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Game Preview: Virginia Tech vs. NC State
by Jeff Ouellet, 9/23/04

Saturday, September 25th, 2004, noon


Forecast (from
Click the "Blacksburg Weather" link to the right.
Saturday forecast, as of 10:00 am Thursday: Scattered clouds, high of 78, chance of rain 7%.

Click here for's VT/NC State roster card

Preview: Virginia Tech versus NC State
by Jeff Ouellet

Coming off an aesthetically displeasing 41-17 victory over the Duke Blue Devils, the Virginia Tech Hokies (2-1, 1-0 in conference) tangle with the N.C. State Wolfpack (1-1, 0-0) this Saturday at Lane Stadium. With only six guaranteed bowl berths and as many as nine legitimate bowl contenders in the ACC, this game is incredibly important to both schools as they try to keep alive their postseason participation streaks.

The Wolfpack is coming off a frustrating 22-14 home loss to then seventh ranked Ohio State. Despite holding OSU to a paltry 137 yards of total offense, State lost because of a myriad of mistakes, foremost among them turnovers (5 total) and penalties (14 for 121 yards). Not only were the penalties numerous, but they also were significant: State had three offensive first downs wiped out by penalty, and gave up two first downs because of defensive penalties.

The football gods appeared to be smiling on State coming into the game with the Buckeyes for multiple reasons. State was motivated and focused on pulling the upset in light of last year’s heartbreaking three overtime loss to OSU at the Horseshoe, they were at home, they had an off week to prepare after a 42-0 pasting of Richmond, and they were relatively healthy. Unfortunately, the upset didn’t come to pass.

Chuck Amato is now in his fifth year at the helm in Raleigh, and he is building an impressive resume. Amato spent a significant portion of his coaching career as an assistant at Florida State, and he has used those connections to land some prime Florida talent for his alma mater. The Wolfpack has speed in abundance on both sides of the ball. His teams also tend to play with a swagger.

Amato has led the Wolfpack to a bowl game every year (special thanks to Phillip Rivers), and he has recruited well enough to have a dangerous team even without his standout quarterback. The strength of this team is its defense which presently is ranked first in total defense, allowing 152 yards per game, first in pass defense (68 yards per game), twelfth in scoring defense (11 points per game), and 21st in rushing defense (84 yards per game). Admittedly OSU is not an offensive juggernaut, and Richmond’s strength is its defense (no one runs on Richmond), but those numbers are still very impressive – keep in mind VT gave up 272 yards in its shutout of Western Michigan.

N.C. State’s Offense

This State team is very different from its predecessors in large part because of the departures of Rivers and outstanding receiver Jerricho Cotchery. The passing game has been de-emphasized, and the Pack relies much more on its running game. The statistics overall are not that impressive: State is 48th nationally in rushing offense (165.5 yards per game), 91st nationally in passing offense (164 per game), 83rd in total offense and 44th in scoring offense (28 points per game). These stats are somewhat skewed by the fact that JR tailback T.A. McLendon was out for the first game and didn’t get his normal amount of touches against OSU either.

The Wolfpack stud offensive player, McLendon, is 5’11, 216, but much like Lee Suggs he runs “heavier” than he is. He has been dinged with a hamstring problem, but he looked very good against a very good Ohio State defense rushing for 94 yards and a touchdown on only 15 carries (6.3 per carry average). McLendon also has the speed to get outside as exemplified by his 41 yard jaunt against a fast OSU defense. When healthy, McLendon is one of the top ten tailbacks in the country.

The backup tailbacks are both extremely talented freshmen. 6’0”, 205 Darrell Blackman was a top 100 national recruit two years ago and he joined the Pack this fall after a year at Hargrave. Blackman has a nice size/speed ratio and is an every down type of back. He has 80 rushing yards this year with a 5.1 per carry average.

The other co-number two is 6’1”, 200 Bobby Washington from Miami. Washington was a top five national running back from Miami who initially signed with the Canes but was released from his letter-of-intent and found his way to Raleigh. Washington is lighting quick with great footwork and speed. He is a home run hitter type, although his early stats (18 rushes/77 yards) don’t indicate it. Washington suffered a sprained ankle against OSU and that may limit his availability this week.

McLendon can run effectively from any set. His power and vision make him tough to handle in the tradition I or in a one back set. The youngsters can also run out of the I, but they may be more effective in a split back set where they can trust their instincts rather than following a lead blocker. The Pack likes to use a scissor action off their split back sets, having one back cross the face of the QB with either the fake or the handoff, while the other can trail and follow the quarterback creating an option play. State also occasionally replicates this action from a one back set in the shotgun by bringing WR Tramain Hall in motion.

Regardless of the formation, VT’s run defense will be challenged by all three of the Wolfpack tailbacks.

The quarterback for State is 6’2”, 205 JR Jay Davis. Davis knows the offense well as he is the son of a coach, but he struggled mightily last week against Ohio State as he was 12-24 for only 99 yards with three interceptions and one touchdown. Davis didn’t get many snaps as the backup to Rivers over the past few seasons, and his inexperience showed last week. He doesn’t throw the ball down the field much, and is more in the game manager quarterback mold at this point. He has decent mobility. On the season Davis is 28-46 for 267 yards.

The backup to Davis is much ballyhooed R-FR Marcus Stone. Stone is a terrific athlete with great size (6’4”, 226), and frankly I expected him to win the starting job. He’s got a big arm and a lot of upside. However, he has really struggled reading defenses up to this point and that has limited his playing time. Given VT’s proclivity for knocking out opposing quarterbacks, and the struggles Davis had last week, don’t be shocked if Stone plays some in Blacksburg. The playbook will shrink if Stone plays, however, and if his first read doesn’t go as planned expect to see him tuck the ball and run.

Although the production has not been there early in the season, the Pack does have some talented kids at wide receiver. In fact, their top five receivers on the year are all from Florida, so you know they can run.

The leading receiver is 5’11”, 187 JR Tramain Hall. Hall has 10 catches on the year for 75 yards and a touchdown. His average per catch number is very low, but he is dangerous and State will use him on some option plays (4 carries on the year) and punt returns. He is the biggest threat on the outside for State.

6’1”, 190 SO Lamart Barrett is second on the team with 6 catches for 59 yards, while JR Sterling Hicks (6’1”, 181) has 5 catches for 47 yards. Fellow JR Brian Clark has good size at 6’2”, 202, and has contributed 4 catches for 58 yards this season.

Perhaps the wild card of the pass receivers is JR Richard Washington (4 catches, 38 yards). Washington has blazing speed and I wouldn’t be surprised if State tried to take a deep shot to him once or twice in this game.

Tight end T.J. Williams is a very good athlete and had a nice season last year (28/444), but his stats are down this year as he only has one catch for 13 yards. He should be more of a threat in the passing game, and I would expect him to be more involved this week than he has the past two games.

Despite having a lot of speed on the outside, here’s a shocking stat about the Wolfpack this year: they have one, count it one, pass completion over 20 yards. That pass completion was a 26 yard touchdown with 1:28 left in the game against OSU on 4th and 19. The Pack played nearly two full games without one big play in the passing game, and that big play came out of necessity. By way of comparison, State averages 9.1 yards per completion; VT averages 14.3.

The Wolfpack offensive line returned three starters, and it has been pretty good this year. State is averaging 4.6 yards per rush on the season, including 4.1 against OSU which isn’t great but is representative against Ohio State’s defense. The line has surrendered five sacks in two games.

The returning starters are all on the interior of the line: 6’2”, 290 SR center Jed Paulsen, 6’3”, 293 SO left guard Leroy Harris, and 6’5”, 298 JR right guard John McKeon. Paulsen is the biggest name as he is starting for his third straight season, but all of them are capable. The Pack doesn’t have the biggest players up front, but they require a lot of movement out of their interior linemen so agility and technique is more important than mass.

The offensive tackles both have some experience but neither started last year. 6’5”, 305 Chris Colmer protects the blind side for Davis, and as a fifth year SR he is one of the leaders on the offense. On the right side is mammoth SO Derek Morris, 6’6”, 332. Morris was a very highly touted recruit that still is learning the ropes.

N.C. State’s Defense

In terms of approach and personality, the Pack’s defense mirrors the VT philosophy. State likes to have their ends get up the field and pressure and often leaves their corners on an island alone. One difference is that the Pack plays more bump and run with their corners than the Hokies do.

The Pack has a new defensive coordinator this year, Reggie Herring, and the early returns are obviously promising. So is the personnel, as eight starters returned and a number of young players have stepped up their games to provide significant depth.

The emerging star up front is 6’7”, 265 SO defensive end Mario Williams. Williams took his lumps last year as a true freshman, but he learned a lot and is a tough out this season. “Super” Mario is a superlative athlete for his size and the comparisons to former UNC star Julius Peppers are understandable. He still isn’t a polished football player as his production hasn’t caught up to his potential, but you will notice him out there.

Converted linebacker Manny Lawson is a speed rushing machine as a 6’5”, 220 defensive end opposite Williams. He comes off the corner with a purpose, and he played very well against OSU last week. On the season, Lawson is fourth on the team in tackles with 10 and has five tackles for a loss in two games, including two sacks. He also has forced and recovered a fumble. Both defensive ends are very tall with long arms, and that makes quick slants a tough throw for a 6’0” quarterback like Bryan Randall.

In the middle 6’2”, 289 SO John McCargo and JR 6’4”, 288 Dwayne Herndon control the action. McCargo led the team with 16 QB pressures last year, an unheard of number for a freshman defensive tackle. Both he and Herndon keep interior linemen off the state linebackers and permit them to make a lot of plays.

The three leading tacklers for the Wolfpack are all linebackers: 6’2”, 232 JR middle linebacker Oliver Hoyte (17 tackles, 3 for a loss, 1 sack), 6’2”, 230 SR outside linebacker Pat Thomas (12 tackles) and 5’10”, 226 SO Stephen Tulloch (12 tackles, 3 for a loss). All three are, you guessed it, from Florida.

Thomas is the biggest name is he led the team with 130 stops last season and has received some preseason all conference mention. Tulloch, while undersized, is always around the ball and can really run. Hoyte is a rock in the middle who probably will lead the team in tackles this year.

The linebacker depth is impressive. Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay, is a 6’1”, 230 SR backup who started last year and has contributed two tackles for a loss this year. 6’2”, 228 SO Patrick Lowry has figured in on 7 tackles in his backup spot in the middle, and talented freshman LeRue Rumph (6’2”, 213, 9 tackles) may have the most upside of all the subs. Overall, this group of linebackers does a great job of running to the ball and arriving in a bad mood.

The Wolfpack secondary is talented, experienced and deep. Four seniors provide leadership: Devonte Edwards (6’0”, 182) and Lamont Reid (6’0”, 205) at corner, Andre Maddox at rover (6’1”, 200) and Troy Graham (6’3”, 202) at free safety.

Maddox had a great year last season, as he totaled 145 tackles from his rover position. He is a legitimate pro prospect who flourishes around the line of scrimmage. In sets where he is the eighth man up, VT’s running backs will have to win some one-on-one battles with Maddox. Graham is a solid tackler as well, and he covers enough ground to permit the corners to play physically and jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. He is second on the team in passes defensed with three behind Edwards with four.

Edwards and Reid both understand the system and are well schooled in bump and run technique. The State defense doesn’t use a field/boundary corner distinction, but instead the corners play a side of the field.

State has good backups at corner in SO A.J. Davis and JR Marcus Hudson, as well as SO Garland Heath and JR J.J. Jones at safety, so any single injury wouldn’t significantly impact the secondary.

N.C. State Special Teams

State’s overall athleticism shows itself on special teams. Last year the Wolfpack scored 10 non-offensive touchdowns, second in the country to VT, and in 2002 State had nine non-offensive touchdowns. Amato has made this a priority, and he has the talent to really succeed at it.

The numbers this year, however, are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For example, SO punter John Deraney has a very good 44.9 average, but an even more impressive 40.2 net average per punt. Given that average, and the fact Deraney is a new starter, I would expect VT to go for the punt block more than normal. Deraney also kicks field goals, and he’s 2 of 3 on the year with his only miss from 43 yards; blocking a punt could, in theory, also have the added benefit of rattling him going into his placekicks.

On kickoffs, the coverage has been solid as opponents average 23.8 per return against the Pack.

Despite having good athletic talent, the punt and kickoff returners haven’t made plays yet this year. Hall handles the punt returns and has only 14 total yards on four returns. He is capable of breaking a big play, however, and he averaged over 10 yards per return last year. Bobby Washington is much like Eddie Royal in that you get the sense he could break one as a kick returner at any time. Because the Wolfpack shut out Richmond and played OSU with stud kicker Mike Nugent, however, State only has two kick returns on the year.

I expect State to come after Vinnie Burns. Watch out for Lawson with his huge wingspan: he has five punt blocks in his career.

The Lowdown

While many VT fans are already anxiously awaiting West Virginia, the fact is that this game will be much more important to the overall success of the Hokies this year. The loser of this game is on the outside looking in for a bowl berth early this year. Conversely, if VT can win this game the Hokies will position themselves, with a favorable conference schedule, to finish higher than expected.

Everyone knows how tough the Maryland, UVa and Miami finish is, but the next three games (versus State, versus WVU, at Wake) could all be won or lost and I believe they will tell the tale of the season.

As I evaluate this game, I think State has the superior running game, VT has the superior passing game, and I would give State the slight edge defensively because they have been more consistent.

If I’m the Hokies, I attack State’s defense by using some option, some reverses, flanker screens and even the occasional draw play (including quarterback draws). VT must make the Pack play disciplined defense because if Amato’s crew just can run towards a spot (i.e., Randall’s 5 step drop position) it is going to be a long day. Randall’s legs will have to be a significant weapon; just like USC, State may struggle to account for him in the first half.

The VT defense will need to attack State and force Davis to beat them. He hasn’t shown the ability to hurt teams down the field, and the Hokies are content to allow 4 yard pass plays because they expect their athleticism to create a negative play or a turnover in any long (10 play or more) drive. I think Williams, State’s tight end, may be an important player in this game.

Even more significantly, however, we will have to see how the VT defense, specifically its middle, holds up against a powerful running back like McLendon. The defensive linemen will have to play with leverage and hold their gaps while the linebackers will have to make plays one-on-one. N.C. State likes to use misdirection; if VT overcommits in the running game, McLendon or the young backs will make them pay. In a way, the Wolfpack is very good preparation for what WVU likely will do next week, as State doesn’t hesitate to run out of spread formations.

It goes without saying that special teams, turnovers and penalties (the “mistake factor”) are keys to any game, but they are even more important to the outcome of this contest because of the strength of the defenses. On paper, VT has better special teams and is slightly better at protecting the ball. Both teams have been killed by penalties (VT averages 9 per game, State 12).

I say Bryan Randall’s running ability and the mistake factor are the difference, and the Hokies pull out a close affair in Lane.

Prediction: VT 20, N.C. State 16

Will Stewart's Take: This is a hard game to predict, because both defenses are stingy, both QBs are capable of making painful mistakes (Randall had two picks against Duke, and Davis had three against OSU), and both teams have athletes and special teams units capable of making game-changing plays.

For example, State could block two punts deep in Tech territory, and (a) McLendon could run them both in for TDs, or (b) Davis could throw two interceptions in the end zone to give the ball right back. This game could be a grind-it-out defensive struggle laced with moments of hysteria as punts are blocked, sacks are made, kicks are returned, or interceptions are thrown.

I'll be watching to see if VT shows more blitz than they showed against Duke, in an effort to rattle Davis. VT's DL has been playing very well this season, and pressure has been brought without the blitz, but remember, we saw some corner blitzes in the spring game that haven't surfaced in the regular season yet.

Offensively, the Hokies have to show that they have progressed beyond what they did against USC. Once USC shut down Bryan Randall's scrambling and running, the Hokie offense had trouble (and what they did create was taken away by poor reffing, but that’s a rant for another day). Like USC, NC State has the ability to shut Randall's running down, and if that occurs, Tech is going to have to do a better job creating yardage with the overall offense, meaning the tailback rushing and the passing game, than they did against the Trojans.

The Hokies have been running a lot of 4-wide, 1-back sets, and State might do what Duke did: pin their ears back and blitz. That will require that VT keep the tailback into block, which they did in the latter stages of the Duke game, or do a better job getting the ball to the tight end, wide receivers, and back out of the backfield. This is where the youth of VT's receivers becomes a liability, because they're not as good at reading defenses and adjusting as more experienced receivers would be.

Bryan Randall needs to play as mistake-free as possible – i.e., avoid turnovers – because the Hokies have a sizable advantage in quarterback experience and maturity, and they need to maintain that advantage, not have Randall trade interceptions with Davis.

The Lane Stadium crowd is also extremely important. Byron Leftwich of Marshall was a seasoned QB in 2002 who struggled with the Lane crowd, so imagine what an advantage crowd noise can be in a game against two inexperienced QBs such as Davis and Stone (who will play, according to Amato). Hokie fans like to get fired up for Virginia, WVU, and Miami, but in the overall scheme of things, this NC State game, as Jeff pointed out, could be the difference between the Hokies going bowling and sitting at home during the holidays for the first time since 1992. Think of that when Davis comes to the line on 3rd and 8 and tries to audible.

Will's Prediction: Hokies 17, Pack 16

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