2008 Football Game Preview: Virginia Tech at Nebraska

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Saturday, September 27th, 2008, 8:00

TV: ABC (coverage
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Game Preview: Virginia Tech (3-1, 2-0 ACC) vs. Nebraska (3-0, 0-0 Big 12)


by Chris Coleman, TechSideline.com

We spend a lot of time talking about how ACC schools do against
out-of-conference opponents. This past weekend was very good. This week Virginia
Tech gets a chance to do their share, as they travel to Lincoln for a primetime
game against Nebraska on ABC.


The Nebraska Offense

Nebraska looks to be the most balanced offense Virginia Tech will face this
season. The Huskers have an impressive passing game, with 5th year seniors at
quarterback and wide receiver. They have also made a commitment to improve their
power running game this year, and they return 1,000 yard rusher Marlon Lucky.

Nebraska has a new head coach this year in former LSU defensive coordinator
Bo Pelini, so the Husker offense is in a state of flux, but it’s still valuable
to look at last year’s statistics and results. Nebraska scored 31 points or more
on seven occasions last year. Here is a look at their top offensive games.


Nebraska Offensive
Output in 2007

Opponent

Points

Nevada

52

USC

31

Ball State

41

Iowa State

35

Kansas

39

Kansas State

73

Colorado

51

When they are in rhythm, they are obviously capable of putting up a lot of
points. However, they also scored just 20 points against Wake Forest, 6 against
Missouri, 14 against Oklahoma State and 14 against Texas A&M. Things seemed
to be either hit or miss last year.

The offense is led by quarterback Joe Ganz (6-1, 210, r-Sr.). Ganz is a
former walk-on who started three games for Nebraska last season, and did a good
job. He threw for 16 touchdowns and 7 interceptions while racking up nearly
2,000 yards. Ganz had some impressive performances, such as his 510-yard, seven
touchdown performance against Kansas State. However, he also had some tough
days. He threw four interceptions against Kansas, and three more against
Colorado.

So far this season, Ganz is completing 64.1% of his passes for 719 yards,
with five touchdowns and three interceptions. He is accurate and efficient, but
he has also shown a tendency to throw a few interceptions. In six career starts,
he has thrown 10 picks.

Ganz is a mobile quarterback who can escape the pocket and make plays with
his feet. He is a dangerous thrower on the run. The Tech defense needs to play
disciplined coverages downfield, because Ganz can hurt them even when it looks
like the play is breaking down.

He has two 5th year seniors at receiver. Nate Swift (6-2, 200, r-Sr.) entered
the season third in Nebraska history in career receiving yards (1,535) and
fourth in career receptions (103). 45 of his receptions came as a freshman in
2005. So far this year he has 12 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns. He
needs just 28 more receptions to catch Johnny Rogers as the all-time leading
receiver in Nebraska history.

Swift is joined at wideout by Todd Peterson (6-4, 215, Sr.). Peterson is a
former walk-on who has developed into a solid receiver for the Cornhuskers. A
big target, he has 11 catches for 127 yards this year. Peterson and Swift are
smart players. They are both Academic All-Big12 players.

Nebraska doesn’t have great depth at wide receiver this year. They lost four
receivers off last year’s team, and right now Swift and Peterson are clearly the
go-to players. Menelik Holt (6-4, 220, Jr.) has eight catches, while Niles Paul
(6-1, 210, So.) has three.

Perhaps the top player on Nebraska’s offense is I-Back Marlon Lucky (6-0,
215, Sr.). Lucky ran for over 1,000 yards last year, and also set a Nebraska
single season record by catching 75 passes out of the backfield. He averaged
145.3 all-purpose yards per game.

So far this year, Lucky has just five catches for 56 yards through the air.
On the ground, he has 34 carries for 169 yards and five touchdowns. He is
averaging five yards per carry on the season, however if you subtract one long
run of 58 yards, he is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. The Cornhuskers are
trying to get back to a more physical brand of football this year, and results
have been mixed so far. Lucky has a good rushing average on paper, but the
consistency hasn’t been there.

Nebraska will also run Roy Helu, Jr. (6-0, 215, So.). He has 23 carries for
143 yards and two touchdowns. It’s key to note that in their combined 57
carries, Lucky and Helu, Jr. have been hit in the backfield for 23 yards worth
of losses. Compare that to Tech’s Darren Evans, who has lost just three yards on
56 carries. Opposing defenses have gotten some penetration against Nebraska’s
running game. Nebraska opponents (Western Michigan, San Jose State and New
Mexico State) combined for more tackles for loss (22) than the Cornhuskers (21).

Nebraska’s offensive line is very solid and very experienced, though they
could be having difficulty adjusting to the power running style that Bo Pelini
is trying to install. It’s a big adjustment from the passing attack they blocked
in under Bill Callahan. Here is a look at Nebraska’s line, their size, and their
experience.


Nebraska Offensive Line

Pos

Player

Ht

Wt

Year

Experience

LT

Mike Smith

6-6

285

r-So.

1st Year Starter

LG

Mike Huff

6-4

300

r-Sr.

22 Career Starts, 19 at RG

C

Jacob Hickman

6-4

290

Jr.

9 Starts at LG in 2007

RG

Matt Slauson

6-5

320

Sr.

25 Career Starts, guard and tackle

RT

Lydon Murtha

6-7

315

r-Sr.

2nd Year Starter at RT

Experience is key on the offensive line, obviously. These guys have experience,
but several of them have moved back and forth to different positions, depending
on needs because of injury. That creates a loss of cohesion up front, as the
Hokies have learned in the past. Perhaps that is a reason for the inconsistent
running game so far this year.

Slauser was 2nd team All-Big 12 last year, while Hickman and Murtha were
honorable mention. The right side of the line appears to be the strongest side.

Nebraska’s offense ranks 20th in the nation, averaging 450.33 yards per game.
Here is a look at their competition’s defensive rankings, and how the
Cornhuskers fared against each team.


Nebraska’s Opposition

Opponent

National
Defensive Rank

Nebraska’s
Total Yards

Western Michigan

93

483

San Jose State

23

315

New Mexico State

113

553

Nebraska racked up the yardage against two bad defensive teams. They were
held in check by what appears to be a solid San Jose State defense. Nebraska’s
rushing attack was held to 99 yards on 30 carries by San Jose State.

The Cornhuskers are very good on offense, but they certainly aren’t
unstoppable. It will be important for Virginia Tech to shut down the running
game, and make Nebraska one-dimensional. One-dimensional teams almost never beat
the Hokies. Georgia Tech (run-oriented) and UNC (pass-oriented) are the most
recent examples.

The Nebraska Defense

The defense was Nebraska’s big weakness last season. Here is a look at their
toughest outings.


Nebraska Defense in 2007

Opponent

Points
Allowed

USC

49

Ball State

40

Missouri

41

Oklahoma State

45

Texas A&M

36

Texas

28

Kansas

76

Kansas State

31

Colorado

65

Ouch, that’s a rough season. Nebraska’s vaunted blackshirt defense was virtually
non-existent down the stretch a year ago, as the Huskers finished 112th out of
119 teams in total defense, and 114th in scoring defense. Bo Pelini has brought
in a good defensive attitude, and this is surely an improved unit from a year
ago. Still, they are nowhere close to dominant. They are just 63rd nationally in
total defense after playing Western Michigan, San Jose State and New Mexico
State.

Nebraska suffered a tough loss earlier in the season when defensive end Barry
Turner was lost for the season with a broken leg. Turner is a former Virginia
Tech recruiting target. Pierre Allen (6-5, 265, r-So.) replaced Turner is the
starting lineup, and he leads the Cornhuskers with four tackles for loss on the
season.

The other starting defensive end is Zach Potter (6-7, 280, Sr.). Potter is
obviously a big defensive end, and he had 11 tackles for loss a season ago. He
has 1.5 sacks on the season, but overall he’s not the pass rushing type, with
just four career sacks.

Thus far, Nebraska’s defensive tackles appear to be the best pass rushers.
Starting defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (6-4, 300, r-Jr.) has two sacks on the
season, while Shukree Barfield (6-4, 290, Sr.) and Terrence Moore (6-3, 275,
r-Fr.) have one sack each. All three play the nose tackle position, while Ty
Steinkuhler (6-3, 280, r-Sr.) and Jared Crick (6-6, 280, r-Fr.) man the other
tackle spot.

This Nebraska defensive line is doing a very good job against the run so far
this season. Opposing teams are averaging just 77.7 yards per game on the
ground, and just 2.6 yards per carry. The Tech running game will provide
Nebraska’s sternest test thus far.

Nebraska is similar to Florida State in that they play a base man-to-man
defense. They like to bring a lot of twists and stunts, plus some blitzes, up
front while the secondary plays man-to-man. Tyrod Taylor was able to dominate
the FSU defense last season, with his arm and with his legs. There are fewer
reads, and playing against a man-to-man defense is a lot more comfortable for a
quarterback than playing against zone.

Will the Cornhuskers show Tech more zone this week, or will they stat with
their man-to-man packages? Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini had this to say:

“You can’t change your whole package just based on him,” Pelini
said. “Regardless, he’s a good football player. He’s going to get outside.
He’s going to break contain, and he’s going to get on the loose every now and
then. He’s that good of an athlete. But you can’t let him scare you out of
running your system.”

It appears that Taylor will have his chances on Saturday night. Man-to-man
defense means that linebackers and corners have their backs turned to the
quarterback, which gives him more running lanes. The defense is also much easier
to read. This makes the Nebraska defense a good matchup for Taylor, who is
exceptionally talented. At 19 years old, the less he has to read, the better it
will be for him and the offense.

Probably the biggest question mark for Nebraska is their linebackers. So far,
Cody Glenn (6-0, 235, Sr.) has played the best. He was a running back for the
last three years, but switched to linebacker to get more playing time. So far he
leads the team in tackles with 21, including four tackles for loss. He is
Nebraska’s most athletic linebacker.

The middle linebacker, Phillip Dillard (6-1, 235, r-Jr.) has decent
experience. He split time at the middle spot last year, making 37 tackles.

The third linebacker, walk-on Tyler Wortman (6-3, 235, r-Sr.), is the biggest
question mark of all the linebackers. He did not play a down of college football
until last season, his r-junior year. Even then, he didn’t get much action until
linebacker Bo Ruud went down with an injury late in the season. That’s the point
when Nebraska was playing its worst defense of the season.

Nebraska likes to man up on opposing offenses, and Wortman is the first
linebacker out of the game when the Cornhuskers go to their nickel packages. He
is the least athletic of the Nebraska linebackers, so the Hokies will probably
try to isolate him a few times.

It really doesn’t matter if you are first string or second string at corner
for Nebraska. You are going to play a lot either way. The two corners who are
listed as backups on the depth chart, Prince Amukamara (6-1, 195, So.) and Eric
Hagg (6-1, 200, So.), are actually the third and fourth leading tacklers for the
Cornhuskers this season.

They are both true sophomores, and big cornerbacks. They’ve combined to start
five games this year, while starting corners Anthony West (6-0, 200, r-So.) and
Armando Murillo (6-0, 190, Sr.) have combined to start just four (West was out
for one game). Nebraska faced some teams that like to spread the field with
receivers, so the extra corners came in, and a linebacker or two went out.

In fact, second string corner Eric Hagg has started all three games, while
starting linebacker Tyler Wortman hasn’t started at all. Wortman has just two
tackles on the season. The linebackers are excited because they are going to be
playing a more traditional offensive team in Virginia Tech, though the Hokies
might try to spread the field more than usual to get Taylor some running room
against a spread out, man-to-man defense.

Starting strong safety Larry Asante (6-1, 210, r-Jr.) is a name you might be
familiar with. He is an Alexandria, VA native. He went to Junior College, and
was recruited a little by the Hokies a couple of years back, but no offer was
extended. He is a big, physical safety, but his skill in coverage is
questionable.

Nebraska could play two free safeties. Rickey Thenarse (6-0, 195, Jr.) is
listed as the starter this week. He has not played since the first game of the
season, as he’s been nursing a shoulder injury. Walk-on Matt O’Hanlon (5-11,
195, r-Sr.) could play as well, depending on how Thenarse’s shoulder holds up in
the game. O’Hanlon has 12 tackles and an interception this year.

Overall, Nebraska’s secondary strength is probably at corner, and the
weakness is at safety. With questionable linebackers and questionable safeties,
that makes the middle of the field open to attack. However, Virginia Tech’s
offense is not exactly known for their ability to attack between the hashes,
particularly this year with a young quarterback and even younger receivers.

Special Teams

Nebraska has a good group of kickers. On the kickoff team, Adi Kunalic (6-0,
185, So.) has put 10 of his 23 kickoff attempts into the end zone for a
touchback. Despite his best efforts, Nebraska is just 108th in the nation in
kickoff defense, allowing 25.9 yards per returns.

Dan Titchener (6-0, 200, r-Sr.) is the punter, and he is averaging 38.6 yards
per kick. He is a very experienced player. Just one of his 124 career attempts
has been blocked.

Alex Henery (6-2, 175, r-So.) handles the place kicking for Nebraska. He has
had a very good season thus far. He is 5-of-6, including an impressive 4-of-4
mark from beyond 40 yards. Last season he was 8-of-8 while splitting time as a
r-freshman, so he has gotten off to a very good start in Lincoln. He had four 44
yard field goals in the first game against Western Michigan.

In the return game, the guy to watch out for is Niles Paul (6-1, 210, So.).
Paul is averaging 31.5 yards per kick return, including an 85 yard touchdown. On
four punt returns, he is averaging 13.2 yards.

Nebraska will also use Nate Swift on punt returns. He has returned three on
the season, while Paul has handled four. The coaching staff has a lot of trust
in the fifth year senior Swift.

Overall, this might be the best and most balanced special teams the Hokies
have faced this season.

Conclusion

I like a lot of things about this game. I like the athleticism and talent of
Tyrod Taylor against a Nebraska defense that plays a lot of man-to-man. Taylor
was terrific against a similar defensive scheme in Florida State a year ago (to
refresh your memory: 10-of-15 for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns, 17 carries for 92
yards and a touchdown), and the ‘Noles have more talent and speed defensively
than Nebraska, particularly at linebacker.

One other thing I like is that the Hokies have been tested, while Nebraska
has not. Nebraska hasn’t played a team that truly hits back yet. Meanwhile, Tech
has played good, solid football teams in East Carolina, Georgia Tech and North
Carolina. There really isn’t any comparison between those teams and Western
Michigan, San Jose State and New Mexico State.

Let’s think back to the 2001 season, and remember this quote: “The
hottest fire makes the strongest steel.” Do you remember who said it?
Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni said it after the Orangemen upset #4 Virginia
Tech in Lane Stadium. Syracuse had played Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Auburn, as
well as teams like Central Florida, Pitt and East Carolina, who all finished
.500 or higher. The Hokies had played Boston College, and that’s it.

Syracuse was used to getting hit, and Virginia Tech was not. As a result, the
‘Cuse came in and won the game. The one thing that isn’t debatable about the
Virginia Tech-Nebraska game is the fact that the Hokies are the battle-tested
team.

There are other things that I don’t like about it. Nebraska’s defense is
average overall, and they have some weak spots, but do the Hokies have the
offense to exploit them? Also, Nebraska is 26-3 in home night games. They are a
tough crowd to knock off at night, just like Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium.

There is also the experience factor, particularly on Nebraska’s offense. The
Cornhuskers start eight seniors on offense, including six r-seniors. Nebraska
does not have a single starter, on either side of the ball, who is younger than
a r-sophomore. The Hokies are starting two true sophomores, three r-freshmen
(counting Darren Evans, who gets the most plays at tailback), even one true
freshman. That’s six guys who have been in the program for two years or less.
The experience advantage goes to Nebraska.

I think Virginia Tech is probably the most talented team, but they are also
the younger team and the most limited offensively. I also think that eventually
the Tech offense is just going to have to go out and beat someone fully on their
own, and not rely on good field position to score points. This might be that
week.

If this Tech team had a little more experience, or showed a little more
competence in the passing game in the first few weeks, I might be picking the
Hokies. As it stands, I can’t pick against the more experienced team in their
own house, and at night.

Chris’s Prediction: Nebraska 27, Virginia Tech 17

Will Stewart’s Take: This is another tough one to pick. How good are
the Huskers, really? How good are the Hokies? Who knows?

At this point in the season, the VT defense is improving rapidly and is
closing in on the classic model of the Virginia Tech Bud Foster defense. As we
have documented previously, the rover and free safety positions have been shaky,
and the defensive tackles haven’t been very effective.

Against UNC, that started to change. The middle of the Tech DL had a lot of
success against the Tar Heels, and rover Davon Morgan showed improvement. FS Kam
Chancellor has made some physical and mental mistakes, but Bud Foster continues
to praise him and show confidence in him. Chancellor is progressing.

The defense as a whole is starting to come together. Don’t be fooled by their
national rankings in categories like total defense (53rd) or pass efficiency
defense (84th), because they’re better than that and are still improving.

Offensively, the train has been slower getting out of the station (again,
well-documented), but if this VT offense follows the pattern of last year’s
offense, it will turn the corner at some point, perhaps soon. As Chris pointed
out, the Nebraska defense could be a favorable matchup for the Hokie offense to
make some significant progress.

Beyond the analysis, stats, and matchups, though, I don’t think Tech is quite
ready yet to win on the road in Lincoln, against a Nebraska offense with some
talented veteran elements. This one could go either way, and though the last two
games have gone Tech’s way, a gut feeling tells me this one won’t.

Will’s Prediction: Nebraska 21, Virginia Tech 13

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