2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl Preview: #11 Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee

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  • Date: Thursday, December 31st, 2009
  • Time: 7:30 PM
  • TV: ESPN

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Virginia Tech will go for their sixth consecutive 10-win season this Thursday
in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Tennessee. It won’t be easy. The Vols are an SEC
team who improved steadily as the year progressed, and came closer than anyone
to defeating #1 Alabama. In many ways, Tennessee and Virginia Tech are the same
type of team. Whoever controls the line of scrimmage and protects the football
should win.

Tennessee enters the Chick-fil-A Bowl winners of four of their last five
games. Injuries have taken their toll on the Vol defense, but a steady running
game and improved quarterback play have been the difference down the stretch.
Tennessee is 7-5, with losses to UCLA, Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss.
They have quality wins against Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky, and they
also beat Ohio, who made a bowl game this year.

Lane Kiffin is the head coach of Tennessee, and he’s assisted by his father,
Monte Kiffin. Kiffin the elder is one of the great defensive coordinators in NFL
history, and he’s transformed a young and small Volunteer defense into a solid
unit.

We’ll get to Kiffin’s defense later. For now, let’s concentrate on the
offense.

The Tennessee Offense

Tennessee relies on their running game, behind senior tailback Montario
Hardesty (6-0, 215, r-Sr.). Hardesty ran for 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns on
the season, and he’s also an effective receiver out of the backfield. Backup
tailback Bryce Brown (6-0, 215, Fr.) added over 400 yards on the ground, and
they combine for a very good one-two punch.

Hardesty split time last season with current Houston Texan Arian Foster, but
he finally got the job all to himself in 2009. He is an explosive running back,
and very hard to bring down with just one defender. The Hokies have to swarm to
the football to stop Hardesty. If you’ve never seen him in action before, he’s
are some highlights
from YouTube.

It will be very important for Virginia Tech to slow down the Tennessee
running game. The Vols averaged about 170 yards per game on the ground this
year, but in their five losses, they couldn’t get much going.


Tennessee Running
Game in Losses

Opponent

Rushing Yards

UCLA

115

Florida

117

Auburn

151

Alabama

74

Ole Miss

99

Average

111.2

When their running game is stopped, Tennessee generally loses. They average
111.2 yards per game on the ground when they lose. When they win, the Vols
average 211.7 rushing yards. That’s a huge difference, and it illustrates
exactly how much the running game means to this offense.

Jonathan Crompton (6-4, 228, r-Sr.) is the senior quarterback, and he started
the season slow. However, once the new coaching staff learned how to use his
talents, his numbers began to steadily climb. In back-to-back losses to UCLA and
Florida, Crompton combined to throw for just 186 yards and five interceptions.
After those two games, he threw 21 touchdown passes and five picks the rest of
the season.

Crompton had his best games against the weaker opponents on the schedule:
Western Kentucky and Memphis. He completed 76.4% of his passes for 564 yards,
with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions against those two opponents.

Bud Foster says Crompton throws the football very well on the run, so this is
a game where Tech might be better served to take outside rushing lanes and try
to keep him in the pocket. Overall, if Tennessee gets their running game going,
Crompton is a very dangerous player. If he and the Volunteer wide receivers have
to win the game themselves, then that could present some problems for Tennessee.

The best overall receiver is probably tight end Luke Stocker (6-6, 240,
r-Jr.). Stocker caught 27 passes for 370 yards and five touchdowns this year. He
has very soft hands, and he’s an obvious target in the red zone. Stocker is very
dangerous off playaction passes, and expect to see him working the area between
Tech’s linebackers and safeties.

Gerald Jones (6-0, 199, Jr.) led Tennessee with 41 catches for 610 yards and
four touchdowns. Jones is the most likely player to take the handoff on a
reverse, and he has also been a dangerous kickoff and put return man in the
past. Denarius Moore (6-1, 190, Jr.) added 36 catches for 473 yards and six
touchdowns. Moore is a taller receiver, and he has a good ability to go up and
catch the football at its highest point.

No team can have an effective offense without a good offensive line, and
Tennessee has exactly that.


The Tennessee Offensive Line

Pos.

Name

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.

Games

Starts

LT

Chris Scott

6-5

330

r-Sr.

12

12

LG

Cory Sullins

6-1

270

r-Sr.

12

9

C

Cody Sullins

6-1

260

r-Sr.

12

12

RG

Jacques McClendon

6-3

324

Sr.

12

12

RT

Aaron Douglas

6-6

282

r-Fr.

12

9

At first glance, that line might not seem particularly impressive. Three of the
players are undersized, particularly the Sullins twins at left guard and center.
However, when you consider this line paved the way for a running game that
averaged 170 yards per game, and they allowed just 12 sacks on the year, it
becomes clear that this is a pretty good offensive line.


Chris Scott is the veteran of the group. He has started 38 straight games for
Tennessee. He is their best overall offensive tackle, so he mans the left tackle
position. The right tackle is r-freshman Aaron Douglas, a converted tight end.
Douglas will have his work cut out for him, as he’ll be facing Jason Worilds.
However, he has faced SEC defensive ends all season, so he’s already played
against the best of the best.

The interior line is tough and strong, even though Cory and Cody Sullins don’t
have ideal size. However, this line has good footwork, which in the modern
landscape of college football is the most important attribute an offensive
lineman can possess.

It will be very important for Virginia Tech to play well against this
Tennessee offensive line. John Graves was not 100% for most of the year, and if
he was able to get healthy over the last month, that could be a real boost to
the defense. The defensive line needs to play their best game of the season at
the point of attack, and that starts with Graves and Cordarrow Thompson up the
middle.

Of course, you don’t need a reminder about what has happened to Virginia
Tech’s defense the last two times they’ve faced an SEC team, in particular SEC
offensive lines and running backs.


Virginia Tech vs. SEC Running Backs

Player

Team

Carries

Yards

YPC

Mark Ingram

Alabama

26

150

5.8

Roy Upchurch

Alabama

7

90

12.8

Keiland Williams

LSU

7

126

18

Jacob Hester

LSU

12

81

6.7

Totals

52

447

8.6

Virginia Tech has gotten physically whipped in the trenches the last two times
they’ve faced SEC competition. There’s no way to spin those numbers. The
offensive lines and tailbacks of Alabama and LSU were bigger, stronger, faster
and meaner than Tech’s front seven on defense, even Tech’s outstanding 2007
front seven, which put most of their players in the NFL.

Tennessee isn’t quite at that level up front, but they aren’t that far away,
and Montario Hardesty is better than any running back on that list above, with
the exception of Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. Tech has to come prepared to
play big boy football this time, because that’s exactly what they are going to
get from Tennessee’s offense.

The Tennessee Defense

Tennessee’s defense is small but fast. This is the smallest defensive front
the Hokies have faced all season, with one notable exception at defensive
tackle. Dan Williams (6-3, 327, r-Sr.) is one of the best defensive tackles in
the country, and the Hokies have certainly faced some top notch tackles this
year.

Williams could go as high as the late first round in the 2010 NFL Draft,
though he’s likely a second round pick at this point. Either way, he’s a load on
the inside for the Vols. He’ll be facing off against Sergio Render, who will
have a chance to improve his draft stock, which has slipped recently thanks to
inconsistent play.

Other than Williams, Tennessee’s front seven is very small.


The Tennessee Front Seven

Pos.

Name

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.

LE

Ben Martin

6-3

240

Jr.

LT

Wes Brown

6-4

257

r-Sr.

RT

Dan Williams

6-3

327

r-Sr.

RE

Chris Walker

6-3

232

Jr.

WLB

Rico McCoy

6-1

220

r-Sr.

MLB

Herman Lathers

6-1

213

r-Fr.

SLB

LaMarcus Thompson

6-1

221

r-Jr.

Tennessee’s other defensive tackles are defensive end size, and the defensive
ends are built like linebackers. They are pretty similar to Virginia Tech, but
even the Hokies are bigger than the Vols in the front seven.

Despite their lack of size, this group can run. Chris Walker is a playmaking
defensive end who had 8.5 tackles for loss and six sacks, both team-highs.
Though Walker isn’t the biggest guy in the world, and he’s a likely linebacker
at the next level, he is a very good college defensive end. He is Tennessee’s
version of Jason Worilds, while the other end, Ben Martin, is Tennessee’s Nekos
Brown. Martin is a solid player who can hold his ground, but he’s not a
sideline-to-sideline disruptor.

Even though he’s undersized, Wes Brown is a solid complement on the inside to
Dan Williams. Brown is in his second year as a starter, and he has five tackles
for loss, 2.5 sacks, and he even had two interceptions in 2009.

Tennessee has had some weakness at linebacker over the last four games.
Herman Lathers, the young r-freshman, started the last month of the season.
Lathers is Tennessee’s third starting middle linebacker this season, after the
previous two went down with torn ACL’s.

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Since Lathers entered the starting lineup, the Vols have allowed 213.25
rushing yards per game, after allowing just 107.75 yards per game in the first
eight contests. He is undersized to play between the tackles (there are safeties
bigger than Lathers), and he also lacks experience. That’s not a good
combination. With Lathers in the lineup, it also limits how much Tampa 2 defense
Tennessee can run. The Tampa 2 requires the middle linebacker to take a deep
drop and be good in coverage. That’s difficult for young players like Lathers.

The other linebackers are Rico McCoy and LaMarcus Thompson. McCoy will be
making his 40th career start in the Chick-fil-A bowl. He’s a very good player,
and easily Tennessee’s best linebacker. Thompson is in his first season as a
starter, and though he missed a couple of games with an injury, he’s had a solid
year.

The strength of this Tennessee defense is in the secondary. Strong safety
Eric Berry (5-11, 211, Jr.) won the Jim Thorpe Award this year, given annually
to the nation’s top defensive back. Berry has 14 career interceptions, and he
has 494 yards on interception returns. He needs just eight more return yards to
set an NCAA record.

Berry is a playmaker, but Tennessee will also use him up close to the line of
scrimmage as an extra linebacker. He finished the season with 83 tackles and six
tackles for loss. Because of their lack of size in the front seven, Tennessee
needs that extra man in the box to defend the run. Whether it’s against the run
or against the pass, Berry is an excellent player.

Janzen Jackson (6-0, 180, Fr.) is a true freshman starter at free safety.
Jackson obviously has a bright future ahead of him if he’s already starting as a
true freshman. When Berry comes up close to the line of scrimmage, expect the
Hokies to run some deep combination routes to force Jackson to make quick
decisions on who to defend. The Hokies will go after him, but SEC teams have
gone after him all season and he’s held up pretty well.

The cornerbacks are Dennis Rogan (5-10, 178, Jr.) and Art Evans (6-1, 173,
r-So.). Rogan is the veteran of the group and the bigger playmaker. Evans is
young, but he’s a good athlete with good range and length. Rogan is a versatile
defender who is capable of starting at cornerback or safety, depending on the
need.

Virginia Tech should have some success moving the football on this Tennessee
defense. Ryan Williams and the offensive line should be licking their chops at
the thought of the Vols allowing over 200 yards per game on the ground over the
last month of the season.

However, Tech must also be efficient in the passing game. Not a lot of teams
have thrown the ball well against UT this year. The Vols are 10th nationally in
pass defense and eighth in pass efficiency defense. Monte Kiffin is as good as
anybody in the business at mixing up his coverages and showing different looks
presnap.

Special Teams

Virginia Tech had first team All-ACC players at placekicker and punter this
year, and the Vols will need to play well on special teams to beat the Hokies.
That hasn’t always been a strong suit for Tennessee this year.

The Vols have used a total of three placekickers, and it appears they have
finally gone with Devin Mathis.


Tennessee Kickers

Name

FGM

FGA

Long

Blocked

Daniel Lincoln

10

16

49

3

Chad Cunningham

1

3

39

1

Devin Mathis

2

2

30

0

Total

13

21
49
4

Mathis is listed as the starter heading into the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and he is
perfect in two tries this year. However, he hasn’t attempted a kick longer than
30 yards, so he’s still an unknown. Tennessee has had four field goals blocked
this year, including the infamous block at the end of the Alabama game, so
that’s something to keep an eye on.

Chad Cunningham has had a solid year at punter, averaging 42 yards per kick.
He has had one punt blocked this year, but the Vols are only 83rd in the country
in net punting. They have left opponents some room in the return game this year,
so Jayron Hosley might have a chance to break one.

David Oku (5-10, 186, Fr.) has been a good kickoff returner for Tennessee
this year. He is averaging 26 yards per return with a long of 69. He hasn’t
returned one for a touchdown, but the Vols are 23rd nationally in kickoff return
average. He consistently gives his team decent field position.

Dennis Rogan is listed as Tennessee’s top punt returner, but he has averaged
just seven yards per return this year. He does have one return of 23 yards, and
he’s a dangerous player. The Hokies lost gunner Zach Luckett to a knee injury
against UVA, and Luckett is arguably the best gunner the Hokies have ever had.
Keep an eye at the gunner spot opposite Alonzo Tweedy to see who replaces
Luckett. It could have a big impact on the game.

Conclusion

There are plenty of reasons to pick Tech to lose this game. Let’s just name a
few.

  • Tech hasn’t beaten an SEC team since 2002, going 0-4 in their last four
    tries.
  • Tech is 0-2 in Atlanta this year.
  • Tech hasn’t won in a dome since 2000 at Syracuse.
  • Tech has never won back-to-back bowl games under Frank Beamer.

That’s four right there, before we start getting into guys like Montario
Hardesty, Dan Williams and Eric Berry. The Hokies will have their work cut out
for them.

Another thing that worries me is the loss of Stephan Virgil at field corner.
Virgil will be replaced by either Cris Hill, who started against Marshall and
was benched because of subpar play, or true freshman Jayron Hosley. I think
Hosley is a star in the making, but a true freshman taking on an SEC team in his
first major game action does not inspire confidence.

SEC coaches don’t mess around. We saw Alabama go right after the weak spot of
Tech’s defense, the middle between the safeties and the linebackers. Now the
weak spot of the defense is the deep field side, where either Hill or Hosley
will play with free safety Kam Chancellor. Tennessee will attack that part of
the field, and they will probably attack it early.

For the life of me, I don’t know why Eddie Whitley isn’t starting this game
at field corner. He replaced Hill when Hill played poorly early this year, and
he did a good job. I haven’t read a reason why Whitley isn’t starting, so
there’s no reason to speculate, but I’d feel a lot more comfortable with him
back there.

On the other hand, the Tennessee defense has played poorly against the run in
the last four games, and the Hokies sure are due to beat an SEC team, win in
Atlanta, win in a dome and win back-to-back bowl games, aren’t they? It would be
pretty sweet if they could do all four in one night.

I don’t see a lot of differences between these two teams. Ryan Williams and
Montario Hardesty will probably cancel each other out, and I think the teams are
evenly matched at most positions on the field. However, I give the Hokies the
advantage on special teams, and I think Tyrod Taylor will outplay Jonathan
Crompton. I think those two things will send Tech into the New Year with a win.

That, and they’re just due to win a game like this. Tyrod Taylor will lead
the Hokies on a game-winning drive at some point in the fourth quarter, and
Crompton will throw a pick down the stretch to ice the game.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Tennessee 20

Will Stewart’s Take: Virginia Tech has lost four straight games in domes
dating back to 2002, and are 2-11 in domes under Frank Beamer. Tech has lost
four straight games to SEC teams and two games in Atlanta this season. The
Hokies have never won two bowl games in a row under Frank Beamer.

Can’t, won’t, haven’t, never. History repeats itself.

History is history, but individual games are about matchups, and these
matchups are more favorable than recent SEC matchups the Hokies have had. Auburn
in 2004, LSU in 2007, and Alabama in 2009 were great football teams. Georgia in
2006 was not a great football team, but the 2006 Hokies weren’t all that hot,
either, and they suffered injuries during that game (most notably Brandon
Flowers) that depleted their talent pool further.

The 2006 Hokies made way too many mistakes in that Chick-fil-A Bowl game, and
I’m not just talking about the turnovers by Sean Glennon. Tech also failed to
stay at home in the kickoff return game and gave up an onsides kick, and the
Tech defense got fooled by some good play calls from the Georgia offense.

My point? In the four straight losses to SEC teams, the Hokies have been
clearly out-talented in two instances (2007 LSU and 2009 Alabama) and have made
too many mistakes in two other instances (2004 Auburn and 2006 Georgia).

So, what if you even up the talent a little and cut out the mistakes? Can the
Hokies finally break their SEC drought?

Let’s take talent first. We won’t know until these two teams kick it off how
the talent matches up. These things become apparent about a quarter into the
game. But it appears that the Vols don’t have an overwhelming talent advantage
over the Hokies, or vice versa.

That brings up mistakes. These two teams are very similar to each other: very
good running backs, efficient QBs who don’t throw many interceptions, solid wide
receivers, and good defenses that are great against the pass but susceptible to
the running game.

When so much is evenly matched, mistakes are magnified and often determine
the outcome. If the Hokies can limit their mistakes, the game then comes down to
coaching, and this is where a significant mismatch occurs: Monte Kiffin vs.
Bryan Stinespring.

Kiffin has had a month to watch Tech game film and prepare, so his Vol
defense will be ready for what the Hokies did during the regular season. It
behooves Stinespring, therefore, to throw something different at the Volunteers.
Assuming he does that, it might work for a while, but then Kiffin will sniff it
out, adjust … and then it comes down to players making plays.

That’s how my mind meanders in my attempt to figure out what’s going to
happen in this game, and after pondering recent history and the matchups in this
game, I come back to an old-school football axiom: whichever team makes the
fewest mistakes, and whichever team can get its best players to make plays, will
win.

There’s a lot that I really don’t like about this game, primarily Kiffin vs.
Stinespring and the threat of Montario Hardesty piling up yards against Tech’s
defense. If those things unfold poorly, the Hokies are cooked. But if the Hokies
can avoid mistakes, get playmakers Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Williams to unwind, put
the brakes on Hardesty and avoid giving up the big play, VT will be in business.

I told myself after the Alabama game that I would no longer pick the Hokies
to beat an SEC team, until they proved they could. Oh, well.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Tennessee 23

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