After watching the 2014 version of the Hokies play William&Mary last Saturday there are reasons to be very excited about the enormous game coming up tonight against Ohio State and there are reasons to be wetting our beds about that game. There's even a common reason that belongs in both categories. Unlike the HokieVision team this year, I suck at intros, so that's that, let's get into it.
Reasons To Be Wetting Our Beds
1) Coach Shane Beamer might be starting a true freshman tonight.
I can't imagine, watching JC Coleman take snaps last Saturday, that he will start the game against Ohio State. Sure Coleman scored a TD at the end of the game from the 2-yd line. And I can see him telling that story years from now about how this one time, he had a short yardage touchdown (it begins "the sea was angry that day my friends"). OK, so I really do like Coleman and he is a lot of things: great change-of-pace guy, should be running jet sweeps, playing in certain 3rd down packages, returning kickoffs, and he's a helluva good teammate in the locker room. One thing he is absolutely not is an every down back for a program trying to establish a power running game. That means that going into one of the toughest places to play in all of college football in a night game with the country watching, two kids who last fall were taking snaps in high school, will be starting. Can they run? Sure, but in that high pressure situation, can they remember the playbook? Can they block the right blitzer? Games turn on mishaps like these.
2) Two of the three Hokie linebackers
Is there a better feel-good-story than Derek DiNardo starting and playing most of the game last Saturday? He had a big scoop and almost-score, he made some tackles and he's an intelligent, instinctive football player. But at whip, he is not near the athlete needed in a game against playmakers like the Buckeyes have. The Hokies kept quiet about the extent of Ronnie Van Dyke's groin injury, but if he's not ready to go tonight, that's a significant Depends moment.
And Deon Clarke, despite all the pre-season hype, was nowhere to be seen. In reviewing the game tape I counted 3 missed big plays (two tackles for loss and a big potential sack) that spill to the Backer for them to make those EXACT plays and he didn't do it. Clarke ended up with 3 total tackles with only 1 solo and only 1 tackle-for-loss and that just isn't going to remotely get it done for Backer. Knowing Coach Foster, he has been up Clarke's tailpipe this week about sticking his nose in there and making those plays. but until we see it happen on the field, it's extremely concerning.
3) The Hokies are starting a true freshman at kicker
I was very impressed with Joey Slye on Saturday. His kicks got up in the air quickly and he made a tackle on the opening kickoff. But again, bright lights, first game on the road, never seen that many people hating you in one place, can he respond - forget with the game on the line at the end - but on a routine 30 yd attempt in the second quarter? The Hokies lost 3 games last year because of awful field goal kicking and while we learned there's a player with talent at the position this year, we have no idea as of yet how he's going to handle a pressure situation. I hope that Coach Beamer had a higher intensity version of his usual kicker sessions in practice this week, maybe where the entire team lines up around Slye and pipe in some noise and have everyone shouting things at him and charging towards him, etc. Nothing can fully prepare you to face that kick in the Horseshoe, so anything they can do would fall short, but it's worth a try.
4) Goal line offense
So all pre-season the Hokies and Coach Lefty talked about the power running game. And in the first game against William&Mary, on the goal line, the running game was an abomination. Now I'll be the first to say that the Tribe's defensive line is better than people think, even better than some other lines the Hokies will play this year, but they are NOT better than the defensive front for Ohio State. So much was wrong with the goal line offense, I don't know where to begin. JC Coleman was getting goal-line snaps (someone needs to bring a physics professor to the offensive staff meeting). There was a mishandled center-QB exchange. And then even beyond all of that, the Hokies still had 3 runs with Juice, who finished a few nachos short of the goal line each time. He didn't look like he had that "nose" for the end zone that some backs just seem to have (think Lee Suggs). I could be reading into that too early, and McKenzie didn't get a shot on the goal line, but it's nerve-wracking all the same.
Seven running plays inside the Tribe's 10 yd line resulted in 1 TD run in garbage time, but over half of the rushes were for no gain. I guess it's a positive that we don't have any backs that can lose 15 yards on a goal line rush, a la David Wilson, but he could also do this - which no backs on the current roster can do either. But when the good news is that the running backs don't lose 15 yards on a goal line carry, well........you know....... that sucks.
5) Knocked down/deflected passes
Despite Michael Brewer's fantastic performance, one major area of concern was deflected passes. Now, on the interception, LG Wyatt Teller came off of his man way too soon and the defender was left by himself standing in the passing lane, so it was easy to get a hand on it, with the result being a pick. But there were several other deflections, and don't think OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell wasn't focused on that this week with his defensive linemen and their pass rush lanes. These are momentum changing plays and there's really nothing you can do to fix pass deflections, short of hooking Brewer up to the rack and "lengthening" him to about 6'4". Since that's probably an NCAA violation, I would adamant about rolling Brewer out and hoping he can be some sort of accurate on the run.
OK, so now that we're all huddled all Blair Witch style in the corner about facing the Buckeyes let's see if we can't take a look at some things that have me excited about playing Ohio State tonight.
Reasons To Be Excited Enough To Run Through A Brick Wall
1) Coach Shane Beamer might be starting a true freshman tonight.
But wait, Mad Jay, I thought you said this was a reason to be wetting my bed? Well, it is, but it could also be a difference maker for the Hokies in a positive way. From what I saw out of Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie, the Hokies have the type of running backs that they've had in the past. When McKenzie's knee gets back to 100% after this season, he's going to be a real force, but even now he breaks arm tackles like they're being attempted by mosquitos and he hits the hole with abandon. Meanwhile, Juice Williams is out there just looking for contact, looking to punish opponents who dare attempt to tackle him, acting as if they insulted his mother.
If the Hokies can convert enough 3rd downs in the first half to give the Buckeyes a healthy dose of these two backs, then by the late 3rd quarter - especially early in a season before conditioning has really kicked in - the Buckeye defense might be completely exhausted. If you watched the LSU-Wisconsin game you saw this exact phenomenon occur, where in the 4th quarter, LSU was just running through huge holes for massive gains despite having been contained most of the rest of the game. They were running the same off tackle and power trap plays from earlier, but Wisconsin just ran out of gas on defense.
2) Michael Brewer is exactly what this team needs to run Coach Lefty's offense.
My favorite play happened to be exactly what VT beat writer Andy Bitter captured in his article. Mr. Bitter (boy, wouldn't the universe make more sense if he and Mark Berman switched names?) references a 3rd down and goal right before the half with the Hokies ahead 14-6. Brewer escaped pressure and rolled to his left and then.......he threw the ball out of the back of the end zone. How many times before have we seen a Hokie QB try and force a ball in there and bad things happen? Going into the half, Brewer knew the Hokies needed points and the play wasn't there so he got rid of it.
The rest of the day, Brewer ran the offense calmly and effectively, he didn't go into the tank when he threw that interception off the deflection, and he provided the steady hand that this team, with all of its youngsters, needs. We fans have heard about him all pre-season, but let me tell you about the players. More than any fishing trips, or restaurant buffets they've hit together, watching their QB perform on game day like Brewer did really begins to cement that leadership role he's in. I can't overstate how important that is, especially for a guy to transfer in and unseat a 5th year senior that's popular among his teammates. Brewer looks like he might be ready for the spotlight tonight.
3) The tight ends are back in the offense
You're a defense and you've got them. It's 3rd down, you know the play that's coming, you have the receivers blanketed, you pick up the running back out in the flat and now it's just a matter of time before your defensive line comes and plants the quarterback on his ass. But what's this? A throw to a TE being covered by a safety and he screens the safety off with his body, makes the catch and it's FIRST DOWN Virginia Tech (said in my best Bill Roth voice).
That play is exactly what the tight end brings to the Hokie offense and Malleck did it twice on Saturday against William&Mary. Last year Kalvin Kline made a few of those plays, and was pretty decent as a receiver. But this year, the Hokies have an even better athlete in Bucky Hodges, and a better blocker and outlet route runner in Ryan Malleck and it absolutely destroys a defense to have those guys in there. Who do you cover Hodges with? Is it a run or a pass with Malleck at the end of the line of scrimmage? Even if you do cover Malleck he can get open against most linebackers and he can screen off any safety to give his QB a target to throw to. And Hodges made some freak-type plays Saturday as well. Malleck and Hodges (sounds like a law firm) are going to give OSU D Coordinator Luke Fickell a headache because I know Coach Lefty didn't show his whole hand on Saturday about how he wants to utilize these two guys.
4) Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips
There you have it - the key ingredients that were missing from the Hokies lineup last year until Josh Stanford started coming on very late. In fact, Stanford's strained hamstring would normally be listed as a bedwetting reason if it weren't for the remarkable ability of these two receivers. Phillips ran a dig route Saturday for a first down on a third and long and it looked like he was an NFL receiver. I don't say that to hype things up, I'm just saying his body was dead square, he got low, especially for a player his height, had tremendous footwork and until the very last second, the DB didn't know which way Phillips was going to turn until Phillips planted, turned in and caught a well thrown ball for the first down. And Ford, well you can just feel the explosiveness Ford has if he can get the ball and start running in the open field.
Phillips isn't the fastest but he's going to get open and move the chains and the Hokies have to find ways to get Ford the ball as he's one of the few playmakers on offense (Demetri Knowles if he's fully healthy is the other) that can run with the speed of Ohio State.
5) Chase Williams is up to the challenge
We knew the secondary would be good (and Kendall Fuller was unbelievable Saturday). We knew the defensive line would be good (and Corey Marshall was unbelievable as well). And while I've already talked above about how two of the linebacker positions could be exposed on Saturday against the Buckeyes, the question mark for a lot of people headed into the season was Chase Williams. Now sure he was a little sloppy in his tackling on a few plays, but in terms of communicating out there to his teammates, he worked spectacularly with Detrick Bonner to have the Hokies aligned properly for most of the plays they faced. Every time I saw Williams shift a defensive player in a direction pre-snap, the play went that way. He also made some big plays, forcing a fumble, and getting some sacks.
I'd like to see more tackles out of a middle linebacker, but Williams showed the smarts, the leadership and the physicality that give me hope for this season. There's enough tremendous athletes on defense, if Williams gets them lined up properly by recognizing plays, the Hokies will have success tonight.
So that covers the 5 main causes for concern and the 5 main causes for excitement. And there are others on both sides of that coin. Some other concerns were - too many penalties (one cost Juice a goal-line touchdown run), terrible second level positioning of the linemen on screen plays, and poor form tackling. One exciting item was how bad Ohio State played against Navy. But those could all mainly be written up to first game of the year type of things. Both VT and Ohio State players will see their issues on film and make big gains between week one and week two. So I've alternated all week between being very pumped up about the upcoming game and putting on Depends before I go to bed. And now it's game day so -