2006 Keys to the Game and Matchups to Watch: Virginia Tech vs. Southern Mississippi

Last week’s Boston College game seemed eerily similar to an October visit
to Morgantown, West Virginia in 2003, at least to me. Critical mistakes on
offense, defense, and special teams, stupid penalties, players sniping at
players, ESPN announcers criticizing the program, fans calling for a new
quarterback, fans calling for coaching changes, not to mention a humiliating
loss to a rival in a hostile environment bring back some horrible memories. Will
this Virginia Tech team rebound from the last couple of losses like the 2004
team, or will this team collapse like the 2003 team? We should get some answers
this week against a very capable Southern Miss team.

With the regular season half over most, if not all, of Virginia Tech’s fans
have been disappointed by the performance in the last two games, and
particularly in the self-destruction in Chestnut Hill. Does Frank Beamer need to
make massive changes in the program as Kirk Herbstreit suggests? Or do the
Hokies simply need to regroup and execute better? I lean toward the latter
strategy, but some changes need to be made to put players in the best position
to win games.

The Hokies have their backs to the proverbial wall, so we shall see how much
character this team has beginning this Saturday against Southern Miss. Tech does
have some luck in its favor with the recent rash of injuries suffered by the
Golden Eagles. Freshman sensation running back Damion Fletcher is out for this
game because of a knee injury, preseason all-CUSA guard Travis Cooley will be
out this week with another knee injury, and starting defensive backs Caleb
Hendrix and LeVance Richmond are both listed as questionable with ankle
injuries, so Virginia Tech may be catching Southern Miss at the right time.

Even with the injuries, Southern Miss is still a dangerous team. The Golden
Eagles are athletic and aggressive on both sides of the ball. USM will look to
control the ball on offense behind a balanced attack and play aggressively on
defense, trying to throw the opposition off-balance with multiple looks.
Southern Miss will run the option with quarterback Jeremy Young in the game and
try to stretch the defense horizontally, but the strength of the Golden Eagles
offense is an experienced offensive line that can control the line-of-scrimmage.
Defensively, Southern Miss likes to blitz from all angles, but the Eagles also
run a variety of zone packages, so reading the correct keys is critical in this

So, how should Virginia Tech attack the Southern Miss defense?

When Virginia Tech has the Ball:

1. Establish the Run

when coming off a sub-par performance, the strategy is to get back to basics and
for Virginia Tech football that means establishing the run. The Southern Miss
defense reminds me a lot of the Cincinnati Bearcat defense in that the Golden
Eagles have smaller, quicker players and rely more on speed and aggression than
the bulk and power of a Boston College. Brandon Ore had a big game against
Cincinnati and he will likely be the key offensive player for Virginia Tech in
this game.

Look for the Hokies to run a lot of zone stretch plays to get Brandon Ore in
space and use his ability to read the defense and make quick cuts. Inside zone
plays may be effective as well, but traps and quick draws will likely have more
success up the middle. Southern Miss will try to penetrate and disrupt the
line-of-scrimmage, so the Hokie linemen need to make sure they get a hat on a
man. Quick hitting plays will likely have more success up the middle to offset
the quickness of the USM defensive line and linebackers.

One major difference between the Southern Miss and Cincinnati defenses,
however, is the depth of the Golden Eagles. USM has recruited a number of junior
college players in their front seven and they substitute freely during the game,
so do not look for Southern Miss to wear down like the Bearcats. Highly regarded
JUCO defensive tackle Sean Merrill (#99, 6-3 294, Jr.) is back in action from an
early-season ankle injury, so watch for the former LSU signee, as well as his
fellow DT Martavius Prince (#97, 6-3 280, r-Jr.) in the middle.

Key statistics to watch: Yards per carry. Southern Miss is allowing 4.0 yards
per carry (and the Golden Eagles have not played a good running team outside of
N.C. State, which abandoned the run after falling behind),