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Commonwealth Cup Preview: Virginia vs. Virginia Tech Football

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For the 13th time...here we go.

Virginia Tech v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

At 2-9, and riding a 6 game losing streak, there is only one way that this season ends up as anything but a disaster. That is, of course, beating the Hokies on Saturday. Fans will forgive the loss to Richmond, the blown opportunity against UCONN and the poor results over the past few weeks. Fans will forgive all the negatives if Bronco Mendenhall can just beat VPI&SU for the first time in 13 years.

Though the Hoos haven’t beaten their rivals since 2003, the last four games have been close. Virginia has had chances to win but couldn’t get the stops they needed late.

This year, the Hokies are 8-3 overall, and 5-2 in conference. They currently lead the Coastal Division, tied with UNC but owning the head-to-head. Beating the Hokies could potentially knock them out of the ACC Championship game, and that would be fun. Last week, the Hokies scored 13 unanswered in the 4th quarter to beat Notre Dame in South Bend. They were outgained in the game, and lost the turnover battle, but managed to come out on top.

The Hoos, of course, fell to Georgia Tech 31-17. They didn’t play all that poorly, but another couple of late turnovers sealed their fate. Matt Johns started his first game of the season and was not great. He’ll get the nod again this week in Blacksburg.

Game Information:
Who: Virginia Tech
Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg
When: Saturday, Noon ET
TV: ESPN2

On to the matchups:

Hokies on Offense

QB: #4 Jerod Evans
RB: #34 Trevon McMillian, #45 FB Sam Rogers
WR: #1 Isaiah Ford, #5 Cam Phillips, #7 TE Bucky Hodges

Evans might be the second best QB the Hoos have faced this year, behind Lamar Jackson. The junior is having a phenomenal season, completing over 64% of his passes (20th in the nation) and averaging over 8.5 yards per attempt (18th). He has also rushed for a team-leading 675 yards and seven TDs.

The Hokies have gotten more production from their RBs than Evans’s team-leading rushing totals would lead you to believe. They have just used a number of different RBs, so the yards are split up. McMillian is the top rusher (other than Evans of course), with 568 yards on 124 carries (4.6 ypc), while sophomore Marshawn Williams has 244 yards on 59 carries (4.1 ypc). Rogers has also carried it 46 times for 164 yards (3.1 ypc). Williams, you may recall, was the team’s lead back in 2014 before missing all of last year with a knee injury.

Rogers is not a traditional FB. He carries the ball a few times a game, and also had 17 receptions for 222 yards and 3 TDs. For this game, Rogers is actually listed as the starting RB in a one back set.

The Hokies have run the ball 508 times, and thrown it 349 times. Of those runs, 150 of them are from Evans, and it is impossible to know how many of them were designed versus how many were scrambles. Many of his runs are designed, so we can definitely say that the Hokies are more of a running team. This is despite a 41st ranked passing offense and a 61st ranked rushing offense. The difference is even starker when you look at their 19th ranked passing efficiency offense. Of course, it is possible that if they threw the ball more, the efficiency would go down. That said, his least efficient games seem to be the games he throws the least (this includes the win over UNC, which was played in a hurricane).

They key for the Hoos in this game is to slow down the Hokies’ ground game. Yes, Evans is dangerous throwing the ball. But a lot of that stems from the ground game, and we saw this as a big part of Syracuse's upset win over the Hokies. Evans threw for over 300 yards, but the Hokies weren't really able to get anything going on the ground, and that caused the Hokies to have a lot of third and long situations, which led to a 4/13 conversion rate on third downs. That means punts and that means giving the ball back to the offense.

Of course, stopping the Hokies on those third downs is easier said than done. Isaiah Ford is the all-time leader in receptions and receiving TDs at Virginia Tech. He's 130 yards away from being the all time leader in receiving yards. While we're on the subject, Phillips is fourth all-time in receptions and Hodges is sixth. Yes, college football has changed and teams are throwing more than they ever did before. But all three of those guys are juniors and they are rewriting the Virginia Tech record books. This is one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the nation, and they are tough to stop.

The Hoos have played a lot of single coverage this season, and that means one mistake can lead to a big play for the Hokies. Especially on passing downs, the Hoos need to be wary of Hodges. He's one of the best TEs in the nation and at 6'7", he's very dangerous in the red zone. However, he also runs like a WR and has beaten the Hoos downfield in the past. Two years ago, the Hoos took a 3 point lead with under 4 minutes remaining. And the Hokies hit Hodges for a 50 yard gain, and then a 9 yard TD for the lead. That kind of things can't happen again.

Virginia Tech on Defense

DL: #4 DE Ken Ekanem, #60 DT Woody Baron
LB: #54 MLB Andrew Motuapuaka, #49 SLB Tremaine Edmunds
DB: #3 CB Greg Stroman, #22 S Terrell Edmunds

Many teams around the country run a nickel package as a base defense. It allows for more speed and coverage on the field and helps to counter the multiple-WR sets that are so prevalent around the country. The Hokies have been doing this for years under defensive coordinator Bud Foster. They have used a hybrid S/OLB that they call a Whip. They also have a Rover, but that’s just a fancy word for Free Safety.

Speed has always been the name of the game for the Hokies. They figure giving up a few extra yards due to a missed tackle on a run play is worth the gains they get from having more speed and better cover guys on defense. And it has worked out for them, with 24 consecutive bowl appearances. This year, the defense ranks 20th in the nation. They are 43rd against the run, but 20th against the pass (13th in passing efficiency defense). They’ve done this largely without forcing a ton of turnovers, which has long been their MO. They are just 63rd in the country with 17 turnovers forced in 11 games, and they actually have a negative turnover ratio.

The two LBs are the team’s leading tacklers, followed by the three safeties. Tremaine Edmunds is also tied for second in sacks and is second in TFLs, with 4.5 and 15.5, respectively. The team lead in sacks in Ekanem, with 5.5 and the team lead in TFLs is Baron with 17. Motuapuaka is all over the field, and along with his team leading 96 tackles, he has 5.5 TFLs, two sacks, four QB hurries, one INT, one FF and one FR.

The two Edmunds’ are brothers, with Terrell being older. Their dad was a pro bowl TE for the Dolphins in the late 80s/early 90s. Terrell is very strong in coverage and is tied for the team lead with three INTs. He also has six passes defended. The CBs are both very strong in coverage. Stroman has three INTs of his own to go along with 11 passes defended. On the other side, Brandon Facyson does not have an INT this year but he has eight passes defended and has forced two fumbles. Adonis Alexander gets some time at CB as well and has one INT along with six passes defended.

With all those cover men, the Hokies play a lot of single coverage. They’ll usually give safety help over the top, but underneath, it is man coverage. That gives the Hoos some opportunities to get Smoke Mizzell in single coverage against a LB, which is a win for the Hoos. Smoke could have a big game, especially with Matt Johns at QB, who seems to be more comfortable with the underneath stuff.

With all of the single coverage, the Hokies will bring a lot of pressure. That is what they do best, they pressure QBs they pressure WRs and they pressure offenses. All that pressure can cause mistakes. However, if you don't fold under the pressure, you can make some plays of your own. The Hoos are going to need some big plays. A screen pass called at the right time could be a big play. A good blitz pickup can lead to a big play downfield. But the Hoos have had a lot of troubles this season with bad turnovers. That simply can't continue this week if the Hoos are going to come out on top.

The Hokies two LBs are both very good against the run. They are bigger than VT LBs have been in years past, but they still run well. The Hoos have had more success on the ground the past few weeks, but that seems to have come at the expense of the passing game. Still, the Hoos need to be able to run the ball. Most likely, that means Smoke Mizzell. Hitting the edges hard could be successful against such an aggressive defense. If Smoke can get a hole to the edge, he could be off and running into the secondary. Last week, the Hoos used the ground game to keep the Yellow Jackets offense off the field. That needs to be the game plan this week too. But the Hokies have a better defense than the Jackets did, so it'll be tough.

Conclusion

One way or another, the season ends after this game for the Hoos. It has been disappointing from the start. The opener against Richmond, the debacle against UCONN and just about everything else this season has been a struggle. Even the two wins were tougher than they should've been.

This game, against two big rivals, is simply a mismatch. The Hoos have played up to their competition at times this week. The Hoos nearly knocked off then-number 5 Louisville, they beat a solid CMU team and they played Oregon tougher than expected.

But don't expect the Hokies to take this game lightly. They never have, even after a decade of success in this rivalry. The Hoos will need to play their best game of the season to come out on top, and on the road in a hostile environment, I can't see it happening.

Prediction: Hokies 42, Hoos 21