Can Virginia Tech's young D keep up with ultra-talented USC?
Posted: Friday August 27, 2004 11:20AM; Updated: Friday August 27, 2004 1:03PM
Are you ready for some football? As hard as it may be to believe, the season is upon us once again and USC is ready to pick up where it left off. When we last saw the Trojans, they dominated Michigan in the Rose Bowl and earned a split of the national title with LSU in another BCS controversy. Last season, USC was just happy to win a piece of its first national championship in 25 years, but now anything less than an undisputed title would be a disappointment. Once again, the Trojans have a boatload of talent and a favorable schedule. Moving from the Big East to the ACC, Virginia Tech has a lot to prove and it will be an uphill battle. The Hokies enter the season unranked for the first time since 1998 and have several holes to fill. But senior quarterback Bryan Randall is an experienced leader, and Tech would like nothing more than to pull off the first big upset of the season.
Sizing up USC:
After averaging 447.5 yards and 41.1 points per game last season, USC once again should have a prolific offense. The biggest question mark is the offensive line, where the Trojans will be breaking in three new starters. But they are once again loaded in the backfield, led by quarterback Matt Leinart, the preseason Heisman Trophy front-runner. Last year, Leinart completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 3,556 yards, 38 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.
Leinart will have plenty of people to hand off to. Though Hershel Dennis (661 yards, four TDs in 2003) is suspended indefinitely, the thunder-and-lightning combination of LenDale White (754 yards, 13 TDs) and Reggie Bush (521 yards, three TDs) is talented enough to run over and by Virginia Tech's front seven. Another big question for USC is the receiving corps. Keary Colbert used up his eligibility and Mike Williams, who scored a touchdown every 6.1 times he touched the ball last season, was denied reinstatement by the NCAA on Thursday. The onus will fall on sophomores Steve Smith (18.8 yards per catch in '03) and Chris McFoy and true freshman Dwayne Jarrett. They should be up to the task.
Six starters return on a Trojans defense that led the nation in rushing yards allowed (60.2 yards per game), was second in turnover margin (plus-1.5) and produced 55 sacks last season. Though USC lost its best player on the unit, end Kenechi Udeze, the Trojans have more than enough talent to be dominant once again. Up front, USC has an array of playmakers in tackle Shaun Cody (10.5 tackles for loss in '03), nose tackle Mike Peterson (13.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks) and linebackers Lofa Tatupu (98 tackles, 11.5 for loss, four interceptions) and Matt Grootegoed (41 tackles), who is back after missing four games last season with an ankle injury. Strong safety Darnell Bing, a freshman All-America last season, anchors the secondary.
Sizing up Virginia Tech:
There's no quarterback controversy in Blacksburg. Through he started all 13 games last season, Randall felt considerable heat from Marcus Vick, who at times showed flashes of his brother's flair. But with Vick suspended for the season, this is Randall's team. In '03, Randall threw for 1,996 yards and 15 touchdowns and ran for 404 yards and five TDs. He'll need to have the game of his life for Tech to have a chance against USC. That will be much easier said than done, as the Hokies have a major void to fill in their rushing attack with the departure of Kevin Jones. Cedric Humes and Justin Hamilton, a converted receiver, will try to lighten the load on Randall in a tailback-by-committee situation.
The Hokies are young but talented at wide receiver, where redshirt freshman Josh Hyman and true freshman Eddie Royal, the 2003 Virginia high school player of the year, will be counted on to make plays.
Normally, defense is one of Virginia Tech's biggest strengths. But this young, inexperienced unit will have its hands full with USC's explosive offense. The Hokies will need to get a push up front from Darryl Tapp (58 tackles, nine for loss), Noland Burchette (41 tackles as a backup last season) and Jonathan Lewis (seven tackles for loss in '03). Tech also has a major hole to fill with the loss of playmaking cornerback DeAngelo Hall. That's why Jimmy Williams, who was second on the team with 114 tackles, moves from free safety to Hall's corner spot.
Special teams breakdown:
Virginia Tech has become synonymous with outstanding special teams play. The Hokies use starters on special teams and have become experts on blocking kicks. Dubbed "Beamerball" after special teams-oriented coach Frank Beamer, Tech scored 11 touchdowns on returns last season and has scored 39 since 1999. The Hokies will need to make those types of plays to beat USC. The Trojans have the edge in the punting game, where All-American Tom Malone, whose 49.0 yards per punt would have led the nation last season if he had punted enough to qualify for the NCAA minimum of 3.6 punts per game.
USC QB Matt Leinart
Leinart proved last season that he is an elite quarterback who is capable of taking over a game. Now he has the added pressure of being the preseason Heisman front-runner. But if he plays his game against the Hokies and doesn't try to force things he should put up big numbers.
Virginia Tech DE Darryl Tapp
The Hokies must take advantage of an inexperienced USC offensive line and get pressure on Leinart. Tapp is Tech's best pass-rusher and should create some chances at sacking Leinart and disrupting the running game. He needs to be a factor.
Through USC is traveling more than 2,300, miles the Trojans are strangely considered the home team in this game. But Virginia Tech, located some 150 miles south of Washington, clearly will have the home-field advantage. And the Hokies will need it. Virginia Tech is 0-6 all time against No. 1 teams, and this could be its toughest test yet. USC is loaded on both sides of the ball, while Virginia Tech is rebuilding. On paper, this is a mismatch, and it could get ugly unless Tech is able to create a lot of turnovers. USC is too talented and should show the nation why it is the team to beat this season.
The Pick: USC 42, Virginia Tech 24
B.J. Schecter is an associate editor for Sports Illustrated. Marquee Matchup appears every Friday on SI.com during the season.