2009 Football Game Preview: #13 Virginia Tech vs. #19 Nebraska

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  • Date: Saturday, September 19th, 2009
  • Time: 3:30
  • TV: ESPN on ABC

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Just two weeks after playing Alabama, Virginia Tech will get the privilege of
hosting another of the college football traditional powers: Nebraska. The
Cornhuskers dropped off during the middle of this decade, but they are getting
better under second year head coach Bo Pelini and find themselves ranked in the
Top 25. In one of the biggest college football games of the weekend, the Hokies
have a chance to gain some momentum before they enter conference play.

Nebraska started 3-3 last year, but they got better as the season went along,
winning six of their last seven, including a 26-21 win in the Gator Bowl over
Clemson. They come into this year with high expectations and they have a good
chance to win the Big 12 North.

The Cornhuskers are off to a 2-0 start, which includes a 49-3 win over
Florida Atlantic and a 38-9 victory against Arkansas State.

The Nebraska Offense

The Cornhuskers are averaging 492 yards per game following two games against
Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State. Nebraska is a balanced offense, with a bit
of a lean towards the passing game thus far.

Zac Lee (6-2, 215, r-Jr.) is Nebraska’s starting quarterback. He played in
just two games as a r-sophomore, and he is a transfer from the City College of
San Francisco. Many scouting services rated him the #1 JUCO quarterback in the
country when he signed with Nebraska.

Lee has been impressive in his first two starts. He is 42-of-57 (73.7%) for
553 yards, with six touchdowns and just one interception. 14 players have caught
at least one pass this season, so Lee has plenty of targets to work with. He has
a solid group of wide receivers and an extremely deep group of tight ends. Lee
can throw the football, and if he’s allowed to get in a rhythm, he is capable of
having a big game.

Nebraska must be balanced to beat Virginia Tech. The Hokies generally don’t
lose to one-dimensional teams. The Cornhuskers will depend on the running of Roy
Helu, Jr. (6-0, 215, Jr.), who plays the fabled I-back position at Nebraska.
Helu has enjoyed a nice career at Nebraska so far, but he should be in the
middle of his breakout season. He is finally the primary back.

Helu ran for 803 yards on just 125 carries last year, an average of 6.4 yards
per carry. So far this year, he has 30 carries for 212 yards, an average of 7.1
yards per carry. He has not been tackled for a loss this season.


Helu’s Career

Year

Car.

Yds.

YPC

TD

2007

40

212

4.6

0

2008

125

803

6.4

7

2009

30

212

7.1

3

Totals

195

1227

6.3

10

Last year Helu had four carries for 21 yards against Virginia Tech, and he was
the only Cornhusker to get anything accomplished in the running game.

Backing up Helu is Rex Burkhead (5-11, 200, Fr.). Burkhead has 12 carries for
57 yards on the year, but no other tailback has more than one carry. Helu is
going to see the vast majority of the reps against Virginia Tech.

Nebraska can’t afford to wear out Helu early because they don’t have any
other backs who will be effective against Tech. They’ll likely throw the ball a
lot to keep him fresh, especially in the first half.

Zac Lee will have plenty of targets. The top two wide receivers for Nebraska
are Menelik Holt (6-4, 220, Sr.) and Niles Paul (6-1, 215, Jr.). Menelik is a
big receiver who caught 30 passes as a part-time starter in 2008. He’s not a
deep threat, as his longest reception was just 25 yards last year. Paul is also
a solid player who started four games last year, catching 23 passes. However, he
averaged 10 yards per reception.

It’s easy to look at Holt and Paul and wonder where the big play will come
from for Nebraska. One possibility is Curenski Gilleylen (6-0, 215, r-So.). So
far this year, he has provided the big play threat with five catches for 135
yards.

Nebraska’s tight ends are major threats in the passing game, as we saw last
year in their game against Virginia Tech. Mike McNeill (6-4, 240, r-Jr.)
finished with three catches for 66 yards against the Hokies last year, including
a long touchdown pass. So far in 2009, he is tied for the team lead in
receptions with eight, and he is second in receiving yards with 108. His two
receiving touchdowns lead the team.

The tight end position has been productive for Nebraska this year, not just
McNeill.


Nebraska Tight Ends

Name

Rec.

Yards

YPC

TD

Mike McNeill

8

108

13.5

2

Ben Cotton

2

10

5

0

Kyler Reed

1

9

9

0

Dreu Young

1

27

27

0

Ryan Hill

1

7

7

0

Totals

13

161

12.4

2

Tech’s weakness on defense is the coverage of the linebackers and the deep
middle of the defense. Nebraska could potentially exploit that. However,
Marshall’s Cody Slate, probably the most productive tight end in the country,
had just three catches for 18 yards last week.

Regardless, when you consider that Tech’s tight ends have zero catches this
year with Greg Boone out, the Cornhuskers have an advantage at this position.

Of course, offense will depend on the offensive line blocking against Bud
Foster’s front seven. Here’s a look at the offensive line the Hokies will be
facing on Saturday.


Nebraska Offensive Line

Pos.

Name

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.

Starts

LT

Mike Smith

6-6

295

r-Jr.

14

LG

Keith Williams

6-5

315

r-Jr.

9

LG

Derek Meyer

6-5

315

r-Sr.

2

C

Jacob Hickman

6-4

290

Sr.

25

RG

Ricky Henry

6-4

300

r-Jr.

2

RG

Andy Christensen

6-3

305

r-Sr.

9

RT

Marcel Jones

6-7

310

r-So.

3


Starting center Jacob Hickman is regarded as Nebraska’s best lineman. He has
been an Honorable Mention Big 12 performer for the last two seasons, and he’s on
the watch list for the Rimington Trophy this year.

As you can see, Nebraska has some depth, particularly on the interior line.
This is also a smart offensive line. Five of the seven players listed above have
earned some type of academic award since enrolling at Nebraska. They’ve allowed
only two sacks so far this year, and just 21 all of last season.

Depth at tackle is pretty thin. If something happened to left tackle Mike
Smith, starting right tackle Marcel Jones would switch to the left side and D.J.
Jones (6-5, 315, r-Jr.) would come in at right tackle. However, most college
teams have depth issues somewhere along the offensive line. Thanks to their
guard depth, Nebraska is better off than most teams.

Last season the Hokies whipped Nebraska at the point of attack. Nebraska had
played Western Michigan, San Jose State and New Mexico State before playing the
Hokies. Tech had played East Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia Tech. Tech was
ready for the Cornhuskers, and they punched the offensive line right in the
mouth, holding them to just 55 rushing yards on 25 carries.

Frank Beamer says Nebraska has gotten more athletic on the offensive line
since last season, but like last year, they haven’t played anyone yet. Florida
Atlantic and Arkansas State didn’t hit them like the Hokies will hit them.

There are two keys for the Virginia Tech defense this week: stop the run and
generate a pass rush. One-dimensional teams don’t beat the Hokies. If they shut
down the run and make Nebraska throw on just about every play, Tech should win.
They can take an extra step by getting pressure on the quarterback. The Hokies
don’t need a lot of sacks, but they need to take Zac Lee out of his rhythm and
mess with his footwork.

The Nebraska Defense

Nebraska’s defense improved steadily as the year went along last year.
However, the Hokies were able to control the line of scrimmage against them last
season in one of Tech’s best offensive performances of the season. That was more
of a reflection of Nebraska’s talent level on defense than the Virginia Tech
offense, as you’ll see in the following table.


Virginia Tech Offense
Sept. and Oct. 2008

Opponent

Total Offense

ECU

243

Furman

329

Georgia Tech

247

UNC

268

Nebraska

377

Western Kentucky

293

Boston College

240

Florida State

243


The Hokies put up 377 yards against the Cornhuskers last year. Considering Tech
struggled to move the ball against every other opponent in September and
October, including 1-AA Furman, that’s like a regular offensive team putting up
600 yards. That’s how bad the Nebraska defense was a year ago.

Nebraska does have some of those same players back on defense this year.
However, they also bring back their best player in defensive tackle Ndamukong
Suh (6-4, 300, r-Sr.). Suh had a great year in 2008, finishing with 19 tackles
for loss and 7.5 sacks. He is the perfect disruptor for a 4-3 defensive scheme.

Suh gave Virginia Tech all kinds of trouble last year. The Hokies
successfully blocked the rest of Nebraska’s front seven, but Sergio Render
struggled with Suh all night. James Brooks will get to matchup against Suh for
much of the game on Saturday. Suh will probably be the first defensive tackle
taken in the 2010 NFL Draft, and he will be a tremendous challenge for Tech’s
offensive line.

The rest of the defensive line is solid, but not spectacular. Defensive end
Barry Turner (6-3, 265, r-Sr.) is a former Virginia Tech recruiting target. He
missed last season with a broken leg and took a medical redshirt. He was a
Freshman All-American in 2005, but his career has gone downhill since.


Barry Turner’s Career

Year

TFL

Sacks

2005

7

6

2006

4

1.5

2007

5

3

2008*

2

1

2009

1

0

Totals

19

11.5

*Two games, medical redshirt

Pierre Allen (6-5, 265, r-Jr.) is the other starting defensive end. He started
11 games in 2008, finishing with 10 tackles for loss and five sacks. Cameron
Meredith (6-4, 260, r-Fr.) and Josh Williams (6-4, 245, r-Fr.) are the primary
backups at defensive end. With their inexperience, the Hokies could be attacking
the perimeter when they are in the game.

Jared Crick (6-6, 285, r-So.) played in nine games as a freshman last season.
He has two tackles for loss this season, and should be a solid complement to Suh
on the inside in 2009.

Nebraska’s linebackers leave something to be desired. Blake Lawrence (6-3,
225, Jr.) is starting at WILL after performing well down the stretch at that
position last year. He leads all linebackers with 10 tackles on the year. He is
backed up by Matthew May (6-1, 215, r-So.), a former walk-on safety.

Open House This Saturday,
Noon to 1:30!

A pair of freshmen start at MIKE and BUCK for Nebraska. Will Compton (6-2,
225, r-Fr.) is the starter at MIKE, and he is a former Super Prep All-American.
He has eight tackles through the first two games of the season. Sean Fisher
(6-6, 230, r-Fr.) starts at BUCK, and he also has eight tackles. He was also a
SuperPrep All-American. Backing up Fisher at BUCK are two more freshmen, Eric
Martin (6-2, 215, Fr.) and Micah Kreikemeier (6-3, 220, r-Fr.). This is a very
inexperienced position.

Former starter Phillip Dillard (6-1, 240, Sr.) has missed the first two games
of this season, though the Nebraska coaching staff hasn’t said why. He was
spotted working at the WILL position earlier this week, and there is speculation
that he could return to the lineup this week. His return would help, as he is
Nebraska’s best and most experienced linebacker. However, he has just four
career tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks in 33 career games. If he is Nebraska’s
best linebacker, then this unit still needs some work.

Despite the presence of Suh on the inside, Nebraska has proved to be
susceptible to the running game in the first two weeks of the season. Tailbacks
from Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State were able to find running room.


Opposing Tailback Statistics vs. Nebraska

Player

Team

Car.

Yds.

YPC

Alfred Morris

Florida Atlantic

18

85

4.7

Reggie Arnold

Arkansas State

14

83

5.9

Derek Lawson

Arkansas State

9

37

4.1

William Rose

Florida Atlantic

6

19

3.2

Don Jones

Arkansas State

2

9

4.5

Avionne Rolle

Florida Atlantic

6

8

1.3

Xavier Stinson

Florida Atlantic

1

4

4

Totals/Average

56

245

4.4

This just in: those FAU and Arkansas State backs aren’t as good as Tech’s trio
of Ryan Williams, Josh Oglesby and David Wilson, who have combined to run for
476 yards on just 59 carries, an average of 8.07 yards per carry. Nebraska faced
Kenny Lewis and Darren Evans last year. They’ll be surprised by the
explosiveness the Hokies possess in the backfield this season.

When the Hokies and Cornhuskers played last year, Virginia Tech was able to
exploit Nebraska’s safety, which was their biggest weakness on defense last
year. Virginia native Larry Asante (6-1, 215, Sr.) is in his third season as
Nebraska’s starting strong safety. He is one of the most experienced players on
the team, and he was an Honorable Mention All-Big 12 pick last year.

Nebraska uses two players at free safety. Matt O’Hanlon (5-11, 200, r-Fr.) is
a former walk-on and the regular starter, and Rickey Thenarse (6-0, 205, Sr.)
plays quite a bit as well. Thenarse is better up around the line of scrimmage.

Last year Virginia Tech beat Nebraska’s safeties deep over the middle with
the tight end, they were late recognizing other passing plays, and they didn’t
always take good angles in the running game.

Nebraska’s cornerbacks are solid, with right cornerback Anthony West (6-0,
200, r-Jr.) returning as the starter. Prince Amukamara (6-1, 200, Jr.) is the
starter at left cornerback, and he has been a playmaker so far this season, with
a sack, an interception and two passes defended.

Considering the success that two Sun Belt teams have had running the football
on Nebraska, expect the Hokies to try and pound it on Saturday. They will
continue to attack the edges of the defense, and force the defense to try and
take good angles on Ryan Williams. So far, most defensive backs and linebackers
haven’t figured it out. The Hokies will have three tailbacks to throw at the
Cornhuskers, and it’s easy to see them all being productive.

The passing game has a chance to be productive as well. Tyrod Taylor was
9-of-15 for 171 yards last year. He averaged nearly 20 yards per completion. The
big play was available down the field, thanks to the poor play of the Nebraska
safeties. The 171 yards passing was Taylor’s third best performance of his
career, despite the Hokies going with three freshmen wide receivers.

Special Teams

Alex Henery (6-2, 175, Jr.) is Nebraska’s placekicker and punter. He was a
very good kicker in 2008 for the Cornhuskers. Henery was Second Team All-Big 12
while making 18-of-21 field goal attempts, with a long of 57 yards. For his
career, Henery is 27-of-31 on his field goal attempts, and he’s only missed once
from inside 50 yards. He’s a major weapon for Nebraska. If they get in field
goal range, Henery is nearly automatic. He is the nation’s most accurate
returning placekicker.

Henery is also doubling as the team’s punter this year. He is averaging 40.9
yards per punt on five attempts this year, though he has had one attempt
blocked. If there was any time for the Hokies to come after the punter, this
would be the game. Nebraska’s longsnapper will either be P.J. Mangieri (6-4,
250, Fr.) or Sam Meginnis (6-2, 225, r-Fr.). Neither has played in a road game
before, and for their first experience they’ll be in Lane Stadium. There is a
possibility of some snap difficulties.

Nebraska’s holder for field goals is also a freshman, Sam Maher (6-0, 170,
r-Fr.). While all of the specialists for Alabama and Marshall were very
experienced, there is some inexperience with Nebraska that could be exploited.

Niles Paul (6-1, 215, Jr.) replaces Nate Swift as punt returner. Swift
returned a punt for a touchdown against the Hokies last year. Paul is averaging
5.7 yards per return. As we saw earlier with his yards per catch average, he
doesn’t appear to be a big play threat. He is doing better on kickoff returns,
averaging 25.5 yards per return on four attempts.

The Hokies have already returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns this
year, and they are facing some freshman specialists who are making their first
road start. On paper, it appears that Tech has a better chance of making a big
special teams play than Nebraska does.

Conclusion

Nebraska is a good football team. They proved that last year by improving as
the season progressed, and then winning the Gator Bowl. They are well-coached by
Bo Pelini, and their recruiting is getting better. Their fan base is one of the
best in the country, and their tradition and history has no equal.

Open
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All of that being said, I think Virginia Tech is the most talented team, by
more than a little bit. I think the Hokies have a lot of playmakers on offense,
and I don’t think Nebraska quite has the athletes to prevent Tech from hitting
some big plays that will be the difference in the game. As Pelini gets more time
to bring in his own players, they will get more athletic. But for now, there is
either average talent on defense, or youth.

I think the Hokies will be able to exploit both on Saturday. I see the Tech
running game working well for the third week in a row, and I think we’ll see
Tyrod Taylor continue to improve. I’ll be interested to see how Nebraska elects
to defend Taylor. Here’s what Pelini said about Taylor before last year’s game:

“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.”

Taylor finished with a big game. We already mentioned that he averaged almost
20 yards per completion, but he also ran for 87 yards on just 15 carries. If
he’s able to have a big game again and complement what appears to be a very
strong running back corps, then Nebraska is very unlikely to leave Lane Stadium
with a win.

The Nebraska offense does scare me. Zac Lee appears to be a very good signal
caller, Roy Helu, Jr. has put up impressive numbers in the past, and the
offensive line seems to have improved from last season. This offense is pretty
efficient. I’m concerned about the field corner position. If Stephan Virgil
can’t play, then either Cris Hill or Eddie Whitley will man the field corner
spot, and Nebraska will try to take advantage.

They will also try to exploit Tech’s new inside linebackers, Barquell Rivers
and Jake Johnson, in coverage. I see them moving the ball on Tech’s defense and
scoring some points, though they won’t dominate by any stretch.

I don’t see Nebraska as a Top 20 team at this point. Their offense is
dangerous, but they need more talent and experience on defense. They have a nice
schedule, and they’ll have a good record as a result, but I don’t think they’d
be nearly as good in the Big 12 South.

If you look at last season, their record isn’t as impressive if you dig
deeper. Their nine wins came against teams that combined to go 49-62 last year.
That includes a win over a 9-win Western Michigan team. Their four losses came
to teams who combined for a 43-12 record: Virginia Tech, Missouri, Texas Tech
and Oklahoma. Whenever they faced somebody decent, the talent disparity showed
up. The Hokies beat them on the road with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores in
the starting lineup.

In the end, I think the Tech defense will stop the Nebraska running game and
force the offense to be one-dimensional. Lee will have a good game, but he won’t
be able to do it all by himself. Offensively, I think the Hokies will be able to
run the ball on the Cornhuskers, and they’ll gradually pull away for the win.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Nebraska 20

Will Stewart’s Take: First of all, let me encourage Virginia Tech fans to
be very gracious and classy to Nebraska fans who are in Blacksburg Saturday.
Tech fans who went to Lincoln last year were blown away by the hospitality they
received, so let’s return the favor.

And you know I’m not a knee-jerk Hokies Respect campaigner. The last time I
said something like that was 2003, when a Texas A&M crew that had been very
gracious in College Station in 2002 made the trek to Blacksburg for the
Hurricane Isabel game. I suggested that Hokie fans treat their visitors with
great respect that night, and I’m making it a point of emphasis again for this
game, six years later.

Turning to the game: As I noted in Monday Thoughts, I’m very curious about
the Hokies’ offensive game plan against the Huskers. All signs point to
“run the football,” because the Hokies passing game is inconsistent,
but the running game has been good. Not having seen Nebraska’s first two games,
I can only evaluate their run defense based on statistics, and the statistics
through two games don’t look good for the Husker run-stoppers.

I’m looking for a steady diet of Tech tailbacks carrying the football, and
for the Hokies to go with the old school “run to set up the pass”
philosophy. Watch how often the Hokies pass the ball on first down, because
statistically, Tech’s first-down passing game was very poor against Marshall
(2-for-7, 42 yards, 1 INT, 1 sack), so you would think the Hokies would tend
towards the running game on early downs.

Flipping to the other side of the ball, I can see Nebraska having success
with the passing game by exploiting Virginia Tech’s young linebackers and a
cornerback crew that will probably still be missing Stephan Virgil. I am not
going to predict a Hokie shutdown of the Huskers by a long shot. I think
Nebraska will put up some yards and points, because the Hokie defense is still
getting its feet under itself.

Nebraska’s passing game is going to make Frank Beamer want to control the
clock and keep the Huskers off the field, so that’s yet another sign that points
to the Hokies using the rushing game.

Lastly, Virginia Tech will try to press what they feel is a special teams
advantage. Nebraska has a very good placekicker, so that’s a wash, but the
Hokies are strong in all phases of special teams so far this year, not just
placekicking.

Run the football, control the clock, win special teams, and limit the damage
defensively. That’s how I see Virginia Tech’s game plan unfolding, and I see it
being successful. The score in this one might wind up close, but I think the
Hokies will be in control, much like last year.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 30, Nebraska 24

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