September 3, 2010

Virginia Tech out to avoid another slow start

GAME OF THE WEEK

No. 10 Virginia Tech
vs. No. 3 Boise State
Where: Landover, Md.
When: 8 p.m., ESPN
Broadcasters: Brent Musburger play-by-play, Kirk Herbstreit analyst
The line: Boise State by 2.5

Virginia Tech has emerged as the ACC's signature program by developing a reputation for stability and consistency. Texas is the only other FBS team to win at least 10 games each of the past six seasons.

Along the way, the Hokies also have earned a much less enviable label. They're the team that opens each season with high expectations, only to slip up early in the year.

Virginia Tech has lost at least once in September in four consecutive seasons and has stumbled in each of its past two season openers. And in three of the past six seasons, the Hokies have fallen to the eventual national champion in the first two weeks of the season.

Here comes a shot at redemption.

Virginia Tech opens the 2010 season Monday against Boise State at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. Boise State finished unbeaten last season and could catapult itself into the national title discussion with a victory. For the Hokies, it's one more chance to earn a signature win early in the season.

"It would just prove that at Virginia Tech, we're here to stay," Hokies cornerback Rashad Carmichael said. "A lot of teams may be new to the limelight or new to the winning, but that's what we do here. That's just the kind of ball we play. It would be great to go out and get this win for the whole program."

Much of the preseason discussion surrounding this game has focused on Boise State's national-title hopes. The Broncos are third in The Associated Press poll, which represents their highest ranking in school history. But the Hokies also can stake a claim as title contenders.

Virginia Tech heads into the season ranked sixth in the coaches' poll and 10th by the AP. Of course, the Hokies also were ranked in the top 10 in two of the past three seasons before suffering early losses. Virginia Tech fell 48-7 at LSU in 2007 and lost 34-24 to Alabama at the Georgia Dome last season. The Hokies lost 24-13 to eventual national champion USC in their 2004 opener and began the 2008 season with a stunning 27-22 loss to East Carolina.

To their credit, the Hokies have bounced back and won at least 10 games in each of those seasons, but those early losses often caused them to fade out of the national-title picture by midseason.

The Hokies insist they've learned from those losses about the narrow margin for error in these types of games. Of all the early losses Virginia Tech has suffered since 2004, the LSU game was the only blowout.

"In all those games, it was close," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. "We had a chance there against Southern Cal. We had an interference call that certainly kind of changed that game around.

"You kind of learn it gets down to a play or two. You hope you're on the positive side of that play."

The easy way to address this problem would be to stop scheduling difficult non-conference games early in the season. Virginia Tech certainly could have profited from scheduling Boise State later in the year. Boise State returns just about everyone from an offense that led the nation in scoring last season; tackle John Graves is Virginia Tech's only healthy returning starter from its front seven on defense.

But the Hokies don't seem eager to change their scheduling strategy. They believe the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term risks of playing a tough team in September. In each of the three seasons Tech has lost early in the year to the eventual national champion, the Hokies have finished the season in the top 10.

"It's always good to have a big game like this for your first game because I think it really maximizes your potential in the offseason,'' Graves said. "People see that game on their schedule and they try to push themselves even harder because they know that other team is going to be working just as hard."

The Hokies say they've worked particularly hard this time.

Virginia Tech led Alabama 17-16 at the end of the third quarter last season, only to come up short in the final period. The memories of that loss made them head into this offseason eager to make amends.

"Going into that Alabama game, we went in prepared," Carmichael said. "We fought. We just didn't fight hard enough. We were winning the game for a little bit and didn't finish them. This game, we want to come out strong and finish strong. That's what we're preaching now."

The Hokies realize they must be prepared. They believe Boise State offers the same kind of challenge that Alabama provided last season. Boise State has won 25 consecutive regular-season games since falling 39-27 at Hawaii on Nov. 23, 2007. And even though they don't play in one of the six major conferences, the Broncos have grown accustomed to delivering on the big stage. They won the Fiesta Bowl in two of the past four seasons and opened the 2009 season with a victory over eventual Pac-10 champion Oregon.

"Every time they've had a chance on the national level, they've answered the bell," Beamer said. "This team is for real, no question about it."

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Boise State run offense vs. Virginia Tech run defense: Boise State's potent passing attack gains the majority of the attention, but the Broncos ranked 26th in the nation in rushing and averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season. Jeremy Avery (209 carries, 1,150 yards, six TDs) and Doug Martin (129-765-15) will be running behind an experienced line. Virginia Tech's inexperience in the front seven is a major concern, particularly since LB Barquell Rivers likely will miss the game as he recovers from a ruptured quadriceps tendon. Edge: Boise State.

Boise State pass offense vs. Virginia Tech pass defense: Boise State may have the nation's best quarterback-receiver combination. Kellen Moore ranked second in the nation in passing efficiency last year and has lost one game in two seasons as a starter. He has two outstanding targets in Titus Young (79 catches, 1,041 yards and 10 TDs) and Austin Pettis (63-855-14). CB Rashad Carmichael leads a secondary that might be good enough to hold those receivers in check, but who's going to put pressure on Moore? Virginia Tech's pass rush suffered a major blow when E Jason Worilds entered the NFL draft a year early. Boise State's line allowed the fewest sacks in the nation last season. Edge: Boise State.

Virginia Tech run offense vs. Boise State run defense: This matchup explains why Virginia Tech has a chance to win. Only Alabama has a collection of running backs to rival Virginia Tech's tandem of Ryan Williams and Darren Evans. Williams rushed for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdown last year, while Evans ran for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2008 before sitting out last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. And don't forget about Tyrod Taylor, one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks. While Boise State shut down Oregon's and TCU's rushing attacks last season, the Broncos allowed Fresno State's Ryan Mathews and Nevada's Vai Taua to run wild. Edge: Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech pass offense vs. Boise State pass defense: This matchup is more even than the statistics might suggest. Virginia Tech ranked 95th in the nation in passing yards per game last season, but that's because they ran the ball so well that they didn't need to throw it that often. Taylor led the ACC in passing efficiency a year ago. Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale and Dyrell Roberts combined to catch 92 passes for 1,839 yards and 10 touchdowns. Boise State returns three starters from a secondary that helped the Broncos rank 13th in the nation in pass efficiency defense last year, but the one loss is big. CB Kyle Wilson was an AP second-team All-America selection last year before going to the New York Jets with the 29th overall pick in this year's NFL draft. Edge: Boise State.

Boise State special teams vs. Virginia Tech special teams: Kyle Brotzman heads into his fourth season as the Broncos' main kicker after going 18-of-25 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 52, last season. Brotzman also averaged 43.9 yards per punt a year ago. Virginia Tech has fifth-year seniors at kicker (Chris Hazley) and punter (Brian Saunders), but both are first-year starters. Virginia Tech's Dyrell Roberts ranked fourth in the nation in kick-return average last season. Edge: Boise State.

Boise State coaches vs. Virginia Tech coaches: It's a matchup of one of the nation's top veteran coaches (Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer) and one of game's brightest young minds (Boise State's Chris Petersen). Boise State's victory over Oregon last season suggests that Petersen's staff is adept at getting his team ready for these prestige early-season games. Virginia Tech returns arguably the nation's best defensive coordinator in Bud Foster, while Tennessee hired away Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Petersen replaced Wilcox by promoting defensive line coach Pete Kwiatkowski to coordinator. Foster's presence and Wilcox's absence could make a difference Monday. Edge: Virginia Tech.

X-factor: Most of the discussion about Virginia Tech's outstanding collection of skill-position players on offense focuses on the backfield, but the Hokies also have some exceptional receivers. Boykin, Coale and Roberts don't get nearly as many pass-catching opportunities as Boise State's Pettis and Young, but they're big targets with big-play potential. They proved as much last season against Nebraska, when Coale made an 81-yard gain to set up Roberts' 11-yard game-winning touchdown catch. They're good enough to give the Hokies a chance even if this run-oriented team gets forced into obvious passing situations.

Boise State will win if: Nobody expects the Broncos to shut down Virginia Tech's rushing attack completely, but they can't afford to give Williams as much running room as Mathews and Taua enjoyed against Boise State last season. Boise State also must protect Moore and avoid getting bothered by a partisan Virginia Tech crowd.

Virginia Tech will win if: The Hokies must run the ball effectively to control the clock and take the pressure off their defense. If this game were played later in the season, Tech's defense probably would be experienced enough to handle Boise State's offense. At this point in the season, though, Boise State's offense has a clear matchup advantage over the Hokies' young defense. The best way to neutralize it is to keep Moore and Co. on the sideline.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Virginia Tech 24, Boise State 21. Give Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster an entire offseason to prepare and I've got to believe he'll find a way to slow down any offense, even Boise's. The Broncos were able to shut down Oregon's running game last season, but stopping Ryan Williams will be more challenging.

Tom Dienhart: Virginia Tech 35, Boise State 28. The Hokies will wear down the Broncos with a physical running attack led by Ryan Williams and Darren Evans, which also will keep the ball away from Kellen Moore and Boise State's potent offense for extended stretches.

David Fox: Virginia Tech 21, Boise State 17. Boise State dominates WAC competition, but generally the Broncos play their major opponents close to home (Oregon, TCU). A road trip to Virginia Tech's backyard might be enough to give Hokies the edge over experienced Boise State.

Mike Huguenin: Boise State 24, Virginia Tech 23. I think Boise will have enough success running the ball against a rebuilt Virginia Tech front seven that it can win the game. The Broncos also have the better kicker.

Steve Megargee: Virginia Tech 24, Boise State 21. Virginia Tech's inexperienced defense could be vulnerable against Kellen Moore and that veteran Boise State offense. But the Hokies will win because their dominant rushing attack will control the clock and keep Moore and Co. on the sidelines as often as possible.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.




 

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