Many have said this is a game that will tell us a whole lot more about just where Virginia Tech is as a team this year. I’m inclined to agree, since Cincinnati looked very good in an early season win against Pittsburgh, which then hammered the Hokies.
Here’s a look at the matchups.
Feel free to offer your own thoughts on the game in the comments section below. And be sure to leave your predicted score. We’ll see who has it right after Saturday’s game.
Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati
- Where: FedEx Field, Landover, Md.
- When: Saturday, 3:32 p.m.
- TV: ESPNU
- Records: Virginia Tech 3-1, 1-0 ACC; Cincinnati 2-0, 1-0 Big East
- Series: Virginia Tech 5-4
- Last meeting: Hokies won 20-7 in 2009 Orange Bowl
- Line: Virginia Tech by 6.5
When Virginia Tech passes
The Hokies’ passing game still hasn’t been as sharp as it could be. Quarterback Logan Thomas was just 11-for-26 against Bowling Green, although he had several throwaways and a lacerated thumbnail on his throwing hand, so that could have affected him (he says it’s fine this week). Tech will need wide receiver Marcus Davis to be a consistent threat. He’s capable (witness his 129-yard, 1 TD day at Pitt), but he doesn’t always play up to his potential. Against Bowling Green last week, he had two drops on screens that were well set up. Dyrell Roberts has had catches of longer than 40 yards in each of the last two games. The key will be pass protection. The Hokies have allowed eight sacks through four games. No wonder Thomas doesn’t feel totally comfortable in the pocket.
That’s important because Cincinnati likes to bring the pressure. The Bearcats are tied for fifth nationally, averaging four sacks a game. Defensive end Walter Stewart is a big reason for that, with a pair of sacks through two games to go with 3.5 tackles for a loss. Nose tackle John Williams, who transferred from Central Michigan after graduating, had 1.5 sacks and two tackles for a loss against Pitt. It’s in Cincy’s nature. The Bearcats ranked first nationally in tackles for a loss last year and were second in sacks (although it lost DL Derek Wolfe, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, and LB J.K. Schaffer). The secondary is a question, though. Although the Panthers didn’t score many points, they threw for 278 yards in the opener. The Cincy secondary is experienced (three seniors, one junior), but this is a group that ranked 99th nationally against the pass last year. If the Hokies can protect Thomas — a big if — they might be able to have success here.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
When Virginia Tech runs
The Hokies got their running game going for really the first time this year last week. Of course, Tony Gregory, who led the charge at tailback with 68 yards, will not travel this week after having soreness and stiffness in his surgically repaired left knee. That will put the onus on Michael Holmes, J.C. Coleman and Martin Scales to move the ball. Holmes will start but the other two should have roles. Thomas might be big here. He ran with an aggression last week that fans hadn’t seen much of this year, lowering his shoulder a few times to dole out some punishment on defenders. If he becomes a threat in the ground game again, it diversifies Virginia Tech’s attack. The o-line, again, will have to prove that it is physical enough to match up with Cincinnati up front.
That’s a big question. The Bearcats are a veteran group there, with six seniors in their front seven. Linebacker Greg Blair, the younger brother of NBA player DeJuan and a Lackawanna Junior College transfer, leads the team with 17 tackles. Fellow linebacker Maalik Bomar has made 27 consecutive starts and is UC’s active leading tackler with 151 stops. This defense had 10 tackles for a loss against Pittsburgh and ranks 39th nationally giving up 123.5 rushing yards per game. Pitt ran for 137 yards against this defense but took 42 carries to do so, a 3.2-yard average, so moving the ball against Cincinnati on the ground will be a tall task.
When Cincinnati passes
This hasn’t necessarily been the strong point of the offense. Quarterback Munchie Legaux has been efficient this year, going 34-for-55 (61.8 percent) for 413 yards and four touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions against FCS Delaware State. The jury is still out on his effectiveness as a passer, though. He completely only 47 percent of his passes in five games last year, with five touchdowns to four interceptions. Speedster Ralph David Abernathy IV, a running back, is the leading receiver this year, with seven catches for 94 yards, but receivers Anthony McClung (6 catches, 74 yards, TD) and Kenbrell Thompkins (5 catches, 70 yards) are threats as well. Alex Chisum sat out against Delaware State but is expected to play this week, although Damon Julian, who had four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown last week, might challenge him for the spot.
The Pittsburgh game notwithstanding, Virginia Tech has been solid against the pass (granted, that’s against an option team, an FCS team and a MAC team). The Hokies rank ninth nationally in passing yards allowed (143.5 ypg) and had a bounceback performance last week, particularly cornerback Antone Exum, who had an interception. Having Kyle Fuller back at cornerback after a shoulder injury at Pitt was a huge boost. Except a fair amount of nickel this week too, with Detrick Bonner moving to nickelback and Michael Cole coming in at safety. The Hokies only have six sacks through four games, a surprising total given the depth of the line. Ends James Gayle and Tyrel Wilson have four of them. Cincinnati has allowed only three sacks in two games, but only two of its linemen have started more than 10 career games. This could be a group the Hokies can take advantage of, if they get stronger play out of their defensive tackles.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
When Cincinnati runs
This is where the Bearcats are tough. Legaux (142 yards) is a threat to keep the ball. Running back George Winn (242 yards, 2 TD) is more of a between-the-tackles guy. And Abernathy (72 yards) is a speedster who can get to the edge. It’s an offense that stresses the entire defense, forcing it to cover all of the field. The Bearcats are averaging 6.5 yards per carry and gashed Pittsburgh for 259 yards on the ground in the opener. Legaux had 117 yards on only six carries in that game. Cincinnati will spread things out and force opponents to make tackles on its athletes in space, trying to take advantage of its athletes.
That’ll be the challenge for the Hokies, who shored up their tackling a bit against Bowling Green but still weren’t perfect. Linebacker Jack Tyler (42 tackles) and Bruce Taylor (23 tackles) will need to be sharp, as will support from the safety spot. Kyshoen Jarrett (26 tackles, 2.5 TFLs) is the leader there. Tech shook up the linebackers some, moving redshirt freshman Ronny Vandyke to the top at whip linebacker. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he’s an athletic specimen and brings more physicality to the position. The tradeoff is his inexperience. Still, Tech might employ the nickel quite a bit today, especially if Cincinnati lines up with three or more wide receivers. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster said the Hokies have to match athletes with athletes.
Tech’s special teams continue to be solid. The Hokies are fifth nationally in punt returns thanks to Jarrett’s exploits (his 35.4-yard average is tops nationally) and are in the top 23 nationally in both kick and punt coverage. A.J. Hughes (39.8 avg.) has quietly given Virginia Tech what it needed at punter — someone who is capable of getting the ball downfield, even if it’s not a booming punt. And Cody Journell is 4-for-5 on field goals. The only unit still lagging is the kick return team, which is averaging 19.75 yards per return and has yet to provide a big highlight.
The Bearcats have threats in the return game. Abernathy has a 31.3-yard kick return average, with a long of 47. McClung is averaging 16.4 yards on punt returns, 17th nationally. Kicker Tony Miliano (3-3 FG) has been perfect. While punter Pat O’Donnell (41.7 avg.) has been good, his coverage has not. Cincinnati has given up 11 yards per punt return, although that’s a small sample (three returns).
Frank Beamer generally gets his team going after an early season loss, and last week’s lopsided shutout at least showed that the Hokies weren’t going to sulk from their loss at Pittsburgh. Generally, Beamer’s career accolades are enough to give Virginia Tech the edge in this category, but Butch Jones is no pushover. He led Central Michigan to two MAC championships and, after a 4-8 mark his first year at Cincinnati, guided the team to a 10-3 record and share of the Big East championship last year. He’s an upwardly mobile coach and, if the trend holds at Cincinnati, won’t be there for long before a bigger program snatches him up.
This is a tough game to pick. Yes, Cincinnati hammered Pittsburgh, which hammered Virginia Tech, but the transitive property in football rarely holds. My thought is that Pittsburgh ran into a buzzsaw at Cincinnati in that opener. The Panthers had a short week after a demoralizing loss (Saturday to Thursday after a Youngstown State defeat) and Cincinnati was playing its first game at home on a Thursday night. It’s very possible everything was just lined up in the Bearcats’ favor that night. Or it’s possible Cincy is that good. It’s tough to get a sense after only two games, particularly when one was against Delaware State (a game in which the Bearcats committed six turnovers, by the way). You can get a better handle on Virginia Tech, a flawed team that still has a chance to be pretty good. The defense seems like it’s back on track after the Pitt debacle, although Cincinnati and its running game will be a tough test. The offense still hasn’t gotten any consistency, but Thomas broke out a little on the ground last week and, given the Bearcats’ secondary, might have a chance to do the same in the air this week. This was the time last year when he started to put things together. If he does so again, I’ll take the Hokies in a close one.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 20, Cincinnati 17.