With the heartbreaking defeat to N.C. State now in the rearview mirror –
and it needs to be for the Hokie players, coaches and fans – attention in
Blacksburg should be squarely focused on unbeaten and sixth ranked West Virginia
(4-0). In what may be the final game in Lane Stadium for this rivalry for the
near future, the best WVU team on paper in the last decade will face off against
a Virginia Tech team (2-2, 1-1) with more questions than answers.
Head Coach Rich Rodriguez is now in his fourth season in Morgantown and he
has firmly established WVU as a solid program. After a disastrous 1-4 start in
2003, the Mountaineers rolled through the rest of the regular season unbeaten
with only an embarrassing loss to Maryland in the Gator Bowl keeping the season
from being a smashing success (or at least a burning one). For his efforts,
Rodriguez was named the Big East Coach of the Year.
With the ACC defections, the Big East is now a conference in flux with WVU,
Pitt and Syracuse all having the wherewithal to rise to the top. However, with
both Pitt and SU visiting Monster.com to check resumes, it would appear that the
Mountaineers stand poised to become the flagship program for the new Big East.
WVU probably has more experience back than any team that VT will play this
year. Even their backups have played key roles for several years, it seems.
This season WVU has fattened up on three alphabetical cupcakes (ECU, UCF and
JMU: average score 49-18) and managed to exorcise their biggest demon by
defeating the Maryland Terrapins 19-16 in overtime. The UMd victory wasn’t
pretty as the Terps turned it over five times, but a win is a win, especially
against an offensive playcaller that seems to have your number. Just ask the VT
staff about its dalliances with Walt Harris.
I see a number of parallels in the WVU 2004 offensive skill position
triumvirate that VT had in 2000 with Michael Vick, Lee Suggs and Andre Davis.
While WVU’s version of the triplets is probably not as talented (Vick truly is
incomparable), they do have the benefit of working behind an experienced, tough
and deep offensive line. In fact, WVU’s offensive line is probably the deepest
VT will see all season.
Schematically, WVU operates out of a spread attack but strongly prefers to
run the ball. On the year, the Mountaineers have 208 rushing attempts, and only
79 passes (72% of their plays are runs). You might think that was an aberration
given the early cupcakes, but in their only competitive game of the year versus
Maryland the ratio was even more conservative: a whopping 61 rushes versus 10
passes. WVU is ninth in the country in rushing offense with 276 yards per game,
and balances that by being 11th in the country in passing efficiency. The
Mountaineers don’t throw in often, but tend to make big plays when they do.
WVU is ninth in the country averaging over 41 points per game.
Aptly cast in the role of the athletic quarterback is 6’1”, 190 SR
Rasheed Marshall. Marshall is very experienced as he is entering his third year
as a starter. He has played against VT in both 2002 and 2003, so he won’t be
surprised by either the crowd or the physical nature of the rivalry.
Marshall has a very strong arm which leads to a significant number of big
plays, but he can be inaccurate at times. His numbers on the season are terrific
as he has completed 62.7 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and two
interceptions. He also has a very high yards per completion number, 14.3.
However, he still can be prone to bouts of inconsistency and those numbers are
somewhat skewed because he has a great back behind him and a very good wide
receiver hauling in passes.
Marshall is also very, very dangerous running out of the spread offense. He
is second behind Donovan McNabb all time in Big East career quarterback rushing
with over 1,300 yards, and this season he’s averaging nearly 40 yards on the
ground per game. If VT plays man in the secondary, it will be absolutely
imperative for Vince Hall and Mikal Baaqee to track Marshall down on scrambles
and designed runs. Marshall reportedly ran a sub 4.4 in spring practice.
Despite the loss of Quincy Wilson at tailback, WVU may be even better there
this season. Physical freak Kay-Jay Harris (6’2”, 245 SR) is unparalleled in
all of college football in his size/speed ratio. Harris opened the year by
destroying an overmatched ECU defense to the tune of 337 yards on 25 carries
(13.5 per rush), but he basically sat out the next contest against UCF because
of an injury. In the last two games his numbers have been sharply off (32/142
against Maryland and 22/63 versus JMU), so I wonder if his hamstring is still
less than 100%.
Harris’ season numbers are still daunting: he has 549 yards in essentially
3 games, averages 6.8 per carry, and has 6 touchdowns. He is a capable receiver
out of the backfield and he averages a catch per game thus far this year.
When healthy, Harris is a tough and physical runner who has the burst to take
a play outside. He isn’t as shifty in the hole as T.A. McLendon, but he
probably has more pure speed once he gets up a head of steam. The key to
controlling Harris is to not let him build up steam and start running downhill
because he is an absolute load for any secondary player to take to the ground.
He is a blue chip NFL prospect.
The backup to Harris is 6’1”, 215 SO Jason Colson. Colson has some nice
size and a decent burst. WVU has a tradition of very good backs, and he seems
capable of continuing it after Harris departs. On the season Colson has 253
rushing yards (4.6 per carry) with four touchdowns. Colson also is the team’s
second leading receiver with 6 catches for 75 yards.
WVU doesn’t use a fullback regularly, but in short yardage they will go to
a traditional I set. The two fullbacks that see time are Justin Dziak, a 5’11”,
235 SO, and 6’0”, 220 SR Hikee Johnson. Dziak is the more physical of the
two, while Johnson (a former UVa recruit) has nifty receiving skills.
WVU will play anywhere from two to four wide receivers at any time. The big
name is 6’5”, 195 JR Chris Henry. Henry obviously has great size, but he
also possesses very good speed. He is not a polished wide receiver on the order
of a Larry Fitzgerald, but his physical gifts are undeniable. Henry is
particularly dangerous in the red zone where his height and leaping ability make
him a virtually impossible cover. He projects as a likely first round pick in
Henry is Marshall’s first, second and third option in the passing game.
Henry has nearly half of WVU catches (23 catches of 49 total completions) and
yards (325 of 699), and two thirds of their passing touchdowns (6 of 9). Again,
WVU doesn’t pass often but when they do it will be going in his direction.
WVU really hasn’t had a second wide receiver with any production. Harris
and Colson combined have 10 catches: the next wide receiver only has four
catches on the year.
Brandon Myles (6’3”, 190 JR) is probably the second biggest threat out
wide. He only has four catches, but they have gone for 121 total yards and two
touchdowns. Miquelle Henderson (6’3”, 225 SR) and Eddie Jackson (6’4”,
225) also play a lot and have 4 catches for 50 yards and 3 catches for 47 yards
respectively. While these receivers don’t catch a lot of balls, they all are
physically imposing and they use that size to block downfield.
WVU uses a tight end occasionally, but it isn’t a staple of their offense.
They have two jumbo options: 6’7”, 270 SR Ryan Thomas (1 catch for 17 yards)
or 6’5”, 265 JR Josh Bailey.
WVU’s offensive line is very good and has combined for 104 starts in their
career. Essentially, the line averages a two year starter at every position. The
group only gave up 14 sacks last season and essentially returns intact. This
year WVU is averaging 5.3 per rush. It is worth noting that they have given up
eight sacks, a high number for a team that doesn’t pass much and has a mobile
Probably the two biggest names on the line are SR right guard Jeff Berk (6’5”,
290) and SR center Tim Brown (6’5”, 305). Berk has started 33 consecutive
games and he’s an anchor inside for the Mountaineers. He should be all
conference this season.
Brown is a very valuable lineman who has played everywhere on the line at
some point in time. He was slated to start at tackle last year before suffering
a season ending injury. He has 28 career starts and likely will have an NFL
future with his versatility.
SO left guard Dan Mozes (6’4”, 295) is the rising star of the group.
Mozes has started 16 of his 17 games in Morgantown, and he has a nasty
disposition and a physical presence. One unique thing about WVU is that all of
their interior linemen are, relatively speaking, light. Because of their spread
offense, WVU requires their linemen to move a significant amount and even their
interior players are light on their feet.
6’8”, 305 JR right tackle Garin Justice (15 career starts) and 6’5”,
305 SR left tackle Michael Watson (12 starts) are the anchors outside. Watson
especially will have his hands full with Darryl Tapp, Jim Davis and company on
WVU also has three players on the bench who have started at least two games
on the offensive line: SO center Jeremy Hines, SO right guard Jeremy Sheffy, and
JR left tackle Travis Garrett.
If you couple WVU’s preference for a ground attack with the fact that WVU
has gashed the Hokies’ interior for 263 and 264 rushing yards, respectively,
the last two times they played, it would seem apparent that the game can be
reduced to blood and sweat in the trenches.
Defensively West Virginia has just been okay this year. They are 31st
nationally in total defense, yielding 299 yards per game, with 122 coming on the
ground and 177 coming through the air. WVU is 51st nationally in rushing defense
and 36th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
The Mountaineers employ a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that often times acts like
an undersized eight man front. As with anything, there are benefits and
drawbacks. On the benefit side of the ledger, having eight men off the line of
scrimmage allows a lot of unique blitzing angles and permits (on passing downs)
the undersized rusher to build up a head of steam and pick a free lane if the
offensive line doesn’t adjust to the delayed rush. On the negative side, if
the front three get blown off the ball in the running game, then 5 yard rushes
become the norm.
Up front the two veterans are JR defensive end Ernest Hunter (6’4”, 290)
and SR defensive tackle Ben Lynch (6’4”, 280). Hunter has started 19 games
and has 6 tackles this season; Lynch has started 17 games and has 7 tackles with
a sack this year. Neither one is expected to put up numbers in the WVU scheme.
Remember, however, they combined for 2 tackles for losses and 2 sacks in last
year’s debacle in Morgantown, and that was against a line anchored by the best
center in the country.
The third starter up front is 6’3”, 300 SR defensive end Jason Hardee.
Hardee is the relative newcomer with seven career starts, and he has 11 tackles
on the year. He also chipped in with a sack in the game last year.
As a whole, the West Virginia front is vastly different from what the Hokies
saw last week. WVU’s linemen are tough and more physical than state, but they
do not have the athleticism of a Manny Lawson or a Mario Williams to drop in
coverage during a zone blitz nor do they have the quickness of a John McCargo.
The heart of last season’s WVU defense, linebacker Grant Wiley, is gone,
but his role has been filled by tough middle linebacker Adam Lehnortt (6’4”,
230 SR). Lehnortt runs well and is a physical player who started last year on
the outside. Lehnortt makes a lot of plays in the backfield (six tackles for
losses and a sack) and is third on the team with 21 overall tackles. He also
moves well in pass coverage.
The strong side linebacker is 6’1”, 245 SO Kevin McLee. McLee is a solid,
stay at home type who has registered 15 tackles overall but has no tackles for
losses on the year. He is a new starter this year. His counterpart on the
weakside is two year returning starter Scott Gyorko (6’0”, 225 SR). Gyorko
is a high energy and intense player who relies on instinct, speed and
intelligence. He has 16 tackles on the year, including two tackles for losses
and a sack. He had his best game against Maryland with seven tackles and a pass
The biggest name is the secondary is returning starter Adam “Pacman”
Jones. Jones is a 5’11”, 185 JR who has a pro future. Jones had a big game
last year against the Hokies with 7 tackles and an interception. This year Jones
has stepped up his game further, as he is second on the team with 25 tackles and
first in interceptions (2, both versus Maryland) and passes broken up (4). Jones
is an aggressive, physical corner in pass coverage and run defense, and you can
bet he’s going to be pressing VT’s young receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Jones plays the boundary corner position and is the most physically gifted
The field corner is 6’0”, 195 JR Anthony Mims. Mims doesn’t appear a
lot on the stat sheet with only seven tackles, but he does have an interception
and two passes broken up.
I would expect the Hokies to attack Mims more than Jones, especially if the
protection is sketchy because he is more apt to give cushion. Larry Williams, a
6’1”, 190 FR with a bright future, also will see time here.
Two starters return at the safety positions. Jahmile Addae is a 6’0”, 205
JR with 20 career starts at free safety, while JR strong safety Mike Lorello (6’1”,
205) has 17 career starts. Addae is the last line of defense and coordinates a
lot of the pass coverage. He has 12 tackles on the year.
Lorello moved from bandit safety last year to strong safety this year.
Despite the position change, against VT I would still expect him to play close
to the line of scrimmage as the eighth man up. Lorello has 20 tackles, four for
losses, on the season. He is a weight room warrior who, barring injury, will
move into the top ten all time for WVU in tackles for a loss as a junior safety.
He needs to be accounted for in the Hokie running game.
The newest member of the secondary is bandit safety Lawrence Audena, a 6’0”,
200 SR. Audena leads WVU in tackles with 26 total and he has forced three
fumbles on the year.
Audena will be the seventh man up in a lot of formations, as he loosely fills
the role of whip linebacker in VT’s scheme.
WVU’s Special Teams
Overall, the WVU special teams are very good. On paper, this matchup is a
push and it can’t be if VT intends to win the game.
Jones is a difference maker on both punt and kickoff returns. On punts Jones
averages 19.8 yards per return, seventh in the nation, and he has a 76 yard
return for a touchdown this year versus ECU. On kickoffs, Jones averages 27.4
yards per return (13th in the nation) with a long of 53. He is very, very
dangerous, and the fewer returns he has the better it is for the Hokies.
The other deep man on kickoffs is Myles, who is averaging 21.5 per return.
SR kicker Brad Cooper is four for six on the season, but that’s deceptive
as he has had no easy attempts all year. He missed one 39 yard attempt, had
another 39 yard attempt blocked, and has converted from 37, 45, 48 and 54. He is
a weapon. The kickoff coverage team is okay as they yield slightly over 20 yards
The WVU punting game is average. JR Phil Brady has a 39.4 yard average with a
net of approximately 36 yards (54th in net punting in the nation). Rodriguez
likes to use trickeration in the punting game however. If it is third and a mile
or if he’s in a fourth and two from his opponents’ 41 yard line, he has no
qualms with letting his quarterback punt. In fact, he has had two quarterback
punts this year (Marshall’s sole punt went for 39 yards and a touchback). Don’t
be shocked if they quick kick to keep the ball out of Eddie Royal’s hands.
There are a lot of trends here that are disconcerting. Paying homage to
Captain Obvious, WVU has simply punched us in the mouth the last two years along
both lines. If that situation doesn’t resolve itself, VT won’t have a chance
in this game.
VT’s defensive line has made a lot of plays early this year, and in my
opinion is much improved. Still, the VT defensive tackles will have to stand
tall against the interior of the WVU offensive line. Jonathan Lewis really
played well last week, and Jim Davis has been redirecting the line of scrimmage
a lot. However, Lewis struggled against these guys last year, and Davis is still
an end playing inside. The backup tackles have had their moments, but a couple
of McLendon’s big runs were against our reserves. All five of the VT tackles
will have to play large against Harris. Gap control is essential to handling the
running game in the spread offense.
Vince Hall is extremely aggressive in run support (a welcome sight, I might
add), but he’s going to get caught in traffic and guess wrong some. That is
the nature of being a freshman. James Griffin and Vince Fuller have to be
aggressive and keep the “big runs” for Harris to 12 yards rather than 20
On the offensive side of the ball, our passing game has to execute better.
WVU doesn’t have a stud pass rusher on the field, so our line should be able
to man up on their front three. The two “loose” lineman have to keep their
head on a swivel and must decide on the fly whether to help double or to wait to
pick up late blitzers. Similar decisions will have to be made by our backs and
tight ends. Our blockers have to do a better job of recognizing blitz schemes.
Given our performance last week, my guess is there will be guys blitzing from
the WVU bench before the Star Spangled Banner. Bryan Randall needs to throw
quickly and decisively. WVU’s linebackers aren’t as fast as State’s, and
their coverage collectively isn’t as good, so some plays can be made. Randall
has to be put in a position to succeed, and then he needs to trust his wide
receivers to make plays in one-on-one situations.
Another problematic trend is that WVU has been very good at holding onto the
ball. The last two seasons the Mountaineers have been in the top five in the
NCAA in turnover margin, and they are plus one per game this year (24th in the
NCAA). They are more generous on penalties (92 yards per game), but overall this
is a team that plays things close to the vest making it less likely they will
beat themselves. That kicking game is also an advantage.
West Virginia thrives on big plays. As noted in last week’s article, State
was a team that made no significant passing plays downfield. West Virginia is
the converse. West Virginia has eleven runs of 20 or more yards this year, with
an injured Harris, and nine passes of 20 yards or more (out of only 49
completions). Adam Jones has six plays of 20 yards or more, and he is only a
return specialist and defensive player. For years the knock on the VT defense
was that they were susceptible to the big play. WVU has the skill position
athletes to make big plays.
Additionally, WVU’s efficiency in the red zone is astounding. I do realize
they have played a weak early schedule, but the numbers speak for themselves.
They have had 17 first and 10s inside their opponents 20 yard line, and they
have scored on 16 of those 17 possessions (one fumble). Here is the really scary
part: on all 16 of those possessions WVU scored touchdowns, nine on the ground
and seven in the air. Not once were they held to a field goal once they got
inside the 20. Obviously, having Harris in the backfield and a very tall wide
receiver like Henry wide helps immensely, but that’s still machine-like
efficiency for an offense.
Finally, for whatever reason VT has a tendency to lose close games to teams
that are similarly talented. WVU has at least as much talent as VT and far more
experience. Until VT wins a close one, I’m taking the Missouri approach –
With all that being said, I think VT will play well and have a legitimate
chance to win this game. In the end, though, I don’t see it happening.
Prediction: WVU 27, VT 24
Will Stewart's Take: 263 yards on 46 carries in 2002. 264 yards on 59
carries in 2003. The West Virginia offense has totaled 527 yards rushing and has
averaged 5 yards per carry on the Hokies the last two seasons. Never mind Bryan
Randall's end-zone interception in 2002 and VT's meltdown in 2003. The numbers
that stood out the most the last couple of years were those. With that spread
offense and powerful blocking, WVU's tailbacks have been able to take the
handoff, get a good running start, and hit the hole the last couple of years.
That destroys one long-held belief of VT football: that you can' t run on the
Another long-held belief – on my part, anyway – is that you can't beat a
Beamer Bowl Era VT team three times in a row (unless you're Miami). Well, Pitt
did it, from 2001-2003.
Another long-held belief is that Lane Stadium is a tough place for visiting
teams to win. But since 2001, the Hokies have lost to Syracuse, Pittsburgh, WVU,
and Boston College at home. Those teams used to never win in Blacksburg
– they went 0-10 in Lane Stadium from 1996-2000 – but from 2001-2003, Tech
went just 2-4 against those four teams at home.
None of this is meant to incite wailing, gnashing of the teeth, or yet
another bash-the-coaches round of message board posts. It's merely used as
background to explain my rapidly decreasing confidence in Tech to win games such
as the one coming up Saturday.
As I've said before, predicting games is all about going with the trends and
the most likely outcomes. And these days, the trends are not in favor of VT, not
in this game. WVU comes into Lane with an experienced QB, an offensive line that
has dominated the Hokies for two straight years, and no fear of a place where
they won their last game, a night game no less, in 2002 (phantom holding calls
and Lee Suggs non-touchdowns notwithstanding).
I would like to think Tech will win, I'm just not sure how. I don't trust
them to stop the run, I don't trust them to stop the WVU losing streak at two
games, I don't trust them to defend the fort, and I don't trust them to win a
close game [which I think this will be]. They haven't done those things for a
while against WVU. So I'm going with the trends on this one.
Will's Prediction: WVU 24, VT 17