So obviously this Hokie team is capable of fulfilling the promise of its collective talent and competing for an ACC championship. It's apparently not ready for national-title level play, but as we've alluded to hundreds of times, it probably won't ever be with this offensive coordinator on staff. All that said, one glance at the schedule shows that the Hokies have three games in a row against competition with less talent, starting this weekend against the Central Michigan Chippewas. It would be easy to dismiss these next few games and say that the meat of the schedule begins with the home game against Georgia Tech in a month. But that would be an enormous mistake because that stretch run won't matter if the Hokies don't use these next 3 games to accomplish 3 very important goals.
1) This team has to learn how to get off to a fast start and punch the opposing team in the mouth. All these 10-0, and 17-0 deficits make for great character builders when you come back and win, but that's playing with fire. Sometimes the comeback will fall short (see: Boise State). It's about executing the way you demonstrate you are capable of in the second half, but doing it in the FIRST half.
2) Blow a team out in order to develop the depth chart and rest a variety of injured starters. FS Eddie Whitley and TE Andre Smith are two of the most important players on this team and they will absolutely need their "A" games for the stretch run in the ACC. Virginia Tech MUST take care of business and grind their opponents down in the first three quarters so that the 4th quarter in all the games can be "empty the bench" time. The backups need the playing time, the starters need the chance to heal and if these next three games are nail-biters, even if they are wins for the Hokies, it will not give the starters the rest they need.
3) Build some confidence by playing a complete game. So far, the Hokies have failed to play a solid 60 minute game. The offense will play good for a stretch, and then the defense will play well. Different stars have emerged in different games to swing the balance in favor of Tech, but if they can figure out how to put the pieces together against these teams with less talent, it would be a huge boost when they begin the crucial run against Georgia Tech. Listen, after losing to JMU, anything is possible and the players had better believe it. But being 6-2 and 4-0 in the ACC looks realistic for this team if they will just execute for the next three weeks.
So with that quick look at the bigger picture, let's zoom in for a bit and take a closer look at Central Michigan. First of all, when the Hokies are on offense against this Chippewa defense, they have a huge physical advantage on the perimeter. The Hokie receivers are bigger, stronger and faster than these defensive backs and should be able to beat them in the passing game as well as blocking on the edge. The Hokie running backs are also bigger and faster than the Chippewa linebackers. The Chippewas have given up 280 passing yards to Northwestern and 306 rushing yards to Ball State so they've shown weakness in both areas.
In watching some highlights from their games against Temple and Northwestern, the Chippewas do have some hard-nosed physical players right up the gut. Not the biggest kids, but their tackles don't get pushed off the point of attack, and their MLB is a 250 lb tackling machine. The Hokies need to use some trap plays and outside zone rushes to be effective. I don't see the RB draw working that well against the teeth of this defense.
I know it's probably a pipe dream but l'd love to see some skinny posts or crossing routes where players like WR Dyrell Roberts, Marcus Davis and DJ Coles can catch the ball on the run and make something happen in space. I will go to the grave wondering why on earth O'Cain and Stiney haven't worked with QB Tyrod Taylor on this more during his career. Granted his primary receiver is rarely the one on the post or crossing route and that's squarely on Stiney's shoulders, but still, he has had a few times where the secondary receiver has been on that route and he's not thrown it. I bash my head into something every time I see that, and it hurts, so I just wish they would address this. It would work great, starting this week.
RB Ryan Williams will again miss the game, but frankly, he's better saved for ACC competition anyway. With the way Evans and Wilson are playing, there's no need to rush him back. And when he does come back, there had better be a more even distribution of carries. I think both Evans and Wilson have demonstrated their ability back there and a 50%/25%/25% distribution will be MUCH more effective than the ridiculous 80%/10%/10% we saw when Williams was healthy.
When the Hokie defense is on the field, they should have no trouble stopping the run game because of the loss of the Chippewa's best offensive lineman, Jake Olson, last week. He was a beast but the rest of the players are undersized and only two of them are seniors. So I expect Tech to shut down the running game successfully. However, the Chippewas are mainly a wide-open passing attack on offense (the fourth in five games that the Hokies will have faced). They average 37 pass attempts/game and the secondary/nickel package that I thought would only see limited service this season is going to again play a central role.
Speaking of that nickel package, I ended up breaking one chair and certainly threw several items watching the pass interference calls against the Hokies last week. Two of them were quite simply not pass interference by Antone Exum. Coach Gray has worked with Exum this week on keeping his hands lower on the receiver while looking back for the ball, but in the heat of battle there is almost always some hand fighting and if a ref is going to call it, he'd better call it both ways during a game. But either way, there will be a lot of balls thrown in this game and Tech's secondary is going to get plenty of reps practicing their technique in avoiding pass interference. And so I believe that this presents a perfect opportunity for Coach Beamer to get involved. It's a head coach's job to get on the ref early in the game when a call goes against his team and figure out where that ref's head is on certain calls. Against the Chippewas, if pass interference is called, Coach Beamer needs to get a feel for what those back and side judges are looking for so he can communicate it to Coach Foster who can relay that to his defensive backs.
Overall, Tech has a talent advantage, but even if that were enough to win, and again after the JMU debacle we know that it is not, relying solely on that costs the Hokies a great opportunity they have to go out, play a complete game and get backups on the field during the second half. They had better come to play just as hard, and definitely at a higher level than they have done in any one game this season in order to set the table for later in the season.