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Game Preview:  WVU at Virginia Tech
by Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 10/11/00
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This One is Hard to Predict.

Last year, teeing it up against a WVU team that was statistically weak and was on its way to a 4-7 season, the Hokies got much more of a fight than they bargained for.

Virginia Tech was a team of destiny last year, but even teams of destiny have their games where they survive merely by good fortune, a great play, or with the aid of their opponents -- or any combination of those factors. Tennessee's national championship run of 1998 came thanks to some miracle victories when it seemed hope was lost.

When the Hokies ran up against WVU on November 6, 1999, in Morgantown, they got into a battle with a West Virginia team that played its best game of the year and had Tech by the throat with less than two minutes to go. The Hokies had struggled for most of the game but had remained firmly in command, until WVU suddenly took advantage of a couple of breaks and freakish bounces to score two touchdowns in two minutes.

After trailing most of the game, WVU suddenly led 20-19, and Virginia Tech was pigeonholed at their 15 yard line with no time outs and only 1:11 left to go.

Of course, you know the rest. The Hokies drove into WVU territory, getting a now-legendary 26-yard run down the sideline from Michael Vick in the process, and Tech's Shayne Graham kicked a 44-yard field goal as time expired to give Tech the 22-20 win.

On a night when most things went against Tech, the Hokies still pulled out the win, on the road, over a rival that was playing way above its head. It became apparent at that point that Virginia Tech would not be denied -- they were firmly established as 1999's team of destiny. That destiny didn't get them all the way to a championship, but it did get them to the title game.

It has been less than a year since that fateful night in Morgantown when Michael Vick made his first imprint in Hokie legend with The Run, but it seems like a long time ago.

WVU enters this game with some serious flaws and problems. They have some key injuries, their quarterbacking has been weak, and opponents have already blocked four punts. But then again, last year, they looked like a pushover for the mighty Hokies, and instead, they put up more of a fight than any other opponent Tech faced all year, except for FSU.

One big difference between last year and this year, of course, is that this game is being played in Blacksburg on a Thursday night. The last time the Mountaineers ventured into the 'Burg on Thursday night, back in 1994, they were destroyed 34-6 by a Tech team that didn't play that well, truth be told.

So which WVU team will show up? The one that likes to take its whippings in Lane Stadium, where they've been outscored 92-33 in their last three trips? Or the one that likes to throw the records out the window and get down and nasty with the Hokies, like last year?

It's hard to say. There are areas where Tech should dominate this game, and there are areas where WVU should dominate. Who knows how it will all add up?

WVU's Season to Date

Sept. 2

West Virginia 34, Boston College 14

Sept. 16

West Virginia 30, Maryland 17

Sept. 23

Miami (Fla.) 47, West Virginia 10

Sept. 28

West Virginia 29, Temple 24

Oct. 7

West Virginia 28, Idaho 16

The only surprise here is the whipping that WVU laid on Boston College to start the season. The Mountaineers were picked to finish sixth in the Big East, with BC picked to finish fourth.

The momentum from the BC game carried into the Maryland game, which was much closer than the score would indicate. Holding a 23-17 lead in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers stopped the Terps with a goal line stand, and then drove 99 yards for the clinching score.

The Mountaineers were then crushed in all phases of the game by the Miami Hurricanes, and have struggled since then to come-from-behind victories against both Temple and Idaho. WVU trailed Temple 10-0 and 24-23, and fell behind Idaho 9-0.

Behind the glitz of West Virginia's 4-1 record (2-1 Big East) is a team that is struggling on special teams and is nursing some major injuries. Let's take a look.

WVU Offense

In last year's game, WVU starting quarterback Marc Bulger went down with an injury, and backup QB Brad Lewis came in and played like a world-beater against Tech's nationally-ranked defense. Lewis went 9-16 for 98 yards, 2 clutch TD's, and no interceptions.

That was then, this is now. Lewis, suffering from a sore knee and a bruised throwing hand, has had a disappointing year. He is currently a distant last in the Big East in passing efficiency, with a rating of 102.9, far behind every other quarterback in the league. At times, he has looked unsure, inaccurate, and particularly against Miami, inept.

For the year, Lewis is 62-132 (47%) for 817 yards, 4 TD's, and 4 INT's. He only averages 163 yards per game passing, despite throwing 27 times per game. His 6.2 yards per attempt rank last in the league, and he is the only quarterback in the Big East with a completion rate under 50%.

I think you get the idea about the type of year Brad Lewis is having passing the ball. Part of the problem is that once you get beyond his top two receivers, the cupboard is extremely bare.

Senior Khori Ivy has 23 receptions for 362 yards (15.7 yards per catch), junior Antonio Brown has 18 catches for 234 yards (13 yards per catch) and no one else on WVU's team has more than 5 catches. It's normal to only have two top producers at the wide receiver positions, and it is indeed true that the big drop-off is at tight end. Anthony Becht, who caught 35 passes last year, departed, and no one has stepped into the void. This year's tight end, Sean Berton, only has 5 catches thus far.

In the running game, the Mountaineers are solid, as usual. Starting tailback Avon Cobourne, the Big East's leading rusher last year (despite playing in only ten games), has spent much of this year injured and is second on the team with 56 carries for 284 yards (5.1 yards per carry). No problem -- the slack has been picked up by Cooper Rego, who has 97 carries for 455 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and 8 TD's. It seems WVU is never hurting for quality play from its running backs, and this year is no exception.

West Virginia somehow seems to cart out a big, experienced offensive line every year, and this year is no exception. They are starting four seniors and a junior on the offensive line. The five starters stand 6-3, 6-5, 6-5, 6-6, and 6-8, and they weigh 290, 305, 315, 320, and 325 pounds.

Remember the last time I gave you stats like that? Yes, it was prior to the Boston College game, and the Eagles proceeded to run for 214 yards and score 34 points against the Hokies.

It's not unthinkable to envision a scenario where the Mountaineers get the running game going, much like Boston College did, and then have success in the passing game against Tech's severely depleted crew of cornerbacks.

It's worth noting, though, that WVU had a lot of trouble running against both Idaho and Temple, particularly early in the game. Against Idaho, WVU only had 25 yards rushing after three quarters (they finished with just 116 yards), and against Temple, Cooper Rego had (-5) yards rushing after three quarters, finishing with 86 yards (the team had 152 total).

WVU Defense

After putting together a great defensive team as recently as 1996, when they had the top-ranked defense in the country (217 yards per game), WVU has fallen on hard times. Last year, they finished 97th in the country in total defense, and then they lost all but three starters from that defense.

As you might expect, the news has not gotten any better for WVU on the defensive front this year. They rank in the bottom half of the 8-team Big East in passing defense (6th - 230.4 ypg), scoring defense (7th - 23.6 ppg), and total defense (5th - 326 ypg). Only their rushing defense, a commendable 2nd in the Big East at 95.6 ypg, ranks in the top half of the league.

WVU has revamped their defense to go with a smaller, quicker lineup, and given how many players they lost off of last year's bad defense, the Mountaineers are pretty pleased with their NCAA rank of #40 in total defense so far this year.

All three of the returning starters are in the Mountaineers front seven. The weakness of their defense is generally believed to be the secondary, and the statistics support that. WVU starts three juniors in the secondary, which doesn't sound particularly young, but those three juniors don't have much experience.

According to MSNSportsNet.com, the Mountaineers have 20 sacks on the year, and that includes an eye-popping 12 sacks against Idaho last Saturday, which set a Big East and team record for sacks in a game (a game in which the WVU defenders complained that they "missed" a lot of sacks, as well). When it comes to sacks, WVU spreads the wealth. No one player has more than 3 sacks, and 7 players have 2 or more sacks. The linebackers have 8 sacks, and the linemen have 12 sacks.

WVU's four leading tacklers are two defensive backs (Shawn Hackett and Rick Sherrod) and two linebackers (Kyle Kayden and Grant Wiley). My guess is that the DB's are getting a lot of tackles after receptions in the passing game, and the linebackers are making the stops in the running game. Of course, this is nothing unusual.

WVU's defensive tackles aren't getting much action. Starters David Upchurch and Antwan Lake are 10th and 15th on the team in tackles (compare that with Tech's Chad Beasley and David Pugh, who are 5th and 7th, respectively). Upchurch does lead the team with three sacks, though.

The Mountaineers do have 9 interceptions in 5 games, which isn't too shabby. Linebacker Grant Wiley, a redshirt freshman who has been a great addition to the WVU defense, leads the team with 3 picks, returning two of them for touchdowns. Strong safety Shawn Hackett has 2, and cornerback Richard Bryant, who missed a game with a dislocated elbow, has 2.

In summary, it's a WVU defense whose weakness is defending the pass, but overall, they're stronger than most people thought they would be this year, thanks mostly to a renewed emphasis on speed. Now that Bryant has recovered from his elbow injury, they're healthy, too.

WVU Special Teams

WVU calls their special teams unit "The Black Hats," but for most of this year, the Black Hats have probably felt more like wearing big paper bags on their heads. They have already had 4 punts blocked this year (according to FoxSportsNet -- the statistics on MSNSportsNet only show 3) and have made numerous mistakes in the punting game in general, such as poor snaps and muffed returns.

Long-snapper B.J. Coonfield, a junior, was perfect punt-snapping against Idaho, but still, WVU had a blocking breakdown, and a punt was blocked. WVU, for their part, has blocked two punts and an extra point.

Sophomore Mark Fazzolari, in his second year of punting, is averaging 42.0 yards per punt, and he had a 76-yarder against Idaho. Placekicker Jon Ohliger, a senior, is 4-5 on field goals.

Outlook and Prediction

If WVU has the early running problems that they had against Temple and Idaho, they're cooked. The key for them is to run the ball successfully, loosening up the passing game, so they can go to work against Tech's depleted cornerbacks (Austin is out for the season, Garnell Wilds will not play, and Billy Hardee is gimpy -- it is so bad that safety Kevin McCadam will take some snaps at corner).

Much like Boston College, the key for WVU is to control Tech's defensive line and linebackers with their big offensive line.

WVU also has to avoid problems in the punting game. If they start muffing snaps and getting punts blocked, it could fall apart for them quickly. But I say that every week -- because it's true every week.

For the Hokie offense, after a subpar game running the ball against Temple, they'll be challenged by West Virginia's 16th-ranked rushing defense. There has been very little talk of Lee Suggs' lingering turf toe injury, so it's hard to say how much he'll be affected by that.

This is a very tough game to call, except for one factor: the Lane Stadium crowd. It has been a long time since WVU played a good game in Lane Stadium. Their best recent effort was 1998, when they hung tough but lost 27-13. 1994 and 1996 were disasters, and even way back in 1992, WVU only won 16-7 over a Tech team that was in the midst of a 2-8-1 season.

Not to mention that it's a Thursday night game, and Hokie crowds love their Thursday night games.

This is a pivotal game for Tech. After looking nearly invincible against ECU and Rutgers, the Hokies haven't looked as strong against Boston College and Temple. Will they right the ship and spank WVU, or will this game be a close one? I think the Hokies will win (better WVU teams have not faired well in Lane Stadium), but what flavor the win takes will be interesting to see.

I think Tech's offensive performance will be improved over what we saw against Temple, both in the running game and the passing game. Look for the Hokies to accumulate 450 yards of offense, versus the 375 or so they had against Temple

Defensively, I think Tech will do well against the WVU offense, but it's awfully hard to predict what the depleted cornerback position will do, and it's hard to guess if Tech's defensive line will be able to bring pressure like they did against Temple.

So here's my guess, and it's more of a guess than any other game this year:

Virginia Tech 42, West Virginia 17.


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