Virginia Tech-Duke Preview: Hokies Look for Seventh Win of 2017

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Virginia Tech will face the Duke Blue Devils in a night game this Saturday in Lane Stadium.  The 6-1 Hokies sport a 2-1 record in ACC play, and they are looking to get another win and carry over a lot of momentum into their big Nov. 4 matchup at Miami.  Meanwhile, Duke is 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the ACC, and they’ll be looking to snap a four-game losing streak.

Despite their losing streak, the Blue Devils were competitive in three of those four games with single-digit losses to Virginia (28-21), Florida State (17-10) and Pitt (24-17).  Their defense has kept them in games, but the passing game, or lack thereof, has really cost them. 

DriveFor25_shield-320pxNevertheless, with the Hokies having played a fairly soft schedule so far, Duke is probably the third best team they’ve faced at this point of the season.  Here are the S&P+ rankings for all of VT’s opponents so far…

West Virginia: No. 30
Delaware: FCS
East Carolina: No. 126
Old Dominion: No. 121
Clemson: No. 13
Boston College: No. 92
North Carolina: No. 103
Duke: No. 79

The Blue Devils will be just the third team in the top 90 that the Hokies have faced this year.

The last four games of the VT-Duke series have been memorable.

2013: Both teams tossed four interceptions, but it was the Blue Devils who left Lane Stadium with a 13-10 victory over No. 16 Virginia Tech.

2014: Virginia Tech returned the favor by upsetting No. 19 Duke on the road 17-16.

2015: No. 23 Duke beat Virginia Tech 45-43 in a dramatic four-overtime game in Lane Stadium in Frank Beamer’s last season.

2016: The No. 23 Hokies blocked a field goal for a touchdown and held on to beat Duke 24-21 in Durham.

Those games were all extremely close.  In fact, the Blue Devils have won their last two games in Lane Stadium.  Who would have ever thought that Duke football would win in Blacksburg two years in a row.  In honor of the second season of Stranger Things being released later this week, I think we’re in the upside down.

Let’s take a look at this year’s matchup, but and we’ll start off with OXVT’s excellent “Tale of the Tape.”

The Downfall of Duke’s Passing Game

Daniel Jones (6-foot-5, 215 pounds, r-So.) showed a lot of promise as a redshirt-freshman last season.  He took over for an injured Thomas Sirk and played so well that Sirk transferred to East Carolina.  The future was looking bright for the Duke offense.  Then the 2017 season began, and Jones and the offense have taken a big step back.

Let’s compare Jones in 2016 to Jones in 2017…

2016: 270-of-430 (62.8 percent) for 2,836 yards, 16 touchdowns, nine interceptions
2017: 158-of-290 (54.5 percent) for 1,670 yards, eight touchdowns, six interceptions

His adjusted QB Rating (which is an ESPN rating with a difference formula than regular QB rating) has dropped from 62.8 to 42.2.  Jones got off to a good start, but his last four games (all ACC games) have been very bad.

Miami: 21-of-41 for 166 yards,  0 TD, 1 INT
Virginia: 14-of-42 for 124 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs 
Florida State: 22-of-35 for 204 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
Pitt: 15-of-33 for 272 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Totals: 72-of-151 (47.7 percent) for 766 yards, 3 TDs, 4 INTs

Jones has failed to complete 50 percent of his passes in two of his last four games, and barely hit the 50 percent mark against Miami.  He’s thrown for under 200 yards in two of his last four games, and he’s thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in that four game span.

The Virginia Tech passing defense is a terrible matchup for the Blue Devils, on paper.  Check out these stats for Bud Foster’s defense…

Opp. Completion Percentage: 45.3 percent, No. 1 nationally
Yards per Attempt: 6.4, No. 31 nationally
Yards per Game: 186.9, No. 26 nationally
Opp. Quarterback Rating: 106.5, No. 15 nationally
Passing S&P+ Defense: No. 11 nationally
Passing Defense Success Rate: No. 7 nationally

Tech’s pass defense has been dominant, though there is one area where the Blue Devils could potentially take advantage.  Defensive IsoPPP is a metric used for ranking teams on big plays allowed, and the Hokies rank No. 120 nationally that statistic.  However, the Blue Devils rank No. 101 nationally in the same offensive statistic, so they cancel each other out.

David Cutcliffe is an excellent coach, and he knows how to outscheme defenses and get guys open.  He also knows Virginia Tech’s personnel very well.  However, there is only so much a coach can do with a struggling quarterback, and I’m not convinced that the Blue Devils have as much talent at wide receiver as they used to.  There is certainly no Jamison Crowder (Redskins) or Max McCaffrey (Packers) on the field.  T.J. Rahming (5-10, 165, Jr.) is a solid player with 44 catches for 567 yards and a touchdown, but he doesn’t worry me as much as some past Duke receivers.

Jones hasn’t been comfortable going down the field to those receivers this year.  Check out the catch rate (percentage of targeted passes that were caught) of his top four targets…

WR TJ Rahming: 58.7 percent
WR Jonathan Lloyd: 62.2 percent
RB Shaun Wilson: 76.7 percent
WR Chris Taylor: 41.4 percent

Running back Shaun Wilson has been Jones’ most consistent target.  However, Wilson is only averaging 6.7 yards per reception, so every time Jones checks down to his running back, you have to consider that a defensive success.

We’ll close this section by going over Duke’s advanced passing stats…

Passing S&P+: No. 117 nationally
Passing Success Rate: No. 121 nationally
Passing IsoPPP: No. 101 nationally

That’s not good, and it’s no surprise that David Cutcliffe has had to rely on the running game this year.

Duke’s Strong Running Game

To have a chance to win football games, Duke has to run the football successfully.  They have two very capable running backs, and Daniel Jones is a solid runner as well.

Shaun Wilson (5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Sr.): 99 carries, 548 yards, 5.5 ypc, five touchdowns
Brittain Brown (6-foot-1, 200 pounds, r-Fr.): 85 carries, 497 yards, 5.8 ypc, three touchdowns
Daniel Jones: 79 carries, 217 yards, 2.7 ypc, three touchdowns

Wilson and Jones combined for a very strong game against Virginia Tech last season…

Jones: 18 carries, 99 yards, two touchdowns
Wilson: 21 carries, 76 yards, one touchdown

However, the Blue Devils were too one-dimensional to win the game, as Jones threw for just 148 yards on 31 pass attempts. 

To have a chance to beat Virginia Tech on Saturday night, Duke is going to have to establish a running game.  If they can’t run the football, they’ll have to rely on their passing game to shoulder the load against Tech’s excellent pass defense, and that’s a disaster in the making.  I’d look for Cutcliffe to lean on players like  Wilson and Brittain Brown, while also using Jones in the running game quite a bit.

As the advanced stats show, Duke’s running game is pretty solid…

Rushing S&P+: No. 41 nationally
Rushing Success Rate: No. 22 nationally
Rushing IsoPPP: No. 83 nationally
Power Success Rate: No. 14

The Blue Devils aren’t great at breaking off huge plays in the running game (IsoPPP), but overall they have been efficient on the ground.

Duke Relies on Stingy Defense

With an offense that has been struggling a lot this season, the Blue Devils have had to rely on a good defense to keep them in games.  However, that’s all they’ve managed to do in the last few weeks…stay in games.  They haven’t been able to break through and win them.

First, the advanced stats for Duke’s defense…

S&P+ Defense: No. 55 nationally
Defensive Success Rate: No. 23 nationally
Explosiveness: No. 106 nationally
Finishing Drives: No. 66 nationally
Rushing S&P: No. 52 nationally
Rushing Success Rate: No. 43 nationally
Passing S&P: No. 30 nationally
Passing Success Rate: No. 19 nationally

The Blue Devils have been above average defensively this year.  They’ve particularly been adept at stopping the pass, with a little less success versus the run.  Here are their rushing defense stats over the last four games…

Miami: 35 carries, 139 yards, 4.0 ypc
Virginia: 38 carries, 128 yards, 3.4 ypc
Florida State: 40 carries, 228 yards, 5.7 ypc
Pitt: 57 carries, 336 yards, 5.9 ypc

The Duke defense has been vulnerable on the ground, especially over the last two games.

Here are Duke’s traditional defensive stats for the season…

Rushing: 136.5 ypg, No. 40 nationally
Passing: 197.9 ypg, No. 40 nationally
Total: 334.4 ypg, No. 27 nationally
Scoring Defense: 20.1 ppg, No. 33 nationally

The advanced stats and the traditional stats paint a slightly different picture, but the fact remains that Duke’s defense is above average.  They are the second best defense the Hokies have faced thus far, behind only Clemson.  Saturday’s game will challenge the Virginia Tech offense.

Here are a few names from Duke’s defense to keep an eye on during Saturday’s game.

LB Joe Giles-Harris (6-foot-2, 230 pounds, r-So.): Giles-Harris leads the team with 75 tackles, and he’s also first on the team with 13.5 tackles for loss.  He was a good recruit from New Jersey who picked the Blue Devils over a lot of other Power 5 programs.

DT Mike Ramsay (6-foot-2, 290 pounds, r-Sr.): Ramsay has been very good up the middle for Duke, with eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. 

DE Victor Dimukeje (6-foot-2, 260 pounds, Fr.): Dimukeje picked Duke over Virginia Tech for academic reasons last winter, and he’s started all eight games as a true freshman.  He has 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, and he appears to be well on his way to an excellent career in Durham.

One of the reasons for Duke’s defensive success is the fact that they’ve been able to stay healthy this season.  The same player has started every single game at all 11 positions for the Blue Devils.  It’s very difficult to have that kind of continuity during the course of almost an entire football season, but Duke has managed to do it so far.  They are the opposite of their in-state rivals in that respect (and in many other respects as well, but we won’t get into that for the second week in a row).

This Duke defense will have to play very well on Saturday.  If they can keep their offense in the game heading into the fourth quarter, then anything can happen.

David Cutcliffe, Justin Fuente
There is a lot of respect between Justin Fuente and David Cutcliffe. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Final Thoughts

Duke certainly worries me a lot more than UNC did last week.  The Blue Devils have a better defense, they are probably better coached, they have a better running game, and they are simply more functional as a football team than the Tar Heels right now.  You can also argue that some of the UNC players have quit competing for 2017, but I don’t think you can say the same for any of the Duke players.

Cutcliffe always seems to have a pretty good plan against the Tech defense, even if his players can’t execute it in certain years.  He knows Virginia Tech’s personnel very well, and he has a lot of respect for the Tech program.  Still, I don’t see the Blue Devil offense accomplishing much this week.  The numbers just don’t add up.

Duke’s likely game plan will consist of the following key points…

  1. Establish a running game.
  2. Don’t turn the ball over.
  3. Win the hidden yardage game.
  4. Don’t get caught in third-and-long situations.
  5. Play strong defense.

Sound familiar?  When you have limitations on offense, that’s the correct game plan. 

The Hokies have their limitations on offense as well, but they probably have a little bit more room for error than Duke.  If Tech wins the hidden yardage game and forces Duke to drive the length of the field, it will be very difficult for the Blue Devils to score. 

The ideal start for the Hokies is to get up by a couple of scores early in the game, and to shut down the Duke running game in the process.  That would put a lot more pressure on Daniel Jones and the Duke passing game, and that would play into Virginia Tech’s hands.  They want Duke to throw the ball into the teeth of the VT defense, particularly in long-yardage situations.

Unfortunately, the Hokies aren’t exactly known for their fast starts offensively.  This offense has been slow starting all season, with the exception of East Carolina and Boston College, when I thought they moved the ball effectively early in the game.  Will that trend change against the second best defense they’ve faced this year?  I don’t think it’s likely.

The Hokies were obviously up for their game against UNC last week because the staff really wanted to stick it to the Tar Heels, and they’ll be up for a top-10 Miami team on the road next week.  This game falls on dangerous ground…right in the middle of the UNC and Miami games.

Still, I just can’t see the Duke offense scoring enough to win.  The Blue Devils have averaged 13.5 points per game over their last four games, and one of their touchdowns against UVA was a defensive touchdown.  In reality, their offense is averaging just 11.75 points per game in that span.  That’s actually a little worse than the Carolina offense that stunk up Worsham Field this past Saturday.

I don’t expect the Blue Devils to stink up the joint, but I don’t think their offense will be very effective, either.

Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Duke 13

Will Stewart’s Take: This game has the potential to be one of Justin Fuente’s three-and-a-half-hour stomach aches. And why not? It has been for four years running, as Chris detailed above. The final Frank Beamer years were their own case, but last season, the Hokies were a 10-win team, and Duke still made Tech sweat in a 24-21 Hokie victory.

Cue all the clichés here as to why this game makes Hokie fans nervous — this is a trap game, ahead of the Miami and Georgia Tech games, the forecast is calling for temperatures in the 40s with a near-100 percent chance of about an inch of rain, it’s Duke, and it will be one of the more lightly-attended games this season, especially due to the weather forecast. Cue all the other chest-pounding clichés in response.

The bottom line is that, statistically, the Hokies have played some dog teams, both offensively and defensively. Duke is a bit of a dog offensively, but defensively it’s another story.

The good news is that the Hokies are fairly healthy, especially defensively, so here’s where I’m going to hang my hat — Duke’s offense is No. 101 in the nation in tackles for loss (TFL) allowed, at 6.63 per game. The Hokies are No. 13 in the nation defensively with 7.9 TFL per game. Duke’s offense is No. 79 in the country in third down conversion percentage at 38.2 percent, while the Hokie defense is second in the nation in third down conversion percentage, allowing just 23.7 percent conversions.

So, in addition to the Hokies playing their usual good pass defense, I’m banking on Tech getting into the backfield and putting Duke behind the chains, and then stopping them on third down.

If this turns into a running contest in the rain, I’m counting on Steven Peoples being back and bringing a physical nature to Tech’s running game that has been missing.

I noticed that Chris’ preview doesn’t include any special teams statistics, so I asked him to look up Duke and VT’s special teams S&P rankings. The Hokies are No. 47 (which sounds suspiciously low), and Duke is No. 95.

I usually make my predictions based on what I think will happen, not by telling you what the Hokies need to do to win, then picking a score based on Virginia Tech doing those things. But that’s kind of the tack this section is taking, so let’s go with it. But the truth is, this game is spooking me a little bit. The Hokies haven’t really laid an egg this season, so I wonder if one is coming at some point.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Duke 17

Ricky LaBlue’s Take: Before the season, I predicted Virginia Tech would lose three ACC games. Clemson, Georgia Tech and… Duke.

I mean, Tech has to have a stinker at some point, right? Virginia Tech looked like an inferior team against the real inferior team twice in 2016, losing to Syracuse and Georgia Tech, the latter coming at home. Given Virginia Tech’s offensive limitations, it’s easy to understand why the Hokies might struggle vs. a scrappy, well-coached Duke team.

On Tech Talk Live on Monday night, Justin Fuente was asked if he was worried at all about Virginia Tech not being in any close games, outside of the win over West Virginia. In his response, he stated that those close games are coming. The first one will come this week.

As much as Duke has struggled over recent weeks, they have all of the tools to keep this close — a big, mobile quarterback, a more than competent coach on the other sideline and a rugged defense. However, that won’t be enough to win. 

Virginia Tech will grind this one out in the rain and cold weather, but it could get scary for Tech fans. The fans who make the trek to Lane Stadium will surely hope Halloween doesn’t come early.

Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 23, Duke 14

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20 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. “Who would have ever thought that Duke football would win in Blacksburg two years in a row.”

    two ‘trips’ or ‘times’ in a row, maybe.

  2. The game as I see it:

    Tech gets off to a slow start, but does not give Dook a short field and/or a turnover. The Hokies get a score just before halftime, going in with a 10 point lead.

    Adjustments are made during the break. Hokies up by 17 at the end of three quarters, and Dook is wearing down.

    Tech scores a FG to go up by 20. Dook finally manages to find the endzone, after being down by three scores. The Hokies answer, and wrap up a 17 point win over a tough Dook team, who is game but simply outmatched, and still looking for a couple of wins to go bowling.

    Hokies go to 7-1!

  3. Hey OXVT, just a suggestion here but your fantastic chart would be more readable if you had the categories in the middle, with one team stats on the right and the other on the left. just a suggestion!

  4. Love the respect and love for Coach Cutcliff & Duke, well earned, as respect that man & whats he’s built in Durham. But folks the college world has returned to normal, Virginia Tech is winning hidden yards via Special Teams, Defense consuming opponents offensives and Coach Cornelsen’s offense finds points with the ACC’s leading QB. Last week was a +52 point win and Coach Fuente is chapped about his Ledt side of the offense, too many dropped balls, RB dancing in the backfield, etc. look for the Defenseive Line fire that was lit vs UNCheat to be lit on the offense this week. Come rain or shine it’s a blowout in Blacksburg with all due respect!

    Let’s Go…Hokies!!!

  5. I’m hoping the freshness factor plays a big role this week. I left the UNC game with about 3 minutes left in the 3rd (52-0), and don’t recall seeing any starters in for quite a while (except some linebackers). And of course the bye the week before. Meanwhile, Duke has been slugging it out for 4 quarters for at least the last 6 weeks straight. Duke should wear down by the 2nd half.

  6. Not drinking the kool aid here…Daniel Jones has regressed mightily and is a dismal QB vs last year

    I see him throwing 2-3 ints and maybe a pick…our short passing game to the edge will give them fits balanced by People’s, McMillan and Fox on the ground..the last 4 games they have simp,y been awful and trending that way coming to the Burg…plus no bye week means they are tired and not confident- who would be after 4 straight losses?

    Hokies 39-13

  7. Two things worry me:

    1. We are both pitting one of our strengths against the opponent’s weakness. Predicting an outcome becomes dicey. But overall we appear to be a much better team.

    2. At age 65, Susan Dey is almost unrecognizable.

  8. Duke’s other opponents that likely helped their defensive stats were North Carolina Central, Northwestern, Baylor and UNC. So not to take away from their defense, but their overall image as a good defensive team has to take into accoun those opponents as well. (Same applies for VT against Delaware, ECU, UNC, BC…. 🙂

  9. There is one criticism i would give to Cutcliff and his ability to scheme and manage a game. Against Miami, Jones threw a lot of intermediate to deeper stuff on 2nd down on many drives. Those were low percentage plays that continually forced them into 3rd and long and punts. I don’t believe that they really managed that game well. They continually had to punt not just because of Miami’s defense but because of their approach on many 2nd downs. Had they opted for shorter, higher percentage plays on 2nd down more, they would likely have sustained more drives. I don’t mean a random 2nd down. ALOT of 2nd downs.

  10. Good article. One quibble: I don’t know if Duke’s defense is better than BC’s. Just going on what I’ve seen, I’d say BC’s is better.

    1. BC is getting better every week. Duke seems to be getting worse every week. I agree BC is better not just on defense anymore but on offense as well.

  11. Given that Duke has not yet had a bye week, I would think that D is worn down quite a bit, despite lack of injuries.

  12. In watching the Duke games in the first 4 compared to the last four it is like surprising what Pitt and FSU were able to produce on the ground. Hokies ground and pound Duke into submission. Weather might be an issue and lead to fumbles. Duke has good RB talent but Hokies’ LBs will be better, 35-13 Hokies but close at halftime.

    1. their first four included NOrth Carolina Central, Northwestern, Baylor, and UNC so not probably too much of a surprise that better teams were able to produce on the ground more.

    2. I would like to think we could “ground and pound Duke into submission”, but from what our running game has produced lately, I don’t think that is likely. We could not run the ball against UNC in the first half and Duke has a much better run defense. If JJ comes out strong, and our freshman WRs can make some catches on the first couple of drives, then it will open up the running game. If not it could be a long afternoon unless the D/ST get a score or two.

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