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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Virginia Tech Hokies

Could this be the year the streak is finally broken?

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Liberty v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers are the only football team in the ACC Coastal that has never won the division and never played in the ACC Championship game. In fact, over the past 6 years, a different ACC Coastal team has played in the ACC Championship game. If Virginia gets there this year, they’ll complete a full round-robin for the ACC Coastal. That’s fairly ridiculous, especially in light of Clemson’s dominance in the Atlantic division.

Of course, we all know the streak. Fifteen straight losses to the Virginia Tech Hokies. Many of those games were not close, though recently they’ve been much more competitive. That, of course, includes last year when the Hoos led with the ball with under four minutes.

That game was in Blacksburg, whereas this year the game is at Scott Stadium. That’s a benefit to Virginia. The Hoos are 6-0 at home this year and the offense in particular has looked better at home.

A month ago, this game maybe looked like a cakewalk for the Hoos. The Hokies were reeling, and Virginia was soaring. Neither of those trends continued, and in fact the Hokies are one of the hottest teams in college football. They haven’t given up a single point in their past two games, wins over Georgia Tech and Pitt.

Virginia on Defense

The last few weeks have certainly changed the way Virginia Tech’s season has looked. A big part of that is the turnaround on offense. The Hokies currently rank 86th in the nation in total offense. But the last three weeks, they’ve averaged over 400 yards per game.

The biggest change was the insertion of QB Hendon Hooker into the starting lineup. Ryan Willis was the unquestioned starter as the season began. He had a big year last year and is a very strong passer.

But the team lost a lot of their WRs from last year and the passing game simply wasn’t clicking. Hooker provides a running threat, which made him attractive at that point. What is surprising is that Hooker has been a much better passer than expected. Yes, they’ve simplified the reads for him, giving him the best chance to be successful. He gets the ball out quickly, and he’s been accurate. He’s actually completing a higher percentage of his passes and averaging more yards per attempt and per completion than Willis did. (And here I must note that Hooker missed the Notre Dame game due to injury, which would be the best pass defense he’s faced by a large margin.)

With Hooker at QB, they run a lot of combo routes on one side of the field. One shallow and one deep. Hendon reads which of the two routes is there, or tucks a runs. It simplifies the game for him.

He pump fakes the short route, which doesn’t really cause the defense to react. The throw on the deep route is a perfect throw. And a great catch.

They also get Hendon out of the pocket quite a bit. Bootlegs, RPOs and sliding pockets.

This is a designed throwback to the TE. But Hendon sells the bootleg to his right, drawing the action.

Early in the season, the Hokies were struggling to run the ball. Some of that, of course, was the change in QB. But this OL is incredibly young, and took them some time to get comfortable. Two true freshmen start along with three sophomores. No surprise that they only ran for 98 yards against BC in the opener. They’ve rushed for 224 or more in four of their last five games.

It’s this type of run. The zone-read, with a run up the middle. This isn’t an experienced OL, but it is a big one. They average 316 pounds. They want to get “a hat on a hat” and run the ball up the middle. Virginia will see a lot of this, and it is not something they’ve handled all that well recently.

Georgia Tech lit the Hoos up with these types of plays. The RB/QB duo rushed for 145 yards at over 5 yards per carry.

Virginia’s defense has to be better than that this week. If they can slow down the run game, it’ll force Hendon to throw the ball. Hendon has averaged just 18 attempts per game (and that includes 27 in the 6OT game against UNC). Getting the Hokies into passing situations will be great.

Of course, the injuries that Virginia has suffered in the secondary make that a scary proposition. But it also makes things easier on the LBs. They know they can pin their ears back and come after Hendon. The Hokies are 65th in the nation in sacks allowed. That’s less impressive when you realize that they’re 16th in the country in fewest pass attempts. The Hokies OL is better at run blocking than pass blocking. Hooker may beat the defense once or twice, as James Graham did and as Buckshot Calvert did, but in long run, getting his pressured will pay off. As it did against Graham and Calvert.

Virginia on Offense

Somehow, the Hokies allowed Duke to score 45 points in Blacksburg in their blowout win. That’s the most Duke has scored against an FBS team. They also allowed 35 to both Miami and BC. But, they held Notre Dame to just 21, and of course held GT and Pitt to zero.

Longtime Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster is retiring at the end of this year. It’s possible his guys are playing their hearts out for their leader right now as his career comes to an end. That would explain the jump in performance over the past month. Doesn’t really explain the poor performances earlier in the season.

Explaining that isn’t complicated though. This is a very young unit. There’s one senior, five juniors and five sophomores. Many of them have 20+ career starts already. They’re basically completing their second full season on the field. So it’s no surprise they’re better. They went through their growing pains last year (98th in total defense) and are seeing the benefits now.

The Hokies run a base 4-2-5 defense. It’s a fast, aggressive unit. They want to dictate things, not react to the offense. They want “havoc” plays. Sacks, TFLs, turnovers. They’re 12th in the nation in sacks, 30th in TFLs and 55th in turnovers. They’ll play a lot of press coverage underneath. They have the big DBs to do it. All five are over 6’0” and four are over 200 pounds. They’re very physical. That allows Foster to bring them on blitzes, both pass and run.

This really is one of the most aggressive defenses in the country. But sometimes, that aggression can bite them.

MLB Rayshard Ashby has responsibility for the TE. He takes a step towards the TE, but then bites on the play-fakeBy the time he realizes it, it’s an easy TE.

We’ve seen almost this exact play several times this year from the Hoos.

Look for it again.

Strangely, the Hokie leader in sacks is CB Chamarri Connor. That’s pretty rare. Second is MLB Ashby. So obviously they’ll blitz. But the DL is capable of getting their own pass rush. The DL as a unit has 19.5 sacks from eight different guys.

Virginia’s OL has also improved greatly, but it’s hard to say how much of that is their performance and how much is lesser defenses. As I said last week, the OL was shuffled around a lot early in the season. As it’s settled into more consistent roles, they’ve gotten better. That is not a coincidence. Hopefully, that’s a lesson learned for the coaching staff.

Their ability to keep the Hokie DL out of the backfield is the game. Virginia’s offense has generally not fared well against the better defenses they’ve faced. Against Miami, Notre Dame and Pitt, Virginia averaged just total 322 yards. Those are all top-20 defenses. The Hokies rank 35th, allowing 347 yards per game. But before the last three games, that average was over 400 yards. They’ve allowed just 311 yards over the past two games combined. Pitt and GT are two of the three worst offenses in the ACC, but that’s still amazing.

Virginia isn’t far ahead of Pitt, but they’ve been firing on all cylinders the past month. That seems to coincide with Bryce Perkins’ health. He wasn’t 100% all year, and you could see it on the field. Now he’s healthy and the Hoos offense is doing what we expected them to do all year.

Virginia’s offense is at its best when Perkins is moving around in the backfield, picking up yards with his feet and getting lots of receivers involved. When he isn’t doing that, Virginia’s offense struggles. In their FBS wins, Perkins averages almost 18 carries. In losses, it’s 15. He’s also been sacked more in those losses. Out of 34 sacks allowed this year, 17 have come in those three losses. Trying to turn Perkins into a drop-back passer does not work. He didn’t run nearly as much last week, but that’s largely because his RBs were gashing Liberty. Don’t expect that against the Hokies.

If VT is able to get pressure without having to bring extra pass rushers, they’ll be able to keep the WRs covered and also possibly spy on Perkins. But if the Hokies are too aggressive, there will be room for Perkins to run.

Georgia Tech only brings four, but it’s still man coverage underneath. Wayne Taulapapa gets a block on the spy, and Perkins is off and running. Perkins’ 65 yard TD run against UNC looks very similar. This is probably a run-pass option for Perkins. He has one (or two) reads and then tucks and runs. You can see the C Olu Oluwatimi get out in front of him to block.

The Hoos are just 118th in the nation in rushing at 123 yards per game. But they’re averaging 150 over the past five games. That includes just 26 carries for 78 yards against Louisville. That’s the season low in runs, and they average almost 34. With no threat of a run game, Perkins’ short passing game doesn’t work.


After fifteen years, it seems like the Hoos are due some bounces. They didn’t get the bounces last year, and still very nearly won. Playing at home, hopefully they can get some of the bounces.

Virginia’s defense has fallen off with all the injuries. But they’re still the best defense Hooker has seen since Miami. He completed just 10/20, though that accounted for 184 yards. Early in the game, as Virginia Tech opened up a 28-0 lead on the ‘Canes, Hooker was just 5/9 for 56 yards. The Canes had four turnovers in the first quarter.

Turnovers will destroy the Hoos. They haven’t turned it over in the past two games, but they’ve turned it over eight times in their three losses, while generating just one. In their FBS wins, they’re plus-seven in turnover differential. Chances are, whichever team wins the turnover battle wins the game. At home, I’ll take my chances on the Hoos.

Prediction: Virginia 24, Hokies 17

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