2012 Football Game Preview: VT vs. UVA

, TechSideline.com, on November 21, 2012
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This Saturday’s game is a battle between two teams who have had very similar seasons, and who are very similar statistically.  The Hokies and Hoos have made it a habit of outgaining their opponents this season, and then losing the game because of turnovers and bad plays on special teams.

Virginia Tech comes into this game with a 5-6 record.  They’ll need to beat UVA to become bowl eligible.  The Hoos are 4-7 and are staying home for the postseason.  They’ll try to focus on beating the Hokies for the first time in 2003, which would keep Tech home for the Holidays for the first time since 1992.

UVA has had some tough losses this year, and in many ways their season has gone exactly like Virginia Tech’s.

Example #1: In a 44-38 loss to Louisiana Tech, the Hoos actually outgained the Bulldogs 625-385.  However, they also threw three interceptions.

Example #2: UVA outgained Duke 461 to 394, yet still lost 42-17.  They threw two interceptions in that game.

Example #3: UVA outgained Maryland 386 to 235, yet lost at home 27-20.  They had two turnovers, and also allowed a 100 yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Example #4: In a 16-10 home loss to Wake Forest, UVA managed to outgain the Demon Deacons 301 to 213.  They surrendered a big punt return in the first quarter that set up the Deacs with good field position in their only touchdown drive of the game.

All of that sounds strangely familiar to another team I’m watched this year from the state of Virginia.  Special teams and turnovers losing football games?  Stop me if you’ve heard that story before.

Like Virginia Tech, the Hoos could have a better record.  They could also have a worse record.  UVA barely knocked off Miami, and they were fortunate that Penn State didn’t have anyone who could kick the ball.  The Hokies could have easily lost to Boston College and Georgia Tech, and they easily could have beaten Florida State and Cincinnati.  Most of the time, you are who your record says you are.  This week, the Hokies will be fighting to be known as an average football team.

The UVA Offense

UVA has been able to move the football this season, but they’ve been undone by turnovers.  The Hoos currently rank #111 in the country in turnover margin, and Wahoo quarterbacks have combined for 13 interceptions on the season.  Here’s how they look in the national rankings…

Rushing offense: #89
Passing offense: #36
Total offense: #56
Scoring offense: #89
Pass Efficiency: #78
Sacks allowed: #77
Third downs: #83

The Hoos have had a quarterback controversy from the very beginning of practice, and neither Michael Rocco (6-3, 225, Jr.) or Phillip Sims (6-2, 215, So.) have been able to win the job.  They have both been very good at times, and they’ve both been very bad at times.  It was assumed that Sims, the transfer from Alabama who was rated amongst the top quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school, would win the job without much of a problem, but that hasn’t been the case.  Here’s a quick numbers comparison.

Rocco: 62%, 1,740 yards, 12 touchdowns, 9 interceptions
Sims: 56.6%, 1,253 yards, 9 touchdowns, 4 interceptions

Both guys have been splitting time recently, and I think we can expect more of the same on Saturday.  Both guys are pocket passers, and I think Bud Foster will be looking to bring the heat, particularly in long yardage situations.  The Hokies rank #19 nationally in sacks per game, and they’ve recorded 22 sacks in their last five games.  UVA ranks #77 in sacks allowed, so Tech should be able to get some pressure.

Here’s a look at the UVA offensive line who will try to hold back the Hokie defense…

LT Oday Aboushi (6-6, 310, Sr.): Aboushi is a veteran, senior left tackle.
LG Conner Davis (6-5, 300, So.): A first-year starter; he’s struggled along with the rest of the interior line.
C: Luke Bowanko (6-6, 295, Jr.): Bowanko is a returning starter at center for the Hoos.
RG Sean Cascarano (6-6, 280, Jr.): A first-year starter at guard.
RT Morgan Moses (6-6, 325, Jr.): Moses is a talented player at right tackle for the Hoos.

Moses was injured near the end of UVA’s Thursday night loss to UNC, and his status for Saturday’s game is uncertain.  However, he was limping badly on Thursday, which wasn’t a good sign.  He would be a big loss for the UVA offensive line.  If Moses can’t go, expect Jay Whitmire (6-6, 295, r-Fr.) to get the start.

The Hoos are at their weakest on the interior of the line.  Fortunately for the Hokies, they are filled with playmakers on the interior that could potentially make UVA pay for that weakness…

Jack Tyler: 11 TFL, 2.5 sacks
Derrick Hopkins: 8 TFL, 2 sacks
J.R. Collins: 5.5 TFL, 1 sack
Luther Maddy: 4.5 TFL, 4 sacks
Antoine Hopkins: 3.5 TFL

I believe that Virginia Tech’s biggest mismatch in this game is their interior defensive line, along with middle linebacker Jack Tyler, against the interior of the UVA offensive line.  If the Hokies can blow UVA’s offense up from the inside, they have an excellent opportunity to win the football game.

The running game hasn’t been a strength for the Hoos this season.  Perry Jones (5-8, 195, Sr.) was a 1,000 yard rusher last year.  This season, he has only 445 yards and he’s averaging just 3.4 yards per carry.  Kevin Parks (5-8, 200, So.) has run for 713 yards and averages 4.7 yards per carry, but on the whole the UVA running game has not been effective at all.

The Hokies must use their advantage on the interior to shut down the running game, and put the ball in the hands of Mike Rocco and/or Phillip Sims.  Those guys have been turnover prone this season, and I’m not sure they have what it takes to beat Virginia Tech without a lot of help from the Hokies.

Virginia has tried to throw the ball a lot this year.  438 times to be exact, and that doesn’t include sacks.  Perry Jones has been the leading receiver, catching 46 passes out of the backfield for an average of 8.2 yards per catch.  Kevin Parks is also a top receiver for UVA, catching 23 passes for 185 yards.  The Hoos do have some threats at other positions, however.

Darius Jennings (5-11, 170, So.): 45 catches, 545 yards, 12.1 ypc, 5 TD
Dominique Terrell (5-11, 170, So.): 35 catches, 448 yards, 12.8 ypc
E.J. Scott (5-11, 185, So.): 29 catches, 390 yards, 13.4 ypc, 3 TD
Jake McGee (6-5, 235, So.): 27 catches, 366 yards, 13.6 ypc, 5 TD
Tim Smith (6-0, 185, Jr.): 16 catches, 326 yards, 20.4 ypc, 3 TD

Smith has struggled with a hamstring injury throughout the course of the season, though he is obviously capable of big plays.

All in all, the Virginia and Virginia Tech offenses have a lot in common this season…

1: Interior OL play is a weakness
2: Lots of interceptions by the quarterback
3: Big plays at WR, though inconsistent play as well
4: A fanbase that is criticizing the offensive coaching staff

I certainly don’t see the Hokies pitching a shutout this season, but I think they have a big advantage over the interior of the UVA offensive line.  They’ll take advantage of that matchup and hold the UVA offense in check on Saturday afternoon.

The Virginia Defense

Statistically, Virginia’s defense has been good this season.  However, they’ve been undone by an offense that turns the ball over and special teams that makes critically bad plays at the wrong times.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Rushing defense; #41
Passing defense: #38
Total defense: #34
Scoring defense: #80
Pass efficiency defense: #60
TFL: #86
Sacks: #101
Third downs: #10

This isn’t the most physically scary UVA defense that we’ve seen throughout the season, but statistically they have been solid this season.  They aren’t a group that plays in the backfield a lot, but ranking #34 nationally in total defense is nothing to sneeze at.

Virginia could use as many as five defensive ends against the Hokies…

Jake Snyder (6-4, 270, Jr.): 11 starts, 5 TFL, 2 sacks
Eli Harold (6-4, 225, Fr.): 1 start, 6 TFL, 1.5 sacks
Bill Schautz (6-4, 265, Sr.): 4 starts, 6 tackles, 0 TFL, 0 sacks
Ausar Walcott (6-4, 240, Sr.): 6 starts, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks
Mike Moore (6-4, 265, Fr.): 0 starts, 2 TFL, 1 sack

Eli Harold, a highly-touted recruit from the 757, is UVA’s best playmaker at defensive end.  However, he’s also the smallest.  Snyder is the most experienced, and the most reliable, though you won’t find him playing in the opposing backfield very often.

The Hoos also have solid depth at defensive tackle.

Will Hill (6-4, 280, Sr.): 11 starts, 4 TFL, 1 sack
Brent Urban ((6-7, 280, Jr.): 11 starts, 2 TFL, 2 sacks
Chris Brathwaite (6-1, 270, So.): 0 starts, 8 TFL, 2.5 sacks
Justin Renfrow (6-6, 310, Jr.): 0 starts, 10 tackles, 0 TFL, 0 sacks

Will Hill is a senior who never played a down until this season.  Clearly the best playmaker is Chris Brathwaite, who has a low center of gravity.  In fact, he’s the same height and build as a lot of successful Virginia Tech defensive tackles throughout the years.

Virginia has good linebackers, and they are experienced.  Steve Greer (6-2, 230, Sr.) is the best natural football player of them all.  He leads the team with 103 tackles, with 8 TFL and 2 sacks.  Greer is very good against the run in between the tackles, though he is very exploitable in space.  UNC took advantage of his coverage skills twice last week by getting him matched up against tailback Giovani Bernard and wide receiver Erik Highsmith, and he was beaten for touchdowns on both passes.

The weakside linebacker is La’Roy Reynolds (6-2, 230, Sr.).  Reynolds has always been a very good athlete, though he’s never quite been a natural linebacker, as he was moved from the safety position prior to the 2010 season.  As a senior, he’s having his best season, with 75 tackles and 6 TFL.

Henry Coley (6-2, 235, So.) and Daquan Romero (6-1, 230, So.) have split time at the strongside linebacker spot this season.  Coley was the starter, but he was suspended for the NC State game, and it’s been Romero every since.  They’ve combined for 77 tackles and 7 TFL, so overall it has been a very productive position for the Hoos.  In fact, linebacker has been overall the most productive position on defense.

The UVA defense has a number of young players throughout the two-deep.  The most experienced starter is cornerback Demetrious Nicholson (5-11, 170, So.), who has been in the starting lineup since he first arrived on campus.

The other cornerback spot is manned by two different players: Maurice Canaday (6-2, 180, Fr.) and Drequan Hoskey (6-0, 175, So.).  Hoskey has started nine games, but Canaday is the more talented player.  Canaday is listed as the starter on the depth chart this week.  Hoskey played in UVA’s dime defense late last season, and was torched by Marcus Davis out of the slot in the first half.

Brandon Phelps (6-0, 175, So.) and Anthony Harris (6-1, 185, So.) man the safety positions for UVA, and they’ve both started all 11 games this season.  As a team, UVA has just four interceptions on the season.  Maurice Canaday has two of them, Anthony Harris has one, while defensive end Eli Harold has the fourth.

As you can see, this isn’t a particularly big group of defensive backs.  Virginia Tech’s wide receivers have struggled with their blocking this year, but if they manage to get their hands on these UVA defensive backs, they should be able to control them.  Guys like Marcus Davis (6-4, 232) and Corey Fuller (6-2, 196) should also be able to make plays in the passing game.

Special Teams

Both of these teams have made some critical mistakes on special teams this year.  However, Virginia Tech has also made a lot of plays in the return game, so you have to give the Hokies the overall advantage.

Net punting: #70
Punt returns: #112
Punt return defense: #90
Kick returns: #65
KO return defense: #120

Virginia is dead last in the country in kickoff return defense, and only #90 nationally in punt return defense.  Meanwhile, the Hokies are #20 nationally in kickoff returns, and #30 in punt returns.  That’s a major matchup advantage in favor of the home team.  Virginia Tech probably hasn’t faced a team this year that is as bad in the return game as UVA.

Virginia has also used two kickers this season.  Drew Jarrett (6-0, 180, Jr.) is 8-of-12 with a long of 46 yards.  He’s also had one field goal blocked.  Ian Frye (6-6, 210, r-Fr.) will handle kickoffs, and he is also 3-of-5 on his field goal attemps, with a long of 30 yards.

Because of Virginia’s horrendous numbers in the return game, you have to give the special teams advantage to Virginia Tech.  The Hokies have had their own share of mistakes on special teams this season, but guys like Demitri Knowles, Kyshoen Jarrett and Cody Journell give Tech the upper hand in this one.

Final Thoughts

If Virginia Tech wins this football game, they’ll go to a bowl for the 20th consecutive season.  That doesn’t matter to me.  This Saturday is my own personal bowl game, and I really hope that’s how the players are treating it as well.  As yourself as a fan: would you rather win a small bowl game that nobody watches, or would you rather extend the winning streak against UVA?  Obviously Tech can’t make a bowl without beating the Hoos, but if I had my choice, I’d take the in-state win.

This week last year, this game was getting a lot of attention within the state.  UVA was the popular pick amongst the in-state sportswriters, and the teams were meeting with the ACC Coastal Division on the line.  Tech was 10-1, with their sights set on the BCS and having the winningnest season in school history.  This year the only things that are on the line are pride and whether or not Virginia Tech will go to a bowl game.  Things can change drastically over the course of one season.

As we all know, Virginia Tech is a different team at home this year.  Their road performances have left a lot to be desired, but at home they have fought #10 FSU right down to the wire, and beaten everyone else.  It seems to me that the Hokies are somewhere between two and three touchdowns better at home than they are on the road.  That’s certainly something that can’t be overlooked when picking this game.

One thing I’d like to see: I’d like to see Martin Scales start at tailback.  This is a guy who is more than a Tech player.  He was a Tech fan before he was player.  And not just a fan who would sit home and occasionally watch a game on TV, like many of the players who claim they grew up as “fans” of a particular school.  Scales came to his first game in 1995, he’s cousins of Cam and Orion Martin, and he’s been a true fan for years.  He hates UVA, and after seeing him run the football against BC last week, I have no doubt that he would be ready to unload on one of those smallish defensive backs if he gets a chance.  Besides having better players, the Hokies have also enjoyed a lot of recent success against UVA because they play tougher.  Scales is the exact guy you want in the game if you want to smack those guys in the mouth.

As I’ve said in every game preview for the last month, I trust the defense to play a good football game.  However, I don’t quite trust the offense.  That said, I’m picking the Hokies to win fairly comfortably, because they are at home.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, UVA 17

Will Stewart’s Take: I don’t even need to read Chris’ preview to make my call on this one.

The Hokies are so much different, so much better at home, that it’s not even funny. Whereas the Hokies only have one road/neutral victory this season, an overtime squeaker over one of the worst teams in Division 1-A, their performance at home is a much different story. The only team to beat the Hokies at home is the #10 team in the nation, featuring the #1 defense in the country and the #14 offense in the country. And that team had to score in the last minute to pull it off.

The Hokies are a pretty good team at home, especially if they’re motivated, and on Saturday, they will be motivated. Never mind the bowl situation: Tech’s guys just flat-out want to beat UVa. When I emceed an event with some former players at the Blacksburg Holiday Inn last spring, I told them one of the things I was going to ask them was who they considered to be their biggest rival. About half of them looked at me like I was crazy and said, “You mean, besides UVa?”

So while the fierceness of the rivalry has worn off a little bit for some of the fans, because Virginia hasn’t been competitive in this matchup for nearly 3,000 days, it hasn’t worn off for the players. James Gayle, for one, can’t wait to meet Phillip Sims:

As an aside, if I were the VT coaching staff, I’d play Martin Scales a lot. That dude is tough, and he grew up a Tech fan. He really wants to beat the Hoos. Send that senior out in style.

Back to the topic: I’m not saying it will be a 38-0 beatdown like it was last year. Then again, maybe it will. I’m just saying that a properly motivated Virginia Tech team, at home, isn’t something the Cavaliers — this year’s Cavaliers in particular — can overcome.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Virginia 10

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