I keep laughing to myself when I hear people say that the key to winning this game is to stop Thomas Jones.
Uh-huh. Yeah, I hear ya. Just like last year, right, when we held him to 55 yards on 19 carries? That worked like a charm, didn’t it?
No, the key to this game is not Thomas Jones. The key to this game is to play a complete game on offense and defense, for 60 minutes, and to minimize the mistakes. Because even UVa fans will agree that Tech is a deeper, more experienced football team, and if you do the analysis straight-up on talent alone, Tech should win.
But that counts for nothing, because it's a rivalry game. That old cliché is true - this thing could go either way.
The Defensive Challenge
Back to the Thomas Jones discussion. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time a running back beat Tech? I don’t know about you, but I can't remember.
There have been running backs who accumulated tons of yardage against Tech, sure. Mike Cloud of BC did it last year. He had 186 yards. His reward was a 17-0 loss. Amos Zereoue had 148 yards. WVU lost to Tech, 27-13. Jacki Crooks of Rutgers had 118 yards, and Tech only beat them 47-7. No other running back had over 100 yards against Tech, although Miami's Edgerrin James had 96 yards rushing, and … well, you know.
In the games Tech lost, they lost to quarterbacks, not running backs. Temple's quarterback ran the option to perfection. Donovan McNabb was a one-man wrecking crew. And UVa's Aaron Brooks had 345 yards passing against the Hokies.
So I'm going to tell you something that no one else is going to tell you: forget about Thomas Jones. He doesn't matter. Dan Ellis is the guy you ought to worry about.
Against BYU, Ellis was 14-18 for 190 yards. He's hitting his stride and starting to get comfortable in UVa's offense, and that ought to worry you, not Thomas Jones. To win this game, Tech needs to take Ellis out of his comfort zone and make him throw below 50% and toss about 3 interceptions. If the Hokies can accomplish that, defensively, the rest will take care of itself.
Former Hokie offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill, who is reviled at Tech for his destruction of Maurice DeShazo's confidence and quarterbacking ability during the 1994 season, is now UVa's offensive coordinator. I found out something about Tranquill that I didn't know, and that something is that he is renowned for his pass protection schemes.
If Ellis gets protection from Tech's defensive line and has time to throw, then the Hokies will have a ball game on their hands. Sure, you may laugh at the thought that any offense can protect their quarterback from Corey Moore, but it has happened before, and UVa has done it.
The Hoos kept their tight end and running backs in last year and drilled Tech with passes to the wide receivers, so they know how to pull it off. It can be done, and UVa knows how to do it, or has in the past, under former offensive coordinator Sparky Woods.
One key matchup is the UVa offensive tackles against Corey Moore and John Engelberger. UVa has a big and talented offensive line, but their secret is that they don't have a lot of experience at the tackle position. On one side, they line up Brad Barnes, a junior who is an impressive 6-7, 310 pounds, but this is Barnes's first year starting. On the other side is sophomore Josh Lawson, who is 6-5, 295, and to his credit, has one year of starting experience.
Look for UVa to keep the tight end in most of the time to help with blocking, and if not the tight end, then a running back or two. If UVa is successful in pass-blocking, then believe it or not, our secondary will get a bigger test against the Wahoos than they did against Clemson.
On Offense, Questions Abound
There are three key questions about Tech's offense that need to be answered:
1.) Is that offensive line for real?
Is the Tech O-line the subpar group that showed up against UAB and JMU, or is it the world-beaters that ran all over Clemson? If the same line that played against Clemson arrives in Scott Stadium, the Hoos, with their ultra-thin defense, are in trouble.
Virginia's defense has been gutted by graduation, off-the-field problems, and injuries. They're thin at many positions, and young, but talented (witness true freshman Jerton Evans's two interceptions against BYU as evidence of his talent). If the Hokies can work a little success on offense, the UVa defense might panic a little, as young players tend to do, and go into the tank. It's up to Tech's offensive line to make that happen.
2.) Will Michael Vick step up his game?
Michael threw three picks against Clemson. He showed flashes of brilliance, but he made the mistakes we all expected from him. The question I'm asking now is simple. Will Vick take all year to step up his game, or will we see a drastic improvement from him between the Clemson and UVa games?
Jim Druckenmiller was awesome in his first start against Boston College in 1995. Then he was horrible against Cincinnati the next week. Then he settled down, played a solid game against Miami in game three, and never looked back.
Michael Vick was awesome in his first start against JMU. Then he made some bad mistakes in his second game against Clemson, and he threw three picks, just like Druck did against Cincinnati.
What next? Will Vick have his "Miami" game, or will his development, which has mirrored Druck's so far, be different from here on out? This a key question.3.) Will the receivers get open and catch the ball?
If Vick and the offensive line play a great game, this will be less of a concern, but if they're not clicking, the receivers will need to make some plays. Emmett Johnson and Andre Davis, though talented, are young. There were some drops against Clemson, and Ricky Hall was invisible (one catch for 8 yards).
For the record, Emmett Johnson was open deep a couple of times, and Vick overthrew him once and underthrew him another time.
If the offensive line plays well, and Vick improves, and the receivers step it up, man is UVa in trouble.
Pressure Ellis, and control the ball on offense without turnovers, and the Hokies will win this one.
I'll give a nod to special teams and turnovers, but only because any idiot knows that special teams play and turnovers are key elements of any game. The Hokies gave up a special teams TD to Clemson, and turned the ball over 4 times, and that's what kept it close against the Tigers. But Clemson eventually lost - get this - because they committed two turnovers late in the game.
But I'll repeat myself: pressure Ellis, and get a good game out of the offense, and Tech brings home the win.
Saturday, 6:00, at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, televised by ESPN2.
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