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The BIG Preview: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Va Tech Hokies

NCAA Football: Virginia at Virginia Tech Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

November 29th 2003.

That’s the last time Virginia won a game against Virginia Tech. Many of those games have been blowouts, including 52-14 last year. But the 4 games prior to that were separated by a total of just 20 points.

You may remember last year as the game that Bronco Mendenhall and company tried substituting QBs with different offensive packages. Three different QBs all saw extensive snaps in that game. It was an interesting experiment, but it did not work. To be honest, the game was likely not winnable for the Cavaliers one way or another, but it was not a good look.

Let’s take a look at this year’s matchups.

Virginia on Defense

The Hokies have rushed 481 times and thrown 334 passes. Still, they are 53rd nationally in passing offense and just 65th in rushing offense. They average just 3.8 yards per rush (99th in the nation), but 6.5 yards per attempt in the air (41st). (It is strange that they continue to run the ball so much more than they throw it despite the discrepancy in production.)

Part of the explanation for that is the presence of redshirt freshman QB Josh Jackson. On the year, he has 236 yards rushing, at 2.4 yards per carry. That includes 21 sacks for 126 yards lost. He also has 4 TDs. As a passer, he has 2600 yards and 18 TDs versus just 7 INTs - an impressive season for a freshman.

The Hokies have used several running backs behind Jackson this year. Steven Peoples started the opener, then was replaced in the starting lineup by Trevon McMillan. Peoples missed 5 games this year due to injury. McMillan has 8 starts, and leads the team with 102 carries and 434 yards. McMillan and Peoples are listed as “OR” on the depth chart. They are similar backs, though Peoples is a bit more elusive and McMillan may have more pure speed. They are both averaging just over 4 yards per carry.

Like we’ve seen so many times this year, the Hokies will show a lot of read-option. This is true even on pass plays. In the play below, Jackson fakes the handoff before throwing a quick pass. This play came against a blitz from the Panthers and Jackson takes a pop as he gets rid of the ball. If you’re going to come against the Hokies, you’d better get there because they have weapons on the outside.

The passing game has been where VT has really hurt the opposition. Senior wideout Cam Phillips is the all-time leading receiver in Hokie history (both yards and receptions). He runs very well and at 6’0” 200 lbs has the size to go up and get a jump ball but also the strength to fight through press coverage. The Hoos will continue to play man coverage on the outside, but will likely shade help to Phillips’ direction in most situations. Virginia’s defense has been burned by big pass plays all year, and Phillips is a big play waiting to happen. It’ll be important to prevent him from making big plays.

Opposite Phillips is sophomore Eric Kumah. He’s more of a possession receiver and at 6’2” 220 has the frame to go over the middle. The slot man is Sean Savoy, a 5’9” freshman. Savoy is the Hokies answer to Olamide Zaccheus. He has 23 rushes on the year (115 yards and 2 TDs) and has 39 receptions (454 and 4). Savoy is more quick than fast and tough to bring down in space, just like Zaccheus.

The Hokies OL has been consistent all season, with the only change being a swap at LT. Junior Yousah Nijman started the first 8 games of the season, but left the Duke game with an injury. Senior Parker Osterloh started the next 3 games for him. Nijman is expected back this week. The other 4 OLs have all started every game. That includes 5th-year senior center Eric Gallo, a 3 year starter. This OL isn’t nearly as good as the one the Hoos faced last week. Part of why VT is averaging under 4 yards per carry is some struggles from the OL. In their 3 losses, they’ve averaged just 99 yards rushing. In their wins, that average is 175 yards. Their passing game may be dangerous, but if teams stop the run, VT can be beaten.

Hoos on Offense

Not surprisingly, defense is what wins games for the Hokies. That has been the case for most of the past 30 years. Their defense ranks 17th nationally, and 6th in scoring. They are 24th in rushing defense and 22nd in passing defense. They are 18th in passing efficiency defense.

There isn’t anything this defense doesn’t do well. They are 13th in TFLs, 43rd in sacks, 42nd in turnovers forced, and 21st in INTs. The VT defense is a high pressure one. They play a lot of press coverage, they will stack the line against the run, and they will bring extra pass rushers.

The Hokies have 10 players with at least 1 sack. Those include junior OLB Tremaine Edmunds, who leads the team with 93 tackles. He has 11 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 2 passes broken up and 3 forced fumbles. He’s a possible first round pick this year. His brother Terrell started the first 10 games of the season at FS. He suffered a shoulder injury against Georgia Tech and will miss the remainder of the season. Terrell was also a possible first round pick. He may end up returning for his senior year after this injury. They have an older brother who is a RB for the Saints.

Terrell has been replaced at FS by Mook Reynolds, who previously was starting at “Whip”. This is sort of a hybrid OLB/S. Moving into the starting lineup at Whip is Deon Newsome, a senior who began his career as a RB and has mostly played special teams. This was a big blow to the Hokie defense.

Up front, the Hokies are led by NT Tim Settle and DE Trevon Hill. Settle is 6’3” 335 and basically unblockable one-on-one. He leads the team with 12 TFLs and also has 4 sacks. Double-teaming him is a must. Considering the Hoos have had trouble with short yardage runs all season, it would be wise to avoid running the ball at him in those situations.

The Hokies are very good in short yardage. Last week, they stopped Pitt 4 times from the 1 yard line with under a minute to go. Considering they won by 6, that was a pretty big goal line stand. Below is the 4th down play. Trevon Hill breaks it up at the point of attack by getting into the backfield. If you watch closely, both Hill and Settle get very low and basically go underneath the blocks. This is something that the Hoos OL should pick up in film if they are in a similar situation.

The Hokies have big DBs that can match up with the big Cavalier WRs. That has not generally gone well for the Hoos this year. Brandon Facyson and Greg Stroman are both seniors, and both are over 6’ and around 200 pounds. They are both very good and will both play on Sundays. Stroman has 4 INTs and 15 passes defended this year. Facyson does not have an INT, but does have 5 PBUs. Teams tend to avoid him, which hurts his numbers. It is no different at safety, where Reggie Floyd and Reynolds are both 6’ and near 200 pounds as well. Floyd plays what VT calls the “Rover” which is kind of what you think of as a FS (although they call Reynolds’ spot a FS). Floyd has 3 INTs and a forced fumble this year. Reynolds has 9 TFLs and 1.5 sacks, though most of that came at Whip. Edmunds had 2 INTs, 6 PBUs, plus 1.5 sacks.

The Hoos aren’t likely to have much success running the ball. VT’s defense is too good up the middle and they are too fast to the edges. But, they have to show run. They showed some run last week, and although there wasn’t much success, it kept Miami’s safeties close to the line of scrimmage. That opened things up for a deep pass to Joe Reed who was able to get beyond the safety.

The Hoos just took on a very good pass defense and lit them up for 384 yards passing. The downside to that was just 55 yards rushing and 5 sacks allowed...and, of course, a loss. Kurt Benkert was on fire, especially early on as he connected on his first 12 passes. Overall, he completed 28 out of 37 passes, though he threw a costly pick-6. The Hoos turned the ball over 3 times, which led to 14 points. In a game that they twice led by 14 points and ultimately lost by 16, those turnovers were obviously very costly.

Once Miami took the lead and the Hoos completely abandoned the run game, Miami’s defense was able to focus on the passing game and completely shut down the offense. That has happened far too often this year. Yes, the Hoos are a passing team. Yes, they will live and die on the arm of Kurt Benkert. But when the threat of a running game is gone, defenses can focus on the passing game. The Wahoo OL isn’t good enough to protect Benkert from a good pass rush when there is no threat of a run. And no QB is going to be successful when he doesn’t have time to throw and his WRs are covered.

Early in the game last week, the Hoos got some big plays from the WRs. It wasn’t just Benkert making plays with his arm; he was putting the ball in places where his guys could make the grab and then make plays with their legs. This happened with Reed and also with Zaccheus. These plays will be there again, since VT’s defense is uber-aggressive. All it takes is a DB gambling for an INT and missing, or looking for a big hit and missing. You can’t really see it in the highlight reel, but on Joe Reed’s TD the safety bit on the underneath route looking for an INT. He let Reed right past him.

That was a mistake by Miami, one of several they made last week. The Hoos will probably need some Virginia Tech mistakes as well if they are going to be successful against the Hokie defense.

Conclusion

There have been too many games in this rivalry where the Hoos simply didn’t show up. Or just weren’t as hyped as the Hokies were. That does not seem likely this year, as the Hoos have been much more energetic and emotional under coach Mendenhall. Having senior leaders like Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser helps as well.

The talent level at the top of the roster is fairly even. The Hokies have Tim Settle and the Hoos have Andrew Brown. The Hokies have Tremaine Edmunds and the Hoos have Quin Blanding. But the Hokies just have so much more depth. This is especially true on offense. The Hokies have tremendous depth at RB. They’ve also had better luck with injuries, although losing Edmunds was a big blow.

At home, the Hoos have a chance to keep this game close. In a close game anything can happen. But the Hokies are still a better team and they seem eager to keep the Commonwealth Cup in Blacksburg. We’ll beat them eventually; I’m just not sure this is the year.

Prediction: Hokies 24, Hoos 17