Virginia Tech enters bowl season in the unusual position of being 6 and 6 and playing former Big East whipping boy Rutgers. As I said before the Sugar Bowl last year, besides national perception, any bowl game besides the BCS National Championship has been rendered rather meaningless. The benefit comes from the extra practice sessions for Frank Beamer's squad, which (according to Andy Bitter) he has correctly utilized to get meaningful work for young players that will need to produce next season. When Alabama rolls into the Georgia Dome, the Hokies chances of victory will depend heavily on contributions from players like Trey Edmunds (who has wowed the coaches in bowl prep practices based on Beamer's comments), Demetri Knowles, Laurence Gibson, Mark Shuman, Ronny Van Dyke, and the young defensive backs. Hopefully, the rotation for the bowl game makes sure that the non-redshirts get meaningful snaps to prepare for a big 2013.
At the same time, the game presents opportunities which make winning important. Most significantly, it gives Virginia Tech to end the year on a positive note at the same time when Mike London's Wahoos are mired in a recruiting malaise on the eve of the largest recruiting haul in Virginia high school history. A win, in a nationally televised game, against a team from a state where Virginia Tech has made some recruiting inroads, not only kicks off a successful recruiting cycle, but also kicks more dirt on their in-state pseudo-rivals. Mike London's tears are a beautiful thing.
Rutgers had a terrific season, but their offense is not particularly exciting or dangerous. They averaged only 22.4 points per game against a relatively weak schedule. Rutgers quarterback (Gary Nova) has a very similar skill set to former QB Michael Rocco. Rutgers basically uses their wide receivers to run go routes, and Nova throws the ball up when they are single covered.
Both receivers are huge (6'5"-6'6"), especially #17 Brandon Colemon (39 receptions 663 yards 10 touchdowns) and play the ball at the highest point. They are not good route runners. It will be a tough matchup if the Hokies play man and don't have safety help over the top if Nova is accurate with his delivery.
Underneath, Nova likes to quickly move to the check down if his primary read is not covered man to man. Expect a ton of throws to backs and tight ends. Nova does not have a strong arm, and if the Hokies can render those big receivers ineffective by getting pressure to force inaccurate throws, Nova will have trouble. We have seen that gameplan work against UVA, but Pitt's big receivers gave the Hokies fits. Also, like Rocco, Nova has a tendency to panic and try to throw the ball away in play when pressured. He threw several interceptions where he didn't have a receiver in the area.
The key to the game will be the Hokies ability to stop the run. Rutgers uses a one back set, and almost exclusively uses a zone blocking scheme. The Knights depend on the running game to setup positive down and distance situation, as the passing game is not designed to be particularly effective in 3rd-and-long. In the past, Bud Foster's scheme was most effective against zone blocking, but Boston College and Pitt both ran the ball effectively by using zone design, but sealing off the backside end and backer and the back using a designed cutback. Tailback Jawan Jamison rushed for over a thousand yards this season, but he looked fairly average on film. An ankle injury hobbled him down the stretch.
To that point, the Scarlet Knights were 8-1 and Jamison was averaging 105.7 rushing yards per game and 23.8 carries per game. Following the injury -- with Rutgers going 1-2 -- he averaged 34.3 yards and 9.3 carries, managing a combined 103 yards over the final three games.
Two backup running backs got most of the snaps against Cincinnati, and they were largely ineffective. However, Jamison claims he is healthy.
"I feel like I'm back right now," he said. "I feel like I'm running well, I'm moving well, I've got my moves back. I can cut, plant and burst out, so I feel like this is definitely a redemption game for me."
I anticipate that the running game will be the deciding factor in the football game. If Rutgers can run the football effectively, it will allow Nova to use his backs and tight ends to move the sticks on 3rd and short yardage. If the Hokies can hold Rutgers running game in check, I do not think that Nova can stand back in the pocket in the face of Bud Foster's designer blitzes and avoid making critical mistakes. In those situations, Nova will either throw underneath coverage and accept punting as a less risky strategy, or Nova will look to have one read, identify single coverage, and try to throw jump balls the Rutgers massive wide receivers.
Rutgers' strength is their defensive front seven. They play a defensive system up-front similar to Virginia Tech, in that each player has an individual gap responsibility. On film, most of their defenses look like a traditional 4-3, but unlike a traditional 4-3, Rutgers uses two middle linebackers who have interior gap responsibility before scraping to the football. Their best defensive player is middle linebacker, number 20, Khaseem Greene. He is a real heavy hitter on the interior, and excels in handling the guard-center gap, beating the block of the interior lineman, and making the tackle for minimal game. He is not particularly quick going sideline to sideline and is much stronger moving straight ahead. He is a very similar player to Jack Tyler.
While Rutgers schemes similar gap responsibilities with the d-line and linebackers as Bud Foster's defense, they use very different methods to accomplish gap integrity. Rutgers very rarely stunts, however they use a wide variety of defensive looks, and then at the first sound, they change to a different front in an effort to confuse the defense. Often, this gives Green or one of the defensive tackles an unblocked route to the running back. In the Cincinnati film, I identified 7-8 different defensive fronts used against the spread.
Often, they line up in a 4-3, but the strong-side outside linebacker plays over the tight end on the line of scrimmage, while one defensive tackle "eagles" (plays inside eye of the center) as a true nose, with the other linemen in an alignment that looks similar to a 3-4. On other plays, Rutgers will remove a defensive lineman and play four linebackers, with one lined up as an "elephant man" (a stand-up defensive end similar to Charles Haley and Rickey Jackson of NFL lore.) They also use a base four man front, but both the mike and willy backer both maintain interior gap responsibilities. This makes Rutgers very sound against the run, but they have difficulty generating pass rush from a base four man front.
Against the pass, Rutgers front seven uses variable looks and stunts to get pressure.
Here is an example. Cincinnati faces a 3rd and 8 early in the game. Rutgers uses one free safety, and presses three defensive backs to the field side. The boundary corner plays off 7 yards, angled in looking at the QB to attempt to bait him into throwing a slant route that he can jump. Rutgers shows blitz with both backers, but drops one into coverage while the other runs a dog blitz through the zero gap while the strong side defensive tackle loops behind him. Under pressure, the inexperience QB throws a quick read, but both slot receivers were pushed off their routes by effective press techniques. The QB fails to see the linebacker (Ward) who drops from his blitzing position and steps right in front of the throw.
Defensive tackle/nose Scott Vallone #94 gets penetration and can make plays, but they are in essence a mediocre ACC group. Linebackers run to the football. Middle linebacker Khaseme Green is a stud. The one-gap scheme requires Green to fill gaps, shed a blocker, and make tackles, and on almost every play he wins his one on one matchup with centers and guards. He is the best linebacker the Hokies have played since Kevin Reddick (and that didn't end well for Virginia Tech.) He presents a huge challenge for the interior of the offensive line, and the Hokies must establish the tailback/slot back on the read option in order to get him out of the middle, creating space for Logan Thomas.
While Rutgers front uses multiple looks, the secondary played almost the same defense throughout against the Bearcats. The Scarlet Knights lined up in press coverage, with the strong safety on the slot and the free safety playing 15 yards deep. Rutgers seems to use a boundary corner concept, so the corners switch sides with one always playing the boundary. Against Cincinnati, Rutgers played a press coverage look throughout the game, but there are not really lockdown guys. Their goal is to mess up the timing of the route and then prevent the big play, and hope the front can generate a poor throw. Pitt had success with play-action and moving the pocket, and hitting 7-10 yard passes underneath deep man coverage. When Rutgers went zone, Pitt's big receivers got "lost" between the safety and corner for big plays. (See Hokies using waggle and throw-back.) Against Cincinnati's spread offense, Rutgers used press coverage and dared the Bearcats' QB to beat them over the top. Instead, the Bearcats threw underneath routes, and had success hitting slot guys and running backs in man against the Rutgers middle linebackers. Neither linebacker is particularly good at man coverage, although you don't want to lead a receiver into their area when they are in zone.
This is a tricky game to predict. Based on the film I have watched, Rutgers looks to be an ideal matchup for Virginia Tech's defense. A shaky QB, so-so offensive line, and the zone scheme made me think of Michael Rocco in panic mode. The big wide receivers present a problem, but Nova's inaccuracy under pressure can mitigate those concerns. On offense, Virginia Tech will need a big day passing the football, and I envision them attacking Rutgers in the middle of the field. I anticipate a big day from Corey Fuller and J.C. Coleman if Logan Thomas can be accurate with the football. I don't like the Hokie offense running the football in this matchup, but if they are successful, it will be because they establish the edge and wear out Green moving laterally in order to open up the middle.
For you Vegas-types, I think the safest bet will be the under. I would be stunned if either team scores over 25 points. I think Virginia Tech has more game-breaking talent, and one play will likely make the difference, and Rutgers was not able to make a big play against Pitt or Cincinnati. Expect a Virginia Tech victory.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 17 Rutgers 13