Russell Athletic Bowl Preview

, TechSideline.com, on December 26, 2012
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After waiting out most of the month of December, Virginia Tech will finally play another football game. The Hokies will take on Rutgers this Friday in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando.

I know, it doesn’t seem like Virginia Tech has a football game this week. The month of December has been spent not discussing the Scarlet Knights, but talking about the offense (as usual) and debating possible coaching staff changes. I’m typing this preview while watching the sleet bounce of my bedroom window, and suddenly I wish I had made the trip south for some better weather.

It’s been a disappointing season for the Hokie faithful, the coaching staff, and the players. Tech only went 6-6 during the regular season, and struggled to beat a couple of bad teams to end the year to even become bowl eligible. But, here we are yet again, with Frank Beamer preparing for his 20th consecutive bowl games. Not very many coaches can lay that claim.

Rutgers is 9-3, and they were just a play away from beating Louisville and representing the Big East in the BCS. As we’ll see shortly, they are remarkably similar to Virginia Tech in many ways.

The Rutgers Offense

As much as we complained about the Virginia Tech offense this year, statistically speaking the Rutgers offense was much worse.

  • Rushing: #100
  • Passing: #83
  • Total: #100
  • Scoring: #94
  • Pass efficiency: #64
  • Sacks allowed: #4

The Scarlet Knights could pass block this year, but that’s about it. Their passing game was inconsistent, and though they had a 1,000 yard rusher, overall their running game struggled to pick up good yardage.

When I look at this Rutgers offense, I see three things:

1: Inconsistent quarterback play.
2: A good running back.
3: Big, but somewhat underperforming receivers.

Gary Nova (6-2, 225, So.) is in his first season as the full-time starting quarterback after starting five games in 2011. By the time his career is over, he’ll be a very experienced player. However, from day one he has struggled with interceptions. He threw nine in 2011, and tossed up 15 more in 2012. He did throw 22 touchdown passes this year while completing 58.6% of his passes, but many of Rutgers’ inconsistencies on offense stemmed from Nova’s inconsistencies as a quarterback.

Nova shouldn’t have any trouble spotting his receivers downfield, as they are very easy to see because of their size. Without bothering to look at the depth chart of every single team in the country, I think it’s fair to say that the Scarlet Knights have one of the biggest trio of starting wide receivers in the country.

  • Mark Harrison (6-3, 230, Sr.): 42 catches, 560 yards, 13.3 ypc, 6 TDs
  • Brandon Coleman (6-6, 220, So.): 39 catches, 663 yards, 10 TDs
  • Tim Wright (6-4, 220, Sr.): 38 catches, 438 yards, 11.5 ypc, 2 TDs

Virginia Tech’s defensive backs will have to be ready to play physically and compete for jump balls in the red zone. Antone Exum (6-1, 224, r-Jr.) is the ideal cornerback to combat a group of wide receivers such as this.

Though you have to respect this group’s impressive size, we should also keep in mind that this offense was very inconsistent in the passing game (as well as the running game) this year. Only part of that is because of Gary Nova.

Bud Foster’s #1 focus in this game will be to stop the Scarlet Knight ground attack. Jawon Jamison (5-8, 200, So.) and Savon Huggins (6-0, 200, So.) split the carries at tailback, with Jamison getting a little over twice as many carries. Here’s a look at their numbers this season:

  • Jamison: 242 carries, 1054 yards, 4.4 ypc, 4 TD
  • Huggins: 101 carries, 362 yards, 3.6 ypc, 2 TD

Though Jamison did have a 1,000 yard season, these two backs combined for just six rushing touchdowns on 343 carries. They aren’t big play backs, and the Rutgers offense was more inclined to use their big wide receivers in the red zone.

In fact, Rutgers is one of the worst red zone offenses in the country, ranking #110 nationally. In 31 trips to the red zone this year, the Scarlet Knights only came up with 22 scores. Only 16 of those were touchdowns, which is barely over 50%. You have to be able to run the ball in the red zone, because the shortened field means defensive backs have to cover less space in the passing game. Both the Hokies and the Scarlet Knights have struggled running inside the 20 this season, so this game could come down to who is able to punch it in the endzone once they reach the red zone.

Attempting to block the playmaking Tech defensive line is an offensive line that features just one senior.

  • LT Kaleb Johnson (6-4, 300, So.)
  • LG Antwan Lowery (6-4, 305, Jr.)
  • C Betim Bujari (6-4, 290, So.)
  • RG Andre Civil (6-3, 275, Jr.)
  • RT R.J. Dill (6-7, 310, Sr.)

It’s not the biggest offensive line you’ll see, particularly at right guard. Andre Civil is a former defensive tackle who played left tackle in 2011, and was then moved to right guard this year. He’s been all over the place during his career, and he still has the body of a defensive tackle, rather than an offensive guard. Despite all the moves, he was still First Team All-Big East in 2012.

This is a unit that has struggled to get a push in the running game, but they are 19th nationally in tackles for loss allowed, and 4th in the country in sacks allowed. That should be a good matchup with a Tech defense which ranks #14 in tackles for loss and #20 in sacks.

This is clearly a good matchup for Bud Foster’s defense. The Hokies are playing a team that hasn’t been effective running the ball, as well as a quarterback that has a tendency to throw the ball to the other team. The game strategy is simple:

1: Stop the run.
2: Take a lead and force Rutgers to throw the ball.
3: Wait for Gary Nova to throw it to the defense.

I have confidence that Virginia Tech can execute #1 and #3. It’s #2 that leaves me worried …

The Rutgers Defense

Like Virginia Tech, Rutgers relies on a statistically strong defense to shut down the opposing offense. That’s how they compensate for an offense that struggles. That’s been the Virginia Tech formula in most seasons since 2006.

  • Rushing: #11
  • Passing: #40
  • Total: #14
  • Scoring: #4
  • Pass efficiency: #25
  • Tackles for loss: #19
  • Sacks: #73

Rutgers is #7 nationally in red zone defense, allowing just 24 scores in their opponents’ 36 trips inside the 20. Only 15 of those 36 trips have resulted in touchdowns. The Scarlet Knights have won some close games this year (7 point win over Cincinnati, 8 point win over Syracuse, 9 point win over Arkansas and 10 point win over USF), and it’s been their red zone defense that has been the primary factor.

The best player on the Rutgers defense – and probably the best player on the field for either team – is linebacker Khaseem Greene. He was Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 and 2012. The only other player to accomplish that twice-in-a-row feat? Virginia Tech’s Corey Moore in 1998 and 1999.

Greene (6-1, 230, Sr.) plays weakside linebacker for Rutgers, and he is a big time playmaker. Check out these numbers: 125 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 6 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 7 passes defended, and 8 quarterback hurries. This guy gets it done in all phases of the game.

Greene has the luxury of playing behind a defensive line that, while being very small, makes a lot of plays in their own right. In particular, the staring defensive tackles make a ton of plays:

  • DT Scott Vallone (6-3, 275, Sr.): 50 tackles, 12 TFL, 2.5 sacks
  • DT Jamil Merrell (6-4, 255, Jr.): 37 tackles, 8 TFL, 3.5 sacks

That’s not a very good matchup for a Tech offensive line that has struggled to block this season. However, those guys are small, as are backup defensive tackles Darius Hamilton (6-4, 260, Fr.) and Kenneth Kirksey (6-1, 275, So.), so if guys like Caleb Farris and Brent Benedict can get squared up, they have the potential to move those tackles off the ball.

Rutgers has other playmakers at linebacker, besides Khaseem Greene. Jamal Merrell (6-4, 220, Jr.) is the twin brother if defensive tackle Jamil Merrell, and he racked up 80 tackles and 8 tackles for loss this year. Steve Beauharnais (6-2, 230, Sr.) had another 76 tackles, with 6 tackles for loss and a sack. On the whole, this is a front seven that can run from sideline to sideline and make a lot of plays against the running game.

The Scarlet Knights also have a solid secondary, and surprise surprise, some are noted for their ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Lorenzo Waters (6-0, 200, So.) had 6 tackles for loss and 2 sacks in 2012 as the starting strong safety, while Logan Ryan (6-0, 190, Jr.) had a further 5 tackles for loss. Ryan also led the team with four interceptions, and he also broke up 14 other passes.

Ryan was a First Team All-Big East selection this season, as was free safety Duron Harmon (6-1, 200, Sr.). Overall, Rutgers had four defensive players make First Team All-Big East, including linebacker Khaseem Greene and defensive tackle Scott Valone. This is a talented and well-coached defense.

Unfortunately, this matchup does not favor the Hokies. Rutgers makes a lot of tackles behind the line of scrimmage, which means Virginia Tech will likely be operating from behind the chains for much of this game. That’s not a good thing for any offense.

Special Teams

Beamerball as we once knew it has moved from Blacksburg, VA to Piscataway, NJ. Rutgers has more blocked kicks (38) over the past five seasons than any other team in America, and they also led the nation in blocks this season with eight. A once proud Virginia Tech special teams unit doesn’t block kicks anymore, so this is a mismatch in the favor of Rutgers.

However, the Scarlet Knights have also allowed three of their field goals to be blocked this season. Rutgers has used both Kyle Federico (6-0, 195, Fr.) and Nick Borgese (5-11, 175, r-Fr.) this season. Federico is 6-of-11 with a long of 52 yards. Borgese is 4-of-5 with a long of 42 yards. Federico has a very strong leg, though he’s not consistent. He is listed as the starter heading into this game.

Rutgers is only 116th in the country in net punting. Justin Doerner (6-2, 200, Sr.) averages 37.4 yards per punt. The Scarlet Knights are 34th nationally in punt return yardage defense, but Doerner just isn’t getting much distance on his punts. Rutgers also ranks an impressive 8th nationally in kickoff return defense.

The Scarlet Knights rank #104 in the country in punt returns, and #35 in kickoff returns. Mason Robinson (5-10, 195, Sr.) only averages 3.2 yards on 22 punt returns, so the Tech punt coverage team should have a field day.

Final Thoughts

In the grand scheme of things, this game doesn’t mean much. The decisions Frank Beamer makes, or has already made, with regards to his offensive coaching staff will be the most important thing to happen to Virginia Tech football this offseason. A win over Rutgers would be nice, but it has no bearing on the future of the program, and it won’t change how Tech fans view the 2012 season.

That being said, I think 7-6 sounds a heckuva lot better than 6-7, so I want to win this game. This isn’t the Rutgers program that Virginia Tech left behind in the Big East back in 2003. This is a winning program that goes to a bowl game almost every year. They have solid players, a good record, they are well-coached, and they have confidence. Rutgers expects to beat Virginia Tech on Friday. When is the last time a Rutgers team expected to beat Virginia Tech?

I believe Bud Foster and the Tech defense have a good matchup in this game. I think the Tech defense will have success stopping a Rutgers offense that has been inconsistent all season. The Hokies will play well, on the defensive side of the ball.

What worries me is how the offense will fare against a very good Rutgers defense, and whether or not special teams will make mistakes that will give the Scarlet Knights good field position. If you play offense for Virginia Tech, you probably aren’t too confident right now. If fans have heard rumors of impending coaching changes, then you know the players have heard them, too. How do you expect an offense to perform against a good defense in a bowl game when they lack confidence, and the future of their coaches is uncertain?

On the whole, I think this is a pretty even matchup, but the intangibles and the current questions surrounding the Tech program point to a Rutgers victory on Friday.

Chris’ Prediction: Rutgers 23, Virginia Tech 17

Will Stewart’s Take: I saw Pollack and Palmer say it just the other day on ESPN: “Bowl games are so hard to predict.”

There are so many variables at play. The things that favor the Hokies are: Rutgers’ inconsistent offense vs. a pretty good Hokies defense, and … that’s about it. If the Hokie defense comes to play, it can cover for a multitude of sins the rest of the team and the coaching staff might commit.

It’s also possible that Rutgers is let down after coming so close to making a BCS bowl. I watched their loss to Louisville on the last Thursday night game of the season, and Rutgers had it *right there* in the palm of their hand, but couldn’t finish off the Cardinals, even though Teddy Bridgewater was playing on one leg.

There are many things working against the Hokies, however, including some hard-to-ignore intangibles. The Russell Athletic Bowl is a step down from typical Hokie bowl fare. The Rutgers program is more likely to be fired up to knock off Virginia Tech than vice-versa.

But biggest of all, the Rutgers coaching staff is stable and secure in their jobs at the moment, versus a Virginia Tech staff that is facing a heavily-rumored shakeup of offensive coaches at season’s end. If the things we’ve been hearing are true, multiple VT offensive coaches have been job-shopping this month, looking for a soft landing ahead of some housecleaning.

That’s likely to produce a very unfocused, unprepared effort, at least offensively. Defensively, it’s hard to say what will happen.

I’ve never seen less discussion of a VT bowl game among Hokie fans in my life. I don’t think I know anyone who is going. And though ticket sales through the university are no longer a good indication of how many fans will be going (thanks to the robust second-hand market led by StubHub), I’ve also never seen a bowl ticket sales figure of (gulp) 3,000 bandied about. Heck, that’s how many fans the Hokies take to Boston College. Never mind a bowl game.

I’ve got a feeling that Rutgers is going to come in focused, prepared, and fired up, despite their disappointment at not winning the Big East. I can’t say I feel the same about the Hokies, who have struggled with leadership and focus all season long. With coaching changes looming, there might be lots of coasting going on.

I’d like to say that I feel good about this one, but I don’t. For VT to win, the defense is likely going to have to set the tone and lead the way. I’ll also give a nod to Logan Thomas, who hasn’t played well a lot of this year, but he has generally played hard and will pick a team up on his back (see the Virginia game).

It’s more likely, though, that around 9:00 Friday night, we’ll be watching Rutgers put the finishing touches on a win over the Hokies, and thinking to ourselves, “Yep … saw that coming a mile away.”

Will’s Prediction: Rutgers 20, Virginia Tech 13

 

 

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