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Game Preview: #11 Virginia Tech vs. #16 Virginia
by Jeff Ouellet, 11/23/04

Saturday, November 27th, 2004, 1:00

TV: ABC regional (click here for coverage map, PDF format)

Forecast (from
Click the "Blacksburg Weather" link to the right.
Game time forecast, as of 2:30 pm Tuesday: Mostly cloudy, 45 degrees, 57% chance of rain.

Click here for's VT/UVa roster card

Preview: #11 Virginia Tech (8-2, 5-1) vs. #16 Virginia (8-2, 5-2)
by Jeff Ouellet

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 base.

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.

Virginia’s Offense

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 points.

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 league.

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 Isaiah.

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 effectiveness, however.

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 linebackers.

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 dependable.

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 junior season.

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.

Virginia’s Defense

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 times.

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 part.

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 coverage responsibilities.

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 credit.

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).

The Lowdown

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 the ACC.

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 especially.

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 help.

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

Will Stewart's Take: You can throw around stats and schemes all you want, but I think that more often than not, the outcome of this game comes down to simple momentum. I think momentum determines the outcome of a lot of games in November, and since this rivalry has almost always been played in November in recent times, momentum has been a big key.

The Hokies, as you know, have a lot of positive momentum right now. Six straight wins, no turnovers for the last two games, a defense playing at its peak, a blossoming offense, a jacked up fan base -- all have contributed to a team on a roll.

Had the Cavaliers lost to Georgia Tech last weekend in Atlanta, they would have come into Blacksburg with a lot of negative momentum, and forecasting a Hokie victory would have been a no-brainer. But because UVa won in Bobby Dodd Stadium, something they hadn't done since 1994, they are still on steady mental ground and have a shot at a tie for the ACC championship, a motivating factor. The Cavs' win in the ATL is a big influence on this game.

Having said that, I like VT's momentum right now, and I think they have the advantage in that department. I could chat X's and O's, because I know what VT has to do to win -- stop the run, pressure Hagans, execute in the passing game, don't turn it over, and win the special teams battle -- but to me, it's all about momentum in this one. And VT's got more of it. So I'm picking the Hokies to win.

Barring a mismatch or a special situation (such as Maryland's floundering offense), my score predictions this year have taken the following form: project VT to score between 20 and 30, and project the other team to score between 10 and 20.

Have a good Thanksgiving, everyone.

Will's Prediction: VT 26, Virginia 17


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