Virginia Tech vs. California
by Jeff Ouellet, 12/24/03
Friday, December 26th, 2003, 8:30
Forecast (from WeatherUnderground.com):
2003 Insight Bowl Preview
After a season that started with much promise and great expectations, Virginia Tech finds itself not in the BCS, or even the Gator Bowl, but instead unranked and in the Insight Bowl against a 7-6 Cal team. There is no doubt that expectations for many of the players and coaches will go unfulfilled this season; however, the final chapter for this team may speak volumes as to the attitude and approach of future Hokie squads.
On the flipside, Cal has had a tremendous season. Many publications tabbed the Golden Bears near the bottom of the Pac 10 (the media had them eighth in the preseason), yet Head Coach Jeff Tedford engineered another bowl eligible season despite the inexperience and earned Pac 10 Coach of the Year for his efforts. Tedford has rightfully earned guru status as a quarterback mentor, as he has played a significant role in developing NFL first round picks Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, and Kyle Boller.
There is certainly a glass half full, glass half empty aspect to Cal’s season. Of the eight bowl eligible teams they met this season, they only beat two: Southern Miss and a monumental upset of USC. On the other hand, they also were only narrow losses at Oregon and at UCLA (in overtime) away from playing in the Rose Bowl. The team played better the further along the season went, and you can expect them to be firmly placed in a lot of preseason top 20s next year.
This is a diverse, balanced offense, the kind that has given VT fits all season. Cal averaged 31 points per game, with 170 yards per game through the ground and 255 yards per game in the air. They also are hitting their stride late in the year, as the offense has produced an astounding 17 plays of 30 or more yards in their last three games. Digest that stat for a second.
The leader of the offense is the quarterback, 6’2", 195 lb. SO Aaron Rodgers. He only threw five interceptions all season – against 17 touchdowns – and completed nearly 60% of his throws for over 2,500 yards. His quarterback rating of 141.7 is very good (#25 in the nation). While still young (only 19), Rodgers is a rising star and looks like the next pro quarterback to be developed under Tedford.
The bulk of the carries go to physical, 6’0", 225 lb. SR tailback Adimchinobe Echemandu. Echemandu is a great story, as he did not play either of the last two seasons yet came back this year and was a first team all Pac10 player. He rushed for 1,161 yards, on a 5.2 per carry average, and he had 19 receptions for an 8.3 yard average. He was the third leading pass receiver on Cal’s team this season. Stylistically, he is a between the tackles, downhill type, and those types of runners have really given the VT defense trouble this year. Backup tailback JJ Arrington is also dangerous, as he averaged nearly 6 yards per carry and had 570 rushing yards on the year. He averages 8 or so carries per game. Fullback Chris Manderino is a sophomore with prototype size (6’1", 230 lbs.) who averages less than 1 carry and 1 catch per game, so he wouldn’t appear to be a big threat going into the bowl game.
The best player on Cal’s offense is junior wide receiver Geoff McArthur. McArthur may not be the physical freak that a Mike Williams or a Roy Williams is, but other than Larry Fitzgerald he was the most productive WR in the country, ranking second in the nation with 115 receiving yards per game. He had 85 catches for over 1,500 yards with 10 touchdowns. He averaged an amazing 17.7 yards per catch, so he isn’t just a possession player. McArthur is only 6’1", 200, but he has the ability to separate from defenders and is a very good route runner. In the last two games of the year, versus Washington and Stanford, he had 22 catches for 425 yards and three touchdowns. He is very dangerous. (Editor's Note: McArthur was reported early Wednesday as out for the game with a broken arm. Click here for more.)
The other wide receiver, Burl Toler, is also a junior with solid size (6’2", 185). Toler has 42 receptions for 525 yards (12.5 per catch) and 3 touchdowns. The third wideout is diminutive Vincent Strang, 5’8", 150 lbs., who had 17 catches for 205 yards. Both Strang and Toler entered Cal as walk-ons and made themselves into effective players through hard work. The tight end, 6’4", 245 lb. SR Brandon Hall, averages roughly 1 catch per game (12 catches on the year) and 7.4 per reception.
Traditionally, Pac 10 offensive lines are thought to be more finesse than physical, but Cal’s line is tougher than most expect. Over the last five weeks of the season, the Golden Bears averaged nearly 244 rushing yards per game. The best player on the line is veteran left tackle Mark Wilson (6’6", 295), who has 47 career starts going into the bowl game. Wilson is a legitimate pro prospect, and he was voted first team all Pac 10 this year. Bookend tackle Chris Murphy was an honorable mention all conference player as a senior, and he checks in at 6’6", 310. The middle of the line is controlled by three sophomores who are big: 6’7", 330 lb. right guard Ryan O’Callaghan, 6’2", 285 lb. center Marvin Philip, and 6’4", 335 lb. left guard Aaron Merz. They have surrendered 27 sacks in 13 games, a pretty good ratio considering they played 13 games and they throw the ball a lot. They averaged 4.4 per carry on the season, not a great figure but certainly representative. With Cal’s skill position people on the outside, VT must win the battle up front or this will be Syracuse ’02 all over again.
These guys have been "big played" to death all season, as they have yielded 28 plays of more than 30 yards this season. The overall numbers are slightly better than you might expect – only 22.5 points per game yielded, with opponents only averaging 3.6 per carry. Opponents average 132 rushing yards against them and almost 240 passing yards.
Up front the best player for the Bears is 6’3", 295 lb. Lorenzo Alexander. Alexander, a junior that was honorable mention all conference, had 32 tackles including 3.5 for a loss. He is a big body inside that occupies blockers. He is a key because he is the only starting defensive linemen over 270. The other defensive tackle is 6’2", 270 lb. Josh Beckham. Beckham had 26 tackles on the year.
The defensive ends are 6’3", 265 SR Monte Parson, and 6’3", 250 JR Tosh Lupoi. Parson makes more big plays as he had 7.5 tackles for a loss, but Lupoi makes more plays on an every down basis (35 tackles versus Parson’s 23). The best pass rusher up front is backup defensive end Ryan Riddle, who had 5.5 sacks on the year.
Cal’s best linebacker is 6’1", 230 lb. JR Wendell Hunter. Hunter is second on the team with 89 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss and a team leading 7 sacks. Hunter is athletic and moves very well to the ball. The other outside linebacker is Francis Blay-Miezah, 6’2", 230. He has 42 tackles for the year, including 4.5 tackles for losses. The man in the middle is Joe Maningo, a big smallish at 6’1", 220, but he is tough and also makes some plays in the passing game (two interceptions on the year).
The best player on the defense is sophomore rover Donnie McCleskey. He is a 5’10", 190 dynamo, as he led the team this year with 99 total tackles including a team leading 12 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, and a team leading 11 passes broken up. McCleskey was a first team all conference pick. Much like VT, Cal uses its rover in run support, and often times he will be the man coming through with a free shot. The VT offense must account for him on every play.
Ryan Gutierrez, a 6’0", 180 lb. JR, has earned a reputation as a hard hitter despite his thin frame. Gutierrez also loves to provide run support, as he is third on the team with 81 tackles including 5 for a loss.
The corners have really struggled at times, but they have fared well against some of the better wide receivers in the conference holding Mike Williams of USC to 96 yards and no touchdowns, Reggie Williams of Washington to 23 yards and no touchdowns, and Oregon State’s James Newsome to 79 yards and no touchdowns. James Bethea, a 6’0", 190 lb. SR, has 30 tackles and one interception. The other corner is a 6’2" freshman, Daymeion Hughes, who had 27 tackles and 2 interceptions. 6’2" sub Harrison Smith can also make plays as he has 44 tackles on the year and two blocked kicks.
Cal is average in special teams, with the Achilles heel being their placekicking. On kickoffs they average 19.2 yards per return, with James Bethea handling 31 of the 34 total returns and averaging 19.7. The Golden Bears surrender 20.2 yards per return on kickoffs.
Vincent Strong is the primary punt returner, averaging 7.9 per return with one touchdown. The team overall averages 9.8 per return, a good figure. Cal also has blocked three punts, so they are a threat to come after kicks.
The punter is 6’3", 220 lb. SR Tyler Frederickson who has a 40 yard average and a 37.1 net. As you would figure based on the high net average, coverage is good, as Cal has only allowed 135 yards worth of returns in 13 games. Frederickson has not had a punt blocked this year.
Kicking is the big problem for the Golden Bears. Frederickson pulls double duty here, and he was only 14 of 29 on the season and that included a whopping five blocked field goals. Cal needs to make sure to protect him.
Intangibles are everything here. VT, in my opinion, has more experienced talent than Cal and is healthier (Cal has a number of players that are out or doubtful, including McArthur). This is a game VT should win. It also is a game they won’t win unless they reverse many of the trends we saw in November.
Cal is going to score on the VT defense. They have one of the best offensive minds in the game and some talented skill position people in place. I also think their offensive line is underrated, and Rodgers has proven to be a mistake free quarterback.
On the flipside, I cannot see Cal stopping VT on a regular basis. They will walk up the safeties, specifically McCleskey but also Gutierrez, to try to shut down Kevin Jones (raise your hand if you have heard this before). I think Jones will bust at least one huge run once he breaks contain, and his overall stats will be very good, but this isn’t a game where VT can win exclusively with running the ball. VT will need to get their backs and tight ends involved in the passing game. Cal’s defense is undersized and outgunned, but VT still has to play mistake free football to put points on the board.
The psyche of the VT team will determine the winner here. Cal is excited to play in this bowl game and to take its best shot at an established program on the East Coast. If VT sleepwalks, they will get beaten badly. If they come ready to play and with a renewed sense of purpose, the Hokies will win. I am going with VT here, but I don’t feel particularly good about it.
Prediction: VT 38, Cal 34
Will Stewart's Take: I'm a believer that once a team gains negative or positive momentum, that momentum is rarely, if ever, reversed between the end of the regular season and a bowl game. It usually takes an offseason, with the accompanying reflection, rededication, and reassignment (be it players or coaches) to turn things around.
Positive or negative momentum doesn't necessarily translate into bowl wins or losses, though. In 1993 and 1995, for example, positive momentum led to VT bowl wins, but in 1996 and 1999, it didn't. Conversely, in 1994, 1997, and 2001, negative momentum led to bowl losses, but in 1998 and 2002, it didn't.
But this year, I feel that there's turmoil in the Virginia Tech program, and I think that it's going to take an offseason, with some player attrition, attitude adjustments, and shuffling of the coaching staff to reverse the late-season slides. I think that VT enters this game not with some sort of revelation that will make them snap back, but mired in the same funk in which they ended the season.
While the Hokies are examining themselves and questioning their team and their program, California is on a roll, having won four of their last five, and they're going to their first bowl game in a while. They're well-coached, and they're excited about playing a team like the Hokies, with a big national name, while the Hokies probably aren't that excited about playing … Cal, the team that won that whacky game with the band running out on the field, but which isn't known for much else, from a football standpoint. Not in modern times, anyway.
What does that add up to? Without knowing about McArthur, I picked the Hokies to lose a close one, but with the news about McArthur, I'm reversing field and picking a close Tech win. I see the score pretty much the same way Jeff does, with a little more margin (Jeff made his pick without the McArthur news.)
Will Stewart's Prediction: VT 38, Cal 29