Behind Enemy Lines: Virginia Tech

Written by Sam Werner on .

As Pitt enters ACC play, I enlisted the help of Virginia Tech beat writer Andy Bitter, who covers the Hokies for the Roanoke Times. You can read Andy's work here and follow him on Twitter @AndyBitterVT. Now, on to the questions...

1. How has Brenden Motley done since taking over for Michael Brewer at QB? And how is the Hokies' offense different under Motley than it was under Brewer?

I've actually been surprised with how well he's acclimated himself at the position. This was somebody who had played largely in Wildcat situations in the past, with one career completion to his credit before having to come in after Brewer got hurt in the second half against Ohio State. Motley didn't look good in that half against the Buckeyes, but honestly, who would have in that situation? Since then, though, I think he's done pretty well. He's the first quarterback under Frank Beamer to throw for more than 200 yards in his his first three starts. In fact, his 881 yards of offense in three games is the most by a Virginia Tech quarterback under Beamer, breaking the mark of 765 set by Brewer last year. For someone who ran a Wing T offense in high school and was expected to be a major project at the college level, that's not bad, even if there are times where his inexperience shows in the passing game with some of his reads and how quickly he gets the ball out.

The Hokies' offense doesn't change too much with him in the game, although he does bring a running element to the position that the smaller Brewer doesn't. Motley's 6-foot-3, 221 pounds, so he's got decent size, and Tech has called his number on quarterback runs much more often as a result. In the rain last week at East Carolina, he became the primary ballcarrier when it was apparent the Pirates were shutting down anything the tailbacks did. Motley responded by carrying it 19 times for 85 yards and a touchdown. He's not seen a defense as good as Pitt's and hasn't faced a scheme put together by someone quite like Pat Narduzzi, so the jury's still out for how he'll fare against very good competition. But so far, he's performed much better than I would have anticipated. He's certainly not the reason Tech has lost two games this year.

2. Last year, Virginia Tech suffered a glut of injuries at the running back spot. How has that position looked for them so far this season, and has that spot been affected at all by the quarterback switch, as well?

Up until last week, that group had looked pretty good. The Hokies still don't have two guys who tore their ACLs last year. Shai McKenzie played a little but isn't quite back, so he's pursuing a medical hardship waiver. Marshawn Williams, who was injured for last year's Pitt game too, is still recovering from December surgery. But Tech probably has too many backs as it is. The carries have been split fairly evenly among senior J.C. Coleman (117 yards), junior Trey Edmunds (144 yards) and redshirt freshman Travon McMillian (209 yards). Of the three, McMillian has by far the best yards per carry average at 8.0, but the Hokies really use him more in a jet sweep role or runs to the outside. He's got the most home run ability of the group — and fans are clamoring for him to get more carries — but Tech seems bound and determined to continue to get the veterans Coleman and Edmunds involved early and often. They've had success in the past and at varying times this year. All four games have featured a different leading rusher. It seems like Tech is OK with that split.

Motley's inclusion in the lineup does alter the carries the backs are getting. He had 19 carries last week. The tailbacks combined for 17. Granted, Motley had 85 yards and the tailbacks had 51 yards, so you can see why the split was the way it was. For an offense that's struggled to run the ball in recent years — but has done an OK job this year, averaging 205.8 yards per game — I think he Hokies will take the yards however they can get it. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler basically said as much this week: "We're going to try to use all the available talent that we can to help us win."

3. Virginia Tech has, for whatever reason, traditionally had trouble stopping mobile quarterbacks. Is there an obvious reason for this within Bud Foster's defense, or just some sort of anomaly? Has that been the main problem with VT's defense this year when it has struggled?

The numbers don't lie. Tech's given up 94 rushing yards or more to quarterbacks in eight of the last 20 games dating back to the end of 2013. The Hokies are 1-7 in those contests, so obviously it's a major factor. Part of it is poor tackling. That was evident in the rain last week when the Hokies didn't have the greatest fundamentals in trying to bring down ECU quarterback James Summers, who ran for 169 yards and two touchdowns. His best highlight of the day was putting a spin move that left free safety Chuck Clark grasping at air and then breaking free from an arm tackle by defensive end Ken Ekanem on his way to a 41-yard touchdown that proved to be the game-winner.

But part of the problem is scheme too. Tech doesn't play a whole lot of zone defense, where defenders are looking at the play and can see when a quarterback takes off and runs. A lot of times defenders are running with receivers down the field, so they're not even aware of it. Plus, Foster's group is pretty aggressive. He designs plays to get an open hitter and relies on that player to make the tackle. If he doesn't, or if the Hokies lose contain to the outside, there's not really a lot of help beyond that initial line of defense. Break free from that and you're running free down the field. It's a high-risk, high-reward defense that looks really good when guys are making the tackle. But when they aren't, or they don't fit a gap right, it leads to some long runs. And you've seen a lot of that this year.

4. With the news this week that Kendall Fuller will miss the rest of the season, how does that affect the back end of the Hokies' defense? Obviously he's a great player, but do they have talent waiting in the wings to make up for his loss?

It's a big blow. You don't take an All-American out of the equation and continue along as if nothing happened. Fuller's been a mainstay on the defense for two years, and honestly is someone that whatever side he lined up on, you never had to worry much about that receiver having a huge day. Obviously, now that changes. The Hokies plan to go with redshirt freshman Terrell Edmunds in his place. Edmunds has only gotten a handful of snaps on the regular defense in his career and has never started. That's a huge dropoff. Plus, it makes the secondary that much younger. True freshman Adonis Alexander is starting at rover, a spot the Hokies had hoped would be filled by C.J. Reavis, who was dismissed from school this summer after a student conduct hearing. All of a sudden what was expected to be one of the strengths of the defense, and one with a good amount of experience, is starting two freshmen.

There are some other guys who could play cornerback. Senior Donovan Riley had his spotlight moment last year with the game-clinching pick six at Ohio State, but his pass coverage has been spotty and he's been passed by some younger guys on the depth chart. Sophomore Greg Stroman is a guy the coaches like, although he's worked mostly as a nickelback this fall. The Hokies started him last week at boundary corner, a position he'd rarely practiced, and he got torched for a couple of touchdowns. Fuller was a gametime scratch for ECU, so the coaching staff was probably caught a little off guard by his absence. At least that won't be the case this week, but the Hokies are still going to see a significant dropoff going from him to the next guy in the game at that position.

5. What's the general feeling around Blacksburg regarding Frank Beamer? There seems to have been some talk coming into the season that it might be nearing time for him to hang it up. He doesn't seem to have plans to go anywhere, but what is the level of unrest among the Virginia Tech fan base?

It generally depends on whether the Hokies won or lost the previous weekend. Anytime they lose a game — especially to a school like East Carolina and especially when Beamer goes out and says something as poorly worded as his "exhibition games" comment — then you're going to see the full wrath of the Internet army and Chicken Little wing of the Virginia Tech fan base. The message boards are shark-infested waters at times like that. I do think that's somewhat misleading. There's a very vocal portion of the fan base that would like Beamer to retire sooner rather than later, but I think a larger portion recognizes what the man has accomplished in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech wasn't nearly what it is now in football before Beamer got there.

Granted, the program's been in a three-year swoon that, if things continue like they have this season, could become four years. That's enough of a slump that more and more people are starting to wonder if he'll ever get the program back to that 10-win standard that he set not that long ago from 2004-11. But until things get really serious — as in the Hokies don't make a bowl game one year or, heaven forbid, lose a game to rival Virginia for the first time in over a decade — I don't know if there's anything that will force him out on anything but his own terms. He's a prideful guy. And he knows that Tech hasn't played at a level this program should the last few years. Plus, his health is a concern after last year's throat surgery. All this could add up to the end being near for Beamer, but I think he's someone who doesn't want to leave on a sour note (and certainly wants to coach in the Battle at Bristol next year against Tennessee). I'd still be surprised if this is his last year.


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Penguins - Hurricanes preview - 10-02-15

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

The Penguins travel to the Piedmont tonight to face the Hurricanes in PNC Center. It's their final preseason game and it begins at 7 p.m. The Penguins will provide a video stream to the Pittsburgh area through their Web site.

If we are able to view it, we will have a post-game blog.

According to the team's Web site, the Penguins' lines and defensive pairs at the morning skate were:

14 Chris Kunitz - 87 Sidney Crosby - 81 Phil Kessel
61 Sergei Plotnikov - 71 Evgeni Malkin - 72 Patric Hornqvist
9 Pascal Dupuis - 13 Nick Bonino - 41 Daniel Sprong (above)
34 Bobby Farnham - 7 Matt Cullen - 57 David Perron

28 Ian Cole - 58 Kris Letang
4 Rob Scuderi - 3 Olli Maatta
51 Derrick Pouliot - 2 Adam Clendening - 8 Brian Dumoulin

 -Goaltender (No. 29) Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to start with (No. 37) Jeff Zatkoff serving as backup.

-According to the Hurricanes' Web site, their lines and defensive pairings at today's morning skate were:

32 Kris Versteeg - 12 Eric Staal - 16 Elias Lindholm
14 Nathan Gerbe - 11 Jordan Staal - 20 Riley Nash
53 Jeff Skinner - 49 Victor Rask - 25 Chris Terry
15 Andrej Nestrasil - 18 Jay McClement - 42 Joakim Nordstrom

47 Michal Jordan - 27 Justin Faulk
26 John-Michael Liles - 26 James Wisniewski
5 Noah Hanifin - 7 Ryan Murphy


-Goaltender (No. 30) Cam Ward is expected to start with (No. 31) Eddie Lack serving as the backup.

(Photo: Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)


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Podcast reviews of Martian, Sicario, The Walk, Finders Keepers

Written by Barbara Vancheri on .


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Erixon: 'I'm kind of sick of moving around' - 10-02-15

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

Blessed with above average skating ability, Tim Erixon (above, defending Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk) can be described as a mobile defenseman.

But if you wanted to be very literal, Erixon is the definition of a mobile defenseman.

A first-round pick of the Flames in 2009, Erixon has been traded or moved through waivers six different times in his young career. Last season alone, Erixon played for three different teams - the Blue Jackets, Blachkawks and Maple Leafs.

This past offseason, he was traded for what he hopes is the last time when the Maple Leafs included him as part of the deal which brought superstar right winger Phil Kessel to the Penguins. 

Erixon, the son of former Rangers forward Jan Erixon, recently talked about all the movement in his career as well as trying to nail down a full-time NHL role with the Penguins.


What has the past year been like with all the movement?

"Obviously the last six months or so has been kind of rocky for me. I've been moved around a little bit the last six months. You're always a little bit surprised when you move. I'm really excited to be here. It's a great organization with a great team. My offseason has been really good. I've been healthy for the first time in a bit here. Obviously, with missing the playoffs, I had a really long summer and I made some really good progress. I'm really excited."

What is that like being moved so many times in a short amount of time? 

"It is what it is. It's not ideal. I'd say it's not something you want. But it's the way of the business I guess. I guess you have to look at it one way: Teams want you. But still, I'm kind of sick of moving around here. I'm looking to make this a home for a bit. That would be nice. Obviously, the last six months wouldn't be what you're hoping for."

You've been traded or claimed through waivers six times overall during your career. That seems to be the story of your career.

"I was in Columbus for two and half years so it was pretty much just last year that I was moving around. I've played in pretty much every situation being on different teams, different systems. I think I'm pretty good at adapting and doing what they want me to do. If you have to take something that I've learned and gotten the experience of doing."

Obviously, NHL teams want you.

"You've got to look at it that way right? That teams want you. Still, like I said, I'm very much looking to not bounce around."

General manager Jim Rutherford suggested the team may keep eight defensemen. Is something you identify as something you can nail down?

"I'm just going to try to play my game, a really hard game, and show them I can do it in both ends. Just play a hard game. My whole goal is to be here when the season starts and be on the ice hopefully."

How do you describe yourself as a player?

"I think I'm a two-way guy. Like I said, I've been kind of playing in different situations. I think I could adapt a little bit. I think I could play on both ends. I've had a good summer so I think that will help me on the ice. Whatever they need me to do, I'll be ready to do that."

Is there anything unique about how the Penguins want defensemen to play compared to the other teams you've played for?

"My last year was all sorts of different stuff being in a couple different organizations so I'm pretty used to adapting. It's nothing crazy. I've seen it mostly before. It's just getting used to it. I like the way we want to play."

(Photo: Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

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Reaching across the aisle: Oklahoma

Written by Craig Meyer on .

(Photo: Mike Simons, Tulsa World)

West Virginia will face its closest thing to a litmus test thus far this season when it travels down to Norman to play No. 15 Oklahoma. To get a better sense of the Sooners and who they are three games into the season, I briefly caught up with Jason Kersey, who covers Oklahoma football for The Oklahoman. You can find his work here and you can follow him on Twitter @JasonKersey.

Jason was kind enough to take the time out to answer a few questions via email, which are posted below in full.

1) How have expectations for this team changed from where they were going into the season to where they are now after a 3-0 start?

Expectations are still pretty much where they were before the season started for most people. I think most folks still believe OU is probably the third or fourth-best team in the Big 12, behind TCU, Baylor and maybe Oklahoma State, although OU has mostly looked better than OSU to this point in the season.

I think it’s all going to come down to the month of November for the Sooners, and that’s pretty much what I thought before the season began (although I did have OU losing to Tennessee). Still, West Virginia has been better than most people imagined, so this weekend’s game could throw a wrench in everything.

The most encouraging thing for OU to this point in the season is the play of Baker Mayfield. He’s been exciting for fans who had grown weary of the up-and-down Trevor Knight days. I’m not sure anyone could have seen Mayfield being this good so far.

2) Dana Holgorsen has been particularly complimentary of the OU defense, saying it's the best he's ever seen it. Is the defense's performance against Tennessee or Tulsa more indicative of what it actually is/can be?

Honestly, I would say the Tulsa game is probably a better indication. OU isn’t going to see very many teams that play offense the way Tennessee did that night. Big 12 teams are, by and large, going to try and do to OU what Tulsa did, and those teams are going to have more talent on offense. The Sooners are much better equipped to handle a team like Tennessee because it allows OU to keep its two best defensive players -- outside linebackers Eric Striker and Devante Bond -- on the field together. They are both great pass rushers but aren’t great cover guys, so it’s pretty much impossible for OU to play them at the same time.

To be fair to OU, Tulsa caught the Sooners with a starting cornerback suspended and were able to pick on a true freshman for most of the game. That probably won’t be the case moving forward.

3) Samaje Perine gashed WVU last season for 242 yards and four touchdowns. Has the arrival of Baker Mayfield and Lincoln Riley's Air Raid offense changed the way that he's played at all?

Yes, but I think Lincoln Riley and the OU offensive coaches are still figuring out how to best take advantage of what Perine has to offer. He really got going in the second half of the Tulsa game and had a decent amount of yards against Tennessee, so he’s clearly still got a role. I think the biggest problem for Perine with how OU plays is that they have typically had him lined up next to the quarterback in the shotgun, not behind the quarterback. Perine is a much better downhill runner than he is an east-to-west guy, so he hasn’t been as effective like that.

4) Oklahoma is one of two Big 12 teams WVU hasn't beaten since joining the conference in 2012. From you experience, what has Oklahoma done to have so much success in those previous three meetings? And do you see some of those traits in this year's Sooners?

Well, Oklahoma came about as close to losing that 2012 game as a team can without actually losing. In 2013, the Mountaineers played OU tough at home, but OU was still very much figuring out its offense and its quarterback situation. That was only the second game of the year. Then last season, WVU hung tough, made some big plays on offense and actually had the lead until Alex Ross’ kickoff return for a touchdown right before halftime. Then Perine went nuts in the second half. I picked OU to win 38-31, but I could absolutely see this game going the other way. The Mountaineers offense should be able to have success against the Sooners’ secondary and if the WVU defense can keep Mayfield and the OU receivers in check, it could spell a West Virginia win.


Craig Meyer: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG

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