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Game Preview: Virginia Tech vs. #6 WVU
by Jeff Ouellet, 9/30/04

Saturday, October 2nd, 2004, noon


Forecast (from
Click the "Blacksburg Weather" link to the right.
Saturday forecast, as of 3:00 pm Thursday: Scattered clouds, high of 75, chance of a thunderstorm. Chance of rain 35%.

Click here for's VT/WVU roster card

Preview: Virginia Tech versus #6 West Virginia
by Jeff Ouellet

With the heartbreaking defeat to N.C. State now in the rearview mirror – and it needs to be for the Hokie players, coaches and fans – attention in Blacksburg should be squarely focused on unbeaten and sixth ranked West Virginia (4-0). In what may be the final game in Lane Stadium for this rivalry for the near future, the best WVU team on paper in the last decade will face off against a Virginia Tech team (2-2, 1-1) with more questions than answers.

Head Coach Rich Rodriguez is now in his fourth season in Morgantown and he has firmly established WVU as a solid program. After a disastrous 1-4 start in 2003, the Mountaineers rolled through the rest of the regular season unbeaten with only an embarrassing loss to Maryland in the Gator Bowl keeping the season from being a smashing success (or at least a burning one). For his efforts, Rodriguez was named the Big East Coach of the Year.

With the ACC defections, the Big East is now a conference in flux with WVU, Pitt and Syracuse all having the wherewithal to rise to the top. However, with both Pitt and SU visiting to check resumes, it would appear that the Mountaineers stand poised to become the flagship program for the new Big East.

WVU probably has more experience back than any team that VT will play this year. Even their backups have played key roles for several years, it seems.

This season WVU has fattened up on three alphabetical cupcakes (ECU, UCF and JMU: average score 49-18) and managed to exorcise their biggest demon by defeating the Maryland Terrapins 19-16 in overtime. The UMd victory wasn’t pretty as the Terps turned it over five times, but a win is a win, especially against an offensive playcaller that seems to have your number. Just ask the VT staff about its dalliances with Walt Harris.

WVU’s Offense

I see a number of parallels in the WVU 2004 offensive skill position triumvirate that VT had in 2000 with Michael Vick, Lee Suggs and Andre Davis. While WVU’s version of the triplets is probably not as talented (Vick truly is incomparable), they do have the benefit of working behind an experienced, tough and deep offensive line. In fact, WVU’s offensive line is probably the deepest VT will see all season.

Schematically, WVU operates out of a spread attack but strongly prefers to run the ball. On the year, the Mountaineers have 208 rushing attempts, and only 79 passes (72% of their plays are runs). You might think that was an aberration given the early cupcakes, but in their only competitive game of the year versus Maryland the ratio was even more conservative: a whopping 61 rushes versus 10 passes. WVU is ninth in the country in rushing offense with 276 yards per game, and balances that by being 11th in the country in passing efficiency. The Mountaineers don’t throw in often, but tend to make big plays when they do. WVU is ninth in the country averaging over 41 points per game.

Aptly cast in the role of the athletic quarterback is 6’1”, 190 SR Rasheed Marshall. Marshall is very experienced as he is entering his third year as a starter. He has played against VT in both 2002 and 2003, so he won’t be surprised by either the crowd or the physical nature of the rivalry.

Marshall has a very strong arm which leads to a significant number of big plays, but he can be inaccurate at times. His numbers on the season are terrific as he has completed 62.7 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has a very high yards per completion number, 14.3. However, he still can be prone to bouts of inconsistency and those numbers are somewhat skewed because he has a great back behind him and a very good wide receiver hauling in passes.

Marshall is also very, very dangerous running out of the spread offense. He is second behind Donovan McNabb all time in Big East career quarterback rushing with over 1,300 yards, and this season he’s averaging nearly 40 yards on the ground per game. If VT plays man in the secondary, it will be absolutely imperative for Vince Hall and Mikal Baaqee to track Marshall down on scrambles and designed runs. Marshall reportedly ran a sub 4.4 in spring practice.

Despite the loss of Quincy Wilson at tailback, WVU may be even better there this season. Physical freak Kay-Jay Harris (6’2”, 245 SR) is unparalleled in all of college football in his size/speed ratio. Harris opened the year by destroying an overmatched ECU defense to the tune of 337 yards on 25 carries (13.5 per rush), but he basically sat out the next contest against UCF because of an injury. In the last two games his numbers have been sharply off (32/142 against Maryland and 22/63 versus JMU), so I wonder if his hamstring is still less than 100%.

Harris’ season numbers are still daunting: he has 549 yards in essentially 3 games, averages 6.8 per carry, and has 6 touchdowns. He is a capable receiver out of the backfield and he averages a catch per game thus far this year.

When healthy, Harris is a tough and physical runner who has the burst to take a play outside. He isn’t as shifty in the hole as T.A. McLendon, but he probably has more pure speed once he gets up a head of steam. The key to controlling Harris is to not let him build up steam and start running downhill because he is an absolute load for any secondary player to take to the ground. He is a blue chip NFL prospect.

The backup to Harris is 6’1”, 215 SO Jason Colson. Colson has some nice size and a decent burst. WVU has a tradition of very good backs, and he seems capable of continuing it after Harris departs. On the season Colson has 253 rushing yards (4.6 per carry) with four touchdowns. Colson also is the team’s second leading receiver with 6 catches for 75 yards.

WVU doesn’t use a fullback regularly, but in short yardage they will go to a traditional I set. The two fullbacks that see time are Justin Dziak, a 5’11”, 235 SO, and 6’0”, 220 SR Hikee Johnson. Dziak is the more physical of the two, while Johnson (a former UVa recruit) has nifty receiving skills.

WVU will play anywhere from two to four wide receivers at any time. The big name is 6’5”, 195 JR Chris Henry. Henry obviously has great size, but he also possesses very good speed. He is not a polished wide receiver on the order of a Larry Fitzgerald, but his physical gifts are undeniable. Henry is particularly dangerous in the red zone where his height and leaping ability make him a virtually impossible cover. He projects as a likely first round pick in the NFL.

Henry is Marshall’s first, second and third option in the passing game. Henry has nearly half of WVU catches (23 catches of 49 total completions) and yards (325 of 699), and two thirds of their passing touchdowns (6 of 9). Again, WVU doesn’t pass often but when they do it will be going in his direction.

WVU really hasn’t had a second wide receiver with any production. Harris and Colson combined have 10 catches: the next wide receiver only has four catches on the year.

Brandon Myles (6’3”, 190 JR) is probably the second biggest threat out wide. He only has four catches, but they have gone for 121 total yards and two touchdowns. Miquelle Henderson (6’3”, 225 SR) and Eddie Jackson (6’4”, 225) also play a lot and have 4 catches for 50 yards and 3 catches for 47 yards respectively. While these receivers don’t catch a lot of balls, they all are physically imposing and they use that size to block downfield.

WVU uses a tight end occasionally, but it isn’t a staple of their offense. They have two jumbo options: 6’7”, 270 SR Ryan Thomas (1 catch for 17 yards) or 6’5”, 265 JR Josh Bailey.

WVU’s offensive line is very good and has combined for 104 starts in their career. Essentially, the line averages a two year starter at every position. The group only gave up 14 sacks last season and essentially returns intact. This year WVU is averaging 5.3 per rush. It is worth noting that they have given up eight sacks, a high number for a team that doesn’t pass much and has a mobile quarterback.

Probably the two biggest names on the line are SR right guard Jeff Berk (6’5”, 290) and SR center Tim Brown (6’5”, 305). Berk has started 33 consecutive games and he’s an anchor inside for the Mountaineers. He should be all conference this season.

Brown is a very valuable lineman who has played everywhere on the line at some point in time. He was slated to start at tackle last year before suffering a season ending injury. He has 28 career starts and likely will have an NFL future with his versatility.

SO left guard Dan Mozes (6’4”, 295) is the rising star of the group. Mozes has started 16 of his 17 games in Morgantown, and he has a nasty disposition and a physical presence. One unique thing about WVU is that all of their interior linemen are, relatively speaking, light. Because of their spread offense, WVU requires their linemen to move a significant amount and even their interior players are light on their feet.

6’8”, 305 JR right tackle Garin Justice (15 career starts) and 6’5”, 305 SR left tackle Michael Watson (12 starts) are the anchors outside. Watson especially will have his hands full with Darryl Tapp, Jim Davis and company on the perimeter.

WVU also has three players on the bench who have started at least two games on the offensive line: SO center Jeremy Hines, SO right guard Jeremy Sheffy, and JR left tackle Travis Garrett.

If you couple WVU’s preference for a ground attack with the fact that WVU has gashed the Hokies’ interior for 263 and 264 rushing yards, respectively, the last two times they played, it would seem apparent that the game can be reduced to blood and sweat in the trenches.

WVU’s Defense

Defensively West Virginia has just been okay this year. They are 31st nationally in total defense, yielding 299 yards per game, with 122 coming on the ground and 177 coming through the air. WVU is 51st nationally in rushing defense and 36th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

The Mountaineers employ a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that often times acts like an undersized eight man front. As with anything, there are benefits and drawbacks. On the benefit side of the ledger, having eight men off the line of scrimmage allows a lot of unique blitzing angles and permits (on passing downs) the undersized rusher to build up a head of steam and pick a free lane if the offensive line doesn’t adjust to the delayed rush. On the negative side, if the front three get blown off the ball in the running game, then 5 yard rushes become the norm.

Up front the two veterans are JR defensive end Ernest Hunter (6’4”, 290) and SR defensive tackle Ben Lynch (6’4”, 280). Hunter has started 19 games and has 6 tackles this season; Lynch has started 17 games and has 7 tackles with a sack this year. Neither one is expected to put up numbers in the WVU scheme. Remember, however, they combined for 2 tackles for losses and 2 sacks in last year’s debacle in Morgantown, and that was against a line anchored by the best center in the country.

The third starter up front is 6’3”, 300 SR defensive end Jason Hardee. Hardee is the relative newcomer with seven career starts, and he has 11 tackles on the year. He also chipped in with a sack in the game last year.

As a whole, the West Virginia front is vastly different from what the Hokies saw last week. WVU’s linemen are tough and more physical than state, but they do not have the athleticism of a Manny Lawson or a Mario Williams to drop in coverage during a zone blitz nor do they have the quickness of a John McCargo.

The heart of last season’s WVU defense, linebacker Grant Wiley, is gone, but his role has been filled by tough middle linebacker Adam Lehnortt (6’4”, 230 SR). Lehnortt runs well and is a physical player who started last year on the outside. Lehnortt makes a lot of plays in the backfield (six tackles for losses and a sack) and is third on the team with 21 overall tackles. He also moves well in pass coverage.

The strong side linebacker is 6’1”, 245 SO Kevin McLee. McLee is a solid, stay at home type who has registered 15 tackles overall but has no tackles for losses on the year. He is a new starter this year. His counterpart on the weakside is two year returning starter Scott Gyorko (6’0”, 225 SR). Gyorko is a high energy and intense player who relies on instinct, speed and intelligence. He has 16 tackles on the year, including two tackles for losses and a sack. He had his best game against Maryland with seven tackles and a pass breakup.

The biggest name is the secondary is returning starter Adam “Pacman” Jones. Jones is a 5’11”, 185 JR who has a pro future. Jones had a big game last year against the Hokies with 7 tackles and an interception. This year Jones has stepped up his game further, as he is second on the team with 25 tackles and first in interceptions (2, both versus Maryland) and passes broken up (4). Jones is an aggressive, physical corner in pass coverage and run defense, and you can bet he’s going to be pressing VT’s young receivers at the line of scrimmage. Jones plays the boundary corner position and is the most physically gifted Mountaineer defender.

The field corner is 6’0”, 195 JR Anthony Mims. Mims doesn’t appear a lot on the stat sheet with only seven tackles, but he does have an interception and two passes broken up.

I would expect the Hokies to attack Mims more than Jones, especially if the protection is sketchy because he is more apt to give cushion. Larry Williams, a 6’1”, 190 FR with a bright future, also will see time here.

Two starters return at the safety positions. Jahmile Addae is a 6’0”, 205 JR with 20 career starts at free safety, while JR strong safety Mike Lorello (6’1”, 205) has 17 career starts. Addae is the last line of defense and coordinates a lot of the pass coverage. He has 12 tackles on the year.

Lorello moved from bandit safety last year to strong safety this year. Despite the position change, against VT I would still expect him to play close to the line of scrimmage as the eighth man up. Lorello has 20 tackles, four for losses, on the season. He is a weight room warrior who, barring injury, will move into the top ten all time for WVU in tackles for a loss as a junior safety. He needs to be accounted for in the Hokie running game.

The newest member of the secondary is bandit safety Lawrence Audena, a 6’0”, 200 SR. Audena leads WVU in tackles with 26 total and he has forced three fumbles on the year.

Audena will be the seventh man up in a lot of formations, as he loosely fills the role of whip linebacker in VT’s scheme.

WVU’s Special Teams

Overall, the WVU special teams are very good. On paper, this matchup is a push and it can’t be if VT intends to win the game.

Jones is a difference maker on both punt and kickoff returns. On punts Jones averages 19.8 yards per return, seventh in the nation, and he has a 76 yard return for a touchdown this year versus ECU. On kickoffs, Jones averages 27.4 yards per return (13th in the nation) with a long of 53. He is very, very dangerous, and the fewer returns he has the better it is for the Hokies.

The other deep man on kickoffs is Myles, who is averaging 21.5 per return.

SR kicker Brad Cooper is four for six on the season, but that’s deceptive as he has had no easy attempts all year. He missed one 39 yard attempt, had another 39 yard attempt blocked, and has converted from 37, 45, 48 and 54. He is a weapon. The kickoff coverage team is okay as they yield slightly over 20 yards per return.

The WVU punting game is average. JR Phil Brady has a 39.4 yard average with a net of approximately 36 yards (54th in net punting in the nation). Rodriguez likes to use trickeration in the punting game however. If it is third and a mile or if he’s in a fourth and two from his opponents’ 41 yard line, he has no qualms with letting his quarterback punt. In fact, he has had two quarterback punts this year (Marshall’s sole punt went for 39 yards and a touchback). Don’t be shocked if they quick kick to keep the ball out of Eddie Royal’s hands.

The Lowdown

There are a lot of trends here that are disconcerting. Paying homage to Captain Obvious, WVU has simply punched us in the mouth the last two years along both lines. If that situation doesn’t resolve itself, VT won’t have a chance in this game.

VT’s defensive line has made a lot of plays early this year, and in my opinion is much improved. Still, the VT defensive tackles will have to stand tall against the interior of the WVU offensive line. Jonathan Lewis really played well last week, and Jim Davis has been redirecting the line of scrimmage a lot. However, Lewis struggled against these guys last year, and Davis is still an end playing inside. The backup tackles have had their moments, but a couple of McLendon’s big runs were against our reserves. All five of the VT tackles will have to play large against Harris. Gap control is essential to handling the running game in the spread offense.

Vince Hall is extremely aggressive in run support (a welcome sight, I might add), but he’s going to get caught in traffic and guess wrong some. That is the nature of being a freshman. James Griffin and Vince Fuller have to be aggressive and keep the “big runs” for Harris to 12 yards rather than 20 plus.

On the offensive side of the ball, our passing game has to execute better. WVU doesn’t have a stud pass rusher on the field, so our line should be able to man up on their front three. The two “loose” lineman have to keep their head on a swivel and must decide on the fly whether to help double or to wait to pick up late blitzers. Similar decisions will have to be made by our backs and tight ends. Our blockers have to do a better job of recognizing blitz schemes.

Given our performance last week, my guess is there will be guys blitzing from the WVU bench before the Star Spangled Banner. Bryan Randall needs to throw quickly and decisively. WVU’s linebackers aren’t as fast as State’s, and their coverage collectively isn’t as good, so some plays can be made. Randall has to be put in a position to succeed, and then he needs to trust his wide receivers to make plays in one-on-one situations.

Another problematic trend is that WVU has been very good at holding onto the ball. The last two seasons the Mountaineers have been in the top five in the NCAA in turnover margin, and they are plus one per game this year (24th in the NCAA). They are more generous on penalties (92 yards per game), but overall this is a team that plays things close to the vest making it less likely they will beat themselves. That kicking game is also an advantage.

West Virginia thrives on big plays. As noted in last week’s article, State was a team that made no significant passing plays downfield. West Virginia is the converse. West Virginia has eleven runs of 20 or more yards this year, with an injured Harris, and nine passes of 20 yards or more (out of only 49 completions). Adam Jones has six plays of 20 yards or more, and he is only a return specialist and defensive player. For years the knock on the VT defense was that they were susceptible to the big play. WVU has the skill position athletes to make big plays.

Additionally, WVU’s efficiency in the red zone is astounding. I do realize they have played a weak early schedule, but the numbers speak for themselves. They have had 17 first and 10s inside their opponents 20 yard line, and they have scored on 16 of those 17 possessions (one fumble). Here is the really scary part: on all 16 of those possessions WVU scored touchdowns, nine on the ground and seven in the air. Not once were they held to a field goal once they got inside the 20. Obviously, having Harris in the backfield and a very tall wide receiver like Henry wide helps immensely, but that’s still machine-like efficiency for an offense.

Finally, for whatever reason VT has a tendency to lose close games to teams that are similarly talented. WVU has at least as much talent as VT and far more experience. Until VT wins a close one, I’m taking the Missouri approach – show me.

With all that being said, I think VT will play well and have a legitimate chance to win this game. In the end, though, I don’t see it happening.

Prediction: WVU 27, VT 24

Will Stewart's Take: 263 yards on 46 carries in 2002. 264 yards on 59 carries in 2003. The West Virginia offense has totaled 527 yards rushing and has averaged 5 yards per carry on the Hokies the last two seasons. Never mind Bryan Randall's end-zone interception in 2002 and VT's meltdown in 2003. The numbers that stood out the most the last couple of years were those. With that spread offense and powerful blocking, WVU's tailbacks have been able to take the handoff, get a good running start, and hit the hole the last couple of years.

That destroys one long-held belief of VT football: that you can' t run on the Hokies.

Another long-held belief – on my part, anyway – is that you can't beat a Beamer Bowl Era VT team three times in a row (unless you're Miami). Well, Pitt did it, from 2001-2003.

Another long-held belief is that Lane Stadium is a tough place for visiting teams to win. But since 2001, the Hokies have lost to Syracuse, Pittsburgh, WVU, and Boston College at home. Those teams used to never win in Blacksburg – they went 0-10 in Lane Stadium from 1996-2000 – but from 2001-2003, Tech went just 2-4 against those four teams at home.

None of this is meant to incite wailing, gnashing of the teeth, or yet another bash-the-coaches round of message board posts. It's merely used as background to explain my rapidly decreasing confidence in Tech to win games such as the one coming up Saturday.

As I've said before, predicting games is all about going with the trends and the most likely outcomes. And these days, the trends are not in favor of VT, not in this game. WVU comes into Lane with an experienced QB, an offensive line that has dominated the Hokies for two straight years, and no fear of a place where they won their last game, a night game no less, in 2002 (phantom holding calls and Lee Suggs non-touchdowns notwithstanding).

I would like to think Tech will win, I'm just not sure how. I don't trust them to stop the run, I don't trust them to stop the WVU losing streak at two games, I don't trust them to defend the fort, and I don't trust them to win a close game [which I think this will be]. They haven't done those things for a while against WVU. So I'm going with the trends on this one.

Will's Prediction: WVU 24, VT 17

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