2012 Sugar Bowl Preview: #11 Virginia Tech vs. #13 Michigan

, TechSideline.com, on December 30, 2011
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  • Date: Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012
  • Time: 8:30
  • TV: ESPN (Brad Nessler and Todd Blackledge)

We’re just days away from Virginia Tech’s big Sugar Bowl matchup with the
Michigan Wolverines. The Hokies have an opportunity to win 12 games for the
first time in school history, and finish in the top 10 in the final polls. The
team standing in their way is one of the most tradition-rich teams in college
football. It’s an exciting opportunity for the Tech program as they look to head
into the offseason on a high note.

Michigan is 10-2 on the season, led by first-year head coach Brady Hoke. Hoke
gets a lot of credit for Michigan’s turnaround this season, but I think the best
decisions he made were to hire offensive coordinator Al Borges and defensive
coordinator Greg Mattison. Borges has done a great job of adjusting his usually
pro-style system to the spread-offense players already in the program, and
Mattison is a proven coach on both the college and NFL levels.

In fact, the last time Virginia Tech played in the Sugar Bowl, they faced an
Auburn offense that was coached by Al Borges. Back then he had Jason Campbell,
Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, and that was a much different looking
offense than the one he runs today at Michigan. Borges obviously has a knack for
adjusting to his personnel.

Mattison turned one of the worst defenses in the country into a top 20
defense in one season. The Wolverines have improved across the board, and they
are tough up front in the trenches. On paper, I think this is a very good
matchup, and both fan bases and teams should be excited.

The Michigan Offense

Denard, Denard, Denard. That’s all we’ve heard about since this matchup was
announced back in early December. Denard Robinson is an explosive football
player who can change the game on any play. He’s the type of guy who can score
from anywhere on the field. Before we get talk about Robinson, let’s talk about
the five guys who really make Michigan’s offense tough.

The
Michigan Offensive Line
Pos.PlayerHt.Wt.Yr.Starts
LT Taylor Lewan6-8302r-So.21
LG Michael Schofield6-7299r-So.9
C David Molk6-2286r-Sr.41
RG Patrick Omameh6-4300r-Jr.28
RT Mark Huyge6-6302r-Sr.28

This group is experienced, tough, and good. They paved the way for two 1,000
yard rushers and were also 27th in sacks allowed. David Molk was this year’s
Rimington Award winner as the nation’s top center. The key guy up front has been
Michael Schofield. He is usually a tackle, but he’s started nine games at left
guard this year because Ricky Barnum has been suspended and hurt.

Remember that the Hokies start two r-sophomores, a true sophomore and a true
freshman on the defensive line, with a couple of other sophomores behind them at
linebacker. Backing those guys up are more sophomores and freshmen.

How will the Hokies do against Michigan? The team whose offensive line most
resembles Michigan’s is UVA’s. The Hoos have an All-American left guard in
Austin Pasztor, a possible future first round pick in right tackle Morgan Moses,
second team All-ACC tackle Oday Aboushi, and honorable mention All-ACC center
Anthony Mihota. Tech dominated that offensive line, and that was a line that had
blocked pretty much everyone else they played this season. That said, expect the
Wolverines to play a lot better up front than UVA did back in November, though
the talent level is fairly similar.

The Michigan line blocks for a talented running back in Fitzgerald Toussaint
(5-10, 195, r-So.), the unheralded guy on the Wolverine offense. Toussaint
rushed for 1,011 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 5.8 yards per carry in the
process. He’s a very shift back who also has good acceleration. With Toussaint
and Robinson coming back next year, along with three starters on the offensive
line, this offense will be very dynamic yet again.

Speaking of Robinson (6-0, 195, Jr.), the talented junior quarterback wasn’t
as good statistically in 2011 as he was in 2010, but he’s still the most
dangerous quarterback the Hokies have faced this season. He rushed for 1,163
yards and 16 touchdowns while completing 56.1% of his passes for 2,056 yards,
with 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

Robinson is a dangerous scrambler, but he’s even more dangerous on designed
runs and run/pass read options. He does throw a lot of interceptions, and he had
a five game stretch in the middle of the season where he didn’t play
particularly well.


Denard Robinson, Oct. 8-Nov. 12

Opp.

Comp.

Att.

Yards

TD

INT

Carries

Yards

YPC

TD
Northwestern 17 26 337 2 3 25 117 4.7 2
Michigan State 9 24 123 1 1 18 42 2.3 1
Purdue 9 14 170 0 1 15 63 4.2 1
Iowa 17 37 194 2 1 12 55 4.6 0
Illinois 6 10 92 0 1 12 30 2.5 2

Totals

58

111

916

5

7

82

307

3.7

6

In his defense, he was banged up a bit in the middle of the season, and that
hurt his performance. Still, Robinson throws too many interceptions despite the
fact that he’s only thrown the ball 237 times this year. Offensive coordinator
Al Borges would be the first person to admit that.

Robinson will be very dangerous in this game because he’s had over a month to
rest and get healthy. He should be a more effective player than he was in
mid-October simply because he feels better physically. I think Virginia Tech
will use their defensive ends to play containment and try to keep Robinson in
the pocket. When push comes to shove, you’ve rather have him in the pocket than
outside the pocket.

Michigan has an interesting group of wide receivers, and with the exception
of Junior Hemingway (6-1, 222, r-Sr.), this will be the smallest group of
receivers the Hokies have faced this year. Hemingway leads the team with 32
catches for 636 yards, scoring two touchdowns while averaging nearly 20 yards
per catch. He has a lot of strength, and he can use that downfield against
smaller defensive backs. Look for Michigan to try to get him downfield against
Jayron Hosley.

Here’s a quick look at Michigan’s other receivers:

Roy Roundtree (6-0, 177, r-Jr.) – 18 catches, 345 yards, 2 TD’s
Jeremy Gallon (5-8, 185, r-So.) – 30 catches, 450 yards, 3 TD’s
Drew Dileo (5-10, 172, So.) – 9 catches, 121 yards, 2 TD’s
Martavious Odoms (5-8, 173, Sr.) – 7 catches, 131 yards, 3 TD’s
Kelvin Grady (5-10, 177, r-Sr.) – 4 catches, 64 yards
Jeremy Jackson (6-3, 198, So.) – 3 catches, 36 yards

The Wolverines obviously spread the ball around to a lot of different
receivers when they decide to throw (which isn’t too often, unless they are
trailing). Tight end Kevin Koger (6-4, 258, Sr.) is a major target, with 21
catches for 235 yards and four touchdowns. He is a top priority in goal line
situations. Small, shifty backup tailback Vincent Smith (5-6, 172, Jr.) also has
10 catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns, though you won’t see him featured
in the running game.

The key in this game for Virginia Tech is taking control at the line of
scrimmage. Denard Robinson is going to make his share of plays no matter what,
but if the Hokies don’t win the battle up front, they have no chance to slow
down this offense at all.

The Michigan Defense

This is a quality Michigan defense led by coordinator Greg Mattison, who most
recently served as the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. The
Wolverines were one of the worst defenses in the country in 2010 (Rich Rod’s
wacky 3-3-5 scheme has no place in Big Ten football), but Mattison has switched
them back to a traditional 4-3 scheme, and they rank in the top 40 in nearly
every major statistical category.


The Michigan Defense

Category

Stat

Rank
Rush 129.08 ypg 34
Pass 188.5 ypg 17
Total 317.58 ypg 17
Scoring 17.17 ypg 7
Pass Eff. 120.14 36
Third Down % 36.08% 30
TFL 5.33 per game 72
Sacks 2.33 per game 27

The key to Michigan’s success defensively starts up front. Ryan Van Bergen
(6-6, 288, r-Sr.) is a big defensive end who had 12 tackles for loss and five
sacks this season. However, I think their best player on the defensive line is
tackle Mike Martin (6-2, 304, Sr.). Martin had 5.5 tackles for loss and three
sacks, but he’s the type of player who doesn’t need to show up in the box score
to have an impact on the game. The interior of the Tech offensive line struggled
to block Clemson’s Brandon Thompson, who is arguably the best senior NFL
defensive tackle prospect in the country. They’ll need to play better against
Martin, or it will be a long night.

The other defensive end is Craig Roh (6-5, 269, Jr.), and the other defensive
tackle is Will Heininger (6-6, 295, r-Sr.). Heininger is very questionable for
this game with a foot injury. Second string defensive end Nathan Brink (6-5,
263, r-So.) has already been ruled out for the Sugar Bowl. If Heininger can’t
go, his replacement would likely be Quinton Washington (6-4, 302, r-So.) or Will
Campbell (6-5, 322, Jr.).

Overall, depth up front isn’t Michigan’s strength, though the starters are
very good. Van Bergen and Roh have started 37 career games, while Martin has
started 36. However, they’ll be facing a Tech offensive line that is even more
experienced: Blake DeChristopher (50 starts), Jaymes Brooks (41 starts), Greg
Nosal (28 starts), Andrew Lanier (28 starts) and Andrew Miller (13 starts). It
should be a good matchup. If the Tech line can keep Martin from getting a lot of
penetration up the middle, the Hokies should be in good shape.

At linebacker, the Wolverines have some inexperience:

Kenny Demens (6-1, 248, r-Jr., MLB) – Leads the team with 86 tackles, and he
also has 3 sacks.
Jake Ryan (6-3, 230, r-Fr., SLB ) – Michigan’s best playmaking linebacker with 7
TFL.
Desmond Morgan (6-1, 220, Fr., WLB) – Can be an active player with 53 tackles,
but he’s very young.
Brandin Hawthorne (6-0, 214, Jr. WLB) – Has 43 tackles on the season.

With a couple of freshmen on the field a lot, and the fact that Michigan is
good between the tackles, I think we’ll see Tech attack the edges more times
than not on Tuesday night. Edge rushing is Virginia Tech’s strength with David
Wilson, so it will be interesting to see what the Michigan coaching staff does
to counter it.

Look for Tech to go after Blake Countess (5-10, 176, Fr.) in the passing game
and the running game. Countess starts at cornerback as a true freshmen. He’s
obviously talented to be starting as such a young player, but he gives up a lot
of experience and size to Virginia Tech’s veteran group of wide receivers.

J.T. Floyd (6-0, 185, r-Jr.) starts at the other cornerback spot, and he
leads the team with eight passes defended and two interceptions. The safeties
are very experienced: Jordan Kovacs (6-0, 197, r-Jr.), Troy Woolfolk (6-0, 191,
r-Sr.) and Thomas Gordon (5-11, 208, r-So.). Kovacs can make plays around the
line of scrimmage, with eight tackles for loss and four sacks on the season.

However, there have been times this year where opposing wide receivers have
found a lot of room in the Michigan secondary, most notably Notre Dame and Ohio
State. Unfortunately for those teams, they didn’t have the quarterback play to
exploit it. Ohio State in particular had an opportunity to beat Michigan through
the air, but true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller couldn’t get it done,
missing numerous wide open receivers down the field. Logan Thomas is a lot
better than Braxton Miller.

The Michigan defense will bring a wide variety of blitzes, including safety
blitzes, particularly in long-yardage situations. The Hokies need to be mentally
sharp up front, and I would love to see the coaching staff help the players out
by finding ways to get David Wilson the ball in space against the blitz. In
other words, I hope they aren’t afraid to throw a tailback screen on third and
12 against the blitz, or run a wide receiver on a drag through the vacated
areas, rather than throwing a low percentage pass down the field.

To me, the key to this game is how Andrew Miller performs against Mike
Martin. Martin has the ability to dominate opposing centers (in particular, he
was very good against Nebraska), and Andrew Miller will have to be better than
he was against Clemson. If the Hokies can just break even on the inside, I think
they are good enough on the perimeter to have success against the Michigan
defense.

Special Teams

Michigan is #107 in net punting. Virginia Tech is #108. Michigan is #100 in
kickoff returns. Virginia Tech is #99. These teams are very similar on special
teams, statistically speaking.

I think you’ve got to give the edge to Virginia Tech in the punting game. The
Hokies are #108 in net punting, but ever since Danny Coale took over, he is
averaging 44.1 yards per punt, with four of his 12 attempts going 50 yards or
more. Coale gets height and distance on the ball, and had he been punting all
season, Tech’s net punting ranking would be totally different.

With field goal kicking, Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons (6-1, 227, r-So.) is
10-of-14 on the season with a long of 42 yards. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech’s top
two kickers are either under house arrest or on a Greyhound rolling through the
hills of Tennessee. Justin Myer will take over the placekicking duties, and
while he has great leg strength, his accuracy has always been poor.

In the return game, David Wilson, Tony Gregory and Jayron Hosley have an
advantage over Jeremy Gallon (punt returner), Martavious Owens (kick returner)
and Vincent Smith (kick returner). Wilson is the type of player who is capable
of breaking a big return at any time.

With no proven field goal kicker in this game, it’s very important that the
Hokies do everything else well on special teams and win the hidden yardage game.

Sugar Bowl Result Will Decide How This Team is Remembered

Next week’s Sugar Bowl matchup with Michigan is going to play a major role in
how the 2011 season is viewed by Virginia Tech fans. The Hokies can accomplish a
lot with a win. However, a loss will result in yet another offseason of
questioning the program.

Virginia Tech is currently 11-2 and ranked #11 in the BCS. There is a big
difference between going 12-2 and finishing in the top 10, and going 11-3 and
finishing outside the top 15. Even more important than the numbers, it could
significantly impact how the Tech fanbase feels about this particular team, and
their mood heading into next season.

If the Hokies win this game, they will have accomplished a lot this season
with a new quarterback, and a young, injury plagued defense. Even though there
is no ACC Championship banner to hang, there would still be a lot of things to
be proud of.

Another 10-win season
School record 12 wins
Sugar Bowl win
First ACC at-large team ever
Top 10 finish
Win over Michigan, a traditional power

There are probably some others as well, but the list above will do. If Tech
wins this game, we’ll all be able to celebrate a great season. If the Hokies
win, I’ll personally remember this group as a really good team who just had a
matchup problem with the only team to beat them all season.

However, if they lose, they’ll become just another Tech team who lost a big
bowl game to a ranked team with the whole country watching. It will be like the
2006 team, who had a chance to go 11-2 and finish around 10th nationally by
winning the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Instead, they went 10-3, finished outside the top
15, and that season is only remembered for the lack of offense and poor
offensive line play.

The first option sounds a lot better to me. If Tech can close out with a win,
this team will have to go down as one of the most memorable teams of the Beamer
Bowl Era. Here’s my list of favorite teams.


Favorite Seasons

Year

Record

Bowl
1999 11-1 Sugar Bowl
2004 10-3 Sugar Bowl
1995 10-2 Sugar Bowl Champs
1993 9-3 Independence Bowl Champs
1996 10-2 Orange Bowl
2000 11-1 Gator Bowl
2010 11-3 Orange Bowl
2007 11-3 Orange Bowl

If Virginia Tech wins the Sugar Bowl, based on their list of accomplishments,
the 2011 team would belong somewhere on the list above, most likely at #4 behind
the 1995 team. I’m a little biased towards the Sugar Bowl, in case you couldn’t
tell.

Let’s rewind to September 2, 2011, the day before the season opener against
Appalachian State. If I had told you that day that Virginia Tech wouldn’t win
the ACC Championship, but they would set a school record for wins, finish in the
top 10, beat Michigan in the Sugar Bowl, shut out UVA 38-0 and beat Miami in an
amazing finish, would you have taken it? I would have, in a New York minute.

Hopefully Tech will win, because I really want to remember this team like the
2004 group, or the 1995 team. I’ve liked this team too much all year to have to
remember them for losses in the ACC Championship Game and Sugar Bowl. I want to
go into spring practice with momentum coming off a top 10 finish and a Sugar
Bowl win, not feeling blasé because of another bowl loss to a good team.

All that said, I think this is a good matchup on paper, but Michigan’s
experience on the lines has me concerned. I think it’s going to be a close game,
and the Hokies are missing Cody Journell, who hasn’t missed a field goal since
September. For a regular game, I wouldn’t consider him a big loss, but I think
this one is going to be close, and his absence will have an effect on how Frank
Beamer and his staff coach the game.

This is a game that I really want to win, but I think Tech is too young up
front on defense.

Prediction: Michigan 30, Virginia Tech 24

Will Stewart’s Take: Emotion and motivation play big roles in college
athletics. In Virginia Tech’s last two games, the team that wasn’t getting the
love in the pre-game buildup went on to win big. The Hokies smashed Virginia
38-0 after listening to the media love on Mike London and his program all week
long. One week later, a Clemson team that everyone had dismissed flattened the
Hokies 38-10 in the ACC Championship Game.

Certainly, Virginia Tech has more motivation in this game. It’s not just the
criticism the Hokies have received from the national press for their at-large
bid. There’s also an undercurrent running through the program that the
high-profile losses are starting to mount, and it’s time to step up and start
winning the non-conference games that everyone’s watching.

A lot of the discussion from the Tech players and coaches this week has been
about the importance of winning the game, and how serious Frank Beamer has been
this week. That can have one of two effects: it can lead to laser-like pre-game
focus and strong game-time execution, or it can tighten the team up. When the
game is over, and we can filter things through the prism of the result, we can
pontificate about what we think happened.

A stronger-than-usual motivation to win helps focus a team during the week
and helps improve their preparation, but just a few minutes into the game,
emotion goes out the window and it comes down to matchups, execution and
adjustments.

For the Hokie defense, the key is to minimize the Michigan rushing attack and
turn Denard Robinson into a passer. His last two games have been good ones as a
passer: 25 of 35 for 347 yards, 5 TDs, and just one INT. But note that he has
only thrown it an average of 17.5 times in those two games. If the Hokies can
force him into 25 or more passing attempts, in obvious passing situations, his
efficiency is likely to drop.

Offensively, VT has to avoid getting blown up in the middle of the line, and
has to give themselves a chance to work the perimeter with the running game and
exploit potential mismatches against Michigan’s corners, who go 5-10 and 6-0 and
have left receivers open at times. Virginia Tech doesn’t have to dominate with
the running game, but they do have to run the ball effectively and have a
balanced attack. I wouldn’t look for Logan Thomas to pull off any 12-yard
quarterback “sneaks” or long read option runs; he only outweighs
Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens by seven pounds.

This should be a great back and forth matchup. It could go either way, and
the closeness of the matchup is huge cause for concern, because the Hokies have
a donut hole at placekicker, thanks to the foolish mistakes of youth on the part
of two young men.

In just a few days, the 2012 season will be over, which is a shame, but after
watching some bowl games played in front of mostly empty stadiums, and often
played poorly, I’m looking forward to the Hokies and Wolverines playing at a
high level in a prime time Sugar Bowl matchup.

I’d like to pick the Hokies to win, but something feels wrong about this one.
Virginia Tech’s problems at placekicker, combined with the respect I have for
Michigan’s offensive and defensive coordinators, makes me think the Wolverines
have a slight edge in this one.

Will’s Prediction: Michigan 24, Virginia Tech 21

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