Is this game the season for the Hokies? It’s only the seventh game, but a lot of folks are looking at it that way. Win and Tech avoids the embarrassment of losing to Duke at home and at least gets going in the right direction in the Coastal. Lose, and with Clemson, Miami and Florida State coming up on the schedule, getting to a bowl game would be a tough task. So yeah, it’s a fairly important game.
Here’s a look at the matchups. Feel free to offer your own thoughts on the game in the comments section below. Be sure to leave your predicted score and reasons for it.
Duke at Virginia Tech
- Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg
- When: Saturday, 12:29 p.m.
- TV: ACC Network
- Records: Duke 5-1, 2-0 ACC; Virginia Tech 3-3, 1-1 ACC
- Series: Virginia Tech leads 12-7
- Last meeting: Hokies won 14-10 last year in Durham, N.C.
- Line: Virginia Tech by 10
When Virginia Tech passes
Logan Thomas and his receivers finally had a highly-productive game against North Carolina, mostly out of necessity, since the Hokies found themselves down early and the running game provided no help throughout. Thomas threw for a career-high 354 yards and two touchdowns. Corey Fuller (143 yards, TD) and Demitri Knowles (83 yards) had big games, showing the depth of Tech’s passing game. With those two, Marcus Davis and presumably Dyrell Roberts, who wasn’t on the injury list this week after suffering a concussion at UNC, that’s a lot of weapons for the Hokies to use. Even J.C. Coleman is getting in on the act as a pass-catcher, coming out of the backfield on a few screens the last couple weeks. The line has given up 10 sacks this year but only two in 79 pass attempts the last two games against a pair of pretty good defensive lines.
Duke will be another challenge from that standpoint. The Blue Devils have averaged 2.5 sacks a game, led by defensive end Kenny Anunike, who has 4.5. (Duke had only one sack in its toughest game against Stanford, however.) The Blue Devils have given up yards in the air (242.3 ypg, 76th nationally) but have been pretty good in terms of pass efficiency defense (115.28, 36th nationally). They have some talented guys on the back end of their 4-2-5 scheme, though. Safety Walt Canty has been named the ACC defensive back of the week two straight weeks and is the only starting safety not to miss a game this year with an injury. He has a team-high 53 tackles and 5.5 tackles for a loss, so he’s around the ball a lot. Cornerback Ross Cockrell leads the ACC with four interceptions. The team has seven, one shy of the ACC lead. Safety Jordan Byas missed three weeks with a knee injury but has 28 tackles since. Still, opponents can move the ball in the air on this group. Three teams have thrown for 275 yards or more against them this season. If Tech can avoid the interceptions, it could have success here.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Virginia Tech runs
The Hokies’ ground game remains a mess. Virginia Tech finished with 40 rushing yards last week, its lowest total since the 2007 season opener. Making matters worse, Michael Holmes had a costly fumble that turned the tide in the middle of the third quarter in the UNC game. Tony Gregory should be back from a knee injury that’s kept him out the last two weeks, but he’s no cure-all. Holmes (255 yards, 4.3 avg., 4 TD) probably remains the strongest rushing threat, with Coleman, Gregory and Martin Scales getting the occasional look. Thomas (149 yards, 4 TD) is another threat the Hokies still haven’t really used to their fullest advantage this year. Again, all this is moot if the offensive line doesn’t open holes. There were no running lanes against UNC. Even David Wilson would have struggled to gain consistent yardage behind this group.
Duke has been OK against the run, allowing 129.8 yards per game (42nd nationally), but the Blue Devils didn’t do so hot their last time out, giving up 186 yards against Virginia. In fact, ACC teams (Wake, UVa) have averaged 5.04 yards per carry against them, although Virginia only had 2 yards in the second half last week (the flip side of that is that the Cavaliers gained 184 rushing yards in the first half). Part of the problem has been the absence of Kelby Brown, the team’s top linebacker who has yet to play this season because of a leg injury, just one of a ton of a injuries that have plagued the Blue Devils this season. Nose guard Jamal Bruce (foot) is questionable) but defensive end Justin Foxx (hand) is probable, so Duke might be getting some help up front.
When Duke passes
Sean Renfree was thought to be Duke’s best option on offense as a passer. Then Anthony Boone filled in last week and threw for 212 yards. Perhaps David Cutcliffe‘s quarterbacks are all capable? (Given his background with the Mannings, I’d gather that’s the case.) Renfree (1,282 yards, 9 TD, 5 INT) is probable this week with an elbow injury, so it’s probably safe to assume that both he and Boone (422 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT) will play. Both can throw it, so it doesn’t matter. Conner Vernon leads a productive receiving group. All he’s done is catch more passes (239) than anybody in ACC history. He’s fourth in league history with 3,230 receiving yards and needs 287 to pass Florida State’s Peter Warrick for the No. 1 spot. This year, Vernon has 41 catches for 555 yards and five touchdowns, so he’ll be a handful. Jamison Crowder (38 catches, 461 yards, 3 TD) and running back Desmond Scott (36 catches, 342 yards, TD) are Duke’s other big pass catchers. The line has allowed only four sacks all year, probably a combination of good pass protection and Duke getting the ball out quickly.
That’ll be a challenge for a Virginia Tech team has not gotten to the quarterback much this year. The Hokies have eight sacks in six games. That’s tied for 96th nationally with that oh-so formidable group at Ball State. The tackles have been a disappointment, particularly with Luther Maddy (ankle) hobbled. Defensive end James Gayle (2 sacks) and Tyrel Wilson (2 sacks) are the only players who have put much pressure on the quarterback. That hasn’t helped the secondary, which has had to cover guys longer than they’d like. Still, the group hasn’t been horrible against the pass. They’ve allowed 193.33 yards per game (27th nationally) and a QB efficiency rating of 111.03 (28th nationally). Granted, the schedule plays into that. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and North Carolina combined for 869 passing yards and 7 touchdowns in the air.
When Duke runs
The Blue Devils aren’t a great running team. They’ve averaged 126.0 yards per game on the ground, 95th nationally (that’s even four spots lower than the Hokies, surprisingly). Freshman Jela Duncan leads the team with 250 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Juwan Thompson (194 yards, TD) and Josh Snead (156 yards, 2 TD) have also carried the ball. Boone, who had seven carries for 41 yards against UVa, is a threat to run, but so is backup quarterback Brandon Connette, a 225-pounder who has five touchdown runs this year. Duke just hasn’t been able to get consistent yardage on the ground. Consider this: Virginia Tech is averaging 3.9 yards per carry this year. Duke’s average is 3.8.
Of course, the Hokies haven’t stopped anyone on the ground since Georgia Tech. North Carolina gouged them for 339 rushing yards last week, getting 262 from Giovani Bernard, the most ever for a running back in a game against Virginia Tech. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Pittsburgh ran for 254 yards. Tech sold out to stop the run against Cincinnati and held the Bearcats to 103 yards, but that led to 392 passing yards. Missed tackles have been the Hokies’ biggest problem, and they’ve done extra work this week trying to correct that. Jack Tyler (60 tackles), Kyshoen Jarrett (42) and Bruce Taylor (34) have been active tacklers, but Tech needs help from everyone. The line, as coach Charley Wiles said, has to “pitch a fit,” the linebackers need to fit gaps better and the secondary has to tackle better. This might be the case of a resistible force going against movable object.
Tech’s one lagging unit, kick return, finally broke out last week with a 93-yard return for a touchdown by Demitri Knowles . Of course, the Hokies also gave up a kick return for a touchdown for the first time in 237 games. That’s been the type of season it’s been. Tech is second in the ACC in punt returns, although it’s much more effective back there with Jarrett (22.0 avg.) in the game instead of Holmes (9.3 avg.). Kicker Cody Journell is now 7 of 8 on field goals this year. And punter A.J. Hughes, despite a mediocre effort at UNC, is still averaging 40.6 yards. One last thing: it’s odd that Brooks Abbott continues to do kickoffs. Opponents have an average starting position of the 33-yard line when he kicks off. When Michael Branthover does, the opponents’ average start is the 17-yard line.
Duke has been strong on punt returns. Lee Butler having a 17-yard average and has taken one back 65 yards for a score. Punter Will Monday has a 45.8-yard average. And Ross Martin is 7-for-8 on field goals this year, so there will be no repeat of Will Snyderwine last year, when he missed 3 of 4 field goals in a four-point loss to the Hokies. The kick return unit has been sub-par (105th nationally) and Duke is near the bottom of the country in covering both punts (109th nationally) and kicks (90th nationally), so Tech could take advantage.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
Cutcliffe said earlier this week that he thinks Frank Beamer is the top coach in the country, so there’s obviously respect there. But Cutcliffe is no slouch himself, despite his 64-63 overall record. He went 44-29 at Ole Miss, which doesn’t sound great until you see his predecessor, Tommy Tuberville, went 25-20, and his successor, Ed Orgeron, went 10-25. At Duke, Cutcliffe is 20-34. Again, that doesn’t sound great until you see that in the 12 years before his arrival, the Blue Devils were 19-117. He has them one win away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 1994. So that’s an accomplishment. Beamer still has the experience edge here, and, although Duke games have been close of late, he still hasn’t lost to the Blue Devils in eight tries.
Edge: Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech is not playing at a high level this year, and quite honestly, may not be capable of doing so. That said, I do feel like Duke’s 5-1 start is still a bit of a mirage. The four FBS-level teams the Blue Devils have beaten (Florida International, Memphis, Wake Forest and Virginia) are a combined 7-16. FIU and Memphis are among the worst teams in the FBS this year. Wake and UVa are among the worst in the ACC. So that 5-1 record is somewhat misleading. But I do think Duke is much improved and a much more formidable opponent than it has been in the past. And Hokies fans know the Blue Devils are capable of playing them close (14-10 last year, 34-26 in 2009). I think Duke will be able to score points against a Virginia Tech defense that has some major flaws. But I also think the opportunity is there for Thomas and the Hokies’ offense to do some things, particularly in the air. Thomas has looked sharp his last six quarters. That might be him breaking out of that early season slump. I think he’ll do enough for Tech to win a close game and, at least for a week, right the ship.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 30, Duke 27.