Hokies can't afford to look past WMU
By Jimmy Robertson
September 7, 2001

Tech head coach Frank Beamer always says that a team improves the most from its first game to its second.

Come this Saturday, he'll find out just how much his team has improved.

That's because the Hokies take on one of the nation's most underrated teams in Western Michigan, who travels to Lane Stadium for a noon kickoff. The Broncos, coming off a 9-3 season, laid waste to Division I-AA Illinois State 48-7 in their opener.

How good is Western Michigan? According to Beamer, very good.

"They'd be in the top half of the BIG EAST," Beamer said, referring to the Hokies' home conference. "Without question.

"I'm not sure people give the MAC credit. They beat guys time after time. Just look at who they've played and how they've played them. I'm not sure why people haven't given them any respect, but I can tell you this, they have our respect."

The Broncos certainly rank as one of the best teams in the underrated Mid-American Conference. Last season, Western Michigan gave Wisconsin a tough game before succumbing 19-7. The next week, the Broncos went to Iowa and smacked around the Hawkeyes and that gave the Broncos confidence, enabling them to win the MAC West Division title. Western Michigan lost to Marshall in the MAC title game at Marshall, and thus, lost out on a bowl bid. But the Broncos have been eligible for a bowl game each year since 1997.

MAC foes tend to beat good teams every year. This year remains no different. In the first week of the season, Toledo hammered Minnesota and Bowling Green shocked Missouri. And the Hokies know all about the MAC too. In 1997, a veteran, well-coached Miami of Ohio team marched into Lane Stadium, played near-flawless football and walked out with a win over the Hokies. Western Michigan resembles that Miami team, featuring 13 seniors and nine juniors among their starting 22 players, and Broncos coach Gary Darnell - hired by current Tech AD Jim Weaver - has a career record of 32-15.

"People who say we play a soft schedule didn't see Western Michigan play last week," Beamer said. "They're effective, they're efficient and they're experienced."

Of particular concern is Western Michigan's offense. The Broncos boast arguably the best quarterback in the MAC in senior Jeff Welsh. Welsh completed 19 of 26 passes for 330 yards and he tied a school record with five touchdowns against Illinois State. As a team, the Broncos threw for a school record 462 yards and five different players scored touchdowns.

Even though they are a predominantly passing team, they also run the ball well, amassing 151 yards against Illinois State. An offensive line, which features three seniors and two juniors, paves the way for the running game and also protects Welsh pretty well.

Therein lies the biggest concern for the Hokies. Amazingly, Tech failed to record a sack against UConn quarterback Keron Henry. The Hokies got to Henry and knocked him down some. But the bottom line is that zero sacks doesn't get it done against a team like Western Michigan. And making matters worse for Tech, Jim Davis, a sophomore defensive end known for getting to the quarterback, will be out this week with a bulging disk in his back.

"We've got to put pressure on the quarterback," safety Willie Pile said. "All of us. That's what our defense is predicated on. We want to force the quarterback to make decisions quicker than what he wants to make or to make bad decisions. If you let anyone sit back there, I don't care who it is, then he's going to have some success."

Tech's best defense could be its offense. The Hokies played with amazing efficiency against UConn despite breaking in a new quarterback. Grant Noel made his first career start a memorable one, throwing for 267 yards and three touchdowns in less than three quarters. The Hokies, as usual, ran the ball with authority as three backs rushed for more than 63 yards each.

However, one of those backs definitely won't be in uniform. Lee Suggs, Tech's All-American and Heisman candidate, tore the ACL in his left knee, ending his season. Will the psychological effect of that injury linger Saturday?

"I hate to see anything like that happen," Noel said. "I hate it for him and his family. But his career is no where near over.

"We're fortunate in that we have a stable of backs. I'm excited for Keith and I think he'll do well. I just hate that he'll get to do it at someone else's despair."

Keith Burnell, a redshirt junior from Chesapeake, Va., will get his first career start. Burnell came to Tech as a highly touted running back, choosing the Hokies over Penn State. But early in his career, he was plagued by inconsistency and his maturity, or lack of, drove Tech's coaches crazy. As a result, he spent the better part of three years on the bench.

But this spring, Burnell put it all together. He worked hard and ran harder. He took care of the ball. He cut down on his missed assignments. In short, he grew up.

"The opportunity has come for me," Burnell said. "This is my chance and I'm going to run with it. I'm not going to look back."

"I don't know if I've had one back improve as much as Keith did this spring," running backs coach Billy Hite said. "He had the best spring of anyone, including Lee.

"A year ago, I wouldn't have even mentioned Keith. But now, I feel very comfortable with Keith back there."

Burnell may get more carries than normal for a Tech tailback. That's because the No. 2 tailback on the depth chart, freshman Kevin Jones, has been hindered with a quad bruise, though he should play. The No. 3 tailback is Wayne Ward, who played fullback last weekend against UConn.

But it matters little who runs the ball as long as Tech's offensive line continues to play well. The past two seasons, the Hokies have set the BIG EAST single-season rushing record, and they got started on the right foot this season. Tech's offensive line dominated against UConn, both in the running and passing games. The Hokies average close to 300 pounds on the line, while Western Michigan's heaviest player on the defensive front - Bryan Pinder - weighs just 275. So expect the Hokies to pound the ball early and often.

On special teams, the guy to watch for Western Michigan is diminutive punt returner Josh Bush. The 5-foot-9, 151-pound senior scoots all over the place and he also leads WMU in receiving. He caught five passes for 122 yards last weekend.

Also, keep an eye on WMU's kickers. Both punter Adam Anderson and kicker Robert Menchinger are redshirt freshmen. The Hokies nearly blocked one last week - and should have - so expect them to go after Anderson.

As for Tech, kicker Carter Warley missed two field goals last week mainly because he lined up too close to the line of scrimmage. UConn got pieces of the ball on both of those attempts. Warley insists things have been corrected and looks forward to redeeming himself.

And Tech's coaches, particularly Beamer, placed an emphasis on special teams this week. The Hokies played mediocre on special teams last week, and for Beamer, that simply isn't good enough.

Overall, the Hokies possess more talent and more speed than Western Michigan. But Tech can ill afford to look past Western Michigan. The Hokies paid the price for doing that in 1997 when Miami of Ohio beat them.

"It will be a challenge for us," Noel said. "There are some good teams in the MAC. I'm sure they could use a win like this to put their program where it should be."

"Any time you play a team from the MAC, you better tie your hat on," Beamer said. "It's a good league with good players. You take a guy like Ben Taylor [the Hokies' All-American linebacker]. That's where he was headed until we got in on him. That's the type of talent in that league, so we certainly can't overlook Western Michigan."