2006 Keys to the Game and Matchups to Watch: Virginia Tech at Wake Forest

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The
#19 Hokies travel to Winston-Salem to play the ACC’s highest ranked team, the
#14 Wake Forest Demon Deacons, currently tied for first place in the Atlantic
Division. Yes, that’s right… Wake Forest is currently the top team in the
ACC. Both teams are on four game winning streaks with post-season bowl
positioning on the line, so expect a close, hard-fought battle between the two
different, but evenly matched squads.

Ironically, the game will not have an impact on the division races, as Wake
Forest will be playing Maryland for the Atlantic Division title in College Park
the following week. Even if the Demon Deacons lose to the Hokies, Wake Forest
would win the title with a victory over Maryland. If Wake beats the Hokies, the
Deacons would still need to beat Maryland to win the crown, even if BC defeats
the Terps. Could Wake Forest be looking past Virginia Tech to the Maryland game?
I doubt it, but the game has less significance to Wake Forest with an ACC
Championship Game potentially in sight.

I would still expect to see a focused effort from the Demon Deacons, who
would like nothing better than to knock off another of the “big boys” in the
ACC. The ACC’s most experienced team sometimes seems to be winning with
mirrors, but the formula of protecting the ball, playing sound defense, winning
special teams, and making an occasional big play on offense is working well.
Grobeball is alive and well in Winston-Salem, making this battle with Beamerball
that much more interesting.

So what are the keys to this game?

When Wake Forest has the ball:

1. Maintain Gap Control/Discipline

I
would expect that Bud Foster will devise a game plan that is fairly similar to
the defensive strategy used against Clemson for this game. The concern when
playing the Tigers was containing the big play by Clemson’s two dynamic
running backs, and the Wake Forest game presents a similar problem in not
allowing the big play. However, the Demon Deacons make big plays by deception
and misdirection, so the execution of the plan against Wake Forest is quite
different than Clemson.

Against Clemson the Hokies had to maintain gap control, prevent cut-backs,
and then fly to the ball, but against Wake Forest the danger is over-pursuit and
being deceived by misdirection and reverses. Virginia Tech’s defenders need to
stay home, particularly those players on the backside of a play. The Deacons are
unusual in that the receivers will run the ball quite a bit on reverses and
options, with the receiver coming in motion toward the quarterback. Wake Forest’s
offense is predicated on deception, so Tech defenders need to recognize their
assignments and not be fooled by motion and odd formations.

The good news for Bud Foster and the Tech defense is that Wake Forest lacks a
big-play threat in the backfield. Micah Andrews looked to be a star in the
making but went down early in the season with a knee injury. His replacement was
talented De’Angelo Bryant (#18, 6-0 245, r-Jr.), who combines excellent size
with very good speed, but he fumbled too much and was replaced by another
talented big back, Kevin Harris (#23, 6-0.5 230, r-Fr.). After a couple of
productive games, Harris also suffered a knee injury, and he is listed as
questionable for the Tech game. The starting running back is now Kenneth Moore
(#21, 5-11.5 195, r-Jr.) who was the leading receiver on the team. Moore is a
classic slot receiver who is very good with the ball in his hands, but he has
very little experience as a running back.

The biggest threats running the ball for Wake Forest are actually two wide
receivers, Willie Idlette (#82, 5-10 175, r-Sr.) and Kevin Marion (#14, 5-9.5
160, r-Jr.), who can fly and are threats to take it all the way on a reverse or
fly pattern. Idlette is finally healthy after injuries set him back the last two
years, and Marion is playing with much more focus and discipline. The other
receiver is Nate Morton (#83, 6-3 215, r-Sr.), who is a threat throwing the ball
as well as catching it. Tech will likely play zone defenses — over and under
— to keep the plays in front of the defenders, and Morton will be Wake’s
biggest threat against the zone. He is a knowledgeable receiver with good hands
and the secondary needs to keep an eye on him.

2. Push the Pocket

Wake Forest’s offensive strategy of using misdirection and reverses has an
interesting effect on defenses, in that most teams play the Deacons
conservatively to prevent being fooled. The result is that teams do not blitz
Wake Forest as much and refrain from having their defensive ends crashing down
the line, thus hiding one of the Deacons’ biggest weaknesses on offense. Wake’s
offensive line is built for run blocking, and pass protection is not their
strong suit. However, teams are afraid to send an all-out pass rush, so defenses
seldom exploit this deficiency.

So far rookie quarterback Riley Skinner (#11, 6-0.5 196, r-Fr.) has completed
over 68% of his passes, but part of that percentage is because he is seldom
pressured. Also, Skinner is very effective scrambling and shows exceptional
vision downfield when he is on the run. Tech needs to push the pocket up the
middle, getting penetration from the defensive tackles, who have played very
well during the four-game winning streak. I would not be surprised to see an
occasional blitz up the middle from Vince Hall and/or Xavier Adibi on certain
situations as well. The defensive ends need to rush upfield to keep Skinner in
the pocket and force him to scramble up the middle should he run.

Wake Forest’s offensive line uses a different philosophy in that the
biggest, strongest linemen play guard and the tackles tend to be smaller and
more athletic. The Deacons’ guards are huge Chris DeGeare (#70, 6-4 360, So.)
and Louis Frazier (#78, 6-4 302, r-Jr.) with technically sound center Steve
Justice (#74, 6-4 280, r-Jr.) manning the middle. The Hokie defensive tackles
need to get a push against this threesome to disrupt the pocket and provide
penetration on running plays.

3. Be Physical

Okay,
Bud Foster defenses are always physical, but the finesse-oriented Wake Forest
attack sometimes forces defenses to play more conservatively than normal. The
Demon Deacons use a lot of cut blocks, particularly on the misdirection plays
and reverses, so defenses tend to watch for blocks rather than playing
aggressively. Tech needs to play physically against Wake Forest and take control
of the line of scrimmage. The key for the Hokies is to play physically without
playing recklessly.

Virginia Tech has the bigger, more physical athletes, so the Hokies should
control the trenches. In addition, Wake Forest is relatively small at the skill
positions, and Tech’s secondary needs to be physical with the smaller
receivers such as Idlette and Marion. Also, Kenneth Moore is not accustomed to
running the ball a great deal, so Tech’s linebackers need to be physical with
him and the other backs.

Even QB Riley Skinner gets into the action. He often leads the blocking on
reverses and threw a beautiful block springing Idlette on a reverse against
Florida State. On another innovative play Skinner handed to Moore, who took
three steps to the left and then reversed field, following Skinner around the
right side. Skinner will also run the option at times, and he handles the reads
well. If Skinner wants to be a lead blocker or run the option, then the Hokie
defenders need to introduce him to Virginia Tech football.

Now don’t get me wrong, Wake Forest is a tough team, but Tech should still
be the more physical team. The Hokies cannot play cautiously and win this game.
Virginia Tech needs to be the more aggressive, physical football team.

When Virginia Tech has the ball:

1. Protect the Ball

Florida State self-destructed against Wake Forest by committing five
turnovers, including three costly interceptions that were either returned for
touchdowns or set up easy touchdowns. The Demon Deacons play solid fundamental
football and do not beat themselves, so the Hokies cannot do Wake Forest a favor
by turning the ball over. Wake’s secondary will gamble quite a bit looking for
the turnover, so Sean Glennon has to be sure of his reads and not make mistakes.

Look for the Hokies to have a fairly conservative game plan trying to
establish the run early in the game. Wake Forest’s defensive front is very
good and the Deacons have been tough against the run, so Tech will likely have
mixed success moving the ball on the ground. A big improvement in Wake Forest
this year is the play of their defensive tackles, Zach Stukes (#95, 6-2 260,
r-Jr.) and Jamil Smith (#90, 6-2 290, r-Sr.), in addition to the help of
redshirt-freshmen backups Boo Robinson (#96, 6-1.5 325) and John Russell (#51,
6-3.5 250). In previous years Wake’s interior defense was suspect, but this is
a solid group that will be tough to move.

The key for the Hokies will be first down, because Tech cannot afford to get
behind the chains and allow Wake Forest to blitz. The Deacons like to stunt and
blitz on second- and third-and-long situations, so productivity on first down
will be a key for Tech’s offense to move the ball consistently.

2. Pick up the Blitz

Wake
Forest loves to bring their linebackers, particularly outside backer Aaron Curry
(#59, 6-2.5 240, r-So.). Curry is a rising star in the ACC and has exceptional
speed and instincts. In addition, middle linebacker Jon Abbate (#5, 5-11 245,
r-Jr.) is the heart and soul of the defense, and he can be effective blitzing
and in coverage. Abbate is plain and simple a man that was born to play
football. He may be the most instinctive linebacker in the country. The other
linebacker, Stanley Arnoux (#43, 6-0.5 245, r-So.), tends to stay back in
coverage, but he is a talented player in his own right. In short, Wake Forest
has a very talented linebacker group that combines excellent size with exceptional
instincts.

The offensive game plan needs to neutralize this linebacker group. Tech needs
to use the tight end on short passes and hit dump offs to the backs to keep the
linebackers from being overly aggressive. When the linebackers do blitz, the
Hokie blocking scheme needs to pick them up, because this threesome can make
plays and force turnovers. Sean Glennon needs to deliver the ball quickly, and
when he is in trouble dump the ball off immediately. Tech cannot afford to make
mistakes against this team, and not allowing the blitz from Wake Forest to be
effective is a key step.

3. Challenge the Corners

In assessing Wake Forest’s defense, the one weakness that I see is
potentially the play of the cornerbacks. The Demon Deacon corners, Riley Swanson
(#7, 5-11 188, r-Sr.), Kevin Patterson (#10, 5-10.5 182, r-So.), and Alphonso
Smith (#2, 5-9.5 188, r-So.), are very aggressive but look to be susceptible to
double moves. Swanson has been a career nickel back until this year and he is
fundamentally sound, but he only has average speed for a cornerback and can be
beaten deep. Both Patterson and Smith have started at the other corner and both
have been beaten at times by double moves. Also, the cornerbacks for Wake Forest
are relatively small so Tech’s larger receivers will have an advantage on deep
fades.

Tech should probably avoid the deep middle, as Wake Forest fields two
experienced safeties who can both make plays. Josh Gattis (#22, 6-1 212, r-Sr.)
is the free safety, and he is a big hitter who loves to go for the ball. Gattis
is actually the fastest player on the defense (4.37 40) and he has NFL
potential, but at times his aggressiveness gets him out of position and he will
give up the big play. Patrick Ghee (#30, 6-1.5 211, r-Sr.) is the strong safety,
and he may be the best cover man in the secondary. However, Ghee is not always
sound in his tackling and he will miss some tackles in the open field at times.

Normally Wake Forest plays a two-deep zone and Ghee and Gattis cover a lot of
ground. Combined with the athletic linebackers, the safeties make passing over
the middle a potential risk, so Tech would better off attacking the corners. I
would expect to see some bubble screens and other quick passes to the outside
which may later set up a hitch-and-go pattern for a big play.

Match-Ups to Watch:

1. Brandon Pace vs. Sam Swank

The two best field goal kickers in the ACC will be in this game with
ultra-accurate Brandon Pace kicking against strong-legged Sam Swank (#38, 6-2
206, r-So.). Swank has been a major factor in a couple of games for the Demon
Deacons, while Pace has been the most consistent kicker in the country this
year. With these two teams so evenly matched, I would not be surprised to see a
crucial field goal being the difference in this game.

2. Chris Ellis vs. Steve Vallos

Tackle Steve Vallos (#75, 6-3 290, r-Sr.) is easily Wake Forest’s best
offensive lineman and was a pre-season All-ACC pick. Vallos is noted for his run
blocking as he maintains excellent leverage and is able to get movement on most
defensive linemen. Like all of Wake Forest’s linemen, he really sticks with
his blocks, and Tech’s defensive ends will need to do a good job at the point
of attack against him. Chris Ellis, in particular, needs to stay low and
maintain leverage at the point of attack or Vallos will move him out of his gap.

Normally Vallos plays right tackle but he moved to left tackle when Arby
Jones (#61, 6-2 285, r-Sr.) was injured. Rookie Jeff Griffin (#64, 6-2.5 295,
r-Fr.) took over on the right side, and he has done a solid job. However, Jones
is back and I would expect him to play a great deal against Tech. Arby Jones is
Wake’s most athletic lineman (4.97 40) and he gives the Deacons a lot more
flexibility in their offense. Look for Wake to pull both Vallos and Jones a
great deal, giving the Deacons the option to run in either direction.

3. Brandon Flowers vs. Nate Morton

Nate Morton was Wake Forest’s most effective receiver two years ago in
Winston-Salem, and I would expect him to be the biggest threat in this game. He
is an underrated athlete with very good size and deceptive speed. Brandon
Flowers has been playing at an all-conference level, so this match-up looks to
be a critical one in the game. While Tech will likely play mostly zone in this
game, Flowers will still get matched up with Morton quite a bit. Flowers needs
to neutralize Morton to keep Wake Forest from moving the chains.

4. Brandon Frye vs. Jyles Tucker

Brandon Frye should be back at left tackle after the week off with the high
ankle sprain, but how effective will he be against the underrated defensive ends
from Wake Forest? Jyles Tucker is the Deacons’ most talented defensive
lineman, having started at both defensive end and tackle in his career. Last
year Tucker was moved inside because of injuries at defensive tackle, but he is
much tougher at the point of attack this year at his more natural defensive end
position. Tucker’s improved play against the run as well as his natural pass
rushing ability has been instrumental in Wake Forest’s improved defensive line
play.

The other defensive end, Jeremy Robinson (#98, 6-5 250, Jr.), is also very
talented and equally good against the run and pass. Last year he was
predominantly a pass rusher, but he has gained strength at the point of attack
and is no longer easily moved off the line. Another talented defensive end,
Bryan Andrews (#48, 6-5 263, r-Sr.), could be back for this game as well.

Player Ratings

Here is my assessment of the talent on Wake Forest’s football team based on
the rating system that I introduced in earlier articles. The rating system is
statistically based using criteria such as size, speed, strength, and agility as
well as performance on the field. In the rating system, players receive grades
that are similar to those we receive in school. The rating scale can be
summarized as follows:

90+ Excellent college player; All-American candidate
80-90 Above average starting player; All-Conference candidate
70-80 Solid college player
60-70 Supporting player; solid back-up; generally deficient in one area
such as speed
<60 Back-up player; deficient in one or more areas such as size,
speed, or strength

Here are my current ratings for Wake Forest’s depth chart (starters
highlighted in gold):

Position Number Name Height Weight Year Rating
QB 11 Riley Skinner 6-0.5 196 r-Fr. 77.3
QB 6 Brett Hodges 6-1 180 r-Fr. 67.2
RB 21 Kenneth Moore 5-11.5 195 r-Jr. 74.2
RB 18 De’Angelo Bryant 6-0 245 r-Jr. 73.0
FB 35 Rich Belton 6-1 250 r-So. 79.0
FB 49 Damon McWhite 6-1 255 r-Sr. 77.0
WR 83 Nate Morton 6-3 215 r-Sr. 85.0
WR 14 Kevin Marion 5-9.5 160 r-Jr. 78.1
WR 82 Willie Idlette 5-10 175 r-Sr. 80.5
WR 81 Will Hollis 6-0 195 r-Jr. 72.5
TE 84 Zac Selmon 6-5 250 r-Jr. 79.0
TE 89 John Tereshinski 6-3 240 r-Jr. 79.0
LT 75 Steve Vallos 6-3 290 r-Sr. 93.0
LT 61 Arby Jones 6-2 285 r-Sr. 68.5
LG 78 Louis Frazier 6-4 302 r-Jr. 68.2
LG 79 Matthew Brim 6-4 295 r-Jr. 66.2
OC 74 Steve Justice 6-4 280 r-Jr. 76.8
OC 67 Trey Bailey 6-2 290 r-Fr. 70.5
RG 70 Chris DeGeare 6-4 360 So. 81.5
RG 60 Barrett McMillin 6-2.5 305 r-Fr. 61.6
RT 64 Jeff Griffin 6-2.5 295 r-Fr. 62.6
RT 75 Steve Vallos 6-3 290 r-Sr. 93.0
DE 55 Jyles Tucker 6-3 268 Sr. 81.8
DE 54 Antonio Wilson 6-1 255 r-So. 73.8
NG 90 Jamil Smith 6-2 294 r-Sr. 80.5
NG 96 Boo Robinson 6-1.5 325 r-Fr. 77.6
DT 95 Zach Stukes 6-2 260 r-Jr. 84.5
DT 51 John Russell 6-3.5 250 r-Fr. 72.1
DE 98 Jeremy Robinson 6-5 250 Jr. 82.5
DE 93 Anthony Davis 6-5 240 r-So. 75.5
OLB 59 Aaron Curry 6-2.5 240 r-So. 92.0
OLB 45 Mike Simmons 6-0.5 220 Jr. 73.9
MLB 5 Jon Abbate 5-11 245 r-Jr. 94.5
MLB 41 Eric Berry 6-1 260 r-So. 80.0
OLB 43 Stanley Arnoux 6-0.5 245 r-So. 79.9
OLB 34 Pierre Easley 6-0 250 r-Sr. 77.0
CB 10 Kevin Patterson 5-10.5 182 r-So. 73.5
CB 2 Alphonso Smith 5-9.5 188 r-So. 72.6
CB 7 Riley Swanson 5-11 188 r-Sr. 75.0
CB 29 Kerry Major 5-11 175 r-So. 70.5
SS 30 Patrick Ghee 6-1.5 211 r-Sr. 90.2
SS 13 Johnny Edwards 5-10.5 185 r-Jr. 54.1
FS 22 Josh Gattis 6-1 212 r-Sr. 90.8
FS 9 Chip Vaughn 6-2 215 r-So. 80.2

Conclusion

I did not include any “key statistics to watch” in this game on purpose
because statistics do not seem to matter with regards to Wake Forest. The Demon
Deacons simply find ways to win. Wake is the most experienced squad in the ACC,
and Jim Grobe has the Deacons playing intelligent football. In other words, Wake
Forest does not beat itself. Virginia Tech will need to play a smart,
disciplined football game and let the Hokies’ superiority in talent prevail.
Wake Forest presents one of the more intriguing matchups for the season, and I
will be very interested in how Tech handles the deception and misdirection. I
see a very close game in which the kicking game may be the difference.

It should be a good one and I hope to see a lot of fellow Hokies in
Winston-Salem. Drive safe to and from the game if you are making the trip!

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