2008 Football Game Preview: Virginia Tech at Boston College

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Saturday, October 18th, 2008, 8pm

TV: ESPN2

Forecast (from WeatherBug.com):

Click the “Chestnut Hill Weather” link to the right.
Game time forecast, as of 3:00 pm Wednesday: Partly cloudy. Highs in the lower
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Game Preview: #17 Virginia Tech (5-1, 2-0 ACC) vs. Boston College (4-1, 1-1 ACC)


by Chris Coleman, TechSideline.com

Virginia Tech is back on the road again this weekend. This time they’ll face Boston College, who is challenging for the ACC’s Atlantic Division title yet again. It will be a stern test for the Hokies, but if they pass it, you’ve got to like their chances of winning the Coastal Division for the second season in a row.

Boston College is 4-1 on the season. They have wins over Kent State, Central Florida, Rhode Island and NC State. Their one loss came in a narrow 19-16 game at the hands of Georgia Tech.

The Boston College Offense

The BC offense is led by senior quarterback Chris Crane (6-4, 239, Sr.). Crane has had an up and down season. His Saturday’s have ranged from getting booed off his own home field to putting up over 400 yards on the road against NC State.

For the season, Crane is 81-of-142 for 889 yards, with four touchdowns and six interceptions.

Obviously Crane has had an up and down year. Despite his size, he’s fairly mobile. Boston College will even run options with him to keep defenses honest. Virginia Tech would like to pin their ears back and collapse the pocket, but they’ll have to be disciplined because of the option threat.

Crane has a solid group of receivers to fall back on. Rich Gunnell (5-11, 196, Jr.) doesn’t start, but he’s BC’s leading receiver with 16 catches for 160 yards. Brandon Robinson (5-10, 198, Sr.) is their big play threat, with 15 receptions for 230 yards and a touchdowns. Justin Jarvis (6-5, 196, Jr.) is the biggest target. He has hauled in eight caches for 114 yards and a touchdown. He also missed two of BC’s five games.

Keep your eye on BC tight end Ryan Purvis (6-4, 260, Sr.). He was an All-ACC player with Matt Ryan at the helm last year. He has 12 catches for 113 yards so far this season. The Eagles would like to use him to challenge the middle of the field, where the Hokies have been most vulnerable to the pass this season.

BC lost Andre Callender and L.V. Whitworth off last year’s team. Their replacements are inexperienced, but have more speed and quickness than last year’s duo. True freshman Josh Haden (5-8, 182, Fr.) gets the start, but he is only BC’s third leading rusher this year. He has 33 carries for 139 yards.

Montel Harris (5-10, 192, Fr.) has been a big play threat so far. He leads BC with 313 yards on just 43 carries. That’s an average of 7.3 yards per carry. The third member of the backfield is Jeff Smith (5-9, 198, Jr.), who has 36 carries for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Smith has struggled with concussion problems in his career, and it wasn’t for certain that he was going to return for the 2008 season. Obviously he did, and he’s playing well.

The strength of the BC offensive line is on the left side, where they return three starters from left tackle to center. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo (6-7, 287, So.) moved from right tackle to left tackle this season. He started as an undersized true freshman last year, and was abused by Chris Ellis and Orion Martin in Lane Stadium last season. Castonzo has a lot of potential though, and he’s a lot better this year with more experience and more size.

Left guard Clif Ramsey (6-6, 311, Sr.) and center Matt Tennant (6-4, 294, Jr.) are solid, experienced players. The right side of the line is inexperienced, with first year starters. Thomas Claiborne (6-3, 323, So.) is at right guard, and Rich Lapham (6-8, 322, So.) is at right tackle. Claiborne and Castonzo give BC a couple of prototypical offensive tackles, which is normal for the Eagles.

BC only allows 1.2 sacks per game, which is 28th nationally. They rank 26th nationally in rushing offense, gaining 191.4 yards per game on the ground. However, their opponents aren’t exactly stellar in run defense. BC put up solid yardage against Kent State, Rhode Island and NC State on the ground. Those teams aren’t exactly adept at stopping the run. Kent State ranks 100th nationally in rush defense, Rhode Island is 88th in 1-AA, and NC State is 89th.

I feel pretty good about Tech’s chances of stopping the BC offense. Ever since Jeff Jagodzinski became head coach, the Eagles have moved from a smash mouth offense of the Big East years, to more of a finesse offense. Coach Jagz likes to throw the football, even with a first year starter at quarterback. The Tech defense always plays well against finesse offensive teams.

The key for BC will be establishing a running game and not turning the football over. The Eagles don’t have to run it a lot, they just have to make the Hokies respect their ground game. Obviously Tech will be geared up to stop the run to make BC one dimensional. If the Hokies can do that, don’t expect a lot of points out of the home team.

The BC Defense

BC’s defense is having a terrific year statistically. They rank fifth in total defense, second in pass efficiency defense, 19th in rush defense, seventh in pass defense, and 11th in sacks. One might argue that they haven’t played the greatest competition in the world, but they are holding their opponents below their normal offensive averages.

BC opponents are gaining 69.6 yards per game less against the Eagles than they do on average. Only UCF managed to gain more than their average against BC, and that was by a measly four yards. If that average holds up, the Hokies will gain just over 220 yards of offense against the Eagles. Ouch.

The Eagles have played teams who don’t throw the football very well, and must rely on their running game to have success. That plays into BC’s hands, as their weakness on defense is the secondary, and their strength is the front seven. They’ll face another such team on Saturday in Virginia Tech.

The strength of BC’s defense is right up the middle. Mammoth defensive tackles B.J. Raji (6-1, 323, Sr.) and Ron Brace (6-3, 324, Sr.) are basically brick walls on the inside. They are very difficult to move. Tech’s interior linemen, who have performed pretty well this year, will have their work cut out for them this week.

Raji and Brace have combined for eight tackles for loss and four sacks this year. However, it’s not the stats that make them great. They plug their gaps very well, require double teams, and don’t let the linemen in front of them get to the second level. They will make life difficult for the Tech running game. Over the last three meetings, Virginia Tech has gained just 247 yards rushing on 105 carries against BC. That’s a low number of yards, and a low yards per carry average.

BC’s defensive ends are solid, but not spectacular. Austin Giles (6-3, 283, Jr.) and Jim Ramella (6-4, 243, Jr.) have combined for six tackles for loss and four sacks. They aren’t a strength of the BC defense, but they certainly aren’t a weakness either. The entire BC front is strong and difficult to move.

BC’s linebackers make this front seven the best the Hokies have faced this year. Brian Toal (6-0, 238, Sr.) starts at weakside linebacker. He has 40 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks on the year. He gets the most hype out of all the linebackers, but he might not be the best backer on his team.

Mark Herzlich (6-4, 238, Jr.) starts on the strongside. He leads the team with 41 tackles, and he’s added two tackles for loss and two interceptions. He’s a solid athlete, though his straight ahead speed isn’t the best in the world. However, he’s instinctive and just a natural football player.

In the middle, BC starts Mike McLaughlin (6-0, 252, Jr.). He has 23 tackles and four tackles for loss. He is a big, stout run defender who has plenty of playing experience.

A lot of people try to compare the BC front seven with the Georgia Tech front seven. Georgia Tech certainly has the advantage at defensive end. The Eagles have a slight advantage at defensive tackle. At linebacker, it’s not close. Georgia Tech was starting backup linebackers against the Hokies, thanks to injuries. Meanwhile, BC might have the top linebacking corps in the ACC. It’s the linebackers that make BC’s front seven better than Georgia Tech’s.

The Hokies had success against Georgia Tech running the football off tackle with Darren Evans, and Tyrod Taylor had success running with the football as well. Georgia Tech’s linebackers played pretty poorly against those plays, but the BC linebackers will be a lot better than those the Yellow Jackets put on the field against the Hokies last month.

BC’s weakness is in the secondary. True freshman Donnie Fletcher (6-1, 186, Fr.) starts at one cornerback spot, and converted linebacker Kevin Akins (6-2, 224, Sr.) starts at the other spot. Akins is a good athlete who has even been used to return kicks in his career, but he’s too big for the cornerback position. He’d be a whip linebacker at Tech. Try to imagine Cam Martin, Cody Grimm, or even James Anderson starting at cornerback.

The safeties are solid, but nothing special. Paul Anderson (6-1, 211, Sr.) has the most experience. He and his backup at strong safety, Marty Bowman (6-2, 217, Jr.), have two picks this year. The free safety is Wes Davis (6-1, 215, So.).

The Eagles have a huge secondary, with no one standing below 6-1, and only one player weighing in below 211. BC’s entire defense just screams “there is no way you can run on us, so just try to throw it.” However, good passing games in the ACC are rare these days, so this is a perfect setup for the Eagles.

The Eagles haven’t faced a team who can take advantage of this yet. They rank seventh in passing defense (153 ypg) and second in pass efficiency defense, despite the blemishes in the secondary. With the Hokies starting freshmen at wide receiver and a true sophomore at quarterback, it’s not likely that Virginia Tech will be able to take advantage of it either.

Finally, BC’s defensive coordinator is Frank Spaziani. Spaziani has been the defensive coordinator at Boston College for the last 10 seasons, and he‘s coached a total of 12 years in Chestnut Hill. In the past, he spent nine seasons at UVA, five of which were spent as the defensive coordinator under George Welsh. That’s an awful lot of coaching experience against Virginia Tech. If anyone understands the Tech offensive philosophy, it’s Frank Spaziani.

Special Teams

In games like this, special teams could be the difference. Virginia Tech has already lost their top two kick returners, Kenny Lewis and Davon Morgan. This week they’ll go with r-freshman cornerback Cris Hill and true freshman wide receiver Dyrell Roberts. Boston College has allowed one kickoff to be returned for a touchdown this season.

Macho Harris a guy to keep an eye on in this game. BC has only allowed seven total punt returns this year, and opponents are averaging just 5.1 yards per return. However, Harris is a dynamic punt returner, and he can swing the field position in a hurry.

Speaking of field position, it will be critical in this game. Boston College is just 72nd nationally in net punting, with an average of just over 34 yards. The Eagles have used two punters. Ryan Quigley (6-3, 180, Fr.) is a true freshman who is averaging 37.1 yards per punt. It appears that Billy Flutie (6-2, 186, So.) is used in the short field situations. Two of his five punts have been downed inside the 20.

Steve Aponavicius (5-10, 198, Sr.) is 6-of-8 on his field goal attempts this year, with a long of 36. He has missed field goals of 30 and 24 yards. The Hokies should have the advantage if the game comes down to field goals.

Tailback Jeff Smith (5-9, 198, Jr.) is a very good kickoff returner. He led the ACC in kickoff return yardage two years ago, and he’s averaging 25.7 yards per return so far this year. The Hokies have struggled at times with their kickoff coverage, but they must be ready to go against Smith.

Rich Gunnell (5-11, 196, Jr.) is averaging 8.3 yards on six punt returns. He hasn’t been a huge factor in the kicking game thus far.

Conclusion

I was talking to a former Tech player from the mid-1990s last week. We were talking about Boston College, and he mentioned that the Eagles never worried him because of their lack of team speed. I’m not sure if he meant the current Eagles don’t worry him, or the ones he played a dozen or so years ago.

The BC teams he played weren’t very athletic. They couldn’t match Virginia Tech’s speed. They still aren’t as fast as the Hokies, but for some reason there is still a perception out there amongst some people that they are a very slow football team that Tech matches up well with. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Hokies match up poorly with Boston College in some ways. The Hokies haven’t shown the passing threat to beat their questionable secondary, and the Eagle front seven has crushed the Tech running game in the past three meetings. When I look at BC’s defense, I see four guys in the front seven who could start for the Hokies: defensive tackles Ron Brace and B.J. Raji, and linebackers Mark Herzlich and Brian Toal.

Don’t underestimate their talent. This is a good football team, and a very experienced one at that.

A lot of people out there balk at Frank Beamer’s conservative offensive ways, but if the Hokies beat BC on Saturday night, I can almost guarantee you that it will be because of that conservative offensive gameplan. This game will come down to turnovers and field position. Neither offense is going to do much in this game. Both offenses can help their team the most by not turning it over, and taking advantage when they are given good field position.

With last year’s team, the gameplan would be simple. Attack BC’s vulnerable secondary. However, what are the Hokies going to attack it with this year? This is a passing attack that hasn’t put up more than 177 yards all season. I like Tyrod Taylor and Tech’s young receivers quite a bit. They are going to be terrific down the road. But right now, they are all young and just getting a feel for playing together.

In the running game, we’ve covered what the Hokies have, or haven’t, accomplished against BC over the past couple of years. Last season Tech couldn’t run the ball on BC, and that was with Brian Toal out with an injury and B.J. Raji out with academic issues.

I think the best way to attack the BC defense is on the edge. Tyrod Taylor needs to move the chains with his feet, and I think it will be up to Josh Oglesby to hit a couple of good runs to the outside. The inside running style of Darren Evans isn’t likely to accomplish much in this game.

Boston College also has a tendency to completely reverse every winning trend the Hokies have going. The Eagles are the only team to ever beat the Hokies on a Thursday night. The only road game Tech has lost in ACC play was at Boston College. The only two games VT has lost coming off a bye week in ACC play were against Boston College. This game isn’t on a Thursday night, but still, you see what I’m getting at. The Hokies are on the road, and they are coming off a bye.

So after reading all that, I’m picking Boston College, right? Wrong. This game is going to come down to discipline, special teams and turnovers. With the exception of a few plays on special teams, we’ve all liked what we’ve seen in those aspects of the game from Virginia Tech this year. Frank Beamer is a master of winning games that come down to those three factors.

I think he’ll win another one on Saturday night, in a low-scoring defensive battle that Virginia Tech will win in the fourth quarter.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 16, Boston College 13

Note: Will Stewart was not available this week to make his pick.

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