focus on guys like Hodges, Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips.
Defensively, if I had to pick one "role guy," I would have to go with back-up defensive tackle Woody Baron. The dude has been absolutely disruptive at times this season, and when I think Commonwealth Cup, I think sacks.
STL: Bowl game on the line, Beamer's last dance. Gonna be no shortage of juice in this one on the Tech sideline. How do you see things shaking out at Scott Stadium? Bottom line: Who ya got?
TKP: While the Hokies have dominated the match-up of late, it doesn't change the fact that it is a rivalry game where we all know anything can happen. Sprinkle in the fact that this is [likely] both coaches' last Commonwealth Cup and all bets are off.
I think the VT players will be hungry after last week's crushing OT loss to the Tar Heels in Frank's Lane Stadium swan song. Bowl streak aside, I feel strongly that the Hokies will be more driven by the opportunity to close Coach Beamer's career with a 12th straight Commonwealth Cup. I'll take the Hokies in close one, 24-20.