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No. 21 Virginia Tech rekindles an old rivalry when they face No. 22 West Virginia on Sunday night in FedExField. This rivalry has been on hiatus since 2005, and that’s a good thing. The two schools had never particularly liked each other, but it turned to pure hatred in 2003 when West Virginia fans felt betrayed when the Hokies left the Big East to go to the ACC. I think it was a good idea to put the rivalry on the shelf for awhile.
It stayed on the shelf for too long, though. College football is about emotions and rivalries. Players and coaches come and go, but the fans are always there. Growing up as a Big East guy, it just hasn’t felt the same. I miss those old Big East days, and I don’t have a problem admitting it. The scheduling was balanced, West Virginia, Miami and Syracuse were good, and that CBS intro for their afternoon Big East game was awesome.
This one won’t be on CBS, and the Big East is dead, but this is still Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia. This game has needed to happen for quite some time, and it’s finally here. I think it’s good for both schools, though I’ll admit that I might end up changing my mind at some point in the tailgating lots on Sunday.
I never wanted to admit it, but I was jealous of West Virginia there for awhile. I was jealous because of these two games…
January 2, 2006 (Sugar Bowl): West Virginia 38, Georgia 35
January 2, 2008 (Fiesta Bowl): West Virginia 48, Oklahoma 28
I sat in a bar in Miami and watched the Mountaineers take apart a more talented Oklahoma team. The next night, I watched the Hokies embarrass themselves against a Kansas team they should have beaten by 20 points. As for 2005, Tech had more overall talent than West Virginia, and had in fact beaten them 34-17 in Morgantown. That was West Virginia’s only loss that year. But in big games that everybody was watching, West Virginia did extremely well, and Virginia Tech played poorly. That used to tick me off.
Here we are in 2017, and these two teams will face each other in a game a lot of people will be watching (7:30 p.m., Sunday on ABC). Historically, Virginia Tech has done poorly in these early regular season neutral site games. Actually, poorly isn’t the right word. Dreadful would be more accurate.
2004: USC: 24-13 loss at FedEx
2008: ECU: 27-22 loss in Charlotte
2009: Alabama: 34-24 loss in Atlanta
2010: Boise State: 33-30 loss at FedEx
2012: Cincinnati: 27-24 loss at FedEx
2013: Alabama: 35-10 loss in Atlanta
2016: Tennessee: 45-24 loss at Bristol Motor Speedway
Throw in the fact that the Hokies have never won an ACC Championship Game that I’ve attended in person, and you can see why I don’t get all warm and fuzzy when Virginia Tech plays a game like this.
Nevertheless, Virginia Tech is due, and with the exception of the Tennessee game (which the Hokies won statistically, except for that pesky turnover stat), those losses were under the previous coaching staff. None of those past games mean anything now.
The West Virginia Offense vs. the Virginia Tech Defense
West Virginia quarterback Will Grier (6-foot-2, 214 pounds, r-Jr.) is the talk of the Mountaineer fanbase. The former Florida quarterback made a big impact in his short time in Gainesville. In his six games as a starter in 2015, he put up the following numbers…
New Mexico State: 16-of-18, 166 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT
East Carolina: 10-of-17, 151 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Kentucky: 13-of-22, 125 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
Tennessee: 23-of-42, 283 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Ole Miss: 24-of-29, 271 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INT
Missouri: 20-of-33, 208 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INT
Total: 106-of-161 (65.8 percent), 1,204 yards, 10 TDs, 3 INTs
A very good Florida defense allowed Grier to grow into the role, and his final three starts were particularly impressive. However, he was then suspended for Performance Enhancing Drugs after taking an over-the-counter supplement. He left Florida, and then found a new home in Morgantown.
There’s no doubt that Grier is going to be a good player for West Virginia. He’s going to be a physical upgrade over Skyler Howard, who started for the Mountaineers a year ago. He’s got some experience, he is mobile, and he’s got a good arm. However, he’s not going to show the Hokies anything they’ve never seen before.
Here is a list of quarterbacks that Virginia Tech faced in 2016 that were drafted earlier this year…
Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina, Round 1, No. 2 overall
Deshaun Watson, Clemson, Round 1, No. 13 overall
DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame, Round 2, No. 52 overall
Josh Dobbs, Tennessee, Round 4, No. 135 overall
Nate Peterman, Pitt, Round 5, No. 171 overall
Brad Kaaya, Miami, Round 6, No. 211 overall
Tech faced a lot of talent at quarterback last year. How did those quarterbacks fare?
Completion percentage: 54.7 percent
QB Rating: 128.66
Two of those six drafted quarterbacks threw for under 100 yards against the Tech defense. Two of them completed fewer than 50 percent of their passes, and as a group they completed less than 55 percent, which is a low number by today’s standards. Their overall quarterback efficiency rating was 128.66, which would have ranked 70th in the country out of 109 eligible quarterbacks in 2016. In other words, six NFL quarterbacks, combined together, had a below-average performance against the Virginia Tech defense in 2016. Deshaun Watson had a pretty good day, but he had Clemson talent around him. Will Grier won’t have Clemson talent around him.
I grabbed this screenshot from our game roster card. It compares Virginia Tech’s leading returning receivers with West Virginia’s leading returning receivers…
Much has been made of Virginia Tech losing Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges to the NFL, and the fact that Virginia Tech’s returning receivers are very inexperienced. From the looks of it, West Virginia is going to have the same issues.
Ka’raun White (6-foot-1, 199 pounds, r-Sr.) will have to step up and be West Virginia’s top receiver after catching 48 passes a year ago. Gary Jennings Jr. (6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Jr.) caught 10 passes in 2016, and he’s West Virginia’s second leading returning receiver. He’ll have to raise his game as well, and the Mountaineers will have to get production from a lot of young, inexperienced receivers to be an effective offense.
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It sounds exactly like what we’ve been hearing about the Virginia Tech offense since the spring. The difference is that Tech’s top two returning receivers, Cam Phillips and CJ Carroll, were actually more productive last year than West Virginia’s top returning receivers.
Of course, no passing game can work without an effective offensive line. Here’s how West Virginia will line up from left to right…
LT Yodny Cajuste (6-foot-5, 308 pounds, r-Jr.): 7 career starts. Cajuste missed 2016 with a knee injury sustained in the season opener.
LG Grant Lingafelter (6-foot-5, 305 pounds, r-Sr.): Lingafelter is a career backup, taking just 284 career offensive snaps.
C Matt Jones (6-foot-3, 318 pounds, r-So.): Jones has played in one career game.
RG Kyle Bosch (6-foot-5, 298 pounds, r-Sr.): Bosch has made 29 career starts in 32 career games, and was named First Team All-Big 12 in 2016.
RT Colton McKivitz (6-foot-7, 306 pounds, r-So.): McKivitz has made 10 career starts and was named to the All-Big 12 Freshman team in 2016.
The strength of that line is on the right side, where Bosch has been starting most of his career. Next to him is Colton McKivitz, who had a very good season as a freshman last year.
The question mark for West Virginia is from center to left tackle. Matt Jones has virtually no experience at the center spot. Grant Lingafelter has played a bit in a backup role. Yodny Cajuste has been a part-time starter, but he missed all but the first game of 2016 with a knee injury. Cajuste and Lingafelter must protect the blindside of Will Grier, and they must do it against Tech’s most athletic pass rusher — defensive end Trevon Hill. That will be a matchup to watch.
Despite all the talk surrounding Grier, West Virginia would be smart to try and establish an effective running game to take the pressure off of so many new players in the passing game. To that effect, they return tailback Justin Crawford (6-feet, 200 pounds, Sr.). Crawford was a big part of West Virginia’s offensive success last season with 1,104 yards on just 163 carries. That’s an absurd 7.3 yards per carry. Kennedy McKoy (6-feet, 201 pounds, So.) had 472 yards on just 73 carries (6.5 ypc) last year as a freshman. The success of West Virginia’s running game doesn’t get talked about enough, but it was critical to their success last season. It might be even more critical for the Mountaineers this season.
West Virginia’s offense put up good numbers a year ago, and they generally put up good numbers each season. However, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out that defensive efficiency numbers in the Big 12 aren’t particularly good. Here were the Big 12 defensive S&P+ rankings from last season, with Virginia Tech’s ranking thrown in as a comparison. I also included Miami, whose defense smashed the WVU offense in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Miami: No. 13
Virginia Tech: No. 17
West Virginia: No. 37
Kansas State: No. 43
TCU: No. 51
Oklahoma: No. 55
Baylor: No. 58
Texas: No. 60
Oklahoma State: No. 66
Kansas: No. 82
Iowa State: No. 93
Texas Tech: No. 125
From an efficiency standpoint, West Virginia had the best defense in the Big 12 last season. Obviously, the West Virginia offense never had to meet that defense. However, they did met Miami’s No. 13 defense, which held the Mountaineers to 229 yards of total offense and 14 points. The second best Power 5 defense they faced, Kansas State, held West Virginia to just 17 points.
West Virginia dominated defenses ranked outside the top-50. From No. 51 TCU to No. 125 Texas Tech, they put up very good numbers. However, the only two Power 5 defenses they faced who had a pulse did very well against the Mountaineers’ offense. Miami, in particular, dominated the West Virginia offense. That’s the same Miami defense that allowed over 500 yards and 38 points to Virginia Tech’s offense.
The defense West Virginia faces on Sunday night is going to be a lot closer to that Miami defense than any other defense they faced last year. West Virginia is going to be breaking in a lot of new players against a defense that returns a lot of talent. This isn’t a Big 12 defense. West Virginia is going to have to play really well to score consistently on Sunday night.
My biggest concern is the West Virginia running game when Tech’s backup defensive line is in the game. The Hokies’ backup defensive line is made up of three redshirt-freshmen (defensive end Emmanuel Belmar and defensive tackles Jimmie Taylor and Jarrod Hewitt) and a redshirt-sophomore (defensive end Houshun Gaines). If any of those guys blow a gap assignment, the Mountaineers have good enough running backs to make them pay for it.
The West Virginia Defense vs. the Virginia Tech Offense
Considering the conference they play in, I believe West Virginia had a better year defensively than offensively in 2016. The Mountaineers had the Big 12’s most efficient defense. They use a unique 3-3-5 scheme that you don’t see very often. That scheme was introduced back in the early 2000s when Rich Rodriguez became West Virginia’s head coach. It’s still around despite there being two head coaching changes since then.
Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson arrived on Rodriguez’s staff in 2002. He also coached under Rodriguez at Michigan and Arizona, and also had a brief stint at Pittsburgh (I’m sure West Virginia fans love that little factoid). Dana Holgorsen was smart to enough to hire him before the 2014 season, and he’s done a good job with their defense. That defense was responsible for a number of low-scoring wins last season.
vs. Missouri: 26-11
vs. Kansas State: 17-16
at Texas: 24-20
vs. Baylor: 24-21
They also held Texas Tech to 17 points and TCU to 10 points. When most people think of West Virginia football under Dana Holgorsen, they think offense. Personally, I think their defense was better than their offense in 2016.
That may or may not be the case in 2017. The defense lost a lot of players, particularly up front. The secondary should be solid, and the scheme is unique and difficult to prepare for, but the Mountaineers have to replace some good players.
Some young players will be playing on the big stage for the first time on Sunday night.
Defensive end Adam Shuler II (6-foot-4, 268 pounds, r-So.): Shuler has zero career starts, but was named Athlon Second Team All-Big 12 Freshman in 2016.
Defensive tackle Xavier Pegues (6-foot-2, 292 pounds, r-Sr.): Despite his status as a redshirt-senior, Pegues has never taken a snap in an FBS football game. He was a JUCO player, then redshirted at WVU in 2015. A shoulder injury kept him out last season. He’s apparently the best player among a very inexperienced group of defensive tackles.
Defensive end Reese Donahue (6-foot-4, 263 pounds, So.): Donahue was a backup in 12 games last year and had 12 tackles.
That isn’t much experience among West Virginia’s starters, and they’ll be facing a Virginia Tech offensive line that is pretty experienced overall.
West Virginia’s starting linebackers have much more experience, though one of them has never played.
SAM Xavier Preston (6-foot-2, 240 pounds, Sr.): Preston is a career backup. Preston has been a rotational player at linebacker, appearing for a little over 300 snaps in his career.
MIKE Al-Rasheed Benton (6-foot-1, 238 pounds, r-Sr.): Benton has made 14 career starts. Benton is a solid player who finished with 80 tackles a year ago.
WILL Dylan Tonkery (6-foot-2, 222 pounds, r-Fr.): Tonkery was recruited as a safety, and is in fact still listed as a safety on West Virginia’s website. However, he’s listed as their starting WILL linebacker for this game. I would expect Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen to try and use plenty of misdirection against Tonkery.
West Virginia could rotate linebackers as well, as they’ve done some in the past. Xavier Preston has over 300 defensive snaps under his belt, though he’s never started a game.
I believe the strength of the West Virginia defense is in the secondary. This is a solid group of players who benefit from playing in such a unique defensive scheme against quarterbacks who aren’t used to facing it.
CB Hakeem Bailey (6-feet, 193 pounds, r-So.): Nobody knows how good Bailey is. He originally signed with Marshall, but then spent two years at Iowa Western Community College. He’s a complete unknown.
FS Dravon Askew-Henry (6-feet, 200 pounds, r-Jr.): Askew-Henry was a Freshman All-American in 2014, and a full-time starter in his first two years on the field. Unfortunately, he missed all of 2016 with a knee injury. He’s back in 2017, and assuming he’s 100 percent healthy, I view him as West Virginia’s best defensive player.
SPUR Kyzir White (6-foot-2, 216 pounds, Sr.): White started 12 games last season. He was a Second Team All-Big 12 performer according to ESPN.
BS Toyous Avery (5-foot-11, 204 pounds, r-Jr.): Avery has made one career start and is a former JUCO player.
CB Mike Daniels Jr. (5-foot-11, 203 pounds, Sr.): Daniels is a former JUCO player and played in six games in 2016.
I feel like West Virginia will be good at their safety spots, but I think they are questionable at cornerback. Still, I expect that to be a solid group. I think they will play tight man coverage on Virginia Tech’s young wide receivers, and I also think they’ll game plan to take Cam Phillips out of the game.
I’m convinced that Tech’s defense will play well against the WVU offense. How the Hokies manage against the Mountaineer defense could decide the game.
Fuente and Co. vs. Holgorsen and Co.
I do believe that Virginia Tech has a coaching advantage in this game. Before last year’s 10-win season, Dana Holgorsen was feeling some heat at West Virginia. Here’s a look at his career thus far…
2011: 10-3, 5-2 (Big East)
2012: 7-6, 4-5
2013: 4-8, 2-7
2014: 7-6, 5-4
2015: 8-5, 4-5
2016: 10-3, 7-2
Total: 46-31, 27-25
Throwing out the first season in a watered down Big East, Holgorsen is 36-28 with a 22-23 record in Big 12 games. That’s a pretty mediocre career, even including last year’s 10-3 (7-2) record.
I think Holgorsen is a solid coach, and I actually believe Tony Gibson is a better defensive coordinator than Holgorsen is a head coach. But, I don’t believe Holgorsen is as good as Justin Fuente, and I don’t believe Gibson is as good as Bud Foster. Throw in the fact that West Virginia’s special teams ranked 88th nationally in the FEI ratings last year, and they are going up against special teams guru James Shibest, and I think the Hokies hold the coaching advantage heading into this one.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
I believe both teams will be better in October than they’ll be on September 3. Both teams will trot a lot of inexperienced players onto the field on Sunday night. There’s no way to know exactly how some of those young players will react to playing on such a big stage for the first time.
I believe Virginia Tech has the better defense, and I believe they have the better coaching staff as well. The youth of Tech’s offense concerns me, but West Virginia should be equally concerned with their offense going up against Bud Foster’s defense.
This should be a good game, but I believe Virginia Tech has slightly more talent than the Mountaineers, and when in doubt I’ll go with the combination of Justin Fuente and Bud Foster over Dana Holgorsen.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, West Virginia 20
Will Stewart’s Take: Two teams who haven’t played each other in 12 years, with coaching staffs who have never coached against each other, starting two new quarterbacks in a neutral site game, in prime time on Labor Day weekend, with the field littered with freshmen and inexperienced former backups.
Predicting a score for this scenario is laughable, but hey, I’ll play along.
Bud Foster has a healthy, experienced (for the most part) defense, and there’s plenty of game film from Dana Holgorsen’s coaching career at WVU to break down how he likes to run an offense. Advantage: Hokies. On the other hand, Will Grier could escape the pocket on an otherwise well-defended play and run for 40 yards. Advantage: WVU.
Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen are sharp offensive minds who can watch all kinds of WVU 3-3-5 game film and devise a way to beat it. Advantage: Hokies. But Tech will be doing it with a first-time starting QB and (according to reports) inconsistent receivers. Advantage: WVU.
I could go on and on. But I keep thinking about that 2010 FedExField game against Boise State (yes, I went there) and how Virginia Tech’s biggest problem in that game wasn’t talent or experience or coaching (though there was some atrocious offensive coaching by the Hokies in that game). It was running out of the tunnel … and then losing their minds for the entire first quarter and falling behind 17-0. The Hokies completely lost their composure and didn’t get their stuff in gear until it was too late.
That game was different than this one, in one respect: there were 86,500+ fans at that game, and all but about 5,000 of them, tops, were Hokie fans. If I remember correctly, they even played Enter Sandman for Virginia Tech’s entrance, and the atmosphere was so amped up that everyone in black and orange forgot who they were, where they were, and what they were supposed to do.
In this game, the noise will be split evenly, as both fan bases sold out their allotments and will represent.
But it’s still a big-time neutral site game. I think both coaching staffs will push the right buttons and pull the right levers, and it’ll all be up to the players. (VT might get a slight special teams advantage from James Shibest.) It’ll come down to which team keeps its head and executes the critical plays, and that’s where I give the advantage to Bud Foster’s defense against WVU’s offense. I think Bud’s going to have something for Will Grier that will rattle him just enough — maybe a lot — to help the Hokies come out on top.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, West Virginia 24
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: Both of these teams are trying to replace a ton of players, particularly on offense. Like Chris has mentioned, this game could come down to special teams and coaching.
It’s pretty clear who holds the coaching advantage. Joey Slye is a veteran kicker and the coaching staff sounds confident in freshman punter Oscar Bradburn. As long as the players on coverage teams don’t make any mistakes, Virginia Tech should hold a special teams advantage.
When it comes down to it, can Virginia Tech contain the Moutaineers’ offense? I believe they can. Bud Foster’s unit will be especially good this season, especially earlier in the year, when depth isn’t needed as much. Brad Cornelsen should be able to manufacture some points, and the Hokies’ rushing attack should support Josh Jackson as he makes his career debut. My guess is that Slye will hit a few field goals in the redzone, and Virginia Tech will win a low-scoring affair to open the season.
Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 26, West Virginia 17