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Game Preview: Virginia Tech vs. Western Michigan
by Jeff Ouellet, 9/9/04

Saturday, September 11th, 2004, 1:00

TV: none

Forecast (from
Click the "Blacksburg Weather" link to the right.
Saturday forecast, as of 11:00 pm Wednesday: Scattered clouds, 72 degrees at game time, with a high of 75. 10% chance of rain.
Click here for NOAA's Hurricane Ivan track forecast

Click here for's VT/WMU roster card

Preview: Virginia Tech versus Western Michigan
by Jeff Ouellet

Coming off a tough loss to USC in Landover, Md., Virginia Tech is ready to find the win column on Saturday. This week the Hokies draw a MAC opponent with which they are familiar, the Western Michigan Broncos, in Lane Stadium. The Broncos, as you may remember, lined up against the Hokies in 2001 and 2002 and suffered 31-0 and 30-0 losses, respectively.

Western Michigan’s head coach, Gary Darnell, has gone from the hot list to the hot seat. Darnell led the Broncos to back to back MAC West Division titles in 1999 and 2000, but his last three seasons have been mediocre with the last two years resulting in losing campaigns. WMU went 5-7 last year and lost 12 starters, including stud defensive end Jason Babin, an NFL first rounder, and two-time team MVP Jason Feldpausch, a safety. On paper, this WMU team should be worse than last year’s version.

With that being said, WMU opened the 2004 season by pasting Division I-AA Tennessee-Martin 42-0. There are some caveats about the win: Tennessee-Martin came into the game with a grand total of 10 wins over the last eight years (two in 2003) and was starting 11 sophomores and 4 freshmen. Nonetheless, the shutout was noteworthy for a defense that gave up a school record (the bad kind) 370 points in 2003.

WMU’s Offense

The Broncos threw the ball very effectively last season, finishing eighth nationally in passing yardage. Conversely, their rushing game was non-existent as they finished 116th in rushing with only 81 yards per game and 2.8 yards per rush (ouch). Offensive coordinator Brian Rock and Darnell vowed to be more balanced this fall.

Western Michigan lost its top two quarterbacks from last season, Jon Drach and Chad Munson. Their new quarterback, junior Blayne Baggett, had thrown just 14 passes coming into the year. Baggett has good size at 6’2", 220, and decent mobility. He had a solid debut as he went 13-18 for 198 yards with three touchdowns and one interception versus Tennessee-Martin. The backup QB is a name familiar to Hokie fans, none other than former Rutgers QB Ryan Cubit. Cubit lost a preseason battle for the starting job and has a shoulder injury, but if Baggett is ineffective and Cubit is healthy, don’t be surprised if he gets some snaps.

Western Michigan tends to run a lot of two tight end/three receiver alignments, so they don’t have a traditional fullback on the field much (they did use a fullhouse backfield in a goal line situation last week). The bulk of the carries will go to 5’10", 197 JR Trovon Riley. Riley had 22 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown in the opener. Riley isn’t a power back and relies more on his speed and open field moves.

The most experience and talent on the WMU offense is found at wide receiver. WMU’s best player is 5’11", 192 JR wide receiver Greg Jennings. Jennings had a breakout year last fall when he caught a school record 14 touchdown passes and had 1,050 receiving yards on 56 catches (a healthy 18.8 average yards per reception). Scoring one touchdown for every four receptions is a very high ratio for a college wide receiver, especially one who isn’t 6’5".

For WMU to keep this game close Jennings will have to be a major factor in the game. Jennings did not have big numbers in the passing game in the opener - four catches for 33 yards - but he broke the game open early with a 53 yard punt return for a touchdown.

The counterpart for Jennings is athletically gifted Tyrone Walker. Walker is a 6’2", 198 SR with very good speed. Walker only had 12 receptions last year, but he also had a hefty per catch average (18.0 yards).

The Broncos have two talented youngsters in their wide receiver corps as well, 6’4", 207 R-FR Brian Jackson and 5’11", 183 SO Justin LeMay. Jackson could see some work down at the goal line, and LeMay was on the receiving end of the longest play against Tennessee-Martin, a 63 yard touchdown pass from Baggett. LeMay started as a third wide receiver last week.

Another position of strength for WMU is tight end. Although WMU could stick with the three-wide alignment they showed in game one, I would expect the Broncos to open in a two tight end set. At the very least I would expect the Broncos to play a lot with two tight ends for several reasons: (1) that should allow them to help slow the pass rush of the VT defensive ends by chipping or forcing the ends to take a wider pass rush if they intend to do a traditional speed rush; (2) the two-tight end set also may help the Broncos create mismatches with the backer, whip and rover; and (3) all three tight ends that will see time for Western Michigan are big and talented, and with time being at a premium for Baggett I think the Broncos need to emphasize the short passing game.

The starter is 6’6", 250 JR Tony Scheffler who is capably backed up by 6’6’, 235 SO Tyson DeVree. Both of them are good receivers: DeVree was a freshman All-America in some publications after a 30-catch, 331-yard debut season. Scheffler only played one game last year because of a shoulder injury, but he might be the best tight end in the MAC, when healthy. His sole reception last year was good for 40 yards. Another name to watch is T-FR Mike Onaga (6’4", 257") who began his college career with a bang by scoring a touchdown last week. All told, the three tight ends combined for 4 catches for 45 yards and a touchdown last week against Tennessee-Martin.

The offensive line situation does not look good from the Broncos perspective. Western Michigan couldn’t run the ball at all last year, and they only return two starters. Even worse, against Tennessee Martin the Broncos rushed the ball 38 times for 108 total yards, yielding the same 2.8 yard per carry average that the team had last year. The rushing statistic is somewhat misleading in that Western Michigan lost 30 yards on the ground by virtue of three quarterback sacks, but that raises the additional red flag of how Tennessee-Martin got three quarterback sacks against them.

Probably the best player on the line is left tackle Kyle Ras. Ras is a 6’6", 298 SR who started last year at left guard and moved outside this year to protect the blind side. He will get a look from some NFL scouts although it is likely he will have to shift back inside to have any chance of sticking. The other returning starter is right guard Mark Ottney, a 6’6", 290 JR who is a solid run blocker that may merit some all conference consideration.

The three new starters on the O-line all have decent size: 6’5", 300 SO LG Dominic Moran, 6’3", 310 R-FR Robbie Krutilla, and 6’5", 288 JR RT Brandon James. Krutilla, in particular, will be challenged by the defensive tackles of the Hokies.

WMU’s defense

Western Michigan runs a 4-2-5 alignment that got torched last year, giving up over 30 points per game. They also lost Babin, who accounted for 43% of their sacks and 33% of their quarterback hurries. Throw in a first year defensive coordinator in J.C. Harper, and there is a lot of uncertainty with respect to the D.

The game against Tennessee-Martin was encouraging on a number of fronts for the Bronco faithful. The first score of the game was generated by the defense as linebacker Mike Giorgianni returned an interception 33 yards. The Broncos limited Tennessee-Martin to 222 total yards and one big play, a 44 yard pass reception. The shutout had to raise confidence among the players.

The biggest name on the Broncos defense is DE Jack Gitler, a 6’2", 254 SR. Gitler was a second team all-conference pick last year with seven sacks and 19 tackles for a loss. He also tied for third on the team with 88 tackles. Gitler has good upfield quickness, but he likely will find the going a lot tougher without Babin as his bookend occupying opposing offensive lines. Gitler registered two tackles for losses and a fumble recovery in week one.

The other end is Nick Melcher, a 6’4", 255 SR who is a first year starter. Melcher is an effort guy that registered four tackles for losses and three sacks last year. The speed-rush threat is athletically gifted 6’5", 230 SR Ernest Osborne. Osborne had a sack in the opener.

Anchoring the interior is nose guard Paul Moersch, a 6’4", 291 JR. Moersch had 38 tackles last year and often had the unenviable task of tying up blockers. Defensive tackle Erik Oleson is a 6’3", 265 SR who had limited experience last year with only 15 tackles. Except for Moersch, the front for WMU is below average in size.

Both linebacker starters from last season return for the Broncos. Paul Tithof is a sophomore who moves well and is undersized at 6’1", 215. Tithof registered an impressive 88 tackles last year as a freshman in only 10 games, including 10 tackles for a loss. He is a very active player, and he led the way in the first game with 11 tackles and a forced fumble. Giorgianni is a senior who is 6’0", 220. He contributed 52 tackles last fall, and the interception last week that put WMU ahead to stay.

The secondary returns three of five starters including both corners and the free safety. The veteran is SR Scott Robinson (5’11", 189), who has 24 career starts under his belt. Robinson is an aggressive defensive back who had 16 tackles for a loss last year, three sacks and nine quarterback hurries as a strong safety last fall. He has converted to cornerback this year, but don’t be surprised if he blitzes a few times from the blindside of the field during this week’s game.

The other corner is 5’9", 186 SO Jimmie Vincent. Vincent started three games last fall, but wasn’t involved in a whole lot of plays. He is more of the pure cover-corner type.

The third returning starter is JR free safety Kevin Ford. Ford is listed at 5’11", 197, and he had impressive statistics last year: 111 total tackles (second on the team to Babin), three interceptions and 10 passes defensed. Ford is given the freedom to roam on the defensive side of the ball, although he spends most of his time in the defensive backfield as the last man on the totem pole. He only had one tackle for a loss all of last season.

The strong safety in the WMU defense often walks up as a third linebacker, and this year SO Darrell Copeland is that player. Copeland is the biggest of the Bronco defensive backs at 6’1", 208, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of experience as he only had 17 tackles last fall. Copeland will be a key player as the Broncos try to stuff the Hokies’ running game.

The final starter in the secondary is SR WS Mark Hardy, 6’1", 196. Hardy had eight tackles last week including a tackle for a loss. Hardy will face a lot of pressure trying to help the corners against VT’s fast, but inexperienced, wide receiver corps.

Special Teams

Western Michigan is pretty good on special teams. Punter Adam Anderson is a senior All-America candidate who averaged almost 44 yards per kick with 20 punts inside the 20-yard line. He has a strong leg and accuracy as well. He’s one of the top ten punters in the country.

Jennings is a dangerous punt returner who totaled 71 return yards on three attempts, including one score, last week. The kickoff returners likely will be Jennings and Walker, the starting wide receivers, and both have good speed. Jennings averaged 21.6 yards per return last year and Walker 20.1.

The kicker is SR Robert Menchinger. Menchinger didn’t miss an extra point, but he was only 8 of 15 on field goal attempts last season. If the Broncos need a 40 yard plus kick, expect SO Nate Meyer to attempt the kick.

In the event the game turns out to be close, keep this in the clip and save department: Baggett, their starting quarterback, is their holder.

The Lowdown

It is always risky to extrapolate results from one game to the next with a young football team. VT played hard and, at times, very well in their opener against USC. If they play with the same level of intensity against Western Michigan, this game should be a comfortable win.

In particular, I think VT has a significant advantage on both lines. Western Michigan hasn’t been able to run the ball effectively either last year or against Tennessee-Martin, and that is very bad news for a team coming into Lane. Baggett, as a new quarterback, will have to deal with a hostile crowd and an even more hostile group of defensive ends that will pin their ears back on passing downs. The recipe is there for a four-turnover type game.

I would expect Western Michigan to run a lot of wide receiver screens, particularly to Jennings, and to involve the tight ends in the passing game early. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see them go up top once or twice in the first quarter against whoever is playing the boundary corner. WMU is going to have to do something to slow down the Hokie line, or it will be a very long day for their offense.

Defensively, Western Michigan is going to have a tough time stuffing the VT running game. They are really undersized in their front six, and even walking up two safeties might not help significantly. I think the Hokies will look to get Cedric Humes and Justin Hamilton on track early, with some passing mixed in to help get VT’s four freshmen receivers some game experience. If WMU sells out to stop the run, expect some play action to the tight end or a reverse to Josh Hyman or Eddie Royal.

My best guess is that the Hokies control the game early and give up a few points late when the wholesale substitutions arrive.

Prediction: VT 45, WMU 10

Will Stewart's Take: Reading through Jeff's rundown of WMU, I think it will be a dominating day for VT's defense and a workmanlike day for VT's offense. Better WMU offenses have failed to score against VT in the recent past, with WMU losing to Tech 31-0 in 2001 and 30-0 in 2002.

For the WMU offense, I think it will be more of the same, though I don't think VT will shut the Broncos out again. Shutting out a team, any team, three times in a row is very, very difficult, and I don't think it'll happen. WMU will have trouble moving the ball with anything resembling consistency, because of their dismal running attack and what appears to be, based on one game's evidence, an improved VT pass rush. I think WMU will find themselves in a lot of second and long and third and long situations, and that's not a recipe for scoring many points.

Offensively, I don't think the Hokies are going to blow you away Saturday. They may or may not run the ball well, and they make some plays in the passing game, but as they break in a young crew of receivers, I think consistency will be hard to come by. They'll put some things together here and there, I think, but I don’t think they'll march up and down the field relentlessly.

But as Jeff pointed out, it's hard to predict things this early in the season with a young team. Still, I will predict a score. WMU will get a couple of field goals, and the Hokies will piece together three TDs and two field goals.

Will's Prediction: VT 27, WMU 6

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