It’s rivalry week around college football, and for the Virginia Cavaliers that means the Virginia Tech Hokies. It means hearing over and over again about the last 14 years. All losses if you hadn’t heard.
This year, though, the Hoos come in 7-4 while the Hokies are 4-6. Virginia is coming off a tough overtime loss on the road at a strong Georgia Tech team. The Hokies, meanwhile, are coming off four consecutive losses, including a 38-14 drubbing at home to Miami. They also, as you may have heard, lost by 14 points to ODU, who lost to Liberty by 42. Virginia beat Liberty by 21, so by the transitive property of college football, Virginia should beat the Hokies by 77 points (14+42+21=77). The Hokies are also 1-4 at home this year, along with 3-2 on the road.
OK, so we know that’s not realistic. But Virginia is favored by 4.5 on the road in this rivalry game. Over the past 14 years, Virginia has only been favored once and that was 2014, a road game Virginia lost 24-20. Virginia took a lead with under three minutes remaining in that game and promptly gave up 75 yards and a TD on just 3 plays. That was poor.
The game kicks off at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg on Friday at 3:30 and will air on ABC. Let’s get to the matchups.
Virginia on Offense
It seems strange to say this about a Virginia Tech team that has long been known for defense, but the struggles for the Hokies this year have been defensively. Here’s a chart showing the Hokies’ ranking in Total Defense over the past 15 years since Virginia has won this matchup.
VPISU Total Defense Rankings By Year
That’s an impressive chart. Twelve top-20 defenses in 15 years. This year is just way out of line for this program.
What does that mean for this game? Well, the Hokies are 107th in rushing defense. Virginia’s rushing offense is ranked just 60th in the nation, but that’s a lot better than their 90th-ranked passing offense. However, Virginia’s passing efficiency ranks 45th nationally. So, while Bryce Perkins doesn’t throw it all that much, he’s effective when he does. The Hokies, meanwhile, are ranked 64th in passing defense, but 85th in passing efficiency defense.
In other words, even though this Virginia offense isn’t great, they seem to have an edge against Virginia Tech’s defense. The advanced numbers tell the same story. The Hokies defense ranks 89th in defensive S&P, while Virginia’s offense ranks 64th.
Nothing has changed scheme-wise for the Hokie defense. They run a 4-2-5 defense with a hybrid LB/DB called the “WHIP”. Historically, the Hokies have had very talented defensive fronts who were great at generating pressure on opposing QBs. Then they have talented, ball-hawking DBs who play tight pressure coverage and force lots of turnovers.
The Hokie DL this year has totaled 12 sacks, out of 22 total team sacks. But eight of those 12 have come from guys who are no longer in the lineup. First is Trevon Hill with 4.5 sacks, who was dismissed from the team back in September. Second is Houshon Gaines with 3.5, who was injured against Pitt a couple of weeks ago and is out for the season. The four DLs who will start this week have a total of four sacks on the season. Senior DT Ricky Walker is the top player on the unit, and he has struggled this year as the focus of opposing OLs after a strong junior year.
That lack of a consistent pass rush has had a cascading effect. The fewest interceptions they’ve pulled in as a team over the past five years is 10. This year, just five. The entire team has five, or the same number that Juan Thornhill has by himself. They are 98th in the nation in forcing turnovers, and the Hokies are usually in the top 25. They were 60th last year, which may be a disturbing trend for them.
The DBs simply aren’t getting it done. Here’s a play against Notre Dame where the DB is just simply out of position. It’s tough to tell from this video exactly what defense the Hokies are in, but based on where FS Tyree Rodgers is, it looks to be a single-high coverage. Rodgers is nowhere near the receiver.
With three sophomores, a junior, and a freshman, it’s a young unit that may be getting better as they gain experience, and that may already be happening this year. Over their first six games, the Hokies gave up an average of almost 300 yards in the air per game. Over the past three games, they’ve allowed just 170 yards passing per game. (I’ve thrown the Georgia Tech game out for these purposes, as the Wramblin Wreck attempted just a single pass all game and finished with 0 pass yards.)
The thing is, those three teams (Boston College, Pitt and Miami) are running teams. So, yes, the passing numbers aren’t that impressive. Remember, Pitt piled up 654 yards of total offense against the Hokies. In Lane Stadium.
So while the pass defense has, perhaps, improved, the run defense remains terrible. The numbers are skewed a bit because of the Georgia Tech game, but the Hokies haven’t been able to stop the run all season. Here’s a play you may have seen in highlight reels from earlier this season. The Hokies had Notre Dame bottled up at their own 2-yard line early in the 3rd quarter. Here’s what transpired next.
The Hokie run fits on this play are all over the place. There’s good blocking by the pulling linemen, but the hole for Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams is enormous, so he’s able to outrun the defense. Williams is a good RB and he’s faster than Virginia’s Jordan Ellis, but he runs with a similar style. Ellis should have success against this undersized and inexperienced Virginia Tech front. Pitt’s RB duo are also power backs, and both had tremendous success.
If Ellis does have success, that will force the Hokies to bring the safeties up to help. That will give Olamide Zaccheaus and company single coverage on the outside. The Hokie CBs are not capable of handling Virginia’s talented WRs in man coverage. If 6’2” freshman Caleb Farley is on Hasise Dubois, that leaves 6’0” 177 lb Bryce Watts on Joe Reed, and that’s a huge advantage for Reed. Reed has really come on strong the last month or so, and is proving to be a go-to guy for Perkins. If he gets single coverage against Watts, that’s a big play waiting to happen.
The games that the Virginia offense has struggled this year have come either in bad weather or against veteran defensive units, such as Pitt and Miami. The weather will be cold, but clear. And the Hokie defense is inexperienced and struggling. If the Virginia offense plays the way they are capable, they could put up some big numbers.
Virginia on Defense
As bad as the Virginia Tech defense has been, the offense has been keeping them in games. The offense has piled up over 420 yards per game, 53rd in the nation. The Hoos are just 89th in that stat. The advanced stats say the same thing. Virginia Tech ranks 54th in offensive S&P, while Virginia ranks 64th.
For the Hokies, it has come largely through the air. They are 40th in passing offense and 71st in rushing offense. Starting QB Ryan Willis has been decent, throwing for nearly 2000 yards with 17 TDs against just 6 INTs. Josh Jackson, last year’s starter as a freshman was expected to be one of the top QBs in the ACC this year, but had suffered a broken leg in the third game, and has missed the rest of the season. Willis has performed well in his absence, but isn’t the same player. Willis is a transfer from Kansas, where he played two years, including starting eight games as a true freshman. His arm is only average, but he is accurate. He’s also a good athlete, but not a great one. He’s not going to outrun the defense, like Bryce Perkins can do, but he can run. Here’s an example from last week’s game against Miami.
The Hokies also have true freshman QB Quincy Patterson, who is expected to redshirt. Because of the new rules, he can play in 4 games and retain his redshirt status. He’s played in 3 so far. He’s not a very polished passer at this point, and is just 1-of-5 on the season. But he can run. He’s got 9 carries for just 25 yards on the season. But if Virginia sleeps on him, he could make things happen.
Part of what is helping Willis is a talented group of pass catchers. The leading receiver is sophomore Damon Hazelton, with 45 catches for 745 yards and eight TDs. Hazelton is a transfer from Ball State, where he had 51 catches for 505 yards as a true freshman in 2016. Last year’s second leading receiver, Sean Savoy, has just 18 receptions, after 39 last year. He recently left the program with the intention of transferring. He also tragically lost his brother earlier this season, so there are certainly extenuating circumstances there.
Hazelton is a big play guy, capable of doing big things with the ball in his hands. And at 6’2” 220, he’s a tough cover for most college CBs. But Bryce Hall is not most college CBs. Hall leads the nation in passes defended and he spends a lot of time in man coverage (usually with deep safety help). Behind Hazelton is Eric Kumah, much more of a possession guy. Kumah is a big WR, in the same mold as Hasise Dubois, and can make the same plays. Freshman Tre Turner is another big play guy who averages over 18 yards per reception. TE Dalton Keene another guy to watch. He’ll line up in-line, split out and even in the backfield. He has 18 receptions and 3 TDs and averages over 14 yards per receptions, an outstanding figure for a TE.
On the ground, the Hokies are led by senior Steven Peoples, although sophomore Deshawn McClease is listed as “OR” on the depth chart. Peoples, though, leads the team in carries and yards by a wide margin, averaging over 5 yards per carry. At 5’9” 222, he’s a north-south runner who hits the hole hard and doesn’t go down easy. Take a look below at what he can do—it’s an impressive run against a good Notre Dame defense. Also notable is that he was down at the 1 and the Hokies couldn’t punch it in.
You might notice that this run goes over the right side. The right side of the Hokie line is much better than the left, so they will often run with power to the right side. LT Christian Darrisaw is a true freshman, and while he’s talented, he’s still learning. Here’s another play from the Notre Dame game.
Darrisaw is bull rushed right out of position by Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem. This gives Kareem a free run at Willis. Yes, Kareem doesn’t initially get the sack, but the flood gates open once Willis is running for his life and Notre Dame ends up with a fumble recovery and a TD on the play. Virginia’s 3-4 defense is good at isolating those OTs against a pass rusher, and at disguising which pass rusher it’ll be. Chris Peace isn’t as big as Notre Dame’s DE, but he’s a very good pass rusher and has great technique. Charles Snowden is even smaller than Peace, but he has a natural ability to rush the passer. Getting one of those guys matched up against Darrisaw should be a win for the Hoos.
Virginia Tech’s offense is capable. They have talent under center, at RB, WR and on the OL. They have depth at RB and Peoples is a big, power back. Virginia has had problems with big, power backs this year. That includes Indiana’s Stevie Scott and Pitt’s Darrin Hall. If they let People’s go off like Scott and Hall did, it could be a long day. Yes, Virginia Tech’s passing offense is dangerous, but the Virginia secondary is one of the best in the nation, and they have shut down better passing attacks than this. The key is not letting the running game get going. Then they can tee off on Willis and hopefully generate a few turnovers.
Right now, due in part to injuries and departures, the Hoos are deeper and more talented than the Hokies. That may not matter this week. For whatever reason, this game seems to mean more to the Hokies than to the Cavaliers. Their players get more hyped, their fans get more hyped and that’s part of why they’ve won 14 in a row.
If this game were in Charlottesville, I think the Hoos would come out on top. They might even win easily. But in Lane Stadium, against a team desperately needing a win to go bowling, Virginia is going to have to bring its A-game and we haven’t seen the A-game in a while. Add in Bryce Perkins not being 100% after suffering an injury last week against Georgia Tech, and I will quote one of my fellow STL writers:
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Until Virginia manages to win this matchup, I can’t pick it.
Prediction: Hokies 24, Virginia 21 (Season record 7-4)