Thursday, September 16, 2010

Game Preview - VT vs. ECU

The fact that the Virginia Tech-ECU football game means so much to this season is a great indicator of how horribly the things have gone for the Hokies. It's a non-conference matchup against a team that has played Tech tough over the years but still has only one win against the Hokies since 1993 (and that was a real gem of an offensive showcase for Bryan Stinespring as the Hokies choked away a lead in Charlotte - a game I painfully attended). And now the Hokies are in a must-win situation to prevent their entire season from ending up in the below-.500 toilet. You all know how we got here so there's no sense rehashing the horrors of the past 10 days. Lets take a look at the matchup.

Vegas loves the Hokies as 19.5 pt favorites and for the life of me I don't see it. Bud Foster's defense is going to play hard, that much I am certain of, but this is a potent offense they are going up against and frankly, I'd love it if the Hokie offense could muster 19.5 points, so how the bookies think the Hokies are going to win by that many astonishes me.

ECU's offense is an entirely different attack than what VT has gone up against the past several seasons when they've faced off against the Pirates. The Air Raid brought in by Ruffin McNeill and his staff from Texas Tech is an intricate passing attack that spreads the field and depends heavily on the QB knowing where to go with the ball based on the defense. After watching the ECU-Tulsa game, there really is no way to stop the offense when it is executed flawlessly. So how do the Hokies win? Well that's why you come here and read TSF isn't it? What the Hokie defense has to do is three things:

1) Tackle - there will be MANY times on Saturday when a Hokie defender is in a one-on-one situation with the ECU player and they absolutely have to make the tackle. Tackling like they did against Boise State and {gulp} JMU will lead to a Pirate blowout. But proper tackling and gang tackling like we're used to seeing from the Hokies could help create turnovers which will be huge in this game.
2) Disguise the look - Dominique Davis was the Boston College QB against Tech in the ACC title game in '08 and while he got worked over pretty good in that game, it means this isn't his first rodeo. Foster is going to have to be crafty so that Davis thinks he knows where to go with the ball based on his pre-snap read and then after the ball is snapped, finds that the coverage has changed. This will let the defensive line get pressure which is a normally a very difficult thing to do since the Air Raid has so many short routes in the playbook. Make Davis go to his 2nd or 3rd read and the defense has a chance to get off the field.
3) Pray - this last one may sound strange, and it is, but it comes down to praying that the VT offense can run some clock. Keeping the Air Raid on the sidelines helps prevent them from getting in a rhythm, limits the number of possessions they'll have in the game, gives the Hokie defenders a chance to get rested, and allows Foster a chance to work his magic with adjustments. I keep reading everywhere on the internets about a shootout, and believe me, I've watched teams try to get in shootouts with Texas Tech over the years and far more often than not, the Air Raid wins out. If the Hokies can run the ball and burn clock, even if it doesn't lead to Tech scoring every time, the defense will have a better chance to get stops against the Pirates. So if you see the defensive linemen lighting a few candles on the sideline, or chanting some Latin passages you'll understand why.

A quick glance over the ECU lineup shows not only Dominique Davis, but WR Dwayne Harris and RB Jon Williams, all of whom could play for most Division I-A schools. These are physical, athletic players and they can make big plays especially in this fast-paced offense. This game will not resemble the 16-3 game in Greenville last season as I expect ECU to score every time the Hokies miss a tackle on a drive or don't create a turnover. What does that mean? Well if you figure the Pirates could have as many as 12 possessions, and the Hokies miss tackles or don't create turnovers on 1/2 of them, you are talking about 6 scoring possessions, which is good for about 30 pts. And that would be a great achievement for Tech's defense considering ECU is averaging 50 pts/game (good for 7th in the country).

So let's look at the possibilities for a Hokie victory. The Hokie defense is either going to have play out of its mind and hold ECU to under 25-30 pts, or this football season for Virginia Tech is going to come down to the offense putting the whole team on its shoulders for 60 minutes. Normally, I would just say "Well forget it. The defense is either going to be miraculous or we're 0-3." But in this particular instance, there actually is one little speck of light at the end of that tunnel.

That speck of light is best envisioned as a scale. On one side of the scale, you have this incredible collection of talent on the VT offense, with huge linemen, NFL caliber running backs, Tyrod Taylor (who I will be the first to admit had an AWFUL game against JMU last week), an NFL tight end, and great wide receivers. On the other side of the scale is an EXTREMELY undersized ECU defense (one of their defensive ends is less than 200 lbs), trying to learn the new assignments and concepts of a 1st year defensive coordinator, who last season was the cornerbacks coach at Texas Tech where they had the 73rd best pass-defense in the country. The results of the ECU defense year-to-date have been predictably awful in light of those facts (119th out of 120 teams), and so while the scale seems tipped very favorably towards Tech, we all know that the Stinespring-factor balances that out some.

However, even I cannot bring myself to think that Stinespring can't develop a simple gameplan that can be well-executed against the Pirates. It involves RUNNING THE HOLY HAND GRENADE OUT OF THE BALL. Put it this way, if Virginia Tech can't run the ball against this defense, they may as well pay the university back their scholarships for the season, because that would mean they aren't worthy of playing football at this level. The caveat of course is if Stiney tries to "show" us all how clever he is with a pass-heavy attack for this game. I couldn't hang that on the players, though I could hang myself if that's what happens.

I'm not saying some timely play-action, or check down plays called by Taylor would be out of line. In fact, those would be perfect. But if there is a series in this football game for the Tech offense that consists entirely of passing plays, I will ask The Blonde to lock me outside so that I can't damage anything valuable in our house. The reason is that even if a pass-only drive were successful in scoring it would surely involve an incompletion or two, stopping the clock and more than likely, would be a shorter scoring drive than if a few runs were also involved. As I said above, winning this game involves shortening the game itself. By the 4th quarter, ECU's defense needs to be exhausted to where the Hokies can impose their will and run the clock.

So on Saturday we'll find out if all the tough talk this week is just that, or if it's a sea-change in the level of play that Virginia Tech brings to the field. They say football is a game of inches, but this week, it's a game of seconds and if the Hokies can run those seconds off the clock, they can begin the process of getting this season turned around.



Anonymous said...

First of all, let me say that this is a well written, fair and balance post.
I've been reading about this match up all week. I am an ECU fan and as excited as i am about this new offense I think VT is going to come out ready and will dominate. The Pirate faithful would want my head for saying this but defense wins games and our defense is terrible. Your loss to JMU was an anomaly and with your backs against the wall i think you come out and win the game. I don't know about the 19.5 point spread but i can't help but think that ECU is happening to play VT at the worst time. Remember last year, VT lost to UNC the week before playing ECU and they came in to GVL and took care of business. I unfortunately expect a similar outcome.

MadJay said...

Thank you Anonymous. I sincerely hope you're right about the outcome this week. I'd say good luck in the game, but the Hokies (and my sanity) really need this one.