Friday, November 27, 2015

game preview: Virginia Tech

Date/Time: Saturday, November 28; 12:00


Record against the Hokies: 37-54-5

Last meeting: VT 24, UVA 20; 11/28/14, Blacksburg

Last weekend: UVA 42, Duke 34; UNC 30, VT 27

Line: VT by 3.5

As you might have guessed by the utter lack of football content lately, it's been hard to form any emotions or strong opinions about football these days.  Impressively, the players keep plugging.  There's nothing tangible at stake and hasn't been for a while, but they're getting after it.  That whole losing-to-Duke thing was getting really old, so it's nice at least to have that on the resume this year.

It's rivalry week though.  I don't care what anyone says, this is the right week to play this game.  Are the students gone?  Yeah, but most of them can make a day trip anyway.  I made it back from 750 miles away, so the Fairfax mafia can too.  Are people busy with friends and family?  Yeah, but surely a reasonably successful program can scrape up enough fans to fill a stadium.  All we need to do is find a reasonably successful program.

This is the right time for this game because no matter what happens in the season, you still have one last thing to look forward to.  Play this game in October and then what?  Hit the seven-loss mark and look forward to that epic end-of-season clash with Pittsburgh?  No offense to Pitt, but I'm gonna say nah.  Rivalry games are storyline games.

And this one has more than enough to go around.  Frank Beamer is definitely coaching his last ACC game and maybe (if things go just right) his last game ever.  Mike London is almost definitely coaching his last at UVA as well.  These two schools meet for a basketball game on January 4 and both may well have introduced new football coaches by then.  Change is in the air.  Both teams are trying to extend their coach's career - one by going bowling and one by hoping they can stave off a firing.

This latter doesn't seem likely, by the way, even with a win.  Just as the economics made it difficult to fire London last year, they make it even harder to keep him this year.  UVA will have to swallow about a $3.5 million pill, but refusing to do would be the very definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Only two coaches are owed any money after this season: London and Jon Tenuta.  No college football coach ever coaches the last year of his contract - the optics of doing so are prohibitive - so keeping London means extending him, and extending him means doing so for like four years.  Or, I suppose, he could coach the last year of his contract, and UVA can figure out how to convince a whole staff worth of assistant coaches to coach on a one-year contract.  There are those who'll say that the huge number of vacancies this year means that the competition for the right coach is bloody and fierce, and they're not wrong, but the size of the coaching carousel also means lots and lots and lots of assistant-coach vacancies.  Any assistant who chooses a one-year contract working for an obvious lame duck over a longer-term contract on a new staff is too stupid to be placed in charge of mentoring young adults.

For this weekend, that means I can stand on very solid ground in predicting that London's days as UVA's head coach are numbered in the single digits.  I'm not going to spend my time chasing rumors about his replacement - and depending on how various teams' postseasons go, that could take a while - but the spectrum of readings about London's impending release are advanced enough to be somewhere between rumor and confirmed fact.  The program and the rivalry will shortly enter a new era.  Given how both have proceeded recently, it's a welcome sight.

-- UVA run offense vs. VT run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 153 carries, 638 yards, 4.2 ypc, 4 TDs
Albert Reid: 57 carries, 257 yards, 4.5 ypc, 2 TDs

UVA offense:
134.09 yards/game, 3.84 yards/attempt
101st of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

VT defense:
172.55 yards/game, 4.36 yards/attempt
72nd of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

So last week, ACC ref Ron Cherry called an offside penalty on Tech DE Dadi Nicolas, and Nicolas did what anyone would do in that situation: hit Cherry in the arm.  And by "anyone" I really mean no one at all because hitting a referee is as big a taboo as there is in all of sports.  Nicolas wasn't just randomly flailing his arms and didn't realize who was behind him; he actually walked up behind Cherry and angrily whacked him in the outstretched arm (Cherry was signaling "on the defense").

Because Frank Beamer is either an idiot, or thinks we're all idiots, he claimed it was unintentional and suspended Nicolas for 30 minutes.  And because the ACC is full of gutless wonders, they let the suspension stand instead of immediately stepping in and telling Beamer "nuh-uh."  So VT will be missing one of their better run-stoppers for a half - but not the important half.  Great precedent.  Hit a referee, be suspended for basically no time at all.

UVA's running game has settled into an area a notch or two above what it was to start the season.  Back then it was minimally functional - now it's sort of just plain functional.  It strikes fear in the heart of nobody, but at least it moves the ball.  But fortunately, Tech's defense is a tiny shadow of its past self.  The VT D-line has held up well.  Nicolas was much more terrifying last year, but he and Ken Ekanem do a more than passable job of keeping the edges clean.  VT is undersized at tackle, but it doesn't matter too much; Luther Maddy, Corey Marshall, and Woody Baron make for a pretty good rotation in the middle.

The difference is at linebacker, where VT is accustomed to getting good if not great play, and they're not getting it this year.  Hokie fans complain incessantly about Andrew Motuapuaka's play in the middle.  Deon Clarke has done alright, but it's clear the linebacking isn't up to the usual standards.

Still, VT will have the advantage in the trenches and a fresh Nicolas to start the second half, so running the ball will be difficult.  VT can only be said to have truly shut down one team this year (the totally impotent Boston College offense) so there'll be yardage at the end of the day.  It's not likely to move the needle much, though.

-- UVA pass offense vs. VT pass defense

Matt Johns: 229/365, 62.7%; 2,639 yards, 19 TDs, 15 INTs; 7.23 ypa, 132.4 rating

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 68 rec., 671 yards, 4 TDs
Canaan Severin: 51 rec., 713 yards, 7 TDs
T.J. Thorpe: 20 rec., 295 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
244.4 yards/game, 7.2 yards/attempt
68th of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

VT defense:
174.0 yards/game, 7.1 yards/attempt
67th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

The yards-per-attempt numbers that I like so much don't tell the story here.  VT is missing Kendall Fuller, who's been out since September.  Without him, opponents have generally avoided Brandon Facyson (who has 10 PBUs and 26 tackles) and gone after Chuck Clark instead.  Clark's not the worst, but he leads the team in tackles, which is partly a function of run support and partly a function of getting thrown at.  A lot.

The real story, though, is still in the numbers.  Tech has only allowed three opponents to complete more than 50% of their passes.  Good for them.  When opponents do complete passes, they average over 14.7 yards per completion.  Bad for them.  To put that in perspective, UNC is the fourth-best passing offense in the country and the second-best non-wacky passing offense in the country (Army and Air Force run goofball offenses where passing is used as a trick play) and they average about 14.5 yards per completion.

In other words, welcome to the wild funland of inconsistent safety play, where VT trusts their free safeties so much they only ever start strong safeties.  (Or rovers, in VT terminology.)  Adonis Alexander is the team leader in picks and he lost his starting job a few weeks ago because he's a wide receiver adventure waiting to happen.

Because of UVA's use-the-pass-game-as-the-run-game approach to offense, that 14.7 is coming down, and Matt Johns probably will complete more than 50% of his passes.  Bypassing the defensive line in this way is probably smart.  Facyson will probably draw Canaan Severin, so with adventureland safety play and the potential for some big gains, T.J. Thorpe could be the game's X-factor.

-- VT run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Travon McMillian: 166 carries, 880 yards, 5.3 ypc, 5 TDs
Brenden Motley: 88 carries, 224 yards, 2.5 ypc, 3 TDs

VT offense:
159.09 yards/game, 3.71 yards/attempt
109th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
164.91 yards/game, 4.68 yards/attempt
96th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

The numbers are a little misleading here, too.  VT looks like one of the worst run offenses in the country at first glance.  When they're handing off to Travon McMillian, though, they get a lot more effective all of a sudden.  McMillian started the season at the end of the depth chart, but by the beginning of November he'd shunted aside both Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman and has become the official workhorse back.  With fullback Sam Rogers getting a steady diet of change-of-pace carries, Edmunds and Coleman have all but disappeared.

The stats are also skewed by Brenden Motley, a mobile-ish quarterback who doesn't actually run all that well.  Motley was standing in for Michael Brewer, who returned to the lineup four games ago from a broken collarbone and who never runs anywhere if he can help it.

Neither UVA's D-line nor VT's O-line has been anything like you'd call impressive this year; the thing that matters here is McMillian vs. the linebackers.  McMillian has been very good.  Micah Kiser's 107 tackles say he probably knows what he's doing too.  If the linebackers are on point, McMillian will be bottled up, but that's something most teams have had trouble doing consistently.

-- VT pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Michael Brewer: 88/150, 58.7%; 1,122 yards, 10 TDs, 5 INTs; 7.48 ypa, 136.8 rating

Top receivers:
Isaiah Ford: 57 rec., 816 yards, 9 TDs
Cam Phillips: 43 rec., 536 yards, 2 TDs
Bucky Hodges: 33 rec., 458 yards, 6 TD

VT offense:
214.1 yards/game, 7.2 yards/attempt
66th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
256.4 yards/games, 8.2 yards/attempt
110th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

Some teams spread the ball around, getting passes to a lot of different receivers.  Then there's Virginia Tech.  The backs are a small, barely significant part of the passing game.  Backup tight end Ryan Malleck gets a token catch or so each game.  Three guys have 72% of VT's completions.

Those would be receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips, and tight end Bucky Hodges.  To be sure, these are three legitimate players.  Particularly Ford, the ACC's receiving yards leader.  Hodges is a difficult mismatch; he's huge, standing 6'7", 241, and your prototypical tough cover as a tight end that nickel corners can barely tackle let alone reach balls thrown high in the air, and who linebackers have a tough time chasing down.

At quarterback, Brewer is....fine.  He doesn't light up the stadium, but he doesn't lose the game by himself, either.  He lets his three main receivers do most of the work and then finds the one that's most open.  If they're open, he can usually find them; if not, he can't throw them open.  He won't make any plays with his feet, either; Brewer is one of the least mobile quarterbacks around.  VT doesn't protect him real well, so Tenuta should be able to pressure him.

-- Favorability ratings

Run offense: 4
Pass offense: 5
Run defense: 4
Pass defense: 4

Average: 4.25

-- Outlook

Stat sheets and past impressions, yes, all well and good; this one's still coming down to intangibles.  These teams are about evenly matched; the difference between them is basically one extra OOC challenge game.  Both have solid quarterbacks, large positional weaknesses that prevent them from contending for anything, and coaches on the way out.

So, cliche as it sounds, it comes down to things like turnovers, wanting it more, making a clutch play, all those things that announcers think every game is about.  VT carried Beamer off the field despite the loss last week; no doubt they'll be motivated to win the last one for him.  UVA, likewise.  VT is pretty good at coming up with wrinkles for the UVA game that surprise the Hoos; UVA, not so much likewise.

Still, UVA is at home, where it so happens they're 4-2, and 3-0 in ACC play.  Tech has a slight edge on paper and a big edge on the sidelines, but....if not now, when?  Mike London shrugged off one demon last week and beat David Cutcliffe.  Why not another one?  Let's go ahead and say the extra motivation is on the good guys' side for once.

Final score: UVA 24, VT 21

-- Rest of the ACC

Miami @ Pittsburgh - Fri. 12:00 - Nothing at stake here anymore except trying to look good for bowl suitors.

Georgia Tech vs. Georgia - 12:00 - 8-3 vs. 3-8 would seem like a pretty lopsided matchup, but GT did beat FSU at home.

Louisville @ Kentucky - 12:00 - UL tries to keep one SEC team out of bowl contention.

Clemson @ South Carolina - 12:00 - The third-best football team in the state of South Carolina stands between Clemson and an undefeated regular season.

Boston College @ Syracuse - 12:30 - Battle for Atlantic un-supremacy.

Duke @ Wake Forest - 12:30 - Wake me when it's over.

North Carolina @ NC State - 3:30 - UNC could set up an ACC CG between 8-0 teams.

Florida State @ Florida - 7:30 - FSU isn't going to the CFP, but they can throw a wrench in the works.

No comments: