Peach Bowl Game Preview
Welcome back, Vols, to the bowl game scene.
A one-year layoff seems like a decade. That sentiment seems like it was motivation for Vol defensive tackle Wes Brown and company. “It’s all been about hard work and pulling together under coach Kiffin and really believing in each other,” Brown said upon arriving in Atlanta on Christmas. “We had a year last year where we were sitting at home for Christmas, and it was terrible to be honest with you. None of us wanted that again. We all went to work and made a promise to each other that wasn’t going to happen again. We were going to go somewhere, we’re going to end up somewhere and have a good time in January or December.”
Indeed it is good to be back playing in December/January. Considering our season’s performance, I think the opponent, the venue, and the date (a New Year’s Eve night) is a great way to end our season. We are fortunate to be where we are right now, and I’m looking forward to the challenge that the Hokies will give us. The matchup is terrific in many aspects. Here are my views on what should be a very entertaining game.
Junior QB Tyrod Taylor has developed over this season into a better than just a utilitarian helmsman. Now isn’t that an interesting parallel with Jonathan Crompton. And he’s the type of QB that tends to give the Vols fits: mobile, can run for serious yardage (101 rushes/344 net yards/4 TDs), and can surprise you with the long ball (the bomb in the last two minutes against Nebraska was a season-saver). He is now brimming with confidence which is a complete turnaround from 2008. Another likeness with our man Crompton.
Taylor is the highest rated passer in the ACC. He is also the third-rated QB in the nation in yards per attempt (9.3). He doesn’t pass for that many yards per game (only 68th in the nation in total passing yards this season). He doesn’t throw enough for that (averages only 19 attempts per game). The Hokies are basically a ground-attack team. But Tyrod can kill you with sudden stokes of air-lightening. Taylor is a dangerous playmaker who can win a game all by himself.
In short, the Hokies’ QB doesn’t impress with gaudy numbers off the page. He’s way short of Crompton’s stats.
- Tyrod Taylor (12 games): 126/226 13TDs 4 INTs
- Jonathan Crompton (12 games): 209/358 26 TDs 12 INTs
Instead, he impresses you with his efficiency (13 TD passes, only 4 INTs, and an average of 17 yds per completion)—Tyrod ranks 14th nationally in Passing Efficiency (Crompton is 41st).
But let’s not get carried away with the efficiency thing if we are going to compare Taylor with Crompton. The way to judge Crompton in this regard is to look at his performance beginning with the Georgia game. The other Jonathan Crompton apparently died sometime before that wonderful October day on Shields-Watkins Field when the Vols turned the Bulldogs into little puppies, and the former incarnation of Jonathan hasn’t been seen since. Here’s Crompton’s passing stats beginning with the Georgia game (7 games total) juxtaposed with Taylor’s passing stats for his entire season.
- Tyrod Taylor (12 games): 126/226 2102 yds 13 TDs 4 INTs
- Jonathan Crompton (7 games, Georgia and afterwards): 127/208 1665 yds 17 TDs 4 INTs
Crompton’s efficiency in his last 7 games matches Taylor’s. What Taylor provides is more yards per completion. And what Taylor gives you that Crompton will not is a running game: 344 net yards rushing to Crompton’s 3. What the Vols can out-do the Hokies through the air with Crompton and Co., the Hokies compensate with their RBs plus a QB that can also run. Tennessee has a pro-style QB. The Hokies have a college-style QB. Take your pick.
Achilles, He’s in the Trenches
QBs need a good OL. Basically, Tech’s pass-blocking is awful. They are tied for 91st in Sacks Allowed (30 in 12 games for 174 yards lost). An interesting note is that you don’t see their TE catching many passes. That’s because they use that position to shore up their woeful pass-blocking. Compare that with the Vol’s wonderful senior TE Jeff Cottam who has become one of the best tight ends the SEC has seen in a while. Wouldn’t it be an interesting move for the Hokies to pop a couple of well-timed TE screens?
So, this is going to be an interesting matchup for Monte Kiffin’s defense. To blitz or not to blitz? That is the question. Maybe they won’t need to. Perhaps they can sit in their containment coverage and let the DL try to put sufficient pressure on Taylor. Eric Berry can just roam and be a spy, and the 8 yards he needs to break the all-time NCAA INT return yardage record (more on that later) might just evaporate into long, happy returns and we can all party on New Years’ Eve and pretend for an evening like its 1998.
A Tale of Two Rushers
The big headline-grabbers for this game are most certainly Ryan Williams and Montario Hardesty. Two of the most exciting runners in college football. Sure you have Ingram and Gerhart – those types of runners who rack up truckloads of yards. But for my money, I’d rather watch ball-carriers like Williams and Hardesty (no I’m not forgetting McCluster) for their style and the sheer excitement that they generate when they break through the line.
Ryan Williams and Montario Hardesty are, for lack of a better word, spectacular. Last season, Darren Evans was the man for the Hokies, rushing for 1265 yards and 11 TDs. So, when Evans tore his ACL in preseason practice, redshirt freshman Ryan Williams had to step in. Williams played the role that perhaps Bryce Brown would have if the prognostications for Montario Hardesty and injuries would have come true. But, Hardesty, perhaps feeling the pressure from hearing the talk about the next great Vol RB waiting in the wings, sucked it up and worked hard. The results are in the numbers, and they also may be in the record book after Thursday’s game (see below).
Ryan Williams as a red-shirt freshman has gained 1,538 net yards on 268 carries in 12 games so far in 2009, 9 games over 100 yards, and he has scored 19 TDs. He needs 109 net yards to break the all-time Virginia Tech single-season rushing record (1647 net) set by Kevin Jones in 2003. It will be interesting to see what the Hokie backfield looks like when both Williams and Evans are healthy in 2010.
And then there is our favorite son, senior Montario Hardesty who this season has gained 1306 net yards (5th on the all-time Vol single-season list) on 264 carries in 12 games, 5 games over 100 yards, and he has scored 12 TDs. He needs 158 yards to break the all-time Tennessee single-season rushing record set by Travis Stephens in 2001, when he rushed for 1464 yards in 13 games (11 regular season games, the SEC championship, and a bowl game).
Thursday night is one of those mouth-watering opportunities to see two first-class college running backs getting a chance to show their wares to a national audience that will be in a party mood.
Bud Foster and his Defense
Pretty much every season, Bud Foster sports a quality defensive unit. 2009 has been more of the same. Pass Efficiency Defense is ranked 6th nationally. Pass Defense is 6th. Total Defense 14th. Scoring Defense 11th. Virginia Tech AD Weaver and Foster struck a deal that will likely keep Foster on board for the next five years. Heading into this season, Virginia Tech had finished among the top seven nationally in total defense for five straight years. Heather Dinich of ESPN reported that some Tech fans considered this year to be a “dropoff,” despite being ranked No. 11 in the country in scoring defense and holding opponents to just 15.75 points per game. Foster will have to maintain similar success despite losing eight seniors from this year’s two-deep depth chart.
Watch DE Jason Worilds, a junior who just might opt for the NFL draft, and Nekos Brown, the other DE. Seven sacks combined. They are tremendous pass-rushers who epitomize the basic emphasis of Foster’s defensive plan: get pressure on the opposing QB.
This defense is every bit as good as the Vols’ pride and joy that is Monte’s boys. They don’t have the single-calibre bullet of an Eric Berry, but as a unit, they are solid. And they have more than enough to contain Tennessee’s passing game, which will likely be used primarily as an overture for the ground attack.
Some Special and Not-So-Special Special Teams
Virginia Tech is known for its special teams. They seem to be especially famous for blocking punts, although that was not a signature this season as in past years. This season, the Hokies led the ACC in KO returns with more than 24 yards per return. Dyrell Roberts returned one against Alabama in the season opener for a TD. Matt Waldron is a solid place-kicker, making 17 of his 20 FG attempts. And, Brent Bowden is one of the better punters in the nation, ranked 13th in the nation with a 43.9 yard-per-kick average. Punt coverage is also solid.
Tennessee, for what seemed to be as many years as the age of Mt. Le Conte, used to be famous for its special teams. Now, we’re saddled with ineffective/dangerously bad KO- and punt-coverage, terrible/game-losing placekicking (Alabama…), and kickoffs that have given the opposition a courtesy first-and-ten at the 40. George Cafego and Robert Neyland are surely rolling around underground.
What to Watch
If Tech’s defensive line is able to get pressure on Jonathan Crompton, then they will not have to gamble with any blitzing schemes. Thus, keep your eyes on UT’s fine offensive line and it’s ability to keep a sound pocket around Crompton. This will be important early, especially if Lane Kiffin does what he has most of the season – pass early to establish a Hardesty and Co. ground game.
Tennessee gave up the fewest sacks in SEC games this season (6) and ranks 12th nationally in Sacks Allowed (only 12 in 12 games for only 87 lost yards). So, if the norm stays normal, the Hokies DL won’t be getting what they’re accustomed to.
And, of course, an added benefit to a quality Vol OL performance will be a quantity swan song for Mr. Hardesty. Tech has struggled against squads with decent RBs this season. We have one. Wouldn’t that be grand if the trend were to continue?
Tennessee can win this game and let Ryan Williams get his yards, too. From a traditional offensive set that is. Watch the corners early – see if the Vols’ defensive speed at the corner can contain Williams.
What worries me is the Wild Turkey formation that Virginia Tech can run – it’s their version of the Wildcat offense. The Vols have had trouble stopping any offense resembling a direct-snap offensive set. If Alabama had run it more, we wouldn’t have been talking about what if the two field goal attempts had not been blocked. Will Tech run that offense? If so, how much?
Watch for the Vols going for it on 4th downs. Remember – we are short on field goal kickers, and we have three on the roster. Reports from practices in Atlanta are not pretty.
Eric Berry came into the 2009 season with 487 interception return yards and needed only 15 yards to break the all-time NCAA record (501 yards) set by Florida State’s Terrell Buckley. This season, Eric has only been able to compile 7 return yards on 2 INTs, so he needs 8 yards Thursday night against Virginia Tech for the NCAA record.
Originally scheduled to participate during a pre-bowl media event for the Vols on Friday December 18, Berry was a no-show instead. And considering that followed a chat with head coach Kiffin earlier in the day, all signs point to the Peach Bowl game being Eric Berry’s last. Kiffin announced to the press, “He wants to focus on winning this game and playing extremely well, especially because it’s in Atlanta (Berry is a Georgia native), and then he’ll have an announcement for you guys right after that.”
Stephan Virgil, senior cornerback for the Hokies, was ruled academically ineligible and will not play.
Thursday’s game will not be the last for Vol seniors Montario Hardesty and Dan Williams. They have been selected to play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, January 30.
Vol DB Brent Vinson was kicked off the squad on December 17 for undisclosed reasons. He started in only one game (Ohio) this season.
Crompton banged up his throwing hand a bit in practice a couple of weeks ago when he hit it on a teammate’s helmet. Nick Stephens got in a few extra snaps.
Multiple reports indicated that RB Bryce Brown was limited in practice due to concussion issues, but has received medical clearance to play Thursday. DT Wes Brown has also been practice limited due to leg issues but is expected to be available. Dan Williams reportedly was limited in practice a while back due to concussion issues as well, but I have not heard any recent reports on his status.
So, Who’s Gonna Win?
Even though it looks like on paper we finished the season strong, we didn’t. We survived November. The Ole Miss game, coming on the heels of the Cheeseburger Robbery, was a blindside 2-by-4 up side the head. The Vandy and Kentucky games were tough contests won by a team hurting in more ways than just injuries. We are fortunate to be 7-5 and in Atlanta. But we did it because this team didn’t quit on the coaches and didn’t quit on themselves.
On the other side of the ball, Virginia Tech has to be still a bit numb from the losses against Georgia Tech and North Carolina. They beat up some pretty weak opposition down the stretch, but finished much stronger than we did.
Everything points to a close game: the matchups, the point spread… I’m going along with that.
My analytical brain says Virginia Tech. But this Vol team is full of seniors in crucial positions: quarterback, running back, and lineman. That, in combination with this being the great Eric Berry’s swan song… there is just no way on God’s Green Artificial Turf that Tennessee will lose on the last day of 2009.
I’m also going to buck the trend of prognostications that call for a relatively low scoring game. Turkey squat!
Third time in Atlanta for the Hokies this season is not a charm, making it a Top-25 year for the Big Orange.