2006 Football Game Preview: Virginia Tech vs. Southern Mississippi

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Saturday, October 21st, 2006, 7:00 pm

TV: ESPNU

Forecast (from WeatherUnderground.com):

Click the “Blacksburg Weather” link to the right.
Game time forecast, as of 4:00 pm Wednesday: Partly cloudy with a 10 percent
chance of rain. Temperature 51.


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Game Preview: VT (4-2, 2-2 ACC) vs. Southern Miss (4-2)


by Chris Coleman, TechSideline.com

One of the most dangerous non-BCS conference teams will make an appearance in
Lane Stadium on Saturday night. Southern Mississippi has been one of the top
minor conference teams in the nation for quite awhile. They have gone to a bowl
game in eight of the past nine seasons and have not suffered through a losing
season since 1993. They have the ability to beat Virginia Tech on Saturday night
if the Hokies haven’t recovered from their last two losses.

Jeff Bower is in his 16th season as head coach at Southern Miss, and he has
done an outstanding job. This team doesn’t appear to be one of his best teams,
but they are still solid. They are 4-2 overall and tied for first in the East
Division of Conference USA.

The Golden Eagles won’t be intimidated when they come into Lane Stadium on
Saturday night. This team has already played at Florida this year, and over the
past several years has played road games at Alabama, NC State, Nebraska and
California. They are used to being the underdog on the road in big stadiums with
raucous crowds.

As solid as Southern Miss is, they are going to have to play extremely well
to beat the Hokies. Because of some key personnel issues, they will have their
backs against the wall on Saturday night.

The Southern Miss Offense

The best offensive player for Southern Miss is true freshman tailback Damion
Fletcher. He leads Conference USA in rushing with 131 carries for 681 yards. He
is small (5-10, 176), but can do a lot of things with the football.
Unfortunately for Southern Miss, they will be without his services on Saturday
night.

Southern Miss has announced that Fletcher was scheduled for arthroscopic knee
surgery on Wednesday morning, and that he would be unable to make the trip to
Blacksburg this weekend. That’s great news for the Hokies, as Fletcher’s 780
all-purpose yards (681 rushing, 99 receiving) currently leads Southern Miss. He
has accounted for over one third of the Golden Eagles’ 2026 total yards of
offense this season.

That’s not the only major injury Southern Miss has on the offensive side of
the ball. One of the bell cows of the offensive line, senior left guard Travis
Cooley, will also be out Saturday night. Cooley suffered a knee injury last week
against Houston. He was a Second Team All-Conference USA Player last season, and
a preseason First Team All-Conference USA in 2006. Cooley only allowed one sack
last season and is probably the Golden Eagles’ second best offensive lineman.

Now let’s talk about the players who will be suiting up on Saturday night.
Southern Miss is led by first year starter Jeremy Young at quarterback. The
r-junior has been very inconsistent in the passing game this year, completing
54.1% of his passes for 805 yards. He has five touchdown passes and four
interceptions. He averages just 134.2 yards per game through the air.

Despite his lack of efficiency, Young will have time to deliver the football
against the Hokies. His offensive line has given up just four sacks through six
games. They allowed just nine sacks all of last season.

The best player up front for Southern Miss is right guard George Batiste. He
is one of the top offensive linemen in the nation. Batiste is a four year
starter with a ton of experience. He was named a Preseason All-American by
CollegeFootballNews.com and ranked the #5 NFL prospect in Conference USA. He
stacks up better against the Hokies than any other Southern Miss player.

Batiste will line up next to center Robby D’Angelo, who is very good. D’Angelo
saw action as a full-time starter in 2005 and a primary backup in 2004, and he
did not allow a sack in either of those seasons. Combined with Batiste, left
guard Travis Cooley and left tackle Chris Clark, Southern Miss probably has the
best offensive line in Conference USA.

This year, they would probably have one of the best lines in the ACC. But the
loss of Cooley for this game really hurts the cohesion of the offensive line,
which would have started three seniors at guard and center. Cooley will be
replaced by sophomore Wesley Housley, who played just 75 snaps as a freshman
last season. Even so, don’t look for Tech to get a huge amount of penetration.
Southern Miss has given up just 16 tackles for loss this year, less than three
per game.

The Southern Miss line should still be solid despite the loss of Cooley, so
don’t expect a lot of pressure on the quarterback. However, Southern Miss will
really struggle to establish a running game against the Hokies. Their second
leading rusher is quarterback Jeremy Young, who has 124 yards on the season.

The starting running back against the Hokies will be Conrad Chanove, who has
18 carries for 89 yards on the season. The junior never carried the ball until
this season, playing primarily on special teams. As a backup to Chanove,
Southern Miss will pull the redshirt off true freshman Tony Harrison. At 6-1,
185, Harrison needs more time in the weight room before he can be effective
against a team like the Hokies.

Southern Miss is in this situation because they have had three scholarship
tailbacks quit since the season began. Anthony Harris, Cody Hull and C.J.
Barrows have all quit the team, leaving only Chanove, who is a former walk on,
and true freshman Harris, who was going to be redshirted.

The Golden Eagle wide receivers haven’t been very effective this season. In
fact, tight end Shawn Nelson leads the team in receiving with 17 catches for 221
yards and one touchdown. Wide receivers Josh Barnes and Rodney Gray both have 14
catches on the season. Wideout Damion Carter is the big play threat, averaging
17.7 yards per catch on 11 receptions. He has two touchdowns on the year.

With no effective running game, Southern Miss will have to rely on their
passing game to score on the Hokies, and that isn’t exactly their team
strength. The Golden Eagles are 88th in the nation in passing offense (172.67
yards per game) and 93rd in passing efficiency. Look for Tech’s defense to
easily shut down the Southern Miss offense on Saturday night.

The Southern Miss Defense

Just like their offensive counterparts, the Southern Miss defense is not
without issues of their own. Starting boundary cornerback Caleb Hendrix and
starting free safety LeVance Richmond are both questionable for Saturday night’s
game with ankle injuries.

But things get worse. Hendrix’s top backup, Cornelius McGee, was kicked off
the team last week for felony aggravated assault. The Southern Miss defensive
secondary could be very thin on Saturday night.

Southern Miss starts seven juniors and one sophomore on defense, so their
best days of football are in front of them. However this season, the defense has
been very average. They rank just 68th in the nation in total defense, allowing
339.83 yards per game. They are 56th against the run (126 yards per game) and
81st against the pass (213.83 yards per game).

This is one game where the Virginia Tech offense should be able to move the
football, and they should be able to be balanced, establishing a running game
while throwing for first downs.

Southern Miss is led defensively by starting rover Brandon Sumrall, who leads
the team in tackles with 36. He has two sacks, three forced fumbles and one
interception on the season. He is an aggressive player who can come up and make
tackles in the running lanes. However, it’s usually a sign that a defense isn’t
playing well when a defensive back leads the team in tackles.

In fact, three of the top four tacklers on the team are defensive backs. That’s
just not a sign of a successful defense. It shows two things: 1) Defensive backs
are giving up a lot of completed passes and 2) the front seven isn’t making a
lot of tackles against the run.

The defensive player the Hokies have to watch out for is defensive tackle
Martavius Prince. Prince is a playmaker who spends the majority of his days in
the offensive backfield. He has eight tackles for loss on the season to go along
with 1.5 sacks. He also has an interception this year, which is impressive for a
defensive tackle. Southern Miss has 31 tackles for loss on the year as a team,
meaning Prince has over one quarter of their tackles in the backfield.

The other defensive tackles have not been as effective. The other projected
starter, Sean Merrills, has just four tackles on the year. Backups Vontre Mason
and Chris J. Johnson have six and zero (zero tackles but second on the depth
chart!)

Defensive end Robert Henderson, is also a solid player. He has 28 tackles on
the season, including three tackles for loss. Fellow defensive end Matthew
Chatelain has 18 tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks.

This is all setting up to be one of Sean Glennon’s better games of the
season, provided he has time to throw. Southern Miss gives up a lot of passing
yards when they are healthy, and now they have two starters with injured ankles
and a key missing backup. The Hokies should put the ball in the air against the
Golden Eagles.

Southern Miss will present a lot of defensive fronts for the Hokies,
according to Bryan Stinespring on the Hokie Hotline on Monday night. That will
be a challenge for quarterback Sean Glennon, as well as the young offensive
line.

Special Teams

The Hokies should have the advantage in special teams against Southern Miss.
The Golden Eagles struggle in the return game, especially on punt returns. They
are averaging just 5.64 yards per punt return on the season. Primary returner
Jasper Faulk is averaging just three yards per return on nine attempts, and that
includes one 12 yard return.

The Golden Eagles are better on kickoff returns, but still only average on
the national level. As a team they are averaging 20.83 yards per kickoff return,
which ranks 53rd in the nation.

Punter Britt Barefoot is averaging 40.7 yards per punt, but Southern Miss
ranks just 77th nationally in net punting at 34.5 yards per punt. Opponents have
managed to pin Southern Miss inside their own 20 on 10 occasions out 27 punts,
which is a very good number.

The Golden Eagles have a solid kicker in Darren McCaleb. He is 9-of-12 on the
season, hitting 8-of-9 attempts from inside 40 yards.

Southern Miss has had no kicks blocked this season, but they have been
successful in blocking one punt.

Conclusion

Southern Miss is a solid football team, but they are without arguably two of
their top three players on the offensive side of the ball, and they have
injuries and depth problems in the secondary. This is a game the Hokies should
win, and they will have absolutely no excuses if they don’t.

Watch the Hokies carefully in this game. If they come to play from the
opening snap, they’ll win. But also watch for improvement from certain
positions, such as the offensive line. It’s the seventh game of the season,
and the line has struggled all season. If we are going to see any improvement
from that unit this year, it will start in this game.

I don’t think the Hokies will put up a lot of points against Southern Miss,
but the offense will take a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, Tech’s
defense will put the clamps on the Golden Eagles’ one-dimensional offense.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Southern Miss 6

Will Stewart’s Take: The good news for the Hokies is that this game is at
home, and home is where Tech has been most aggressive with the passing game. And
being aggressive with the passing game is probably the key to winning this one.

With the problems on the DL, Southern Miss may have to blitz to try to get
consistent pressure on Glennon. I can see Prince, their star DT, getting good
penetration, but if the rest of the interior DL is as ineffective as their stats
indicate, then Tech should be able to double team Prince and take him out of the
game. Southern Miss may respond by blitzing, and then it becomes a chess match
of trying to read the blitz, block it effectively, and beat it with the passing
game.

Look to see if the Hokies simplify the passing game against USM, based on
comments this week that Glennon is making too many reads and holding the ball
too long. I can see Glennon dropping back, making one or two reads, then bolting
straight ahead for whatever he can get with his legs. If the VT coaching staff
feels that USM can’t get consistent pressure, though, they might tell Glennon to
hang in there and stick with it a little longer. Whatever the outcome, this is a
chess match within the game that will be determined by how the two lines match
up throughout the first quarter.

With USM’s front seven not racking up the stats this year, you also shouldn’t
count out a 100+ yard effort in the rushing game from VT.

Defensively, what Chris says is true about how the units match up
statistically, but I don’t know exactly what to expect out of the Hokie defense
right now (heck, I don’t know what to expect out of the whole team, much less
the defense). The defensive tackles, which had been inconsistent so far this
year, weren’t strong against Boston College, and that enabled Matt Ryan to pick
the Hokies apart on a few occasions where Tech made mistakes in coverage.

But how does Southern Miss compare to BC offensively, and will the Golden
Eagles be able to have the success BC had? Even though BC’s offense was pretty
effective at times, they still only had 264 yards and 20 points. I can’t see USM
doing better than that.

The talk this week has been about more than just the matchup and the
opponent, and we’re not sure yet how that’s going to affect the Hokies. But I
like the night game in Lane Stadium, and I have to go with Tech on this one.

Will’s Prediction: VT 23, Southern Miss 10

2006 TSL Football Game Predictions
(Through BC; Closest Prediction Highlighted)

Game
Chris’
Prediction
Will’s
Prediction
Phil’s
Projection

Result
N’Eastern 65-0 63-7 49-3 38-0
UNC 23-10 27-10 24-9 35-10
Duke 34-0 30-3 37-0 36-0
Cincinnati 34-6 31-3 38-3 29-13
GT 13-16 10-17 24-9 27-38
BC 30-17 27-20 20-17 3-22

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