Back in early June, Pierson Booher from The Key Play — a most excellent blog about the Virginia Tech Hokies — stopped by for a little info exchange and gave us some great insight about his team. That was a long time ago in the grand scheme of college football.
Now that the 2015 season opener is imminent, it seemed like a good time to cross paths again for a little cross-blog discussion on Monday night's game. Pierson was kind enough to answer my questions about his team and how they might approach the big match-up in Blacksburg. I also answered his questions, which you can find here.
Michael Brewer really hurt the Buckeyes last season, particularly on third down. Yet he sometimes struggled the rest of the season and looked fairly mediocre at times. What do you expect from the redshirt senior quarterback in 2015? Do you think he'll be able to pick apart the Ohio State secondary again or do you expect more of a battle in the passing game?
The Key Play: Saying that he "sometimes struggled" is a bit of an understatement. To be fair, in addition to the vast inexperience surrounding him, he was incredibly beat up by the Ohio State defense and seemed to be fighting through nagging injuries for the remainder of the year. We never really saw that same guy under center until (maybe) the bowl game against Cincinnati.
This off-season has reportedly been an entirely different story. Having benefitted from an entire offseason with the playbook, the staff and his teammates, Brewer has illustrated both a firm grasp on Scot Loeffler's offense and a strong rapport with his receivers. This additional experience, paired with a supporting cast that now has a full season of major college football under their belt, leads me to feel confident that Brewer is poised for a strong season. Do I think he will set the world on fire? No, not at all. But to be fair, I don't really think that's his game.
When these two teams met a year ago, the offensive skill position players were largely a giant question mark. Running back was unsettled and included two true freshmen; the wide receivers were inexperienced and led by two true freshmen; and although Bucky Hodges had a great game in Columbus, he was only playing in his third game ever at tight end. One year later, all of these positions are more experienced, stronger, confident, and (by-and-large) deeper. I think Brewer benefits most from this, as he can trust that those players will be where they're supposed to and can make things happen once the ball is in their hands.
Last year, Virginia Tech was able to thwart an offensive line that had not yet learned how to play together and a redshirt freshman quarterback in only his second career start, using a bear front. The Buckeyes used that game tape to figure out how to deal with that look and used it as a springboard for the rest of the season. How much do you expect Bud Foster to try that look Monday night and what other wrinkles might he use to try to disrupt the OSU offense?
TKP: Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat: I think discussion surrounding Bud Foster's bear front has reached critical mass. First off, every team that OSU faced post-VT that tried to emulate Tech's approach employed a watered down version that loved the theory but failed to properly utilize personnel to combine solid coverage with solid backfield pressure. Second, I completely agree with you that last year's OSU offensive line was still trying to get their bearings as a collective. Third, I think Bud Foster and the Virginia Tech defense are just a good match-up for the Ohio State offense.
I mentioned this during our summer exchange: If there's one thing we've learned from annual battles with Georgia Tech and their obnoxious option-based attack, it's that Bud Foster lives for the chess match. I imagine he spent a good portion of the off-season locked in his office watching game tape of the Buckeyes and manically scribbling defensive theory on a chalkboard like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.
So will we see some bear front from the Hokie defense? I'm sure we will; some looks will be similar to last September, while others will illustrate an evolution from a year ago. I still think you will see a lot of one-on-one match-ups in the secondary. I think the injuries to the Buckeye receivers and the danger posed by Ezekiel Elliott and the OSU quarterbacks will necessitate a focus on stopping the run. I wouldn't be surprised if there is an effort to disguise looks and bring corners and safeties off the edge to take away the sweep, while the Mike linebacker (Andrew Motuapuaka) looks to clog the middle.
Clearly Ezekiel Elliott and the offensive line evolved over the course of the season in 2014. How will Virginia Tech try to succeed where teams like Alabama failed in stopping the power running game?
TKP: Elliott terrifies me. He is so dynamic out of the backfield, and the Hokies have really struggled against that type of back in the past. This year's Hokie defense is largely the same unit that contained the Buckeyes last year. The front four has the potential to be arguably the best unit ever to play together in Blacksburg and the talent to both disrupt the passer and clog rushing lanes. I feel good about their chances against the OSU offensive line.
I have two chief concerns:
1. How well will aforementioned Mike linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka diagnose the play and fill the proper gap(s). My colleague French wrote a great piece during the off-season highlighting his hesitancy hitting the hole on inside runs, turning one-yard losses into six-yard gains. Historically, the Hokie defense has excelled against good rushing teams when the Mikes consistently (and almost innately) execute their roles and play downhill.
2. How effective will the Hokie secondary be making tackles in space? Corner Kendall Fuller and safety Chuck Clark are both solid open field tacklers, but corner Brandon Facyson and rover Desmond Frye are inconsistent. In an effort to limit big plays, we might see Foster sub out a guy like Frye in favor of a Whip linebacker (e.g. Ronny Van Dyke) that can drop back in coverage, if necessary. Elliott has the ability to make the opposition pay, putting an enormous spotlight on the Hokie secondary to play disciplined, hard-nosed football from start to finish.
Have the Hokies lost any presumed starters to injury in this preseason camp? Are any position battles still up for grabs?
TKP: The biggest loss was at safety, where presumed starter C.J. Reavis was dismissed from the university for an unknown student conduct violation. His loss is huge, as he was widely viewed as one of the most talented safety prospects to recently come through Blacksburg. As a result, DB coach Torrian Gray and DC Bud Foster have spent most of the summer searching for the best way(s) to replace Reavis.
Heading into the opener, it looks as though former nickelback Chuck Clark will move to free safety and Frye will slide into the rover spot. Neither has the playmaking ability of Reavis, but Clark is solid in coverage and strong in run support and Frye is a talented guy that has been in the system for some time. The trickledown effect forces Clark out of the nickel spot, which weakens the secondary a little in coverage. The guys expected to slide into the nickel spot, Donovan Riley (whose pick-six effectively sealed last year’s game) and Greg Stroman, are talented and athletic guys but nowhere near as well-rounded as Clark.
What do you see as this Virginia Tech team's weaknesses on offense and defense? What should the Buckeyes exploit?
TKP: Defensively, the biggest weaknesses are the above-mentioned turnover at safety and the downhill play of Mike linebacker Motuapuaka. Offensively, depth at wide receiver is a major concern for me. Starters Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips are extremely talented pass catchers, but no one has really stepped up behind them to seize playing time. If one of those two goes down for even a brief period of time, the entire flow of the offense could be thrown off.
Crystal ball time: who wins this game, by how much, and how do they get it done?
TKP: Ugh, I figured this was coming. Call me a homer, but I honestly believe that the Hokies match up extremely well with the Buckeyes. While the narrative in Columbus has focused on revenge, the Hokies are looking to prove last year’s win wasn’t a fluke. A highly anticipated night game in Lane is one of the most electric atmospheres in college football, and I am expecting the on-field play to mirror that. I think we will see two teams beating each other up for four quarters, with the Hokies eking out a victory at home.
Thanks to Pierson for giving us the skinny on the Hokies. Is he just being delusional about his prediction or is he right? Will we get our revenge and see his Hokies get dumped or will we have another springboard game to a national championship? I mean, the Buckeyes suspended four key players to make sure it's a fair fight, but what's your prediction for Monday night? Whoever has the closest prediction will receive their choice of D.J.'s cats.*