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Virginia Tech's game with Cincinnati is important for a few reasons. First, it gives us Virginia Tech fans another chance to see our team compete against quality talent before ACC play begins. Second, it's a good preview defensively for our next two ACC oponents (UNC and Duke, both of whom run a "spread" attack on offense). Lastly, it's a chance to notch a quality win over a team who currently has the inside track to win the Big East, even though Rutgers is looking strong as well.
This week , I was contacted by Chris of Bearcats Nation for a dual Q&A. I was more than happy to oblige and Chris did a fantastic job of answering my questions for him below. I'm going to shut up now and let you guys enjoy the content below.
1. The last time Virginia Tech squared off against Cincinnati, Brian Kelly was roaming the sidelines. How has the loss of Kelly to Notre Dame impacted the program and also, how would you grade Butch Jones in his first three years on the job?
Chris: Losing Kelly was definitely a setback for Bearcat football. In the year after he left UC went 4 – 8 and looked like a completely different team. But that season showed that Kelly didn’t exactly leave the program in the best shape for Butch Jones to take over. Something like 1/3rd of the players Kelly recruited never made it on the roster and Jones was left to clean up the mess. It was difficult in the face of a fanbase spoiled by back-to-back BCS bowl games who took their frustrations of Kelly leaving out on the new coach.
But Jones endured and I actually prefer him to Kelly, especially in the way he emphasizes defense and balance on offense. Also, he runs a clean program, is a better recruiter, and gets the most out of his players. Now UC fans would like to think of him as Cincinnati’s version of Frank Beamer to grow and mold this program as he sees fit. Funny how a 10-win season, a Big East championship, and a bowl win does that.
2. Cincinnati was one of the last teams to start their season here in 2012, as the Bearcats had a week one bye. For comparisons sake, the Hokies have already played four games while Cincinnati has played just two. Do you think the added rest will help or hurt here in week five?
Chris: The two byes in the first month of the season are definitely important to this team. Not only do the Bearcats get a chance to rest up but they have more time to scout their opponent. It definitely showed against Pitt who looked completely unprepared compared to Cincinnati. The same goes this week against Virginia Tech but I think there are different circumstances this time around.
The Hokies may have lost to the Panthers but are a far superior team with better coaching. UC’s not going to catch VT off guard and still have holes in certain position groups on the team. In many ways we aren’t really sure what to make of the Bearcats right now. There was quite a bit of turnover in the offseason and it’s clear the coaches are still trying to figure out exactly what their team’s strengths and weaknesses are. The extra time to lick their wounds and study gamefilm will definitely help Cincinnati but the fact that VT has had four games to figure out what works and what doesn’t is a big plus for them. The Hokies probably know more about themselves than the Bearcats do at this point, and that is a huge advantage for Virginia Tech.
3. A lot of the focus will be on Logan Thomas Saturday afternoon, but Cincinnati has a good dual threat quarterback in Munchie Legaux as well. How would you describe Legaux to somebody who hasn’t seen him play and is there any reason for concern after his four turnover game against Delaware State?
Chris: Legaux is more legs than arm at this point, in that he’s a much more prolific runner than passer. He is definitely a dual threat quarterback but the problem is the ‘throwing’ aspect of his game isn’t nearly as developed. He can get into a habit of losing his basic mechanics of setting his feet, squaring his shoulders, etc. and has a tendency to lock in on one receiver. For now I’m okay with it because of what he can do on the ground. I’d compare him to former Ohio State quarterback Tyrelle Pryor who was an OK passer but gashed teams on the ground because of his long legs. Legaux is 6’5” and can easily eat up 10 yards on the ground in just a few strides because his legs are so long.
The Bearcats also run a system that embraces his natural athleticism. Instead of the throw-until-the-quarterback’s-arm-catches-on-fire offense under Brian Kelly, Butch Jones goes with the Oregon-style read-option where the quarterback has the freedom to tuck it and run if he sees the defensive end crashing. It has allowed Legaux to bust out runs of 77, 26, 22, and 15 yards already this year. Jones will allow his quarterback to throw it on screens, drags, and the occasional bomb but he knows Legaux’s bread and butter will be running the football.
4. Outside of Legaux, who are some of the other impact players on offense?
Chris: Three players to keep an eye on this Saturday: #32 George Winn, #1 Ralph David Abernathy, #6 Anthony McClung.
Winn has been running in the shadow of Isaiah Pead for the last two seasons but finally got an opportunity for consistent playing time as a senior with Pead gone to the NFL. It goes without saying that he’s fully embraced that opportunity rushing for 242 yards and two touchdowns so far this year. He’s always been a down-hill runner trying to bust through defenses between the hashes but he’s developed more balance in his game with his propensity to juke a player out of his shoes as well as run right through him. Expect him to get the bulk of the carries on Saturday.
Another playmaker is Ralph David Abernathy. He will lineup anywhere from the backfield to slot receiver; pretty much wherever the coaches think he can exploit a defense the most. He’s much like former Oregon State scat back Jacquizz Rodgers in terms of explosiveness. Winn will get most of the touches lining up next to Legaux but Abernathy should have 10 – 15 carries/catches on Saturday probably in the form of slip screens, tunnel screens, and crosses.
Finally there’s Anthony McClung who is Munchie Legaux’s roommate and his favorite receiver. In 3-WR sets, McClung is Cincinnati’s starting slot receiver and does a nice job getting open. He has pretty solid speed but you’ll see him taking passes over the middle and using his legs and quick feet to get yards after the catch. He would probably be more a deep threat if Legaux was a more developed passer but for now McClung does most of his damage between the hash marks.
Those three have combined for 47% of Cincinnati’s rushing yards and 41% of the receiving yards. The Bearcats spread the ball around but chances are if they run a play Winn, Abernathy, or McClung will probably be involved in some fashion.
5. Switching gears, Cincinnati ranks 3rd in scoring defense, 38th in total defense, and 5th in sacks. Are those an accurate measure of this Bearcat defense or are those numbers slightly inflated due to competition level so far this season?
Chris: Yes and no. The Bearcats have really only played one team this year (Pitt) and they were still adjusting to a brand new coaching staff playing on the road for the first time in the hornets’ nest that is Nippert Stadium. Still, Cincinnati boasts a veteran secondary that has played in a combined 84 games and can shutdown an opponent’s passing game. To compliment this UC has solid edge rushers in #99 Dan Giordano and #54 Walter Stewart who have been getting after quarterbacks together for three seasons now. So the rankings, especially sacks and scoring defense, are pretty reflective of these aspects of Cincinnati’s D.
My main concern is the run defense which I think isn’t as good as the numbers suggest. The Bearcats lost two defensive tackles to the NFL last season who took a combined 600 lbs of brick wall with them to their new teams. They also lost their field general of the defense in J.K. Schaffer who did a nice job coordinating the linebackers in gap control. This current team’s lack of size and experience could expose the interior of this defense if they aren’t playing sound football.
But despite the change defensive coordinator John Jancek has implemented some creative formations in his defense. Cincinnati will routinely flip between the 4-3 and 3-4 to confuse offensive coordinators. In addition Jancek sometimes plays three defensive ends or three defensive tackles at once along the line. It’s a means of getting an opponent’s offensive line out of rhythm by forcing individual blockers to constantly adjust from stopping a 280 lbs bulldozer to a 250 lbs sparkplug. He’ll insure that the Bearcats have a solid defense this season but it’s too early to tell if it will be as destructive as the 2011 version or as good as their current place in rankings suggest.
6. Who all should Virginia Tech be aware of on the defensive side of the ball heading into this game?
Chris: Hands down it’s Walter Stewart. He is by far the best player on Cincinnati’s defense. Walt has a good combination of size and especially speed. If offensive tackles aren’t ready for his burst he can easily just run around them to get to the quarterback. He also does a nice job blending a bull rush with finesse to work his way around a blocker. Probably the best way of making him a non-factor is with quick passes.
Delaware State completed just 50% of their passes but Stewart only had two tackles without a sack or even TFL mainly because quarterback Nick Elko constantly threw to his first or second read. If Logan Thomas can do that he won’t see Walt much. But if he’s consistently working to his third or fourth option he will be greeted by #54 quite a bit on Saturday.
7. This is a game that could come down to a pressure field goal. How much faith do you have in your kicker Tony Millano?
Chris: I definitely agree that it could come down to field goals considering how shaky both teams have been on offense this year and how evenly matched the Bearcats and Hokies are overall. We as Cincinnati fans had to deal with the growing pains of Miliano last year who was noticeably nervous in the starting role as a true freshman. But I think that was good for his development and he should be much more confident in clutch situations this year. However he hasn’t really been tested so far so it’s hard for me to judge how he’ll do in the pressure cooker on the road.
8. Lastly, what’s your prediction for this game?
Chris: When the full schedule was released months ago I’ve always thought this would be Cincinnati’s one loss of their non-conference games. It would be different if the game were at Nippert Stadium or even Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati but this is essentially a home game for the Hokies. What’s more is I’ve heard Virginia Tech fans have made FedEx Field one of the most imposing environments in the past. On top of that this will be the best and most complex defense Munchie Legaux has faced all season and will probably face the entire year.
I think the Bearcats can pull off the upset but the rational person in me says Virginia Tech wins by a touchdown 27 – 20 or 24 - 17. This is going to be a really, really good game, though, and it’s a shame ESPN elected to bump it to ESPN U.
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