Friday, September 28, 2012

game preview: Louisiana Tech

Date/Time: Saturday, September 29; 3:30


Record against the Bulldogs: First meeting

Last meeting: N/A

Last week: TCU 27, UVA 7; LT 52, Illinois 24

Line: LTech by 3

Funny how things work.  No doubt when this game was schedule, the Bulldogs were supposed to be the tomato can after two straight big-game opponents.  Now you've got Louisiana Tech at 3-0, averaging 50-some points a game, and even before the season there were some suggesting Penn State would be an easier game than this.  Even stranger, it's really a pivotal game.  It's one of those rare ones that could be a blowout either way, and will go a long way toward determining UVA's fate this season.

-- UVA run offense vs. LT run defense

Top backs:
Kevin Parks: 48 carries, 212 yards, 4.4 avg, 2 TDs
Perry Jones: 39 carries, 113, yards, 2.9 avg., 1 TD

UVA offense:
119.5 yards/game, 3.79 yards/attempt
88th of 124 (national), 7th of 12 (ACC)

LT defense:
168.0 yards/game, 3.76 yards/attempt
53rd of 124 (national), 4th of 7 (WAC)

I may be imagining this, or I may be thinking very wishfully, but has our run game slowly improved?  Or at least, it looked semi-functional at times against TCU?  The struggles on the offensive line have clearly not escaped the notice of the coaches, and Bill Lazor appeared to adjust accordingly against TCU, calling run plays that help to circumvent the weakness.  Several pitches, for example - one of my favorite running plays because it gives the ball to the running back with momentum.  This works well with a guy like Kevin Parks because even though he's not all that quick, momentum is a great thing for a powerfully-built guy like him.  We'll see more of that stuff this week - traps, pitches, counters - and less of the straight-ahead stuff.

The idea is to keep it away from 330-pound DT Justin Ellis.  Our O-line can't block anyone that big.  On the edges, you've got a similar deal as TCU: defensive ends built to rush the pass, not take on a 300-pound tackle.  DE Vontarrius Dora is a redshirt freshman, and Lazor may test his side early to see if there's something there to take advantage of.

I don't want to say "if we can't run on these guys, we can't run on anyone" because the Bulldogs have done a decent job corralling the run and it's possible we'll see worse run defenses in the ACC (Wake.) But then, Houston (their first opponent) is decidedly a passing team, and only runs so that you don't drop 10 into coverage.  Illinois is just poor in general and they managed at least a respectable running game.  The running game this week will be a little extra important because of Louisiana Tech's no-huddle, hurry-up offense, so I expect an attempt to control the clock as well.  Last week's effort of 116 yards is the best we've gotten from our running backs against I-A competition this year; expect to exceed that this weekend.

-- UVA pass offense vs. LT pass defense

Mike Rocco: 74/123, 60.2%; 838 yards, 4 TDs, 5 INTs; 6.81 yards/attempt

Top receivers:
Darius Jennings: 15 rec., 183 yards, 1 TD
Kevin Parks: 12 rec., 95 yards, 0 TDs

UVA offense:
253.0 yards/game, 6.7 yards/attempt
87th of 124 (national), 12th of 12 (ACC)

LT defense:
330.0 yards/game, 6.7 yards/attempt
52nd of 124 (national), 3rd of 7 (WAC)

If ever there were a game tailor-made for the UVA approach to the passing game, it's right here.  You're tired, you say, of Mike Rocco trying to dink and dunk down the field?  You might not want to watch this one.  Louisiana Tech employs a nickel defense nearly exclusively, and plays a bend-don't-break zone.

The result is that LTech is 119th out of 124 in completion percentage allowed at 67.6%.  Houston's David Piland was 53-for-77(!!).  Illinois's Nathan Scheelhaase was 8-for-11 on a bum ankle, got pulled because of the nagging injury, and watched his backup go 19-for-25.  Mike Rocco was born for this game, man.  If he can't succeed against this defense, then yeah, maybe it's Sims time.

A couple players are to be watched for.  CB Le'Vander Liggins has 6 PBUs this season, although no interceptions.  (The only player with a pick for LTech is linebacker Solomon Randle; this lack of INTs is a result of the combination of the soft-zone defense and playing a couple teams in Rice and Houston who run a short-game pass offense that takes perfect advantage.)  LTech has also had a pretty effective pass rush, averaging three sacks a game with seven different players getting in on that action.

However.  This is Rocco's thing right here.  Starting Sims would actually be a fairly big mistake, because Sims has a ways to go to match Rocco's precision when Rocco is on, and good precision passing teams will eat this defense alive.  If Rocco is the Rocco we know he can be, you can expect a lot of YAC out of his receivers, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him complete 75% of his passes.  Two-thirds is a more realistic number, but still.  This is Rocco's big chance at redemption this season.

-- LT run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Kenneth Dixon: 43 carries, 244 yards, 5.7 avg., 4 TDs
Hunter Lee: 8 carries, 36 yards, 4.5 avg., 1 TD

LT offense:
232.33 yards/game, 5.49 yards/attempt
23rd of 124 (national), 1st of 7 (WAC)

UVA defense:
185.75 yards/game, 5.16 yards/attempt
108th of 124 (national), 10th of 12 (ACC)

For the second straight week, UVA catches a break with a season-ending injury to the opponent's star running back.  Freshman running back Tevin King was having a really nice season, averaging 8 yards a carry, but tore his ACL against Illinois, and that's that.

That means Kenneth Dixon will get the bulk of the carries, with former walk-on Hunter Lee most likely to spell him.  Dixon and King had been splitting the work almost evenly in the past.  Dixon has some not-too-shabby stats himself, averaging 5.7 yards a carry.  That said - most of that was against Rice and Houston, two teams you'd expect to give up a bunch of yards.  Rice, in fact, has the worst run defense in the country, giving up over 7 yards an attempt.  Illinois, on the other hand, did a solid job containing the Bulldog rushing game, and Dixon had just 41 yards against the Illini.

At the same time, TCU was also, for the most part, bottled up on the ground.  Yes, five yards a carry for our defense and all that.  That's that Georgia Tech game screwing with the stats.  Penn State and TCU combined for less than 3.5 yards a carry against the Hoos.  Combine that with Illinois's results against Louisiana Tech and you get a pretty good, optimistic outlook.

LTech has a very veteran, experienced offensive line, so you can't count on complete and total dominance.  Four of them are seniors, with RG Matt Shepperd being the only junior.  In the end, though, I don't expect the Bulldogs to be able to rely on the running game.  Against Houston and Rice they could use it as a weapon; against BCS-level teams it's more of a constraint to prevent defenses from totally sitting on the pass.  This is basically the exact same deal as TCU: every time the Bulldogs go to the run, it's a small win for UVA.

-- LT pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Colby Cameron: 68/98, 69.4%; 913 yards, 11 TDs, 0 INTs; 9.32 yards/attempt

Top receivers:
Quinton Patton: 17 rec., 319 yards., 4 TDs
Myles White: 9 rec., 143 yards, 2 TDs

LT offense:
304.3 yards/game, 9.3 yards/attempt
11th of 124 (national), 1st of 7 (WAC)

UVA defense:
221.3 yards/game, 6.8 yards/attempt
56th of 124 (national), 5th of 12 (ACC)

Slowly - painfully slowly, but surely - the UVA pass defense is evolving into a workable strength.  Really.  It might not look that way after Casey Pachall dropped 300 yards on us, but we're getting there.  The next step is getting some interceptions.  Maurice Canady had a very nice one against TCU, which is a good sign.

This is a tough quarterback against whom to find your way into the plus side of the turnover margin, though, considering Colby Cameron hasn't thrown any this year.  Cameron has been ruthlessly efficient this year no matter what defense he's throwing against.  His favorite target: Quinton Patton, who has 17 catches already and is on pace for a 1,200-yard season.  In the defense-free zone that is the WAC, don't bet against him getting there.

But we're concerned about whether Scott Stadium will be a defense-free zone.  It's a worrisome thought.  The Bulldogs like a no-huddle offense, which obviously puts extra pressure on.  Patton is a burner with big-play capability, with touchdowns this year already of 78 and 65 yards.  Cameron likes to spread the ball around a lot, too; five other players have at least seven catches, but none besides Patton have more than nine.  The linebackers will probably find themselves heavily involved in pass coverage; LTech will line up three and four wide.  They don't use tight ends, but do throw to the running backs a lot.  (This is where the loss of Tevin King will also hurt.  Kenneth Dixon isn't a passcatching threat.)

It's the kind of attack you might think twice about blitzing against.  UVA will probably find itself in a nickel package more than it would like to, and if the corners are up to the task, great, but you don't want to leave holes on the field if you can help it, nor do you want to accidentally blitz a screen pass, which is a risk here.  Cameron is a little on the shorter side at 6'2", so this is a perfect game to emphasize hands in the passing lanes, and hopefully the defensive line will be good and active all day.  Sacks have not come easy for the Hoos this year, but pressure has been better than expected; the pass rushers have already sent two quarterbacks off the field grimacing in pain.  I don't need to point out the need to keep helping out the secondary this way.

The TCU game helped move me back from the "worst nightmare" ledge, but there are times where this still isn't gonna be any fun.  If Cameron doesn't get to 300 yards I'll be surprised.  We'll win easily if he doesn't, but more likely the game will hinge on just how many passes it takes him to reach 300.

-- Outlook

It's tempting to look at that Illinois game and think "we are SO dead."  But let's keep in mind: Illinois lost five fumbles.  LTech leads the country in recovered fumbles thanks to those five, and four more total in the other two games.  There's probably something to the idea that they try and get fumbles on purpose, but at some point that's a luck train that runs out.  The Bulldogs returned one of those fumbles for a touchdown and scored two more TDs and a field goal by landing in Illinois territory off of more turnovers.  Illinois lost by four touchdowns, but it's likely they actually win if they don't hand so many points to Louisiana Tech and kill their own drives at the same time.

No doubt about it: there'll be some frustrating times in this game.  But this is a better matchup than it looks like on the surface.  And who knows; maybe those sharp-looking retro uniforms will be a motivator too.  Plus it's nice to get back to friendly territory.  It's easy to overreact to a couple not-so-good weeks, but the final word is this: this is still more or less the same team that bounced back from a slow start last year as well, and finished with eight wins.  No reason it can't show up again this week.

-- Prediction summary:

-- UVA's running backs total more than 116 yards.
-- Mike Rocco gets back to completing more than two-thirds of his passes.
-- Colby Cameron throws for over 300 yards.
-- Louisiana Tech is held under 3.5 yards a carry.
-- If UVA holds the turnovers to no more than one, they'll win by double digits.

Final score: UVA 31, LT 27

-- Rest of the ACC:

Maryland off.

Georgia Tech vs. Middle Tennessee, 12:00: Whatever.

NC State @ Miami, 12:00: Thanks to last week, Miami, not Georgia Tech, has emerged as the primary threat to VT's Coastal hegemony.

Duke @ Wake Forest, 12:30: Slapfight.

Clemson @ Boston College, 3:30: Either going to be a blowout or a shocking upset (or very nearly one) but not in between.

North Carolina vs. Idaho, 3:30: Two straight losses will have UNC in a foul mood, and the Vandals look like the perfect punching bag to take it out on.

Virginia Tech @ Cincinnati, 3:30: Please don't lose to the Big East again, Hokies.  Wait, actually, please do.

Florida State @ South Florida, 6:00: A few years ago, USF put up a billboard welcoming themselves to the big time in Florida.  This game will probably show why that was a bad idea.

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