Coming into the season, national and regional college
football pundits claimed that the Commonwealth of Virginia might provide the
regular season champion for the newly configured Atlantic Coast Conference. A
surprising thought, admittedly, given the presence of the two Florida powers,
but not entirely implausible given the talent in Charlottesville. What has been
shocking, however, is the fact that the operative question – in late November
- isn’t whether a team from the Commonwealth can win the conference, but
rather which team from Virginia has the better chance?
With both programs coming off significant victories this
past weekend, the eleventh ranked Virginia Tech Hokies (8-2, 5-1) play host to
the sixteenth ranked Virginia Cavaliers (8-2, 5-2) this Saturday in the
inaugural conference battle for the Commonwealth Cup. At stake is a possible
conference championship, bowl positioning, national respect and, perhaps most
importantly, braggin’ rights.
Leading the Cavaliers into Lane is fourth year coach Al
Groh. Like him or not, there can be no dispute that Groh has significantly
improved UVa’s talent and, consequently, energized a previously laconic fan
Offensively, the UVa team that plays in Blacksburg this
year is significantly different philosophically than last year’s edition. With
no Matt Schaub and a veteran offensive line, UVa has focused its attention on
the running game and has sought to impose its will on its opponents by taking a
"three yards and a cloud of dust" philosophy. Defensively, the Wahoos
still use a 3-4 that often morphs into a five man front.
Based solely on numbers, this is the best offense in the
conference. The total offense figure of 436 yards per game is significantly
ahead of every other ACC team (UNC is second with 393 yards). Virginia is third
in scoring offense, averaging nearly 32 points per game, but the teams ahead of
it on the scoring chart (VT and Miami) excel at non-offensive touchdowns and
field position, so UVa’s offense has had to work a little harder for its
Virginia’s running game has overwhelmed most of its
opponents. The Cavs lead the ACC in rushing, averaging 246.6 yards per game, 35
yards more per game than any other ACC team. Even more impressive in my mind is
the fact that the Cavaliers average 5.3 yards per carry, a much better indicator
of the overall effectiveness than yards per game. Only one other ACC team
averages more than 4.4 per carry (UNC at 5.0).
UVa’s running game is somewhat atypical in that they
rely on quickness more than brute force. UVa loves to pull its linemen, most
notably guard Elton Brown, and then they rely on the other linemen to slant and
seal the backside from pursuit. Only one UVa starter on the line is more than
300 pounds (Brown), and his footwork may be unparalleled among interior linemen
in college football. The only game this year where the Hoos did not run the ball
well was against FSU at Doak Campbell.
The Cav passing game has also been effective, at least
numerically, as the Hoos are second in the conference in pass efficiency and
fifth overall in passing yards per game with 189. However, these numbers are
somewhat deceptive, as there are some limitations in the UVa passing game.
The Cavs’ quarterback, 5’10”, 211 JR Maurice Hagans,
has an underrated arm. He has enough zip on the ball to make any throw regularly
utilized in the college game. However, his height can on occasion be an
impediment to making some reads in the middle of the field. As with most
quarterbacks, he needs to have his linemen create throwing lanes unless he is
working receivers outside the hashes.
Hagans also hasn’t been helped by a wide receiver corps
that has been injured and otherwise inconsistent. Consequently, the UVa passing
game focuses on its backs and tight ends, and yards after the catch are a very
important statistic for the Wahoo offense.
As for personnel, the Cavs have two very impressive
running backs in 5’9” 204 SR Alvin Pearman and 5’10”, 214 JR Wali Lundy.
They essentially split time, so whoever starts is incidental. Lundy is a more
physical between-the-tackles type back who does a very good job reading and
accelerating through seams provided by his pulling offensive linemen. He is
fifth in the ACC in rushing averaging 79 yards per game on a 5.0 per carry
average. He also has a 16 touchdowns on the year, far and away the ACC leader.
He is the preferred goal line running option for UVa.
Pearman’s game has continued to blossom this year. He
primarily was a third down type back because of his excellent receiving skills
last year, but this year he leads the conference in all purpose yards from
scrimmage (159) as he returns punts, kickoffs, and catches passes. He is third
in the conference in rushing with 84 yards per game (5.3 per carry) along with
nine touchdowns. Note that Pearman’s per game rushing figure includes one game
against Syracuse where Pearman didn’t have a carry because Groh needed him to
play wide receiver. He is arguably the most versatile offensive player in the
Groh does play Pearman and Lundy together at times,
primarily out of a split back set. UVa isn’t afraid to run Pearman on wheel
routes and other patterns with some depth, even when he is deep in the
backfield. VT will obviously have to track him closely.
UVa’s third tailback, Michael Johnson, is a 5’9”,
192 SO speedster. He is not the inside runner either of the first two tailbacks
are and tends to bounce plays outside a bit much, but he does have the speed to
get to the corner. Johnson averages 6.0 yards per carry in limited work.
UVa has suffered some significant injuries over the course
of the season, but the loss most often overlooked by the casual fan is that of
fullback Jason Snelling. Snelling, a 6’1”, 230 SO fullback, creates all
sorts of matchup problems with his size, speed and pass catching ability. He is
particularly dangerous in the UVa attack because of the attention that must be
paid to Heath Miller and the tailbacks in the passing game. Snelling has been
out since suffering a severe high ankle sprain against Clemson. I am assuming he
either won’t be playing this week or will be limited.
Subbing for Snelling is 6’5”, 225 FR Tom Santi. Santi
often plays an H-back type role similar to what Jeff King did last year for the
Hokies, although the Cavs probably use him more as a straight isolation blocker
than VT did with King. The more traditional fullback is 6’0”, 228 SR Brandon
As noted previously, all of UVa’s backs are involved in
the passing game. Pearman is second on the team with 25 catches for a 14.0
average, Santi has 12 catches for a 12.8 average, and Lundy has 11 catches for a
12.8 average. For running backs, those per catch figures are astronomical.
The best offensive skill player for the Wahoos is JR tight
end Heath Miller. Miller shredded the Hokie defense for 13 catches and 145
receiving yards in last year’s game. Miller in a number of respects reminds me
of former Volunteer and current Cowboy tight end Jason Witten: he’s athletic,
tough and has tremendous hands. He has gradually improved his blocking to the
point where he is very good in that department as well. Miller is the complete
package as a tight end and if he decides to leave early he very likely will be a
first round draft choice.
Miller leads the Cavs in receptions with 34 and is eighth
in the conference in catches per game with 3.5 His average per catch is 12.9, a
very good figure for a tight end. He also has nine touchdowns on the season.
Miller’s statistics are slightly down from last year’s numbers, in no small
part because of the change at quarterback. It has nothing to do with his
Defending Miller creates a dilemma: while Xavier Adibi
likely is the best matchup on him, Adibi’s speed may also be necessary to
track Hagans in the pocket and the backs in the flat. I think Adibi will play a
lot of zone, thereby tracking each player at different times, but we’ll see
how Bud Foster plays things Saturday.
UVa’s backup tight end, 6’7”, 280 SR Patrick Estes,
is an excellent player in his own right. Estes has six catches on the year, but
his primary role is as a blocker. Virginia won’t hesitate to put Miller, Estes
and even Santi on the field at the same time.
As for the trigger man, Hagans’ year has been impressive
for a first year starter. He is second to the red hot Brock Berlin in ACC
passing efficiency and first by a significant margin in completion percentage at
63.6. Virginia’s plan is to be physical and grind teams into the ground, and
then incorporate the passing game using play action. He also has avoided
mistakes, as he has a solid 7:5 touchdown to interception ratio.
As a thrower, Hagans is underrated. He has a strong enough
arm to make every throw a college quarterback needs to make. He is still prone
to some bouts of inconsistency because of his mechanics, but overall he has been
better than most observers anticipated.
Hagans played wide receiver and punt returner last year
for the Cavs, so he is clearly a playmaker in space. In addition to his straight
ahead speed, Hagans is extremely quick, making it difficult for defensive
linemen to corral him. On the year, Hagans has rushed for 282 yardsb which
translates into a 4.9 per carry average.
UVa keeps Hagans in the pocket to throw occasionally, but
obviously prefers to roll him out or bootleg off a play fake. Maintaining
discipline will be a challenge for the VT defensive ends and outside
Many of the Virginia wide receivers are young and have
generally been ineffective. Deyon Williams, a 6’3” 188 SO who appears to
have as much upside as any wideout for the Hoos, is not expected to play this
week and perhaps the rest of the year. He is the second leading wide receiver in
terms of catches and yards receiving for the Wahoos.
The veteran on the outside is 6’2”, 201 SR Michael
McGrew. McGrew leads the Cavs wide receivers with 25 catches for a 12.7 per
catch average. As you can see, McGrew’s per catch average is very similar to
that of UVa’s backs and tight ends. He isn’t a deep threat, but he is
Hermitage grad Fontel Mines is another big, athletic
receiver. Mines, a 6’4”, 222 SO, hasn’t seen a lot of balls thrown his
way, although I haven’t seen enough Virginia games to hazard a guess as to
why. On the year, Mines has 3 catches for only 38 yards. Early in the year he
played opposite McGrew, but he is listed as McGrew’s backup on this week’s
depth chart. It is uncertain whether he will slide over to fill the gap given
Williams’ injury, but that certainly is possible.
Walk-on Imhotep Durham, a 5’11”, 168 JR, is currently
listed as first on the depth chart opposite McGrew. Durham has 4 catches for 34
yards on the season.
UVa’s offensive line returned all five starters from a
year ago and they have played very well thus far. In addition to the rushing
statistics previously enumerated, the Cavs have only yielded 12 sacks on the
year. That figure is also best in the conference by a wide margin (UNC and Wake
are tied for second with 19 sacks allowed).
The headliner is 6’6”, 338 SR right guard Elton Brown.
Brown won the Jacobs Trophy as the best offensive lineman in the ACC last year
as voted upon by the defensive coordinators in the conference. Despite his
massive size, Brown is a superior technician that has great footwork. He is a
lock for first team all ACC honors this year, and he is the highest rated
interior offensive linemen on most NFL draft boards. When UVa is in short
yardage, look for them to run over Mr. Brown.
Joining Brown on the interior are 6’4”, 276 SR center
Zac Yarbrough and 6’6”, 288 JR Brian Barthelmes. Yarbrough’s claim to fame
is never having surrendered a sack during his career, while Barthelmes is a
solid, veteran interior player.
The two tackles for the Cavaliers are “undersized” in
a traditional sense but have better footwork than most. Left tackle D’Brickashaw
Ferguson is a 6’5”, 295 JR who will get some serious pro looks after next
year. Right tackle Brad Butler is 6’8”, 296, and has also played well in his
The line has had continuity all year, as all five of the
starters this week have started in every game. Although there certainly are
nuances to any game, the matchup in the trenches of UVa’s excellent offensive
line versus the very good Virginia Tech defensive line will be key.
The Wahoo defense was expected to be strong this year,
returning six of their front seven, and it has not disappointed. The Cavs are
second in the conference in rushing defense, permitting only 105 yards per game
(3.1 per carry average), sixth in pass defense, yielding 190 yards per game, and
third in scoring defense (15.1). While it is necessary to run to keep UVa
honest, the passing game likely will be the key to the VT offensive hopes.
In the Syracuse game UVa lost its biggest and best
defensive linemen, 6’7”, 280 pound defensive end Chris Canty. His loss has
certainly been felt, as he was clearly the best pass rusher among UVa’s down
three. Canty obviously played the run well too – he led all ACC down linemen
in tackles the last two years – but UVa has a solid run defense even without
him. Virginia has blitzed their linebackers more as the year has progressed in
part to compensate for his loss.
Even without Canty, however, the Wahoos are solid up
front. Three year starters Brennan Schmidt (6’3”, 269 JR) and nose guard
Andrew Hoffman (6’4”, 281 SR) are tough, instinctive and experienced.
Hoffman, despite playing the thankless role of nose guard, has made a remarkable
number of plays considering the number of double teams he sees. On the year,
Hoffman has 45 tackles, sixth on the team, and 7 tackles for losses (including
two sacks). He has significantly stepped up his game this season.
Schmidt has 39 tackles, including seven for a loss, and a
couple of sacks as well. He is not particularly big, but he has a great motor
and a knack for making plays. After Canty’s injury, 6’4”, 327 JR Kwakou
Robinson inherited the starting job but he didn’t make a huge impact (15
tackles, one TFL). The Cavs then turned to 6’5”, 275 redshirt freshman Chris
Johnson, and he has performed admirably against Miami and Georgia Tech. Johnson,
a Charlottesville native, has 19 tackles on the season and would seem to be a
great fit in the 3-4.
The Cavaliers play their backups a fair amount, and two
particular names to watch are 6’4”, 265 true freshman Chris Long, a Virginia
top five player last year, and 6’1”, 324 FR nose guard Keenan Carter. They
both have talent and, along with Johnson, will form the nucleus of Virginia’s
defensive line over the next three seasons.
Virginia’s ballyhooed linebacker corps has had some
bouts with inconsistency, but they still have been a force this season. The pair
of sophomore inside linebackers, 6’4”, 249 Ahmad Brooks and 6’3”, 247
Kai Parham, became the cornerstones of Al Groh’s first full season recruiting
class in 2002. Both top 25 national recruits, they gave some recruiting
legitimacy to Virginia in the post George Welsh era.
Brooks has a size/speed ratio that is unparalleled in
college football at his position. He is capable of running a sub 4.5, and he
even returned a couple of kickoffs early in the year. Much like DeAngelo Hall,
Brooks’ natural ability alone will place him in the top half of the first
round of the NFL draft after this season. Brooks is far from a finished product,
however, and he reminds me a little of Junior Seau while he was at USC.
Brooks needs to improve his technique, particularly using
his hands better to discard blockers and “breaking down” when approaching an
opposing ball carrier. He has been guilty of relying on his speed a little too
much which results in him taking poor angles. Regardless of those shortcomings,
he still is a force that must be accounted for on every play. He is the leading
tackler for UVa with 79 stops, including 6 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks and 2
interceptions. He can be terrific in zone pass coverage when he gets adequate
depth on his drops. He is one of three finalists for the Butkus Award as the
nation’s top linebacker, although in my opinion he hasn’t quite played to
that level this year. However, he should be an all ACC player.
Parham is the thunder to Brooks’ lightening. Parham is a
traditional inside linebacker who is physical and knows how to fill a hole. He
is third on the Cavs with 61 tackles, including eight tackles for a loss and 1.5
sacks. Despite his production, something hasn’t seemed quite right with Parham
this year. In the Miami game, he looked like he had lost a step, perhaps the
lingering affects of an early season ankle injury. He is still a solid
linebacker and a fine long range prospect if he is healthy.
Probably the best all around linebacker for the Cavs has
been 6’4”, 240 JR Darryl Blackstock, another all ACC candidate. After a slow
start to the season, largely because opponents ran away from him, Blackstock has
returned to his big play form with 13 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks. The
latter figure leads the conference. If Blackstock returns for his senior season,
he probably will own the conference record for career sacks. Unlike his freshman
season, however, Blackstock is now solid against the run.
With only three down linemen, none of which are great pass
rushers, Virginia relies heavily on Blackstock and Brooks to generate a pass
rush. VT’s offensive line will have to be cognizant of where both are at all
The fourth linebacker, Haley, is the only new starter
among the front seven and he has acquitted himself well this year. Haley is
fourth on the team with 53 tackles, as well as three sacks.
UVa’s relative weakness on defense is their secondary,
particularly corner. The starters at corner figure to be 5’10”, 185 SO Tony
Franklin and 5’11”, 188 T-FR Philip Brown. Franklin played a lot last year
and has been solid in his follow up campaign. He is aggressive in run support as
he is second on the team with 62 tackles including 3 tackles for a loss. Brown
began the season as the nickel back and his improved play has led Groh to
elevate him to starting status. Brown has great speed and likely will develop
into a shutdown corner as he matures. He has 20 tackles on the year.
The nickel corner is 6’0”, 187 SO Marcus Hamilton.
Hamilton started ahead of Brown most of the year and made two key interceptions
last week in a victory over Georgia Tech in Atlanta. He has four interceptions
on the season, a total that ties him with VT's Jimmy Williams for the most in
the conference. Virginia will not hesitate to go to a nickel or dime package.
UVa plays a significant amount of cover 2 zone which means
that the corners are responsible for the flat areas while the safeties need to
give help over the top. That puts added pressure on seniors Jermaine Hardy (5’11”,
208) and Marquis Weeks (5’10”, 214), but they have played well for the most
Hardy was the lone returning starter in the secondary
coming into this season, and, as such, he directs traffic and makes sure the
Cavs are in the right defensive calls. He has 32 tackles on the year, but
typically doesn’t make a lot of plays on the line of scrimmage because of his
The other starting safety is Marquis Weeks, a running back
for his first three years on campus. Weeks has had a tremendous year under the
circumstances as he is fifth on the team with 53 tackles, including five for a
loss. He is very good in run support, although I would suspect his relatively
limited experience in the secondary might make him vulnerable to play action.
Virginia’s Special Teams
Virginia’s special teams are a mixed bag. They return
kicks very well, but their kickers themselves have struggled at times.
Johnson and Weeks are a good tandem to return kickoffs.
Johnson has blazing speed and is capable of making a big play, although his
statistics this year are average (10 returns for a 21 yard average). Weeks
averages 30 yards per return on the season with his numbers buoyed by a 100 yard
return for a touchdown. Kickoff coverage has been decent as opponents are
averaging 21 yards per return.
The punt return chores are handled by Pearman, and he is
dangerous. He has an 11.5 average with a 70 yard return for a touchdown to his
The kicking game has been disappointing. JR Connor Hughes
was coming off an unbelievable season a year ago as he converted 23 of 25 field
goals. This season he is 14 of 20, with four of his misses coming from 40 yards
or more. He has had one blocked on the year. Of greater concern to the UVa
faithful should be the three botched extra points on the year. A miss Saturday
by either team could be a cause for concern, given how evenly matched the teams
are on paper.
The Virginia punting game is downright awful. FR Chris
Gould and SO Sean Johnson have both had turns at the job. Johnson’s numbers
were worse as he only averaged 35.7 yards per kick and had one blocked. Gould is
the starter now and in limited action (7 punts) has a more impressive 43.7
average. UVa’s net punting average is a pathetic 28.8 yards, the worst figure
in the conference by five yards (the Hokies are second to last).
Before I provide my take on the game, I’d like to get on
the soapbox and ask all Hokie fans going to the game to get there early, attend
The Walk at 11 a.m., and set a new standard in Lane for daytime games. This
team, with its youth and a much tougher schedule than its predecessors, could
have folded up the tent after a heart breaking loss to N.C. State. Instead, the
players circled the wagons and came back to have a tremendous year. Regardless
of the outcome of these last two games, this team has helped reestablish
Virginia Tech as a mentally and physically tough football program, and they
helped show the rest of the country why Virginia Tech was a great addition to
This senior class is loaded with players who faced
significant amounts of adversity, yet they continued to play through it. Look at
the list of players in their last game at Lane: there are young men who never
publicly complained when they lost that most precious to an athlete, playing
time (Bryan Randall, Richard Johnson and Brandon Manning); those that never fit
a prototype yet played bigger or faster than they were (Mikal Baaqee, Mike
Daniels, Jim Miller and Jason Lallis); those that suffered an injury and
nonetheless gave everything they had (Eric Green, Jim Davis, Kevin Lewis and
Chad Cooper); and finally, those that were leveled with criticism when they
failed to live up to fans’ expectations initially, but who have come to make
key contributions during their careers (James Griffin, Jon Dunn, Vinnie Burns
and Travis Conway). This isn’t the best class of seniors that have departed
Blacksburg, but they have worked as hard as any in recent memory. They deserve
to be honored, and the only way we can appropriately do that is by providing the
best home field advantage we can.
As for the game itself, the “mistake factor” that I
like to analyze appears to be a wash. While VT has a slightly higher turnover
ratio than the Cavs (plus 1.2 per game versus plus .7), Virginia has done a
great job protecting the ball with an ACC best eight giveaways. Certainly if
either team starts putting the ball on the turf problems will result, but both
teams have been very good at avoiding the turnover bug lately.
Virginia commits significantly fewer penalties than VT (46
yards per game versus 68 yards per game), but in theory the home crowd edge
should eliminate some of the disparity. VT has also marginally improved in this
category over the last couple of games.
So, rather than focus too much on the mistake factor,
there are some other numbers that may loom large Saturday and bear watching.
Virginia has been very effective on both converting third downs (48.1 percent,
first in the conference by nearly five percent) and stopping opponents on third
downs (fourth in the conference at 29.9 percent and slightly ahead of VT). That
means that Virginia has done an excellent job of staying on course with respect
to down and distance offensively, while limiting opponents from making positive
gains on first and second down. That tends to happen when a team has a strong
running game and defends the run well also. The strength of the Virginia
offensive line is also exemplified by their 7/8 conversion rate on fourth down.
Perhaps the most overlooked improvement in this year’s
Hokie defense is their ability to get other teams off the field on key third
downs. A stat I’ll be watching carefully is third down conversions. If
Virginia regularly finds itself in third and two situations, it will be in good
shape given its offensive line. Conversely, if UVa finds itself “behind the
sticks” and it third and long, the advantage goes to VT, in Lane Stadium
Strategically, I think you will see the VT offense run a
lot of two tight end formations in lieu of a traditional fullback. Lining up
with two tight ends forces UVa to play honest in their front seven. It also may
require UVa’s linebackers to play more pass coverage downfield.
While it is important for the Hokies to try to establish
the run, I don’t believe VT will be able to dominate UVa on the line of
scrimmage. Ultimately, I think Bryan Randall will have to play very well and
make some key plays in the passing game for the offense to be successful. For
the first time in quite some time, the Hokie wide receivers will be facing
corners with a roughly commensurate experience level.
Defensively, I think VT will flood the box to try to stop
the UVa running game. James Griffin likely will be near the line of scrimmage a
lot, and he’ll have to make plays. I expect Bud Foster to have our corners
matchup outside man to man on their wide receiver, basically leaving Eric Green,
Jimmy Williams and Roland Minor on an island with Vinnie Fuller over the top for
The big question for me is how the Hokies will try to
defend the Virginia short passing game. UVa obviously utilizes their tight ends
extremely well, they are one of the best screen teams in college football, and
they have an extremely mobile quarterback. For all those reasons, I think Foster
will be inclined to play a significant amount of zone coverage underneath
without blitzing. Xavier Adibi in particular has the ability to play the short
zone and react quickly when Hagans decides to tuck the ball and run.
If games were played on paper, I’d give UVa a slight
edge. But they aren’t played on paper, and, more specifically, this one is
being played in Lane Stadium by a suddenly hot Virginia Tech football team. I
like the Hokies in a game that is every bit as close as the experts think.
Prediction: VT 24, UVa 20