VT Football '04: USC Preview

The time is finally upon us. This is what the entire Hokie Nation has been waiting for ever since the final seconds ticked off and Hokie fans painfully watched a Tyler Fredrickson field goal seal the demise of another end to a season, and we all left saying "maybe next year."


Virginia Tech
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2004 Schedule
Southern Cal
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2004 Schedule

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Game Info
VT 0-0, 0-0
USC 0-0, 0-0
Saturday 8/28 7:45 pm
FedEx Field (Washington, D.C.)
TV: ESPN
Stats & Trends

Welcome to next year, with no better way (or tougher way for that matter) to start then by facing the co-defending national champions and pre-season #1 Southern California Trojans. As the team closes in on its final days of preparations for the Trojans, we take a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of both teams on each side of the ball.

The Quarterbacks
Matt Leinart not only comes into this year looking to repeat his sophomore surge of leading his team to a national title victory, but also looking to take home the Heisman Trophy, which he is an early favorite for. After graduating another Heisman winner in Carson Palmer, the Trojans were all but looking for a role player to step up and attempt to fill the huge shoes left by the current Bengal. They got what they wanted and then some. Leinart could end up being even better than Palmer, after an incredible sophomore year in which he passed for 3,556 yards and 38 scores. Some argue that big numbers like that come often on the west coast, but the 6'4 Leinart is as good in the accuracy department as he is in the big play department, as he completed 63% of his passes and only turned over nine interceptions. There is a way to stop him, and that would be by putting pressure on him early and often. Outside the pocket he isn't nearly as effective, and this is where Bryan Randall's big advantage comes in.

Count on Randall to make plays with his feet this game, as USC's defense should blitz their fair share as well. The experience of USC in playing against a mobile quarterback is seriously limited, as Pac-10 signal callers are mainstays in the pocket. Look for Randall to have a good opening to his senior campaign as he attempts to take over as Tech's career passing leader and career leader in total offense. One thing that hurts Randall is the pressure to stay healthy this game and try to avoid as many hits running as possible. Remember, after #3, Tech doesn't have a single QB who has played in a game before.

There is no denying the skill of both, but Leinart is one of the better passers in the nation, and despite the loss of Mike Williams, an extremely athletic and talented pool of receivers give him the nod in this category.

Edge: USC

The Receivers
Despite not having what would be the best returning receiver and possibly the best playmaker in the nation in Mike Williams, USC's receiving core is also loaded with blue chippers and soon to be superstars. Stepping up to fill the gaps should be an extremely talented pair of sophomores in 6'1 191 Steve Smith and the rock solid 6'1 225 Whitney Lewis. Both are capable of making big plays deep with their speed and ability to win balls in the air. Last season, Smith showed flashes of the deep threat he poses when he hauled in 17 receptions for 319 yards and 2 TDs behind Mike Williams and graduate Keary Colbert.

Also vying for playing time out wide will be another sophomore in 6'1 190 Chris McFoy, 6'3 180 junior William Buchanon, and freshman blue chipper Dwayne Jarrett. What the Insiders100 pick lacks in experience, he makes up in size at 6'5 198. Add to that 4.4. speed and the ability to win balls in the air, and you have the makings of gamebreaker. Another freshman looking for time will be 6'4 225 Fred Davis, who was also a 5 star receiver out of high school last year and has made strides this offseason in a talented core.

Not too far from complimenting depth, is Virginia Tech's mix of youth and upperclassmen ready to make their statement. As of now, 6'3 junior Chris Clifton and 6'1 rs-freshman Josh Hyman will start. Hyman has had an incredible offseason and continued to impress coaches. This is evident by his ability to hold off senior Richard Johnson, true frosh stud Eddie Royal (right), and the only true freshman to play last year in David Clowney. At the other wideout position, Chris Clifton made signifigant strides in the offseason to hold off freshmen studs Joshua Morgan and Justin Harper. Morgan is a speed demon but has suffered through an injured foot, and Harper is a physical speciman at 6'3 207 with great leaping ability. If needed, Justin Hamilton can be converted back to wideout from his current tailback position. Give these Hokies a season or two and you'll see we may have the next batch of Antonio Freeman's and Ernest Wilford's on hand.

At tight end, the Hokies boast a physical machine in 6'5 261 Jeff King, who has had a great summer and has made some notable catches in the scrimmages thus far. An apparent chemistry has developed between King and Randall that should carry over along with the promise to open up the book and throw to the tight end more. For USC, senior Alex Holmes will take over the starting role, primarily as a blocker. This comes in light of a knee injury to Dominque Byrd who will miss most of the year. Tight end should be an edge for the Hokies.

Despite promising youth, USC is too strong and deep at this position, with or without Mike Williams. When they line up with multiple receiver sets, look for an incredible mix of size and burning deep speed.

Edge: USC

The Backfield
USC has a good problem when it comes to the tailback position: three incredibly talented backs. The suspension of Hershel Dennis hurts, but not a lot, as Lenndale White and Reggie Bush are the best in the crowded backfield. Bush and White combined for nearly 2,000 yards last season as freshmen, and the only thing hampering their stats this year will be the fact that they will be sharing carries. Look for Bush also to be a big time player in returns. The two compliment each others styles very well, as Bush is the speedster with the ability to turn nothing into something, and White is the smashmouth style runner. Both are dangerous and both will keep Tech's defense on their toes. Their styles in a way, mirror that of Tech's junior tailback duo of Cedric Humes and Mike Imoh, although Imoh will sit this game out as he serves the beginning of his 3 game suspension. Humes should easily break 1,000 yards this year if healthy, and will have a decent share of depth behind him with freshman George Bell and converted wideout Justin Hamilton. Hamilton has had a good offseason working out as a runner, putting on pounds and refining his moves as he prepares to see a fair share of time on the field. On paper, the skill obviously falls on USC's side again, as Bush and White were #1 and #2 RB's out of high school respectively, but I feel with Tech's history of running the ball and backfield coaching we can close the gap in this department more so then expected.

At fullback, the Hokies will have the advantage. The Trojans incumbant to the fullback position, Brandon Hancock, was injured during the spring and will be out for the first part of the season. The job now falls on senior Lee Webb, who comes in at 6'0 240 and is primarily a blocking fullback. For Virginia Tech, a fierce battle has been raging all summer between two RS-Fr., John Kinzer and walkon Jesse Allen. Both have good size with Kinzer at 6'2 253 and Allen at 6'0 240. Both have also refined their blocking abilities, and Kinzer is a threat to catch out of the backfield as he's a converted tight end. Strength is Allen's key, as he broke Tech's power clean record in the weight room this past offseason.

Again, on paper, USC will have the edge and will have the better playmaker with Reggie Bush. Tech will use its running backs more often, and will secure the edge in the fullback department. This is a close one.

Slight edge: USC

The O-Line
As I mentioned in this years offensive preview, this years offensive line has the potential to be the biggest with the starting five of: C Will Montgomery 6'3 300; RG James Miller 6'6 315; LG Reggie Butler 6'6 345; RT Jon Dunn 6'7 340; LT Jimmy Martin 6'5 300. A mix of pure size and experience will help the Hokies establish their front wall early on, in addition to a good mix of size and skill off the bench as well.

The front five will be the biggest question mark for the Trojans this year. This will likely be the key to another national title run for USC. The departures of three starters from center to left tackle will leave a huge hole that the Hokies will have to exploit to win. Throw into all this that their starting right tackle, Winston Justice, has been suspended, and you have one huge question mark for the defending co-national champs. Kyle Williams (6'6 290) will likely replace Justice, and look to be the second best lineman of the group beside the only returning starter, Fred Matua (6'2 300) at right guard. The other starters should be: LT Sam Baker 6'5 315; LG Travis Watkins 6'3 301; C Ryan Kalil 6'4 270. Look for the Hokies to send a strong front four rush at this line, most of whom will be getting their first starts and some their first game experience.

Edge: Virginia Tech

The D-Line
Much like the Hokies, USC will have to replace half of its defensive line, including the loss of NFL early entry Kenechi Udeze. They will, however, get back two probable All-Americans in 6'4 285 defensive end Shaun Cody and 6'0 284 nose tackle Mike Patterson, both of whom are seniors. Opposite Cody at defensive end will be junior Frostee Rucker. At 6'4 240, Rucker will provide a nice speed rush, and will line up beside monster defensive tackle Manuel Wright, who comes in at 6'6 285. Look for backup defensive end Van Brown (6'4 240) to also get a good amount of playing time and contribute to the speed rush, as will backup tackle Travis Tofi (6'4 255).

Much like the Trojans, the Hokies has to fill in for two departed veterans of the d-line in Cols Colas and Nathaniel Adibi. A big advantage came with the return of Jim Davis, and the emergence of younger players Noland Burchette and Daryl Tapp. All three will make plenty of noise this season, and a possible move of Jim Davis to defensive tackle adds more depth to a line that should have its fair share of times forcing Leinart out of the pocket. With Tapp, Burchette, Davis and the Lewis Brothers, look for this to be one of the stronger d-lines in recent years for the Hokies. The mere presence of Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody will give the Trojans the edge in this department though, so while skill wise the Trojans get the nod, I will make the prediction based solely on this game. The breaker comes with the fact that the better Trojan defensive line will be going up against a tough Hokies offensive line, and vice versa. I think the Hokies and the Trojans will both have equal success in this department.

Edge: Even

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The Linebackers
This year will be a strong year for a young but talented linebacking core in Blacksburg. Look for Warren, Baaqee and Anderson to start, and watch for the emergence of Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall to start this Saturday. The offseason emergence of James Anderson could prove to be a big suprise starting this game, as there isn't a lot of film out to prepare for him in his starting role. Look for Aaron Rouse to make the rotation and add to an already athletic linebacking unit, and senior Brandon Manning to play a good deal adding plenty of experience in big games. Not real true stars have been developed yet, but leadership and potential are two astounding characteristics for the Hokies linebackers this year.

For the Trojans, they return two very good but slightly undersized players in senior weakside linebacker Matt Grootegoed at 5'11 215, and junior mike linebacker Lofa Tatupu at 6'0 220. Both possess good speed and great playmaking ability, and Grootegoed could end up an All-American before seasons end. Tatupu can not only tackle as he led the team last year with 98, but can drop back and play great in pass coverage. Last year, he had 10 pass deflections and picked off 4 passes as well. At strongside linebacker, junior Dallas Startz brings experience with height to the position at 6'5 220. Freshman Thomas Williams (6'3 225) should see a fair deal of time off the bench in addition to run-stuffer Oscar Lua (6'2 245).

Look for a more balanced Tech attack and the mobile option of Randall to keep these linebackers honest, though. The comparison of linebackers is close, with the star talent going to USC, but the depth going to the Hokies along with a slight edge in overall size.

Slight Edge: USC

Secondary
The return of both safeties, SS Darnell Bing (6'2 220) and FS Jason Leach (5'11 210) will anchor the Trojan secondary with athleticism and hard hitting ability. Bing started every game as a sophomore last year, and Leach was second on the team with 88 tackles. Both are natural playmakers, and Bing is a future NFL lock in the first round. The question of the USC secondary comes at corner, where both starters were lost. Senior Ronald Nunn (5-11 180) will start at on one side, and brings some experience to that spot, while junior Justin Wyatt (identical size) will start opposite. Last year, Nunn saw a good amount of playing time while being used on corner blitzes and coming up with 40 tackles and 3 sacks to go along with 1 pick. When the Hokies bring in multiple receiver sets, look for junior John Walker (6'2 200) and senior Kevin Arbet (5-11 190) to step on the field.

For the Hokies, Vinny Fuller and James Griffin look to have a strong hold at their FS and Rover positions respectively. Both should provide strong play and athleticism. At corners, the Hokies are strong with starters Jimmy Williams and Eric Green, but depth is a question. For now, it appears true freshman D.J. Parker will get plenty of cracks off the bench along with rs-Fr. Roland Minor. Depth and experience are a question behind the starters, but look for the Hokies to make some noise in the secondary.

Edge: USC

Special Teams
Long known for big time special teams plays and Beamerball, the Hokies will be no slouch this year after showing serious dropoffs in the kicking game last year. Brandon Pace has taken over place kicking duties, and recently earned himself a scholarship. Look for him to provide consistency inside 42 yard attempts. Senior Vinnie Burns will stay the starter at punter, but look for big leg Nic Schmitt to make a run for both punter and kickoff duties.

There is possibly no better kicker/punter duo in the nation then USC's place man Ryan Killeen and punter Tom Malone. Last year, Killeen set a Pac-10 record with 65 PATs, and also nailed 19-24 field goal attempts. After a strong offseason, look for him to return to top form. Tom Malone averaged 49 yards a punt last year, and the only thing holding him back from being the best statistical punter in the land is the fact that the USC offense just doesn't foul up enough to call on the punt team.

As for returners, this would be a dead heat. Junior Mike Imoh returns as one of the better kickoff returners in the ACC, but as previously noted will miss this game serving a 3 game suspension. Jimmy Williams and true freshman Eddie Royal are locked in a battle for punt returning duties right now, and both could be seen quite often on not just punt returns but kick returns. During his senior year in high school, Royal was tabbed as the best playmaker in the state, and has thus far impressed Tech coaches with his ability to make plays returning kicks highlighted by his 4.3 speed.

For the Trojans, Reggie Bush should make plenty of noise returning punts and kicks. If Bush takes a lot of handoffs, expect 5'10 194 junior Greg Carlson to handle these duties while Bush will still return kickoffs.

Another notable stat last year is the fact that the Trojans blocked not only a punt but 6 field goals. It should be interesting to see if they can keep this up against one of the more consistent year in and year out special teams playmaking units in Virginia Tech. After blocked kick after blocked kick in practice, it appears Beamerball will be back in full force as Jim Davis and Jeff King have both blocked multiple field goal attempts.

Edge: Even

Biggest Factor for USC:
For the Trojans, it would have to be the shear talent on both sides of the ball. Add to that the momentum from last years run at a co-national title, and the potential to repeat.

Biggest Factor for Virginia Tech:
Potentially, anonymity could be a huge factor for the Hokies. With most of the superstars graduated or gone to the NFL, new faces will step up to make for the next generation of superstars in Blacksburg. Jimmy Williams, James Anderson, Xavier Adibi, Vince Hall, Cedric Humes, Will Montgomery, and Daryl Tapp all have incredible potential but very limited game film on them. This could make for a huge advantage to add to the fact of their significant strides in the offseason. Add to all this, the shear media overshadowing of USC to the Hokies, and you have a team that is dead set out with something to prove. Sound familiar? Think back to November 1 of last year. Thats right, Miami. A team that completely would decimate the Hokies on paper, but met a team with much more to prove and a fire under their tails. The potential for an upset is big here, especially if the Trojans overlook the Hokies the least little bit. Oh yeah, Tech has also sold over 3/4 of the tickets to a sellout 90,000 seated crowd.

Prediction:
While I think the potential for the upset is VERY possible, I want to stay safe and predict a USC win. I think the Trojans are just too strong and some of the younger Hokies haven't had enough field time to compete with these guys. Be that as it may, this game will be a lot closer then the pundits will predict. At most, in my opinion USC wins by no more than 17. Although I still think the Hokies stand an very good chance to shock the world, I won't jinx it by predicting that.

Score: USC 38 VT 21

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