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Virginia Tech has defeated UVA nine times in a row, which stands as the longest winning streak for either team in this series. The Hokies are going for an unprecedented 10th straight win over their in-state rival on Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville.
If the Hokies win on Saturday, they could end up playing Florida State for the ACC Championship, if Duke loses to UNC. However, that’s not what is most important in this game. Beating UVA for the 10 consecutive time is most important. Winning their eighth game of the season is most important. 8-4 sounds a lot better than 7-5, to me at least.
Winning this game is still important for in-state recruiting. Yes, UVA has a couple of 5-star guys in this year’s class. However, they have commitments from only three of the top 25 in-state recruits per the TSL/Sabre rankings. The majority of in-state recruits aren’t buying into what Mike London is trying to sell them these days, and if he’s retained for next season, I don’t see UVA’s in-state class in 2015 being particularly strong. The Hokies need to win this football game and not give those in-state guys a reason to believe that Virginia football is “on the rise,” which we’ve heard every year for about 12 years in a row.
When you look at team records, Virginia Tech should win this game easily. However, that’s not always the best way to look at a football game. What do the matchups say? The Hokies present plenty of matchup problems for this 2-9 UVA team, but the Hoos also have a strength of their own that could give Virginia Tech trouble.
The UVA Offense
When you see the Virginia offense, you see good talent at some spots, and not-so-good talent at other spots. First, let’s cover the good:
At tailback, Kevin Parks (5-8, 205, Jr.) is a productive, solid running back who would already be a 1,000 yard rusher with better talent around him. He has carried the ball 210 times for 926 yards (4.4 ypc), and he has 11 rushing touchdowns. Parks also has 35 catches on the year, which ranks third on the team.
Behind Parks, Khalek Shepherd (5-8, 185, Jr.) has made his share of big plays for the UVA offense this season. He only has 51 carries, but he has 304 yards, an average of six yards per carry. True freshman 5-star recruit Taquan Mizzell (5-10, 185, Fr.) rounds out the tailback rotation. He has 45 carries for 184 yards, and I would guess that UVA fans were expecting more out of him this season.
Partly because of their lack of talent at wide receiver, the UVA running backs are used a lot in the passing game.
Parks: 35 catches, 311 yards, 8.9 ypc, 1 TD
Mizzell: 28 catches, 155 yards, 5.5 ypc, 1 TD
Shepherd: 22 catches, 122 yards, 5.5 ypc
Those three backs are three of UVA’s top five receivers. Tech’s #1 priority in this game will be shutting down those backs in the running game, and limiting them to short gains in the passing game. If the Hokies do that, the UVA offense will have a hard time moving the football.
Tight end Jake McGee (6-6, 250, Jr.) has been UVA’s top receiver, with 39 catches for 330 yards (8.5 ypc) and two touchdowns. He’s a good player who would start for Virginia Tech. However, because of a lack of overall talent at wide receiver, as well as struggles at the quarterback position, this UVA offense has lacked big plays in the passing game this season. All of their tailbacks, plus Jake McGeen, average less than nine yards per reception. Some of their wide receivers aren’t any better:
Darius Jennings (5-11, 175, Jr.): 36 catches, 319 yards, 8.9 ypc, 3 TD
Tim Smith (6-0, 195, Sr.): 26 catches, 389 yards, 15 ypc, 1 TD
Keeon Johnson (6-3, 200, Fr.): 19 catches, 277 yards, 14.6 ypc, 1 TD
Dominique Terrell (5-11, 170, Jr.): 13 catches, 96 yards, 7.4 ypc
Kyle Dockins (6-3, 205, r-Fr.): 6 catches, 64 yards, 10.7 ypc
The UVA coaching staff decided to pull Keeon Johnson’s redshirt in the middle of the season (how many times have we heard that before?) because they lacked playmakers on the outside. Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell were big-time recruits, but they haven’t produced in college, particularly Terrell. The lack of overall talent and big play ability has severely limited the Cavalier offense in 2013.
Another weakness has been quarterback David Watford (6-2, 200, r-So.), who has thrown just eight touchdown passes compared to 15 interceptions. That’s a terrible ratio, and this play pretty much sums up UVA’s passing game:
UVA has worked in backup quarterback Greyson Lambert (6-5, 220, r-Fr.) for the last three games in garbage time. He is 29-of-59 (49.2%) for 286 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Mike London has said that he plans to use Lambert some against Virginia Tech, though we don’t know when or how much. At this point London has nothing to lose, and I don’t blame him for trying to keep Bud Foster guessing.
The UVA offensive line has one very good player at left tackle, but overall the line hasn’t been a strength this season:
LT: Morgan Moses (6-6, 325, Sr.)
LG: Conner Davis (6-5, 300, Jr.)
C: Luke Bowanko (6-6, 300, Sr.)
RG: Jay Whitmire (6-6, 300, So.)
RT: Eric Smith (6-5, 295, Fr.)
Morgan Moses will be a pretty high NFL Draft selection, and he is a veteran of many ACC battles over the years. However, it’s very questionable as to whether the rest of that UVA offensive line can block the Tech front seven. The Hokies have a lot of seniors up front and at linebacker, plus junior defensive tackle Luther Maddy. Those guys have been starting the last two years. They’ve dominated the Hoos in terms of rushing defense and sacks in those two seasons.
2011: 26 carries, 30 yards, 1.2 ypc, 4 sacks
2012: 20 carries, 30 yards, 1.5 ypc, 3 sacks
The UVA offense has rushed for a grand total of 60 yards on 46 carries against this Virginia Tech front over the last two years. James Gayle, J.R. Collins, Derrick Hopkins, Luther Maddy, Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards have all played big roles in shutting down the UVA running game, and they will all line up against the Hoos on Saturday afternoon. That’s not a good matchup for UVA.
If Virginia Tech shuts down the UVA running game this year, the Hoos will be in a world of hurt offensively. That will force David Watford to throw the football to a struggling group of wideouts against a secondary that ranks #5 in the country in pass efficiency defense. Even with Kyle Fuller out, that’s still a matchup that favors Virginia Tech. It’s really hard to see the Hoos scoring many points in this game.
Here’s a look at the talent level of UVA’s starters on offense, per NFLDraftScout.com. I’m not going to include true freshmen, because it’s too early to rate those guys.
David Watford: #52 QB in 2016
Kevin Parks: #43 RB in 2015
Darius Jennings: #157 WR in 2015
Tim Smith: #64 WR in 2014
Jake McGee: #16 TE in 2015
Morgan Moses: #6 OT in 2014
Conner Davis: #112 OG in 2015
Luke Bowanko: #68 OG in 2014
Jay Whitmire: #48 OG in 2016
With the exception of a very good left tackle in Morgan Moses, and a solid tight end in Jake McGee, UVA lacks future NFL talent on the offensive side of the ball. The rankings of Jennings and Smith explain their lack of big play ability at wide receiver, and their interior offensive line is below average.
The UVA Defense
You can’t tell it from their 2-9 record, but UVA has a solid front seven that will present plenty of matchup problems for Virginia Tech. The Hoos are much better up front now that they have Brent Urban (6-7, 295, Sr.) back from injury. He missed five games this year, and he has 9.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in seven total games. He is a disruptor on the inside, and the Hokies will likely struggle to block him.
A defensive tackle who can get penetration opens things up for everyone else in the front seven, and on the whole this UVA front seven is a much more productive group with Urban in the lineup. Here’s a look at what the Hoos have up front:
DE Jake Snyder (6-4, 270, Sr.): 6.5 TFL, 1 sack
DT Brent Urban (6-7, 295, Sr.): 9.5 TFL 1.5 sacks
DT David Dean (6-1, 290, So.): 7 TFL, 4 sacks
DE Eli Harold (6-4, 230, So.): 12 TFL, 5.5 sacks
I was surprised when Virginia Tech did not offer David Dean coming out of Green Run High School in the 757. He would have been a very good fit at defensive tackle for the Hokies. He combines with Brent Urban to form a very good pair of defensive tackles, and Eli Harold can obviously make plays off the edge.
Middle linebacker Henry Coley (6-2, 240, Jr.) anchors the middle of the UVA defense. The middle linebacker leads the team with 85 tackles, and he also has 8.5 TFL and a sack. He’s a tough inside linebacker who plays even better behind guys like Urban and Dean.
The other linebackers are Daquan Romero (6-1, 235, Jr.) and Max Valles (6-5, 240, Fr.). Romero has 80 tackles, 6.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks on the season. Valles is a raw freshman who is probably better suited for defensive end in the future. He is very athletic coming off the edge while rushing the quarterback, and he has a very good motor.
The UVA secondary has taken losses this season with injuries to cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canaday. Canaday is back, but Nicholson is done for the season. Starting strong safety Anthony Harris (6-1, 185, Jr.), who leads the nation with eight interceptions, is suspended for the first half of Saturday’s game. With Harris out, Canaday will move to strong safety, and that will leave the Hoos vulnerable in the first half. Here’s how their starting group will probably look:
CB: Tim Smith (6-2, 190, Fr.)
CB: DreQuan Hoskey (6-0, 180, Jr.)
FS: Rijo Walker (5-10, 190, Sr.)
SS: Maurice Canaday (6-2, 185, So.)
Brandon Phelps (6-0, 185, Jr.) could also get the start at free safety. He and Rijo Walker should both play in this game.
Tim Harris is a true freshman corner who has been used and abused this season. I would expect Virginia Tech to try and take advantage of him. DreQuan Hoskey is very beatable as well, and whoever lines up at free safety will not be a strength. Overall, this secondary is vulnerable, particularly in the first half with Anthony Harris out of the game.
How does the UVA defense stack up in terms of talent?
Jake Snyder: #105 DE in 2014
Brent Urban: #50 DT in 2014
David Dean: #28 DT in 2016
Eli Harold: #4 DE in 2016
Henry Coley: #82 ILB in 2015
Daquan Romero: #69 OLB in 2015
Maurice Canaday: #6 CB in 2016
DreQuan Hoskey: #44 CB in 2015
Rijo Walker: #67 FS in 2014
Anthony Harris: #14 SS in 2015
Brandon Phelps: #32 FS in 2015
Overall, the UVA defense has more talent than the UVA offense, and Brent Urban’s injury is keeping him from being ranked higher at this point in time. Still, there are weaknesses that can be exploited, particularly in the secondary in the first half (with Harris out).
I believe that UVA’s defense (as well as Virginia Tech’s offense!) can keep the Hoos in this football game. To actually win it, I believe they’ll need to win the field position battle.
Fortunately for Tech, UVA’s return game has not been good this year. Darius Jennings averages 9.3 yards on his 15 punt returns, and that includes a 35 yarder. Dominique Terrell has been even worse, averaging 5.8 yards on 12 returns.
Jennings has averaged 22 yards on 22 kickoff returns, but Taquan Mizzell is averaging only 16.5 yards per return. Overall, the Hoos are 78th nationally in punt returns and 101st in kickoff returns. Tech’s coverage teams have been poor this year, especially the punt coverage team, but UVA doesn’t have a dynamic athlete in the return game. I’m cautiously optimistic about the field position battle this week, though I wouldn’t put anything past VT’s coverage units. I’ll be holding my breath, as usual.
Eric Kristensen will handle the field goal kicking duties within 42 yards again for the Hokies, and he is still a question mark after going 1-for-2 against Maryland. Alec Vozenilek (5-10, 190, Jr.) will kick and punt for UVA. He is 10-of-13 on the season, with a long of 40 yards. All three of his misses have come from beyond 40 yards, so it appears that he doesn’t have great range.
The Hoos are #75 in net punting, #95 in punt return defense and #85 in kickoff return defense, so their coverage teams have been just as poor as Virginia Tech’s. Overall, the special teams battle looks like a wash.
Virginia is 2-9, with one win coming over VMI. This football team is a bad game by BYU away from being 0-9 against 1-A competition this season. Let’s take a look at the scores of their last eight games, all losses:
Ball State: 48-27
Georgia Tech: 35-25
With the exception of the Maryland game, every one of those losses has been by double digits, and they’ve allowed 45 or more points in four of those games, and 35 or more in six of them. Their defense is better than those numbers show (for example, Miami scored two defensive touchdowns), but on the whole, they are bad. You can put lipstick on the pig all you want, but it’s still a pig.
That being said, their strength is in their front seven, and that concerns me. I think they’ll be able to stop the Tech running game, like almost everyone else has, and they’ll stay within striking distance. Assuming they do, this game will come down to turnovers and special teams.
If I were the UVA coaching staff, I wouldn’t plant David Watford in the pocket all day long. Bud Foster will hit him with a variety of zone blitzes, and assuming the Hoos are in a lot of third and long situations because the won’t be able to run the ball, that would probably result in disaster for UVA. I’d get him out of the pocket a lot, and when I left him in the pocket, and I’d only give him 1-2 reads with instructions to run if those quick reads aren’t open. If the UVA coaches put Watford in a position to limit his turnovers, they’ll have a chance. If he does turn it over, the you can probably count on the Hokies winning their 10th consecutive game in this series.
While Virginia’s defense presents some matchup problems, Virginia Tech’s defense is better. The Hokies also have a much better quarterback. UVA has to beat the Hokies at some point. One of these years, the law of averages will creep up on Virginia Tech, even if the Hoos themselves aren’t particularly good. That being said, it’s really hard to see this UVA team beating Virginia Tech, especially when they haven’t been able to beat anybody else this season.
Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, UVA 7
Will Stewart’s Take: I think in some ways, this game will be very similar to last year’s game. Number one, it’s going to be cold, around 30-35 degrees at kickoff. (Last year, it was 28 degrees at kickoff, per hokiesports.com). It should be dry, though, with little to no wind, just like last year.
This tends to reduce the effectiveness of the passing game, and that was the case last year. The teams combined for less than 50% last year (35-of-74) and just 316 total yards passing. VT has built their offense around the pass this season, so it will be interesting to see how that affects the Hokies, because Tech hasn’t run the ball well at all this year.
Last year was a defensive battle that Virginia had an excellent chance of winning, thanks to a 42-yard TD pass on which Detrick Bonner gambled in coverage and lost, giving up the TD on a short pass and long run. The Hokies also donated a touchdown when Logan Thomas was stripped on a sack and Brent Urban ran it 16 yards for a TD. The Cavaliers gave the game back on some questionable coaching calls by Mike London (a failed fake field goal and not using his timeouts late), plus a late critical interception thrown by Mike Rocco, that turned into the game-winning field goal.
My point? This has the makings of another low-yardage, defensive slugfest decided by coaching gaffes, turnovers, and special teams. Both coaching staffs have shown they are capable of mismanaging the clock and making ill-advised gambles. Both teams have shown the ability to turn the ball over (Watford has 15 INTs; Logan Thomas has 12). Lastly, neither team is impressive on special teams, and the Hokies’ punt coverage in particular has been a nightmare.
“Throw out the records” is a cliché, but when I look at these teams, I don’t see a 7-4 team playing a 2-9 team. I see a pretty even matchup. A look at the betting lines show the Hokies are favored by 12-13 points (I see a closer game) and the over/under is about 42 (I see a lower-scoring game, though turnovers and special teams could quickly have them hitting the over).
Sure … I’ll make a prediction. But this late in the season, this Virginia Tech team remains wildly unpredictable, so this prediction is not worth the paper it’s printed on: the Hokies will make it ten straight, but not by much.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 21, Virginia 17