With the road test in Columbus just one day away, here are the keys to the Virginia Tech offense if they expect to have success against the Ohio State defense, and pull off an upset in "The Horseshoe."
1. The Hokies O-Line Must Contain the A and B Gaps of the Ohio State Defensive Line
With redshirt senior Laurence Gibson at left tackle and 6th year senior David Wang at left guard, there is little worry about how the left side of the line will stack up against one of the best defensive fronts in the country at Ohio State. However, on the right side of the offensive line, Tech starts redshirt sophomore Augie Conte, and true sophomore Jonathan McLaughlin beside senior center Caleb Farris. If the Hokies want to establish an effective running game on Saturday night, they will have to prevent penetration in the A-Gaps (gap between the center and either guard beside him), as well as the B-Gaps (the gap between either guard and tackle). Perhaps more importantly, the offensive line will need to have a similar performance as last weekend while past blocking, by limiting the pressure on quarterback Michael Brewer, and preventing sacks. With the stable of running backs that the team suddenly possesses, do not be surprised to see the Ohio State defense stack the box and force Brewer to throw to beat them. With a defensive line that is as deep and as stout as any in the country, this will not be a walk in the park. However, if the Hokie O-line can withstand this test, expect the offense to have success.
2. Neutralize the Hostile Environment Via The No-Huddle Offense
Tech Offensive Coordinator Scot Loeffler emphasized this week that the no-huddle offense that the team displayed at times against William & Mary may not necessarily be just a wrinkle. Chances are strong that Loeffler believes that the hurry-up can be effective in an environment as hostile as Ohio Stadium. There are two distinct advantages to running this strategy. First, the Hokies will be able to exploit an increasingly tired Ohio State defense by preventing substitutions. Secondly, with the hurry-up offense, the expected crowd of over 100,000 will have trouble getting loud enough between plays to cause disruption in the communication between the offensive personnel. Both are reasons why the no-huddle should be a substantial part of the game plan this Saturday.
3. Michael Brewer: Limit Turnovers, Be Efficient
It goes without saying, but it is tough for road upsets to happen if the visitors turn the football over. Michael Brewer proved in his first start with the team last weekend, that he can command the offense with intelligence and efficiency. He will need to post similar numbers to his 23-30 performance last weekend, where he threw for two touchdown passes. If he finds a way to complete 65-70% of his passes again, and does not turn the football over, the offense will be in great shape.
4. Throw to a Variety of Different Receivers
While the Hokies may not have a true home-run threat on the roster, the passing game can still be efficient. In the Big Ten Championship game last year, one of Ohio State's two losses, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook completed a pass to 8 different receivers in the game. Similarly, in the Orange Bowl, Ohio State's second loss of the season, Clemson quarterback Tahj Boyd completed a pass to 7 different receivers. While former Clemson receiver and current Buffalo Bills rookie Sammy Watkins stole the show with his 16 catch, 227-yard, two touchdown performance, the ability to spread the wealth in both games played a crucial role in keeping the Ohio State defense at bay. The Hokies have plenty of capable receivers to choose from, from veterans Josh Stanford and Willie Byrn, to true freshmen Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips. Not to mention the productive tight ends Ryan Malleck and Bucky Hodges, who could be a match-up nightmare for the Ohio State linebackers and defensive backs on Saturday. Brewer will be able to pick his spots if the offensive line keeps him upright, and he will need to take advantage of the mismatches in order to stand a chance in this game.
5. Establish The Running Game
If there is one particular element that has led to two back-to-back sub-par seasons in Blacksburg, it has been the decline of a once consistently dominant running game. After a successful opener against the Tribe in which the Hokies rushed for 222 yards as a team, and the hope is that the team dusts off a potent rushing attack that resembles the better units from prior successful years of the Beamer era. Shai McKenzie's collegiate debut at running back was promising, after carrying the ball 9 times for 106 yards and a touchdown, earning him ACC Rookie of the Week honors. Fellow true freshman Marshawn Williams also showed why the coaches were raving about his pre-season production, as he rushed 12 times for 41 yards in the opener. While the team will be without returning starter Trey Edmunds for the second straight week at running back, expect the two newcomers to have a large role in the game this weekend. If the O-line stands tall, the running game can prosper, opening up the aerial attack for Michael Brewer and the receivers.
As 11-point road underdogs entering Saturday night's showdown, there will be nothing to lose and everything to gain for this football team. Yet while #8 Ohio State is the toughest team on the schedule, this game is winnable. However, without success in the areas above, the Hokies can lose and it can get ugly quickly in that environment. While the latter is a possibility, it is not a probability. As a fan, I would fully expect a very competitive game that could come down to the little things, such as turnovers and perhaps sheer luck. Regardless, let's sit back and see what happens, and hope that the Hokies can pull the upset.
Stay with GobblerCountry through the rest of the week as we continue to prepare for Ohio State. Follow us on Twitter @gobblercountry and on Facebook as well. We will also be running a game thread during the game on Saturday night, so log on and join the conversation!