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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia and Virginia Tech for the Commonwealth Cup

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Boston College v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Barring any last minute changes to the schedule, this will be the final regular season game for the Virginia Cavaliers. And since bowl games seem to be up in the air a bit, this may be the last time we see this interaction of the Wahoos. Despite all the schedule changes, cancellations and postponements, the season ends, appropriately enough, with Virginia Tech.

The Hokies started out the season talking about competing with Clemson for the ACC title. They were ranked as high as 20th without having even played a game and reached as high as 18th in the Coaches Poll. But they’ve now lost four in a row including a pair of blowouts and Head Coach Justin Fuente’s seat is getting rather hot. In total, the Hokies are 4-6 and have just one win over a “good” team, an early season win over an NC State team still figuring out its identity.

The Hoos are 5-4, and riding a four-game winning streak. That includes a win over a ranked UNC squad and three (relatively) easy wins. The Hoos have been doing it with their offense, putting up at least 31 points in all four games.

When: Saturday, December 12, 8PM Eastern
Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, VA
TV: ACC Network

Virginia on Defense

The Virginia defense has turned very much into a big play unit. Either they come up with a big play or they give up a big play. Last week against BC, the Hoos had three interceptions and four sacks. But they also gave up over 500 yards and over 40 points. BC scored on plays of 45 yards and 36 yards and had 10 plays of over 20 yards.

Both of these plays are basically broken coverages. We don’t know what the defensive call is and we don’t know who was supposed to do what, but it’s safe to say that Nick Howell and Bronco Mendenhall didn’t draw it up this way. In the first play, Nick Jackson gets caught looking into the backfield while his man runs upfield. On the second play, both DBs go with the deep man, while the slot guy goes uncovered. That slot guy is Zay Flowers, BC’s leading receiver. Can’t leave him uncovered.

Some of this is due to the injuries in the secondary. But Joey Blount was back this week and the young guys now have half a season or more of experience. These types of mistakes shouldn’t be happening. When everything goes right, this defense is pretty good.

This is how they drew it up. This appears to be man coverage underneath with 2-deep zone behind that. There are five pass rushers, with Zane Zandier coming up and holding the front of the pocket. This prevents Grosel from escaping upfield, then the pocket collapses and they get the sack and forced fumble. Too bad they didn’t recover.

Last week, the Eagles had -7 yards rushing. Even after accounting for sacks and yards lost on a BC fumble, they only had about 50 yards rushing. It’s been a trend this year, as Virginia is 26th nationally in run defense. Some of that is due to all of the sacks (9th nationally with over 3.5 per game), but they’ve generally been solid against the run. Except, of course, for Louisville’s Malik Cunningham. He torched the Hoos on the ground for almost 200 yards.

Well Virginia Tech’s Hendon Hooker is similar to Malik Cunningham. In fact, Hooker is probably a better runner than Cunningham, even if he’s not as developed a passer. (Cunningham, by the way, threw for 350 yards on the Hokies). Hooker, though, left the Clemson game early (and tried to return and really couldn’t) and his status may be up in the air. The reports are that Hooker is fine, but we may well see Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister out there.

The first is Hooker, who’s size and speed make him a very dangerous runner. The second is Burmeister, who is dangerous in his own right, but isn’t nearly the threat that Hooker is.

The Hokies have one of the top rushing offenses in the nation, ranking 11th overall. The threat of that run game makes things easier in the passing game. It means there is often single-coverage on the outside.

This isn’t even a great throw, but because there is no safety help, it’s an easy catch. Both safeties were up in the box to help stop the run. It didn’t work, as the Hokies rushed for over 200 yards against Liberty and also passed for over 200 yards and three TDs.

The running game isn’t just Hooker and the QBs. The Hokies have a 1000 yard rusher in the backfield, in Khalil Herbert. The transfer from Kansas has been a beast for the Hokies. He’s averaging 7.6 yards per carry and he’s fifth in the nation in rushing. Like the rest of the team, though, he’s been struggling of late. Over the past three games (he left the Liberty game after returning the opening kickoff), he has just 217 yards and his average is down to 5.7 yards per carry (which, by the way, is still outstanding).

The Hokies have 428 rush attempts this year and just 232 pass attempts. That’s nearly two-thirds runs. And the Hokies are under .500 meaning this isn’t burning clock. They really run the ball a ton. Virginia will likely focus on stopping the run and hope that the secondary can hold it’s own against what is actually a very strong group of WRs. Six Hokies have at least 10 catches on the season and 5 of those average 15 yards per catch or more (Virginia has just one, Lavel Davis, Jr).

If Nick Howell and company focus too much on stopping the run, the Hokies might just torch the Virginia secondary. Much like BC did last week. Hopefully, the Hoos can come up with a few turnovers again to even things out.

Virginia on Offense

As mentioned, the Virginia offense has been firing on all cylinders. That starts with Brennan Armstrong, who has broken the 400 total yard barrier in the past two games. During the four game winning streak, Armstrong is averaging 350 total yards per game. His numbers are way up across the board. Over these four games, his completion percentage is 65% and he’s averaging over 11 ypa. Those are both very strong numbers and are well above his season numbers (60% and 8.4 ypa). That points out two things. First, that he was pretty bad earlier in the season. Second, that he’s improving very quickly.

This was a huge play in that game and helped Virginia pull away from the Eagles. Armstrong gets good blocking and runs through a huge hole. But the rest of the run is all Armstrong. Anybody who might question Armstrong’s top-end speed need only watch him stay ahead of the BC secondary.

We’ll likely see a lot of these kinds of plays, as they’re proving to be very successful. And Virginia Tech has struggled with mobile QBs this year. Liberty’s Malik Willis ran for 108 yards and a TD in their win over the Hokies. Virginia Tech has given up a rushing TD to the QB in five of the past six games. That includes two last week from Trevor Lawrence. And let’s also not forget what Bryce Perkins did to the Hokies last year with his legs.

Perkins had 164 yards and two TDs on the ground last year. His two long TD runs early in the game set the tone and Virginia Tech just had no answer. He ended up throwing for 311 yards and a TD as well. Just like we saw above, with Hendon Hooker, Perkins’ ability to make plays with his legs impacted the Virginia Tech defense and opened things up for him to make plays with his arm. This is the same thing we are starting to see from Virginia this year. Between Perkins and Thompson, over a third of Virginia’s plays are QB runs.

Armstrong is now the team’s leading rusher and is up to 4.8 ypc. That is still far behind Keytaeon Thompson’s 6.3 ypc, which has been a huge boost to the offense. Just having him on the field opens up so many things for the Virginia offense.

These two plays come out of very similar formations and Thompson taking the snap with Armstrong also in the backfield. On the first, he looks towards Armstrong but then takes off running. On the second, Thompson and Armstrong roll out together with Armstrong taking a pitch and throwing a strike to Ra’Shaun Henry for the TD. And there are still other wrinkles we could see off this look. We know Armstrong can take off running. We’ve seen Thompson fake a pitch for a reverse. And although Thompson hasn’t shown much with his arm yet, there’s still a chance he can throw for a bg play. You simply can’t defend all those options.

The Hokies, long known for their defensive prowess, have simply not been good enough this year. They have the 111th ranked defense, which is 96th against the run and 102nd against the pass. Like the Wahoo, the Hokie defense is a big-play unit. They want to force turnovers, they want to create negative plays. But that often means they give up big plays to the opponent.

They have created turnovers, ranking 16th nationally in interceptions and 30th in turnovers gained. As discussed earlier this season, turnovers are often fluky and not necessarily repeatable. Case in point; after eight INTs over the first six games, they have just two over the next four. This may sound repetitive, but holding on to the football and avoiding turnovers will go a long way towards winning this game. The Hokie defense relies on turnovers to get off the field, because they simply can’t stop people otherwise. They are ninth in the ACC in third down defense and dead last in red zone defense.

And they are also generating sacks, ranking 17th nationally in sacks per game (3.2). But of their 32 total sacks, 19 have come in three games (Duke, NC State and Miami). That means the other seven games have totaled just 13 sacks, which includes zero against Clemson last week.

The Hokies defense is an aggressive 4-2-5. The four DLs are always in attack mode, always trying to get to the QB. The team leaders in sacks and TFLs are all on the DL. But the team leads in tackles are the LBs and DBs. Over 80% of the team’s sacks come from the DL as do 57% of their TFLs. That’s by design.

The Virginia OL has really been very good all year, possibly the strongest unit on the team. This is strength against strength. The matchup of Virginia’s OL against Virginia Tech’s DL could determine the outcome of the game.

Conclusion

This is going to be a high scoring affair. Neither defense can really be trusted to get stops consistently. There are going to be some big defensive plays, as both teams are aggressive and to force errors. But those big plays will just lead to more scores.

The biggest advantage the Hoos have is that Lane Stadium won’t be packed full of fans on Saturday night. The Hokies feed off their crowd, especially in this rivalry game. The Hokies may be reeling a bit, but they shouldn’t have any trouble getting up for this game. Neither team should have any trouble getting their energy up for this one.

If the stadium were packed with fans, I probably pick the Hokies in this one. But, it won’t be.

Conclusion: Cavaliers 42, Hokies 35 (season record: 6-3)